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When Batman: The Animated Series’ Batgirl Began … Twice

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
When Batman: The Animated Series’ Batgirl Began … Twice

Welcome to the tenth installment of Adventure(s) Time, where we examine a classic episode of an animated series and an issue of its companion comic. I’ve had suggestions from readers Jeff Nettleton and Emmet to look back at Batgirl’s earliest appearances in the “Batman: The Animated Series” continuity, so that’s going to be our focus this week.

The producers likely had plans for Batgirl all along, but just as Harvey Dent was allowed to appear as Gotham’s DA a few times before becoming Two-Face, Barbara Gordon was treated as an occasional supporting player during the first year of the show’s run. Airing as the two-part second season premiere on September 13-14, 1993, “Shadow of the Bat” presented Barbara’s long-awaited debut as Batgirl. The two chapters of “Shadow of the Bat” have several writing credits, according to online databases (Dennis O’Flaherty &Tom Ruegger are credited with the plot for Part One, with a script by Garin Wolf & Tom Ruegger, and Brynne Stephens has sole writing credit for Part Two) but the actual episodes only list Byrnne Stephens as writer for Parts I and II.  Both chapters are directed by Frank Paur, who went on to produce “Gargoyles” and several of Marvel’s DTV animated features. The animation by Spectrum in Part One is fairly standard for the show during this era; it’s fine, but nothing about it particularly stands out. Part Two, animated by Dong Yang Animation, is livelier and more stylized.

The story opens with the introduction of Deputy Commissioner Gil Mason, who’s managed to do what was once unthinkable — obtain an arrest warrant for reputed mobster Rupert Thorne. Gil Mason is so good at his job, Batman is slightly suspicious of the ambitious up-and-comer. Commissioner Gordon, however, views Gil as an ally and even thinks Gil’s prime boyfriend material for his daughter, Barbara.

Barbara, traditionally depicted on the series as a college student who occasionally stays with her father, just happens to be home when Gil makes a surprise appearance. He’s not looking for a date; he’s serving an arrest warrant on her father. Commissioner Gordon finds himself charged with accepting bribes from Thorne. Making his case worse, Gordon is later freed (more like forcibly extracted) from prison by mystery men. The episode postpones the inevitable revelation that Gil is dirty by having him claim that he personally doesn’t believe the charges against Gordon, and is even appearing at a rally to support the slandered police commissioner. Barbara thinks that an appearance by Batman at the rally will aid her father’s cause, but the hero has other plans to help Gordon.

This element of the plot might appear odd in retrospect, but it’s worth remembering that “Batman: The Animated Series” stuck to a rather traditional take on Batman, especially in these early years. Batman is still somewhat talkative in these episodes, and his scary “avenger of the night” persona is reserved for criminals. He’s not the creepy urban legend, he’s the protector of the city and a known ally of the police. It’s not entirely unthinkable for this incarnation of Batman to be appearing at a rally to help his friend. (I believe early plans for the series called for Batman to have a more complicated relationship with the GCPD, but it seems the producers decided after the first few episodes not to put him at odds with the authorities.)

Deciding that Batman will appear one way or another, Barbara Gordon creates a replica of his costume. While the actual Batman is donning his undercover persona of “Matches” Malone for the first time, investigating the frame job against Gordon, Barbara is using her gymnastic skills to fake a Batman appearance at the rally. As she tries to slip away, a drive-by shooting targets the podium. Barbara tries to apprehend the masked attacker, but is distracted by Robin’s sudden appearance. Robin, who’s been asked by Batman to take his place at the rally, pulls at Barbara’s cowl, tearing a piece of it away and revealing a portion of her red hair. Cameras catch the moment and label the new hero “Batgirl.”

Independently, both Robin and Batgirl — who’s now added a bat emblem to her costume — confirm that Gil Mason is corrupt, but find themselves at odds during their investigations. Robin tells Batgirl that she’s an amateur and needs to stay out of the case; she adamantly rejects his advice. (Any gender politics are left as subtext.) Meanwhile, “Matches” Malone’s investigation at the Stacked Deck (still stylish and cool and covered in shadows, as seen in “Almost Got ‘Im”) leads him to Two-Face. The villain doesn’t buy “Matches”’ lie that he’s interested in joining the gang and knocks him unconscious. This leaves Batman mysteriously absent from her father’s case, inspiring Barbara to officially become Batgirl.

Following the clues left by Gil Mason, both Robin and Batgirl witness a secret meeting between Gil and his benefactor, Two-Face. “Matches” Malone is the reason behind the meeting — Two-Face wants Gil to confirm that “Matches” isn’t an undercover cop (a clever way to tie these various plot threads together, and place the three heroes in the same location simultaneously.) Batgirl slips up and reveals herself, which leads to the villains escaping and leaving a bomb to cover their exit. Batgirl escapes the collapsed subway tunnel, but she’s unable to rescue Batman and Robin before the tunnel is flooded. Unsure if the heroes are still alive, Batgirl continues to pursue her father’s case. She soon follows the clues to Bayshore Wharf, where Two-Face and Gil Mason are planning to execute Gordon.

Batman and Robin, who of course didn’t die after all, arrive and take care of Two-Face while Batgirl chases after Gil Mason. (Gil’s escape to the water brings us another glimpse at Gotham’s knockoff version of the Statue of Liberty, which always seemed to be one of the weakest designs from the original episodes. She looks like she’s melting.) During their struggle on Gil’s boat, Batgirl’s mask is ripped, exposing her identity to Gil. Standard Comic Book Regulations dictate that Gil must die now that he’s learned a hero’s secret ID, but since this is all-ages weekday afternoon entertainment, Gil gets off easy. “Easy” as in Batgirl kicks Gil, knocking him backwards and causing his head to collide against the transom. Gil falls into a coma, and remains in that state during the episode’s wrap-up, when Gordon announces that his name’s been cleared and that Gil has been indicted, regardless of his condition.

Looking back, it’s surprising that Gil’s story never received a follow-up. His connection to Two-Face, and his history with Gordon, could’ve easily provided fodder for future stories. Not to mention — he knows Batgirl’s secret identity! You’d think Gil Mason would be an easy choice to appear in any subsequent Batgirl story, but he’s forgotten after this episode. Perhaps it’s because Batgirl is the star of this two-parter, and Gil’s mostly here to move the plot forward, but it does seem as if the character has untapped potential.

During Gordon’s press conference, he acknowledges Batgirl’s role in clearing his name and welcomes her to Gotham. In the crowd, Bruce Wayne indicates to Dick Grayson that there might be room “for one more” crimefighter in Gotham, to the delight of the nearby Barbara. (Since she doesn’t know Bruce’s secret identity, I’ll assume that she’s happy just to know that she’s been accepted by the public.) Bruce’s statement doesn’t quite match Robin’s earlier attitude towards Batgirl, and it certainly contradicts more recent portrayals of Batman. Yes, writers have shown Batman as willing to accept other heroes in Gotham after they go through great lengths to prove themselves, but Batgirl’s still very much a neophyte at this point. Heck, even when Batgirl returns as a regular in “The New Batman Adventures” you get the sense in the earlier episodes that Batman just barely tolerates her existence.

Now, it seemed as if everyone knew that Barbara Gordon would eventually become Batgirl, right? There were around sixty episodes in the first season that predated her official debut, so perhaps you could argue that the producers weren’t in a major hurry to introduce Batgirl, but surely everyone knew that Batgirl would be appearing on the show if it ran long enough, correct?

So why did the “Batman Adventures” tie-in comic jump the gun?

Featuring a September 1993 cover date (which means it likely went on sale in July 1993), “Batman Adventures” #12 brings us the comic book debut of Harley Quinn, and the “Adventures” debut of Batgirl.  Like most issues of this era, “Batgirl: Day One” is presented by writer Kelly Puckett and the art team of Mike Parobeck and Rick Burchett. The letters page acknowledges that Batgirl will soon appear on the show in September, and her design is the one used on the show, so it’s not as if “Adventures” was ignorant of her upcoming appearance, or went rogue with their own outrageous take on Batgirl. The “Adventures” team is rather blatantly going against their TV parent, however — not only is Batgirl appearing in the tie-in two months early, but the book is providing her with an alternate origin.

The story opens with the only appearance of Batman in the issue, a splash page representing his out-of-town mission in a fictionalized version of Mount Rushmore. Notice how much of this untold tale is conveyed with just one page of story, by the way.  That’s a Puckett/Parobeck trademark.

The off-panel voices are Commissioner Gordon and Barbara, who’s curious to know if Batman’s currently in town. We learn over the next few pages that Barbara’s infatuated with Batman; not in a romantic sense, but more with his nights of rooftop action and adventure. When her father leaves the room, Barbara reveals the costume she’s created for her wealthy friend Sandy’s costume party…the same costume she’ll later debut in “Shadow of the Bat” Part One.

Barbara, dressed in her new Batgirl costume, arrives at Moulton Towers shortly after Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn sneak into the building. Harley & Ivy are planning on kidnapping Sandy Vanocouer, partially for ransom, partially as punishment for her father’s exploitation of old-growth forests. Both Batgirl and Harley & Ivy have separate run-ins with overly aggressive security guards, and it isn’t long before Batgirl witnesses Harley assaulting one of the rent-a-cops. (With a Louisville Slugger, no less. Harley isn’t carrying her prop-toy weaponry yet.)

Batgirl manages to escape both villains — Harley’s head-butt attack goes horribly awry, and Ivy is easily distracted when Batgirl threatens a potted plant — and quickly rescues her friend. Sandy points out that Batgirl’s taken out two of Batman’s deadliest foes, boosting the young hero’s confidence…until Harley returns with a gun. The first shot grazes Batgirl’s right ear (the costume’s ear, not her actual ear), and before Harley can try again, she’s attacked from behind by one of the surly security guards. Batgirl soon realizes that the guards aren’t on her side when she’s also whacked from behind.

After regaining consciousness, Batgirl learns she’s being held captive with Harley & Ivy. The culprit is pretty obvious when you consider the “Ladies’ Night” theme of the issue — Catwoman. Puckett is writing Catwoman an unrepentant criminal this issue, giving her a scheme that involves a priceless diamond on the floor above the costume party. Her plan is to use her hired security team to drill through the ceiling, enabling her to pilfer the diamond before anyone notices. With Ivy’s (reluctant) help, Batgirl is freed, and on her way to the rooftop to circumvent Catwoman’s escape. Batgirl swipes the diamond out her hands, tosses it off the rooftop, and tells Catwoman that she’d better leave before the police arrive. What Catwoman doesn’t know is that Batgirl dropped the diamond only a few feet below onto a nearby fire escape.

Minutes later, Batgirl is out of costume and reunited with her father. She promises that she’s fine; that she spent the night away from the action, “eating munchies.” When Gordon asks her about her costume, Barbara claims that it didn’t fit, as the background of the panel reveals it’s being taken out in the garbage by a janitor.

There’s no easy way to work around the continuity problems the story introduces. Strictly speaking, there’s nothing in “Shadow of the Bat” to indicate that Barbara didn’t once dress as Batgirl for a costume party, but reading this story as a prequel to her official debut is a very generous interpretation. I’d also question just what Barbara’s motives are in this issue. She asks Gordon if Batman is in town, implying that she’s going to go out and fight crime to take his place, but instead goes to a costume party. Yes, she ends up foiling two separate criminal schemes at the party, but she had no way of knowing this would happen. Also, the ending implies that Barbara considered this a one-time lark and has given up the Batgirl identity. (The closing line, “Turns out it didn’t fit.” certainly implies that Barbara has abandoned her interest in following Batman’s lead.) However, the events of the story wouldn’t seem to dissuade Barbara’s interest in crime fighting. In fact, as her friend points out, she’s pretty good at it.

The Wrap-Up

Design-y

The second chapter of “Shadow of the Bat” has more than one incredible shot of Batgirl in silhouette. I’ll also note that the curved shape of her hair is a holdover from Lynne Naylor’s initial Poison Ivy design, which was used as the basis for female characters in the early days of the show. It’s amusing just how round the end of Batgirl’s hair remains, regardless of what’s happening to it.

Continuity Notes

  • Two-Face is treated like any other villain by this point in the show’s run. There’s no reluctance on Batman’s part when facing his former friend, no reference to their previous relationship, and no acknowledgment of the inherent tragedy in Two-Face’s past. A later episode will revive these ideas, but it feels as if there’s a stretch of episodes where Two-Face could’ve been replaced with essentially any villain.  Quite a contrast when compared to the original Two-Face episodes.
  • Dan Slott was under the impression that “Matches” Malone never appeared in the DCAU continuity, and later “debuted” him during the final run of “Batman Adventures.” Slott could be forgiven for forgetting about “Matches’” appearance in “Shadow of the Bat”…the real star of the episodes is Batgirl, of course. The return of the Stacked Deck was a nice surprise, though.
  • Batgirl’s next appearance on the show, the “Batgirl Returns” episode of the animated series, shares some elements with “Batman Adventures” #12. Not only does it also take place on a day when Batman is out of town, but the story also features Batgirl running afoul of Catwoman.
  • “Batman Adventures” #12 is another instance of Catwoman and Harley Quinn as adversaries, pre-“Gotham Girls.” Unlike “Almost Got ‘Im,” Harley is now the one held captive, though.

Over the Kiddies’ Heads

The cast of “Love and Rockets” has a cameo appearance during the costume party. I realize that Mike Parobeck’s major artistic influence was John Byrne, but his ability to slip into the Hernandez brothers’ style is impressive.

Battle of the Batgirl Debuts

I’ll admit to an inherent bias when discussing the earlier days of “Adventures,” because I think Mike Parobeck’s artwork is usually miles ahead of the drawings in the first two seasons of the show. He’s still figuring out a way to capture Harley Quinn (and apparently no one thought to ink her mask black in these days), but Parobeck’s Batgirl is a fantastic representation of the original design. His playful designs for Catwoman’s meathead thugs are also a lot of fun, and I think he draws the best rendition of Commissioner Gordon in this canon.

Regarding the stories, I have to say that Barbara’s motivation in “Batgirl: Day One” is rather thin when compared to “Shadow of the Bat.” In the “Adventures” tale, she’s initially out for kicks, before getting drawn into a serious situation. In “Shadow of the Bat,” she knows from the beginning that her father needs her help, which is a decent starting place for an origin story. The “Adventures” issue is also a bit irritating, given the mixed-up continuity discussed earlier. Later writers of the book, like Ty Templeton, will put more of an effort into making “Adventures” a more believable tie-in to the series. At this point, Kelly Puckett seems to be writing the book as if it’s inspired by the show, but not particularly beholden to it.

If you have any suggestions for future Adventure(s) Time installments, leave a comment or just let me know on Twitter. I do make an effort to incorporate them into the series.

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