Friday, December 21, 2012

Recommended Reading for 12/21: The Batman Adventures Holiday Special

Today's recommending reading had originally been something apocalyptic and required a lot more reading and research than I have time for at this festive time of year, so I switched to a holiday theme, and am writing about what might be my favorite holiday comic ever.

At the height of it's popularity, the only thing that was almost as good as a new episode of Batman: The Animated Series was a new issue of The Batman Adventures, the tie-in comic. With most issues written by Kelly Puckett, and with art by the much lamented Mike Parobeck, the series perfectly captured the feel of the animated series. But along with the series there came two specials from the creators of the series: one was the Eisner winning Mad Love, and the other was The Batman Adventures Holiday Special, a collection of four vignettes set around the holidays.

The first of the four stories was "Jolly Ol' St. Nicolas" from Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, the creators who are most associated with masterminding the animated series. As Barbara Gordon goes Christmas shopping, she finds Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya undercover as a mall Santa and his elf, looking to determine who is behind a massive rash of shoplifting. The shoplifter winds up being Clayface, in a clever use of his shapeshifting powers, and the story ends with a fight between Barbara in her Batgirl identity, and the villain. The high point of the story for me is a little moment with Bullock, who as you might imagine is the world's worst Santa, and a little girl who asks him for her daddy back for Christmas. It turns out her daddy is a guy Bullock sent up the river. The usually gruff Bullock gives the girl his donut money to go and buy her daddy a present. It's little moments like this that not only show the spirit of the season, but also uses a little moment to give depth to a character who can easily be portrayed as a one note tough cop.

"The Harley and the Ivy" featuring, not surprisingly Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, and by Paul Dini and Ronnie Del Carmen, sees the demented duo deciding to shop away their holiday blues by kidnapping Bruce Wayne, using Ivy's powers to take control of him, and max out every credit card he has. Well, Bruce eventually breaks free of Ivy's control, changes into his Batman costume, and sends the girls to have Christmas in Arkham. This story is the funniest of the shorts, with the shopping spree sequence being especially hilarious. That and Bruce's increasingly frustrated face as he fights off Ivy's control as he carries all the packages and buys all the presents.

And what would the holidays be without that one person who always shows up even when you don't want them to? And naturally, for Batman, that person is the Joker. In Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, Kevin Altieri and Butch Lukic's, "...What are you doing New Year's Eve?" Joker threatens a countdown of victims, leading Batman to confront Joker in Gotham Square as the New Year's Ball is about to drop, in a Square full of revelers in Joker masks. Batman defeats Joker's plan, sends the clown prince back up the river, and the story ends with Batman meeting Jim Gordon at a diner to have a hot cup of coffee and toast the coming new year. I've talked about this aspect of the character before, but I feel like this is the aspect of Batman that gets drowned out in and the sturm and batarangs that come out of creators reacting to The Dark Knight Returns, and that the animated series gets so right: Batman has friends. Jim Gordon isn't just some guy who shines the Bat Signal in the sky; he's someone Batman gets a coffee with every New Year's morning at two a.m. I love the interaction between them, and this scene makes me smile every time I see it.

Some of you out there who haven't read this comic are thinking, "Wait, I know these stories!" And yes, you quite probably do, as they were adapted into the episode "Holiday Knights" of The New Batman Adventures, the new look continuation of the animated series. The adaptations are very faithful, with only a few minor tinkers, mostly in using the new character designs and the inclusion of the Tim Drake Robin in the final story. But that's just three stories, and I said at the beginning there are four. And if you looked at the cover at the top of the post, you saw Mr. Freeze on there pretty prominently, despite no mention above. That's because the fourth story, the best of the lot, wasn't adapted.

"White Christmas," by Paul Dini and Glen Murakami, sees Mr. Freeze break out of Arkham on Christmas Eve and causes a major blizzard to blanket Gotham. Batman, who had been hoping for a quiet Christmas, hunts down Freeze and finds him in the same cemetery that Waynes are buried in, as well as where the marker for Freeze's beloved wife Nora is. The fight commences, and as Bruce is knocked into his parent's headstone, he rebounds and attacks Freeze with ferocity. He winds up with Freeze at his feet, and in the end, staring down at him says, "It's Christmas, so I'll give you one chance to end this quietly.Why'd you do it, Freeze? Tonight of all nights." Thanks to the wonder of the internet, I found the last few panels of the story, the ones where Freeze responds, and while I try not to post much in the way of comic internals here, I couldn't do this justice in words alone.

I admit freely to being a sucker for this, and for always getting a little choked up at those lines. I can hear in my own head the lines as if they were being spoken by Michael Ansara, the actor who voiced Freeze on the animated series. I can hear the loneliness that was there every time Freeze spoke of Nora, of losing the one person he cared about more than his own life. And in the end, Batman chose to not finish pummeling his foe, but puts his hand on his shoulder and guides him away, offering something that might be slightly cold comfort (pun thoroughly intended, despite the fact the cold puns and Mr. Freeze conjure images of Schwarzenegger), but is Batman reaching out and trying to give comfort to someone else who knows what the pain of true loss is.

Sadly, The Batman Adventures Holiday Special has never been collected. You can see "Holiday Knight" on the fourth box set of Batman: The Animated Series.

And that's it for this week. There will be no reviews on Monday, since I will be travelling that day, but I should have a new recommended reading next Friday, and reviews from this and next week the following Monday. Happy holidays to one and all!

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