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Batman: The Animated Series’ Unusual Road to Jack Kirby

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Batman: The Animated Series’ Unusual Road to Jack Kirby

Welcome to the fourteenth edition of “Adventure(s) Time,” where we examine a classic animated series and a related issue of its tie-in comic. This week’s installment is a suggestion from commenter Adam, who asked to see the Demon’s first meeting with Batman from the “Adventures” series, which actually predates the Demon’s animated debut in “The New Batman Adventures.”

What’s that you’re saying? “Batman Adventures” isn’t officially canon with the cartoon, so how could any comic story truly predate the continuity of the animated series? Well, funny thing about that. Yes, the producers didn’t make it a priority to match exact details with the comic inspired by the show, but they very rarely contradicted it. (And consistently praised the series in interviews.) As for counting its stories as canon, they were known to make exceptions… when the producers themselves created the comic in question.

RELATED: When Batgirl & Robin Filled In on the Final Batman: The Animated Series

1995’s “Batman Adventures” Annual #2 was created by Paul Dini, Bruce Timm and Glen Murakami. Produced on a tight deadline, all three creators developed the plot, Dini provided the script, Murakami penciled the story, and Timm did the finishes. The producers would occasionally come in and do special projects like this for the comics, really just for the fun of doing a Batman comic, but also occasionally to produce something that they thought could never make it to air. “Mad Love,” the most famous comic produced by Dini/Timm for example, was a concept the creators didn’t think FOX censors would ever approve, even though it was later adapted by the more lenient WB Network.

The Annual opens with a scene that would’ve driven FOX’s censors mad — a page-length description of each civilian about to be murdered in Ra’s al Ghul’s plot to capture an ancient artifact. (Heck, just the title of the story, “Demons,” likely would’ve been a censor note.) While Batman faces Ra’s masked goons, Ra’s al Ghul locates the tablet with an unlucky member of his crew. The goon dies, because he doesn’t know the proper incantation to speak before touching the tablet. Batman, who’s been subdued by al Ghul’s men, watches in horror as Ra’s takes possession of the artifact.

Animated Batman and Ra's Tablet

While Ra’s al Ghul’s later incantations are not-so-thinly veiled jokes, in this instance I suspect that Dini was either writing outright gibberish, or jumbling together various references (a quick Google search leads me to believe that this is at least partially inspired by the 1981 film “Excalibur.”) Another thing to note in this opening sequence is the unique look of Bruce Timm’s Batman. Even though these are Murakami pencils, Timm’s inks are noticeably heavy, leaving most of the issue with his distinct look. While Timm is of course the person who designed this version of Batman, you rarely see the shorter, wider face when other artists draw him in this style. Batman also seems to crouch more, and has a bulkier shape, whenever Timm draws him in the comics. It seems to be a combination of Jack Kirby and Harvey Kurtzman, and I can’t think of any episode of the show that captured this look.

Confident in his victory, Ra’s leaves an unconscious Batman on the floor. Forty-five minutes later, Batman appears in the home of Jason Blood. They’ve never met, but Blood is known to the GCPD, having aided Gordon in what Batman refers to as the “Tarot Murder Case.” He asks for Blood’s help in stopping Ra’s, and learns that Ra’s has been after “The Summoning Tablet” for literally centuries. The story then cuts to a flashback to the late 1700s, where Blood is attempting to purloin the tablet from a Mayan temple, where it’s left a trail of dead bodies in its wake. Ra’s appears, meeting Blood for the first time, and inadvertently unleashing Blood’s alter ego. Since Blood isn’t yet willing to reveal his other side to Batman, he receives an edited version of the tale. The reader, however, sees the Demon’s emergence, which has Murakami/Timm in full Kirby mode.

Batman Adventures - The Demon Emerges

Their conversation is interrupted by the agent Ra’s has sent to keep Blood out of commission while he prepares for the final stage of his scheme. That agent is Talia, who didn’t expect to see her “beloved” here. Talia declares that both will sleep until “it is all over,” and gases the heroes. The story then goes into an extended dream sequence, which Timm acknowledges was mainly there to fill time until the climax, but it certainly looks nice. Fulfilling the Kirby tribute mandate, Batman goes on a psychedelic trip through some of Kirby’s more obscure DC work, floating through strange environments, and meeting the Pisces goddess from “Weird Mystery Tales” #1. (Identified by Timm as the “fish-god lady.”)

Bruce Timm - Pisces Goddess

While the story itself doesn’t do much with Batman and Talia’s doomed romance, the dream sequence does provide the reader an insight into how Batman views Talia. She’s a vision in white, a literal woman of his dreams…who immediately decays as soon as they kiss. Her corpse withers into a skeleton as it falls into a pit of lava. The lava boils, and from it soon emerges her father, consumed with madness after one of his periodic visits to the Lazarus pit. The fiery Ra’s locks Batman into a death grip, until Pisces shows mercy and orders Batman to awake from the dream. Guess this wasn’t filler after all.

In Kirby’s original Weird Mystery Tales” story, the astrological birth symbols of people appear in their dreams, warning them of approaching danger. The dream ends with the Pisces goddess ringing a bell, which points Batman in Ra’s direction. As some fans have noted, the appearance of “fish-god lady” could be an indication that Batman is a Pisces.

The chiming in his dream inspires Batman to take Blood to a nearby church, where Ra’s is executing the final stage of his plan. Ra’s, his daughter, and a few of his men will be protected within a mystic circle while the demon Haahk unleashes pestilence, killing the rest of the world. This is a particularly nasty take on Ra’s — previously, he only wanted a certain percentage of the population dead, in order to bring about his view of environmental sustainability. Now, he’s plotting the death of essentially everyone on Earth. And is Ra’s assuming that Talia will repopulate the planet with one of his goons, instead of “The Detective” he respects so much?

Within minutes, Ra’s has summoned the demon Haahk, who looks as if he was snatched off Kirby’s drawing board, circa 1962.

Batman Adventures - Kirby Monster

Blood and Batman make their entrance, and Blood soon finds himself a victim of Haahk. Batman follows his new ally’s previous directive, and repeats the incantation he learned from Blood in the Batmobile. That’s right — Batman delivers the “Change, change the form of man…” speech, transforming Blood into Etrigan, the Demon. What follows is a Kirby-spectacular, with a three-way battle between Batman, the Demon, and the really bad lower-case demon.

With the monster defeated and the tablet destroyed, Talia responds to Batman knocking out her father by tearfully slapping him. As Blood notices during their farewell, this truly hurt Batman, who feels guilty about “using” Talia to get to her father. Now, this arguably happened in previous stories in this canon, but if Batman’s talking about this specific story…huh? How did he ever use Talia in this story? And why does he feel guilty about anything — she’s the one who left him to die as a victim of the ancient Lord of Pestilence.

Batman Adventures - Batman vs Ras

This comic was created in 1995, when “Batman: The Animated Series” was out of production and most of the staff was likely developing “Superman: The Animated Series.” The assumption was that Batman wouldn’t be returning, outside of a possible guest spot on Superman’s show, so these one-off comics were the only way fans were going to see creators like Bruce Timm and Paul Dini work with the character again.

Until 1997, when Warner Brothers announced that new “Batman” episodes would be paired with “Superman: The Animated Series” in an hour-long show. Batman was still viewed as a hot property thanks to the popularity of “Batman Forever,” and the assumption was that 1997’s “Batman & Robin” would be an even bigger hit. That famously didn’t work out, but at least fans were able to get even more “Batman” episodes out of the deal. Most of the voice actors returned, and the show was given a redesign to better fit the more streamlined look of the “Superman” series.

Animated Batman - Demon Within

On May 9, 1998, “The Demon Within” aired on the WB Network. The story’s by Stan Berkowitz and Rusti Bjornhoel (the only IMBD credit for Rusti, which might be someone’s pen name), and directed by Atsuko Tanaka, one of the Japanese directors who did fantastic work on “Batman” and “Superman” during this era. WB at the time had incredibly lax censorship rules, so the standard complaints FOX likely would’ve had about presenting Etrigan, the Demon weren’t relevant anymore. Before we get to Etrigan, however, we’re introduced to Jason Blood, who’s attending an auction at Gotham Auctioneers, Ltd. Also in attendance are Bruce Wayne, his young ward Tim Drake, and a mysterious kid known as Klarion. Jason Blood and Klarion get into a bidding war over the ancient branding iron used by Morgaine Le Fay. Bruce ends the battle by submitting a final bid for a million dollars, then surprises Tim by giving the branding iron to Jason.

Bruce tells Jason not to worry about the money, and to consider the purchase a “professional courtesy.” The introduction of Etrigan is foreshadowed by having Tim discover a bust of the Demon in Jason’s house. The opposing side of the bust depicts Jason’s face, but Tim can’t believe that this is Bruce’s friend, considering the bust is hundreds of years old.

Animated Batman - Demon Bust

The slow introduction of the mystic elements works within the context of the series, which is years away from the adventures seen on “Justice League.” Certainly not every episode of “Batman” had been grounded in reality, but the vast majority of his adventures were divorced from any supernatural elements. Hinting at the turns the story will take — even “joking” that Klarion turned his parents into mice and feed them to his cat — helps to ease Batman into this world. The necessity of comic book storytelling forced the Annual story to move into this territory quickly, but the more leisurely pace of the show allows the episode to spend time setting up the concepts.

During their visit, Klarion’s cat Teekl enters, morphing into its humanoid form and absconding with the million-dollar branding iron. (Do you think Bruce Wayne has artificially inflated the market for mystic collectibles? Is every antique bauble that might be of interest to sorcerers or supervillains now instantly in the seven-figure range?) Jason Blood recites the invocation and transforms into Etrigan, shocking Tim, but not Bruce. Etrigan could’ve recaptured the iron from Teekl, but chose instead to rescue Bruce and Tim from the fire that’s erupted. Obviously, this will enable the heroes to chase after the magic plot device for the rest of the episode, but it’s also an efficient way to establish that Etrigan, demon though he may be, isn’t truly evil.

That is, until he’s possessed by Klarion, who uses Morgaine Le Fay’s branding iron to separate Etrigan from Jason. Now, Etrigan follows his new master, Klarion, and Jason Blood is left to rot, as his centuries-old body begins to age in real-time.

The rest of the episode consists of Batman chasing the possessed Etrigan across Gotham, while Tim looks after the decrepit Jason Blood. Some variety is added to the action when Klarion casts a series of spells on Batman, such as having spikes shoot out of his body, which are counteracted by the feeble Jason Blood.

Animated Batman Emerges From Wall

The clock is ticking — can Batman subdue Klarion and reunite Blood and Etrigan before Blood succumbs to old age? The answer’s not difficult to guess, but the suspense works rather well, and the supernatural elements of the episode allow the animators to go places not normally seen in a “Batman” episode.

The Wrap-Up

Design-y

The revamped episodes, known as “The New Batman Adventures,” don’t tend to feature those airbrushed art deco buildings and cityscapes. The auction house seen in the opening, for example, likely would’ve had a detailed, highly stylized design in the original run of episodes. The revamp episodes do have some impressive visuals, however — such as Batman’s silhouette appearing over the moon, accompanied by a red sky.  The painting of Klarion’s room is also on the level of a background image from the earlier episodes.

Batman Animated - Klarion's Room

Continuity Notes

  • The Demon doesn’t speak in rhyme in either the “Adventures” comic or his animated debut.
  • Even though “Batman Adventures” Annual #2 shows the first meeting between Batman and the Demon, we don’t learn how exactly Etrigan knows Bruce’s secret identity.
  • Both the Demon and Klarion (and the mentioned but unseen Morgaine Le Fay) will later appear on “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited.” Thanks to the Demon’s appearance in those episodes, and the Bruce Timm design we see in the Annual, he’s one of the few characters to have three distinct designs in the DCAU.

Over the Kiddies’ Heads

Ra’s al Ghul’s incantation to summon Haahk is a tribute to hidden messages of the past.

Batman Adventures - Ra's Mystical Spell

Also, given that his spells are spoken backwards, does this mean that Haahk’s name is a reference to a certain Starfleet captain’s exclamation of his foe’s name, all the way back in 1982?

Approved By Broadcast Standards

The pentagram that Ra’s uses to summon the demon in the “Batman Adventures” Annual would likely be too much even for the WB’s more lax standards.

Battle of the Kirby Tributes

Both stories are enjoyable, and are certainly respectful of Kirby’s work, but “Batman Adventures” Annual #2 is just wall-to-wall Kirby. It might even be the first time Timm really allowed his Kirby influence to surface so explicitly. It’s still unique to the style of his world, however, melding the look of the show with Kirby to create striking images, such as the Pisces splash page. As deserving of praise as “Mad Love” is, I think this Annual story also deserves the “perpetually in print,” “latest special edition” treatment. It’s never received a lot of attention, but even casual fans of “Batman: The Animated Series” should take the time to enjoy the issue.

That’s all for now. If you have suggestions for “Adventures” tales that can be paired with an animated episode, just leave a comment or contact me on Twitter.

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