Batman: The Animated Series, Episode 51 – “The Man Who Killed Batman”
Written By: Paul Dini
Directed By: Bruce Timm
Originally Aired: February 1, 1993
DVD: Batman: TAS, Volume Two
Summary: A small-time criminal finds himself the most wanted man in town after word gets out that he’s the mastermind behind the death of Batman (R.I.P.).
Site Notes: There will be a Weekend Aside tomorrow, but it might be briefer than originally intended; I’ll shunt the Superman #75 discussion forward a week. Other than that – Twitter for updates, subscribe to the feed, and don’t forget to hit the Retweet button.
For whatever reason, I always think of the period between the death of Jason Todd (in the famous “A Death in the Family“) storyline and the introduction of his eventual replacement, Tim Drake as a couple of years, when in fact it was less than one year between Jason’s death and Tim’s debut. In the meantime, the Batman titles were rather aimless, lurching between a bunch of single issue and two major minieries-within-the-series, in the vein of prior successes such as Ten Nights of the Beast. However, a very interesting artifact occured in that time: John Byrne and Jim Aparo’s “The Many Deaths of Batman.”
The story, told across three issues, began with an issue told almost entirely without dialogue (I didn’t catch a tribute to Larry Hama, but, c’mon, we know where Bryne got the idea). As the first words don’t appear until several pages into part two, I almost think this was a planned graphic novel that got inserted into the monthly series as an inventory story. The lack of dialogue is a smart choice, as Jim Aparo (as definitive a Batman comic artist as Neal Adams in my eyes) turns in his usual clear, well-designed art and tells the story without needing any expository dialogue on top. Basically, it’s all about the Gotham PD finding Batman’s corpse crucified in an alley, and the city reacting to the news (even Alfred’s startled by it). Of course, the face under the mask isn’t Bruce Wayne, and the episode ends with Gordon’s men pulling another corpse out of the river.
The series progresses with Gordon finding more and more victims, all wearing Batman costumes and being killed in increasingly elaborate ways by a well-trained killer. Batman, who’s been in Europe the entire time, finally gets word of the story and dashes back to Gotham, only for Gordon to let him know that he believes Bruce is next on the list. And he’s right; a Batman costume is delivered to Bruce, only for a patrolman to unwittingly set off the trap early: the entire costume has been laced with acid and dissolves into the Wayne Manor floor.
Bruce eventually figures out that all the men killed were involved in his training in some form, and manages to escape police protection long enough to catch the killer. The story is an interesting look at Batman simply because it’s from the one time period (again, barely a year’s worth of stories) when he’s truly found himself without any support beyond Gordon and Alfred. Heck, Sarah Essen isn’t even around at this point, so Gordon’s all by himself as well. It’s a Batman informed by Year One and Dark Knight Returns, but still with something of a O’Neil / Adams 70s feel to it. And if you want Bat-death, there’s certainly a lot of evocative Aparo imagery in this one. After drawing Robin’s death earlier, Aparo must have been getting tired of those types of scenes.
Tim Drake would appear for the first time a couple issues after this (in the Batman: Year Three flashback) and take on the Robin mantle shortly thereafter, then Nightwing returned to the Batbooks from his long sojurn with the Titans not long afterwards. Still, this is an interesting snapshot of a curious era in Batman’s history.
Thoughts on the Episode:
This is one of the most highly-praised Batman episodes, but I’m not quite in love with it as much as most. It’s still an good story, and a rare example of an official Timm / Dini collaboration, and is a neat scripting exercise. But there’s just a couple of notable enough flaws that I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly.
Now, the tale of a down-on-his-luck wannabe crook who gets credit for killing Batman can go in one of two directions; you can either play it for laughs or for pathos, and but this sort of strikes a balance between the two. While the comedy elements are the most noticeable – Hamill gets some great dialogue to chew on, and Sid’s predicament at the bar and then the ending in prison are both scenes with a lot of comedy to them – the episode’s focus is more on the sad situation the pathetic Sid has found himself in through no fault of his own.
Just to show how far animation has come in the nearly two decades since this episode aired, at the time I’m sure this episode’s structure – told largely in flashback after a nicely athmospheric opening sequence – felt groundbreaking, since it’s the type of story structure you’d have been far more used to seeing in feature films. That appropriation of traditional film techniques in an action-adventure television show was one of BTAS’ trademarks; it applied to the visual style as well, and you can see that in this episode from a production design standpoint. While there is a major cameo from everyone’s favourite supervillainous power couple, for the most part this is one of the show’s better mob stories.
The big segment is the one with the Joker, which is interesting both for Harley cosplaying as an attorney (the “… it was a small subpoena” line is a useful one to put people down with in my line of work) and the background of the “funeral” scene, where it’s a rather suspicious-looking chemical plant. That brings something up about the original BTAS: they were sticking to the Burton origin for Joker for the most part, even listing his name as Jack Napier in “Dreams in Darkness” (of course, that could just be another example of Mr. J’s famous “multiple choice biography”). This is one of my favourite Joker episodes, largely because he’s almost restrained in it; you get a nice characterisation point about how he needs to be fighting Batman to actually feed his own insanity, and the “… but I digress” moment is one of the best gags in the series.
So with all that praise, why am I a bit turned off by this episode? Because while I’m normally in favour of not taking these types of things all that seriously, in this case it’s a bit too light. The script never really turns the screws on Sid; while he’s nearly killed a couple of times, this is the type of thing that could have led to some serious psychological storytelling. We also don’t get much of a reaction from the cops; while Sid is chased around mobland, you’d think that the police would be making his life just as miserable as the mafia. Sure, Sid’s in trouble, but it could have been a lot more. On the other hand, this was still obstensibly a kids’ show; I’d like to see another take on this type of thing with a PG-13 rating and a feature length, even if that would be a tough sell.
Still, the idea of a Batman episode without Batman does work very well. The idea also works for Doctor Who, as it turns out….
Grade: B+ (really right on the border between the two). Very entertaining, but it doesn’t quite turn the screws on Sid enough.
- I’ve tried to make a habit of using screen captures from the episodes themselves instead of the title cards when talking about B:TAS, but this one’s a personal favourite. The way the words loom over the caricature of Sid is beautifully symbolic, as though he’s got that reputation hanging over his head until the end of time.
- It’s still weird how “Sid the Squid” was used twice in the series; once here, and once as an alias for Tony Zucco, the man responsible for the deaths of the Flying Graysons. There appears to be no relation between the two.
- I’m fairly sure Murphy, one of Joker’s goons, is Maurice LaMarche‘s only DCAU voice role. LaMarche is, of course, best known for his portrayal of The Brain.
- This is the first time Harley’s real name is used.
- Sid’s shirt and tie look like they were borrowed from Bruce Wayne’s infamous ugly brown suit.
Line of the Episode: “Well, that was fun. Who’s for Chinese?”
Next Side Story: Well, I did the Static Shock episodes already… I guess we might as well do “Toys in the Hood” since Toyman plays such a big part in “Hereafter.” Maybe I’ll toss in a random Batman Beyond episode while I’m at it.
Next Time: Superman teaches us about fuel-efficiency in “Hereafter.”