I was watching some of the Batman the Animated Series this past weekend and I was reminded why I have such fond memories of it. These are some of the best Batman stories ever told. They really did manage to get to the essence of what made Batman such a great character. Sure there are two part stories but for the most part these are all little self contained episodes in the life of the Batman. There are dark moments where you can see why the Batman strikes fear into the hearts of criminals but you can also see him make a joke with Robin or fight a giant robotic tin soldier controlled by the Joker. And it all works together. He’s equal parts dark night, hokey hero and portrayed as an actual man not a constant mythically dark knight.
In particular two episodes stand out – the Grey Ghost episode and the introduction of Clayface. Technically, they are three episodes but the Feats of Clay was a two-parter. I know this show had a lot of problems with the censors and whatnot because they were using actual guns instead of laser beams so the show had to make some concessions. I’m thinking of a horribly obvious moment in that Sewer King episode – “Kids and guns don’t mix. EVER!” There’s also the requisite anti-drug episode but that was dealt with in a really creative way where the message really drove home the drama already present in the episode – old crime boss is losing control of his life.
So back to the point at hand. I know these episodes are good for one reason. Allison was on the couch reading and she stopped to watch the episodes. The Grey Ghost episode is really one of the most clever television shows I’ve come across. It works on two levels simultaneously (perhaps a few more). The story in and of itself is a cool take on the classic superhero story. But the other story going on is that it’s a comment on the TV appearances of Batman as a character. The story of The Grey Ghost is the story of Adam West, who is voicing the character. The villain looks like and is voiced by Bruce Timm – the obsessed collector who is willing to ruin the character he loves in order to own everything. Hmmm, comment on the comic market, anyone? There’s some big time action with stuff blowing up and a nifty little mystery. There’s a character’s redemption to himself and there is a really touching moment between Batman and The Grey Ghost when he shows him the collection of memorabilia. Bruce gets to meet his childhood hero and manages to inspire him to accept that being typecast as The Grey Ghost is as good or bad as you are willing to make it. Wow, doesn’t sound like the current Batman does it?
Then there’s the Clayface episodes. I know there is a lot of talk about how this series rewrote the origin of Mr. Freeze and how Harlequin was written into comic continuity, but this episode beats them both – although the Two-Face origin is pretty close. These people were masters at making villains that the audience could identify with. Almost all of them are bad because of circumstances not some inherent evil on their part – I think only Joker is pure bad but I’m not even done the first season so I’m sure things change. This show just shows how easy it is to create motivation for characters that can run afoul of Bats. Here, Clayface is basically a drug addict. He was a vain actor who made one mistake and was then thrust into horrible situation after horrible situation. He gets blackmailed then the mob tries to kill him by drowning him in the toxic clay he’s addicted to. Clayface goes after the real bad-guy but his passion and vanity again get in the way. The villain isn't beyond redemtion, they are caught up in situations beyond their control and trying their best to deal with it.
Plus I’m pretty sure there is a gay couple in this episode. I know the relationship between Clayface and the other man is explained as that of actor and body double but I think this is Timm and crew being really clever again. These two characters live together for Pete’s sake and the body double is around a bit too much to just be a “friend.” Okay I know this isn’t a sign of homosexuality but the relationship is pretty obvious and really ahead of its time – especially for a kids show and a cartoon. I wish the show didn’t have to hide it like they do but they were progressive on all other fronts so I’ll encourage you to watch the episodes and let me know what you think. I think it adds a lot more depth to the character – he’s always hiding who he truly is or at least feels he has to. Mind blowing huh? A progressive and unbelievably smart cartoon. Sign me up for more.