08 August 2016

BATMETA: 1-2 Punchline

Destiny of the Daleks is a classic Dr. Who episode that may credit Terry Nation as the writer, but has a slightly more patchwork sort of genesis. While much of what went on behind closed doors has remained obscured, the main bullet points are as follows: Terry Nation wrote Destiny but only as a first draft. Historically, Nation's first drafts ended up as his finals with only the most minimal tinkering from the producers and script editors. However, due to various goings-on in Nation's life, the draft he turned in turned out to be uncharacteristically short on length, to such a degree that what dialogue was written had to be completely re-written around the new material. Effectively, script editor Douglas Adams had to recapture the bottled lightning of City of Death by taking a barely-there plotline and building up an entirely new arc on top of it. The result is an odd synergy of two equally talented but extremely different writers. Nation is no-nonsense. Adams is all about nonsense. Nation is a man of extremes, lots of betrayals, bombs, invasions, and perils. Adams reads between the lines and then the lines between those, then re-works them into a kind of Dadaist tableau of metaphysical causality... usually involving towels. 
It's all rather like watching a car crash in slow motion... through a fireworks warehouse... on the hottest, driest day of the year... when the sprinkler system is out... while the Firebird Suite blasts out of a wall of Marshalls, the whole event finally ending with the stunt driver climbing out of the vehicle and yelling, "Tah-Dah!" at the top of his lungs before his legs give out from exhaustion. He was supposed to deliver a pizza, but we're nonetheless impressed at the spectacle that unfurled before us. 

Now that the prologue is out of the way, let's talk about the prologue of The Killing Joke, and the dynamic between Alan Moore and Bruce Timm. 

The Killing Joke is a 1988 one-shot Batman story written by Watchmen creator Alan Moore, offering a proposed origin story for the Joker, complete with a psychological analysis from our unreliable narrator, the Clown Prince of Crime as he torments Commissioner Gordon after shooting his daughter Barbara through the spine. Though the influence of the book is still being mapped out to this day, sometimes we have to call a spade a spade. 

It's not an especially good story...

And I can say that because even Moore has expressed embarrassment over the piece. The biggest criticism that could be leveled at the story (as well as the recent animated adaptation) is that it's a victim of its own hype. It leans heavily on pure shock value, disguising an otherwise humdrum story from a writer with a reputation for breaking the mold with spectacular flair. Remember, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns had already happened three years earlier, so the public perception of Batman (and comics in general) had already shifted from juvenile camp and fun to the big leagues of pathos and tragedy. Had it been released earlier, or in lieu of either of those two other works (unlikely, as Dark Knight was Frank Miller's work), maybe it would have had a better chance. 
Similarly, Bruce Timm has had his own run-ins with using shock value to move up from the kid's table, once again causing a ripple still being felt today. When Batgirl came to Batman: The Animated Series, Timm didn't simply want to tick off a box of Batman staples, and he certainly didn't wish to emulate the Yvonne Craig Batgirl of the Adam West show, who, among other silly compromises, was never actually allowed to punch anybody. Furthermore, he wanted to make Batman a tragic figure in every aspect of his life. This included his already tumultuous romantic life. 

Two birds plus one stone equals five words: No dating at the office. 

This is where we have to delve into a slightly (read: very) uncomfortable discussion of eating one's cake and having it too, that of presenting drama and tragedy but somehow not tugging at heartstrings or turning stomachs. Storytelling 101 tells us any good story needs conflict, bad things need to happen to good people, giving them a challenge to overcome and possibly undergo a drastic change as a result. 
Gail Simone found that, more often than not, the tragedy tends to fall on female characters, to an alarmingly disproportionate degree. This is a phenomenon dubbed Women in Refrigerators, a reference to an issue of Green Lantern in which the titular guardian discovers his girlfriend's murdered corpse stuffed in his refrigerator, signaling the return of an old enemy. Put simply, in the opening act of The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon is refrigerated. She is shot in the spine by the Joker right in front of her father, who is subsequently taken away to be psychologically tormented, all as a means to lure Batman into a final confrontation. 

Here's my personal stance on the whole issue of how female characters are (mis)treated in comics: It is most certainly a problem, but not because it's sexist or misogynistic or any other problematic adjective. It is a problem because it is lazy, tired, cliched, and overdone. On top of that, the only reason I care is because comic publishers keep complaining about how they want to expand their audience to include more female readers, only to keep giving their identifying characters the short end of the stick and beating them unconscious with it. 

For the record, I do not consider Timm's idea to romantically link Batman and Batgirl to be a bad one. In fact, I think it is pure, artistic genius, even brave. That said, I'm going to attach a very big qualifier to that statement:

In a vacuum. 

In the context of a mid-90s animated series generally aimed at a younger audience about a popular comic book hero still shedding the stigma of camp, the notion of Batman as a tragic figure by way of his most stable relationship being with his best friend's daughter, is brilliant. Timm has even said, when asked why the odd pairing that's most certainly bound to fail, "That's why we did it." If it's not clear yet why I'm madly in love with this bad romance, let me put it this way: Where is it written that every relationship in any story has to go well? Hell, George Lucas even asked once why every male and female lead have to end up together. For as much of a headache as it seems to be for comic writers to write superheroes as married, they seem to have a harder time writing a relationship that's got red flags from the word go. Of course it's not going to work. Of course it's going to end badly. Of course it's likely to backfire in the worst conceivable way. However, we'd be less invested, if not utterly disinterested, if everything went smoothly. 
This is where the discussion of Barbara Gordon's role in The Killing Joke gets uncomfortable, for both fans of the book and the new adaptation. Again, compared to other stories that came before it, Moore's little one-off special seems rather quaint, almost phoned-in. As for animation, Timm's treatment of the Batman/Batgirl dynamic loses its luster when venturing into the broader spectrum of the comics it's based on. It's still unique, but it gets buried under a host of similar, yet failed experiments. It's too little, too late. Putting the two together works about as well as it sounds. It doesn't fail, but it has the same problem the original did; take away the shock value, and all you've got left is a decent adaptation of a so-so Alan Moore comic, preceded by an above-average "lost episode" of Bruce Timm's animated Batman. 
None of this means it's bad or unwatchable. The parts that work do so beautifully. Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy own their roles, and hearing Moore's words through them is well worth the price of admission. It respects the source material, warts and all, hitting all the key points with superb fidelity, even maintaining the subtle nuance of the ending. When the worst that can be said of something is it being a product of its era and a victim of its own hype, that's not a bad outcome for a collaboration of two radically different visionaries. 
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