Welcome to the 13th edition of "Adventure(s) Time," where a beloved animated series is paired with a related issue of its tie-in comic. Reader requests are always welcome, and this week we're going to be continuing with the suggestion of Jeff Nettleton, who requested a look at the early Batgirl appearances in the "Batman: The Animated Series" canon.
"Batgirl Returns" is the eighth episode of the series' third season, during the days of the show being renamed "The Adventures of Batman & Robin" and moving to a weekly slot on Saturday mornings. The episode is written by Michael Reeves and Brynne Stephens, directed by Dan Riba, and animated by Dong Yang Animation. Brynne Stephens also wrote Batgirl's debut in the "Shadow of the Bat" two-parter, and after establishing a friendly rivalry between the heroine and Robin in those episodes, she reunites the duo here.
Not only does the episode feature Melissa Gilbert's last performance as Batgirl, but it was nearly the final performance of everyone in their roles -- "Batgirl Returns" was the final episode of the show's original run. FOX had completed its extended order for the series, and Warner Brothers didn't see a compelling reason to make more episodes. Focus soon shifted to a Superman animated series, partially inspired by the belief that a live-action Superman film would be released by the mid-90s. "Batman: The Animated Series" closed down production for two years, and wasn't revived until the WB network made a decision to pair new "Batman" and "Superman" episodes in a block of programming.
The episode begins with a dream sequence that has Batman facing a collection of his most dangerous foes, looking at certain death until he's miraculously rescued by Batgirl. It's one of the finest openings of any "Animated Series" episode, with each villain rendered beautifully by the Dong Yang crew, who bring a lovely anime styling to the episode. Bruce Timm has remarked in the past that many of the designs had been tweaked by the time the producers reached the "Adventures of Batman & Robin" episodes, and it's clear that the animators were improving with each episode. Not only are the main characters attractively rendered, but the peripheral characters also look nicely designed. It's understandable that Timm's evolving design sense would lead him to reinvent the show after its two-year hiatus, but honestly, the cast looks so sleek here, an argument could be made that no one truly needed to be redesigned at this point. The show's truly firing on all cylinders during this run; it's hard to think of a single "Adventures of Batman & Robin" episode that doesn't look great.
After Barbara Gordon awakes from her dream, the story re-establishes her status quo. She's a college student that's rather bored with her daily life, so she's still going out at night, investigating crimes as Batgirl. This week, she's learned that a jade cat from the Han Dynasty has been stolen from a local museum. When she investigates the crime scene that night as Batgirl, she runs into Catwoman, the person she feels is very likely the culprit. Catwoman cites the use of acid on the display case as evidence that she's innocent, as this is just not her style, and convinces Batgirl that they should team up and find the real thief.
The mismatched duo run into trouble all throughout Gotham, including an ill-fated visit to the sleazy Stacked Deck club. Eventually, they uncover clues that implicate corrupt businessman Roland Daggett as the thief, and find themselves facing down an army of his goons at his abandoned chemical plant. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Batgirl and Catwoman, Robin has been investigating the same case while Batman is out of town (overseeing a Wayne Corp merger as Bruce Wayne in Europe.) Robin arrives in the nick of time, and ends up bailing Batgirl out of trouble twice over course of three minutes. Add this to Barbara's earlier assertion that she despises her Math courses, and we have an episode that might be deemed "problematic" by segments of fandom today. In fairness to the writers of this episode, we see Batgirl holding her own for much of the story, and she is able to unravel mysteries with Catwoman that required Robin to use the sophisticated technology of the Batcave.
During the climax of the episode, the Batgirl/Catwoman partnership ends about as poorly as could be expected. Not only does Batgirl have to rescue Roland Daggett from the vat of toxic chemicals (Catwoman's response to Batgirl's admonition that killing Daggett makes her no better than him still makes me laugh), but Catwoman's later apology to Batgirl is ruined when it turns into a rant against the local police force. Insulting that "senile" fool Commissioner Gordon doesn't sit well with Batgirl, and Catwoman soon finds herself in police custody. She manages to escape before the police car can even pull away, but this is deemed a happy enough ending to the tale.
Robin and Batgirl teaming up for an adventure while Batman's out of town is a somewhat obvious story idea, so it's not surprising to learn that the "Batman Adventures" tie-in comic beat the producers to it by a few months. "Batman Adventures" #18 (March 1994), featuring a story by Kelley Puckett, pencils by Mike Parobeck, and inks by Rick Burchett, opens with Barbara Gordon hanging around her father's office during her summer break. She happens to spot a mystery man who leaves a briefcase behind, and in a manner of seconds, discovers that the briefcase contains a bomb. After narrowly avoiding the blast, Barbara looks through the GCPD's mugbooks, pretending not to recognize the man with the bomb. She takes down the suspect's name and visits his apartment that evening.
She's soon joined by Robin, who reveals that he's already checked the apartment belong to the man, now identified as Teller (not Penn's partner), and found nothing incriminating. His quip about an action figure is possibly a reference to "Batman: The Animated Series" Happy Meal toys, which were still new at the time. (The commercial featured original animation and voice acting, and apparently can only be found on Youtube collections of old ad spots.)
The banter between Batgirl and Robin sets the tone for the story -- she's still learning the ropes, and he's more than willing to poke a little fun at the rookie while she finds her way. A reader could view this as Robin's transition from "Shadow of the Bat" to "Batgirl Returns." He's gone from telling Barbara to give up on the crimefighting game in "Shadow of the Bat,", to gently mocking her in this story, to simply accepting her as a fellow member of the fraternity, so to speak, in "Batgirl Returns." And Robin isn't that mean to Barbara, it should be noted. He's even willing to apologize when he thinks he's taken the joke too far.
The heroes are able to track Teller to his secret hideout, and are stunned to learn that A) the police have caught up to him just as quickly as they did and B) Teller immediately gives himself up to the authorities. As they spy on an impromptu press conference, they discover that prominent Gotham citizen Jeff Griffin "looked into the case" and gave the GCPD information that implicated Teller. During the press conference, Griffin's "good friend" Bob Hewlett appears. Who are these people? Bob Hewlett is currently running for mayor, and Jeff Griffin is rumored to be Hewlett's top choice to replace James Gordon as police commissioner. Barbara, rightfully, smells a rat.
Later, Robin keeps an eye on Teller's cell, and correctly guesses that a plan is underway to free him. This leads to a wonderful piece of Mike Parobeck "Hero vs. Guys in Suits" action...
Meanwhile, Batgirl investigates Bob Hewlett's nearby campaign headquarters. She snaps incriminating photos of Hewlett, Griffin, and Teller all together, and has her own battle against a faceless mob while on her way out.
The three criminals are arrested, James Gordon's position as police commissioner is secured, and Gotham citizens are left with the feckless Mayor Hill in charge of their city government. Ah, well. Two out of three ain't bad, right? Barbara returns to college, the implication being that she's giving up the Batgirl persona for now. This might seem to be a contradiction of "Batgirl Returns," but remember that the episode opens weeks into her college semester. It's certainly conceivable that Barbara grew increasingly bored in college this term and resumed her life as Batgirl. As for Robin, the final page reveals his alter ego Dick Grayson is a fellow student at Gotham University, one with a playfully antagonistic relationship with Barbara...which is exactly where "Batgirl Returns" opens.
"Batgirl Returns" is filled with fantastic scenery, such as the design of the Han Dynasty museum exhibit...
...a return to the Stacked Deck club, and some great skyline shots of Gotham...
- The ending of Barbara Gordon's opening dream sequence offers the first hint of a Batman/Batgirl romance in this canon. Right before the couple kiss, Barbara's awakened by Dick Grayson, who's heckling her out of her window.
- As the episode points out, Roland Daggett once poisoned Catwoman in the episode "Cat Scratch Fever," and his chemical plant is where we saw Daggett develop the drug that transformed Matt Hagen into Clayface in "Feat of Clay."
- The rarely seen Stacked Deck club also appeared in Batgirl's debut storyline, "Shadow of the Bat." It remains draped in a ridiculous number of shadows, and still looks amazingly cool.
"Batgirl Returns" ends with Batgirl physically preventing Robin from pursuing Catwoman, who's just stolen a police car and driven away. Batgirl calmly asserts that they'll have plenty of opportunities to capture Catwoman again, but c'mon...are they really going to just let her escape like this? I realize that the episode is over and there's no room for another action scene, but wouldn't a closing shot of Robin and Batgirl swinging after the car work as a more believable ending?
Battle of the Batgirl Returns
"Batman Adventures" #18 is one of the highlights of the Puckett/Parobeck era, moving swiftly, filling in gaps from its parent continuity, and just having fun with the concept of Robin and Batgirl working a case without Batman's help. The story's also rather sharp, featuring a political scheme that could've easily been fleshed out over the course of twenty minutes, had the issue been adapted to the screen. "Batgirl Returns" is also one of the strongest episodes from its run, and given that this run is one of the greatest of the entire series, that's no small compliment. I'm tempted to declare this a draw, but the quality of the Dong Yang animation in "Batgirl Returns" is enough for it to have the edge. Both are entertaining stories, however, worthy of another look today.
That's all for this week. If you have any "Adventures" issues you'd like to see covered with a related episode of an animated series, just leave a comment, or contact me on Twitter.