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Which Batman: The Animated Series Episode is an Overlooked Classic?

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Which Batman: The Animated Series Episode is an Overlooked Classic?

Welcome to the seventeenth installment of Adventure(s) Time, an examination of a beloved animated series and a related issue of its comic tie-in. Suggestions are always welcome, so if you have a specific episode/issue combination in mind, just leave a comment and let me know.

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This week, we’re examining a personal favorite. “Sideshow” is the sixty-sixth episode of Batman: The Animated Series, originally airing on May 3, 1994. It’s written by Michael Reaves & Brynne Stephens, and directed by Boyd Kirkland. Kirkland was one of the finest directors on the show (and a sought-after animator who later produced series like Wolverine and the X-Men), although he occasionally had bad luck with the overseas studios chosen to animate his work. “Sideshow,” however, is animated by Dong Yang Animation, which consistently provided great work for the series.

“Sideshow,” best remembered as the “Killer Croc meets the Circus Freaks” episode, is in many ways a visual masterpiece for the series. One of only two episodes not set in Gotham City, “Sideshow” inverts the visual expectations for a Batman episode by switching the setting from the urban neo-noir of Gotham for the bucolic splendor of the countryside. As Batman pursues Croc (who’s escaped from a prison transport) throughout the rural environment, he passes beautiful images of deer, forests, and tranquil streams. He also encounters the dangers of impossibly high cliffs and dangerous drops, all dramatized with impressive long pans that emphasize just how hazardous the locale truly is.

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During Batman’s pursuit of Croc, you’ll notice that the score entirely drops out for several minutes. Batman: The Animated Series was always judicious in its use of music, even having internal rules like “no music during dialogue exchanges” and “no music while Batman’s in the Batcave,” but this episode utilizes that restraint to incredible effect. Emphasizing just how out of his element Batman truly is, the familiar themes we’d likely hear as he pursues the villain are missing, replaced by sparse bird calls and cricket chirps. It’s the soundtrack to nature, not Gotham City, and the bravery of the producers to avoid standard TV music tropes beautifully complements the scene. Almost every second of a typical children’s television show is scored because networks believe music must constantly be present to maintain a kid’s attention. Batman: The Animated Series is notable for junking that rule, and “Sideshow” is the clearest example of this paying off in dividends.

When music does appear in the episode, it’s used to subtly enhance the story. The score that accompanies the lives of the former circus freaks, now living as a farm collective, has hints of melancholy, but is never too dour. In fact, the notes perk up periodically during the cast’s interactions with Croc, selling the idea that just maybe Croc could reform and join their group. He can’t, of course, but using the score to tease the audience with the possibility is ingenious.

Much of “Sideshow” is spent subverting just what the audience expects from a Batman episode. Superficially, the concept of former sideshow attraction/criminal Killer Croc meeting reflections of his past would seem to be ideal for an examination of the character, a story that hints at his inner depths and raises the possibility that he could one day reform. Even the title card plays into this theme, with its image of Croc’s shackled hand standing before a spotlight-enhanced circus cage. Given that Croc really was a circus freak at one point, evoking sympathy for him, dramatizing his isolation and proving that he isn’t a monster after all, is certainly in the tradition of this series. Over sixty episodes in, however, it could also border on the cliché.

Instead, “Sideshow” is a play on the dark fable of the scorpion and the frog, a story about a scorpion staying true to its malevolent nature, regardless of circumstance. Even though this episode is structured beat by beat to make Croc sympathetic (even giving Croc a moment to reconsider, before stealing the troupe’s $50,000 savings, as he reflects on their collection of circus posters), the moral of the tale is that Croc is what he is, and no amount of kindness or understanding is going to change that. Many of the villains in this series have that one moment where they could’ve avoided a life of crime, if just a singular event had turned out differently. Sometimes, Batman/Bruce Wayne inadvertently is the one who sets that sequence into motion, like when Bruce arranged to meet with Jervis Tetch on the worst day of his life. There’s a moment here, when Croc has yet to run off with the troupe’s savings, where Batman arrives to blow his cover. A traditional Batman story would lead you to believe that Croc wouldn’t have gone through with the theft if Batman hadn’t interfered; that he would’ve enjoyed the quiet life on the farm with his new friends. But…no. That isn’t Croc. He is physically deformed, but there’s no heart of gold here. The point the story is making is rather clear — Croc was always going to split with the cash, regardless of Batman’s arrival.

Early in the episode, when Croc appears to be making friends with the group, he’s told by Billy the Seal Boy, “you can be yourself here.” In the closing, after Croc has been exposed and subdued by Batman, Billy tearfully asks Croc how he could betray his friends. “You said you could be yourself out here remember?” Croc answers. “Well, I guess that’s what I was doing. Being myself.”

For some reason, “Sideshow” is rarely cited at the top of the “Best of Batman” lists, but every element of the episode makes it a classic. It’s one of the smartest episodes of the show’s entire run, and the way the animation and music enhance the story remains remarkable to this day.

Over a year before “Sideshow” aired, an early issue of the tie-in comic presented another tale of Killer Croc potentially making friends and discovering a new purpose in life. Batman Adventures #7 (April 1993) presents “Raging Lizard!”, the story of Killer Croc’s attempt at making a semi-legitimate living as an underground fighter. The issue opens with Batman, doing what he does in so many of the Kelley Puckett/Mike Parobeck stories, fighting his way through a crowd of well-dressed gangsters. He’s searching for a made man known only as “Mobster,” who’s arrived in Gotham after skipping a murder warrant in Chicago.

Meanwhile, Croc is enjoying the glory of the underground wrestling game, until his trainer/pal Mick informs him that this “Mobster” wants a piece of the outfit. The new player is bringing his own fighter, the Masked Marauder, into the league. When Croc hears the news, he instantly flashes back to his last encounter with Marauder, during his initial run as a fighter. The Masked Marauder, who is inhumanly large and strong (details never explained in the story; I kept waiting for the revelation that he’s Bane in disguise), handed Killer Croc a humiliating defeat in the past.

Croc’s so distressed by the Marauder’s arrival that he plans on leaving town, until Mick arrives (with a live chicken, which could be a prop in Croc’s training, or just his lunch) and convinces Croc to give his fans the fight they deserve. Batman, meanwhile, is tearing through the underworld to find Mobster, whose real name is non-dramatically revealed as Mandrake, making the initial mystery surrounding the generic “Mobster” moniker simply an odd plot element. Batman learns of Mandrake’s connection to the underground fight club and soon arrives…right in the middle of Croc’s pathetic rematch with the Marauder.

While Mick tries to talk a dazed Killer Croc back into lucidity, Batman is now the one who must face the comically oversized Marauder. The crowd has dispersed, but Mick convinces Croc to continue the fight for the purest motivation of them all…revenge. Croc’s newfound courage enables him to defeat the Masked Marauder, and inadvertently save Batman, who’s free to apprehend Mandrake. Batman offers Croc a chance to go free, given that he’s already captured the man he came for, and Croc and Mick exit with the championship belt.

“Raging Lizard!” is one of the silliest issues of the original Batman Adventures run, relying on the slapstick of Croc facing a menagerie of goofy-looking wrestlers to sell much of the humor. It’s a fine demonstration of Parobeck’s cartooning skills, intercut with a fun montage of even more Batman vs. mobster action, but it’s pretty shallow and there doesn’t seem to be too much to the joke.

The Wrap-Up

Design-y

The design of Billy the Seal Boy just might be the most anime the show ever got, looking as if he’s on vacation from an Osamu Tezuka cartoon. The visual swerve of the episode, abandoning Gotham for the country, is also impressive.

Continuity Notes

  • When Batman was impersonating Killer Croc in “Almost Got ’Im,” he had Croc boast about once throwing a “really big rock” at Batman. In this episode, Croc does indeed throw a sizeable rock at the hero.
  • “Sideshow” was inspired by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ “A View from the Grave!” from Detective Comics #410. In this issue, Batman pursues a death row escapee named Kano Wiggins, not Killer Croc, to the cabin home of sideshow acts, which includes a seal boy and a strongman.
  • Continuing the “Is Croc Dumb or Not?” debate, “Sideshow” portrays Croc as rather crafty, and occasionally sarcastic.
  • In the opening of “Sideshow,” Croc is on his way to Levitz Prison, a nod to DC’s longtime writer/editor/executive Paul Levitz.
  • “The Demon’s Quest, Part II” is the only other episode not set in Gotham City, by the way.

Over the Kiddies’ Heads

The title “Raging Lizard!” is of course a play on the Scorsese classic Raging Bull, even though the film is about a boxer, and the comic has Croc as a wrestler.

Battle of the Curveball Killer Croc Portrayals

Both stories make an effort to show a different side of Croc’s personality, with “Sideshow” teasing the idea that familial acceptance might change the villain, and “Raging Lizard!” focusing on Croc’s embrace of celebrity, and exhibiting an emotion he’s never shown before — fear. There’s a lot of potential in the premise behind “Raging Lizard!”, but since the story is played mostly for laughs, the audience doesn’t receive any real insight into Croc’s personality. In fairness, it’s not trying to be deep, and the creators weren’t likely thinking of the issue as the definitive Killer Croc story. “Sideshow,” meanwhile, sums up the character perfectly, and works as a clever twist on most of the standard Batman: The Animated Series tropes. It’s one of the greatest episodes, and has been unusually underrated over the years.

That’s all for this week. If you have suggestions for an episode you’d like to see paired with its’ comic tie-in cousin, just leave a comment or contact me on Twitter.

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