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Did Catwoman Star in Batman: The Animated Series' Lamest Episode?

Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's 96th installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This week, we're revisiting the time Catwoman required Batman's help in the animated series. Then, an issue of the comics tie-in that swaps those roles. And if you have any suggestions for the future, I'm happy to hear them. Just contact me on Twitter.

Debuting on Nov. 5, 1992, "Cat Scratch Fever" isn't likely to make anyone's Batman: The Animated Series "Best of" list. Although animation veteran Buzz Dixon provides the teleplay, the plot comes from Sean Catherine Derek, an indication this was one of the earlier scripts written for the series. Derek was initially hired to oversee the writing of the show, and we'll politely say she didn't gel with producers Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski.

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Derek viewed Batman as a vehicle to teach kids lessons about society and the environment. (She famously asked whether the Batcave could have a recycling bin.) However, Timm and Radomski wanted the tortured avenger of the night from the comics. A few months into production, everyone agreed this was not a match, and Derek left the series. To be fair, she does have a writing credit on "P.O.V.," the noirish tale in which members of the Gotham City Police Department present their unique takess on the same event, widely viewed as one of the strongest episodes that season.

Reinventing Catwoman as an animal-rights activist who steals to support animal causes likely came from Derek. And, honestly, it's not a bad take on Catwoman. (Especially if she's to be a credible love interest for Batman. He wouldn't fall for someone who's stealing for her own benefit, but he'd be more willing to forgive someone with genuine motives.) "Cat Scratch Fever" opens with Selina Kyle facing a judge, following Catwoman's arrest in her debut appearance. The design of the judge and random courtroom attendees isn't a promising beginning for the episode. This is quite clearly the shoddy work of Akom, the weakest studio involved with the show.

Director Boyd Kirkland never hid his disdain for Akom's handling of his work. (He also seemed to believe his episodes had been unfairly selected to be the Akom jobs, which Timm denied.) It's amusing this ended up as an Akom assignment, given the plot has evil businessman Roland Daggett injecting Gotham's stray animals with a virus only he possesses the antidote for. Animals are notoriously difficult to draw. Yet, oddly enough, Akom often excels at them here.

There's a sequence in which Catwoman's pet Isis suddenly bitesher that could be the best animation I've seen from Akom. And the infected dog sicced on Batman in the climax is also pretty darned impressive. Timm has also commented that Akom did a great job animating the lab rats in the opening of the episode, "Mad as a Hatter." Is this the studio's true calling? Why do their human characters consistently look so awful? That's like excelling at calculus but flunking pre-algebra.

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Is there anything of significance here, besides the animation, very possibly the worst in the show's history? Not really. Dr. Milo, the evil scientist with the hideous bowl haircut from "Moon of the Wolf" returns. And the dynamic of Catwoman lusting after Batman but only viewing Bruce Wayne as a friend has potential. Not that it's explored. When Selina is infected with the virus, it feels more schlocky than anything. Ideally, this would've been a nice opportunity to explore the depth of Batman's feelings for her.

Having Catwoman search the streets for her missing kitty Isis also could've evoked some emotional response from the audience. (Likely most viewers know what it's like to have a beloved pet suddenly go missing.) But the episode doesn't do much to really make you care. Truthfully, this exists as a statement against animal testing, and any material relating to the characters is just not a priority.

So, what happens when it's Batman who needs Catwoman's help? Batman Adventures #10 (March 2004), "One Step Ahead" by writer Ty Templeton and artist Rick Burchett, answers the question.

The story opens with Catwoman disrupting a reception for prize hunter "Blazing" Jack Dayton at the stuffy Peregrinator's Club. (Templeton might be the only writer outside of Paul Dini to ever use the Peregrinator's Club. Pulling from the most obscure elements of the canon is common for Templeton.) As punishment for celebrating the big-game hunter, she's set a bomb of red paint to explode, ruining the club's priceless art collection.

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Batman pursues Catwoman across the rooftops, and chides her for making her own rules. She laughs, reminding Batman he's now a wanted criminal, thanks to Mayor Cobblepot. Sure enough, the GCPD arrives to arrest both of them. When some overzealous officers cause a bundle of steel pipes to fall above Catwoman, Batman pushes her out of the way. A pipe konks him on the head, giving Batman a concussion.

Obviously, there has to be some cheat here to prevent the police from unmasking Batman. Templeton addresses the issue masterfully, by having Renee Montoya refuse to remove the mask before contacting Commissioner Gordon. How do you think that works out?

Catwoman sneaks into the ambulance, and has her own moment of temptation.

Ultimately, Batman awakes in time to circumvent a bad situation between Catwoman and the ambulance drivers. Out of admiration for Batman, they quietly agree to drop him off. Catwoman, having promised he didn't know the full story, returns home. She calls her assistant Maven to arrange the sale of the Peregrinator's Club art collection, which she'd already swiped and replaced with fakes before the bomb went off.

But there's another twist, as Batman sneaks into her bedroom and steals back the paintings. (Notice Catwoman's closet hints at some of her comics outfits also exist in this continuity.)

But wait! We never learned whether Catwoman peeked under Batman's mask, did we? Well, the book doesn't provide a firm answer. The backup story from Dan Slott and Burchett might have a clue, however.

The story is set at the Wayne Foundation New Year's Ball. We open with the Penguin being denied entry, and a sweet moment between Gordon and a somewhat absent Batman. (Another continuity nod to the most dedicated fans.)

The premise has Catwoman sneaking through the mansion, with Bruce unable to respond until the party's over. Security cameras show she's cracked the wall safe behind the Wayne family portrait. Bruce's irritated -- as seen in "Cat Scratch Fever," he was the only member of Gotham's elite to stand by Selina and this is how she repays him.

What he discovers is a surprise.

So, why would she make this promise to Bruce Wayne and not Batman? Is it possible she now knows they're one and the same?

DESIGN-Y

Some of the peripheral characters in these earlier episodes just look heinous. The judge in the opening is a clear example. This episode is quite possibly the ugliest of the entire run.

What's striking about "Cat Scratch Fever" is how bad even the background paintings look. I've always assumed those paintings were done by the American crew and the overseas animators handled the cel animation. But it's difficult to believe the lumpy, odd figures seen in that courtroom came out of Warners' studio. Unless he'd broken his wrist, there's no way painter Ted Blackman (the artist responsible for those fantastic Gotham landmarks) is responsible for this.

Also worth mentioning the Batman Adventures issue ignores the bluish hue given to Catwoman's skin in the New Adventures episodes. Catwoman's redesign was second only to the Joker's in terms of unpopularity. Giving her a more human skin tone may or may not be an improvement. (I still think the anatomy is just too weird.)

CONTINUITY NOTES

Catwoman's on probation following the events of "The Cat and the Claw." Later, "Batgirl Returns" establishes Batman dismantling this scheme has left Daggett in horrible debt. (A rare use of episode-to-episode continuity on the show.) And Dr. Milo will later make an unexpected appearance as a member of Cadmus in Justice League Unlimited.

APPROVED BY BROADCAST STANDARDS & PRACTICES

Dr. Milo's taunt to Catwoman -- “You gonna lick it and make it all better?” -- somehow made it past the censors. And it's clear the continued references to her as "pussycat" by the villains is no accident.

CAN THIS LADY LEOPARD CHANGE HER SPOTS?

One of the few complaints you might levy against Batman: The Animated Series is the lack of quality Catwoman episodes. (She's used quite well in "Perchance to Dream" and "Almost Got 'Im" but rarely has equivalent spotlight episodes.) It's surprising, really, given that the show was created specifically with Batman Returns in mind. Then again, having to please Warner Bros.' edicts regarding the character might've hindered the producers' ability to do their jobs. It's unlikely anyone was looking over their shoulders, providing detailed notes on, say, Killer Croc.

The series will later settle into the idea of Catwoman as a genuinely "bad girl." The animal rights angle is dropped, and her interest in Batman doesn't seem to compete with her desire to steal nice things. The best Catwoman stories from this canon don't appear in the cartoon show. Ty Templeton actually seems to be the writer with the best handle of this character. "One Step Ahead" is a great way to reconcile both versions of Selina. Sadly, it's an interpretation relegated to the ancillary material.

So that’s all for now. I've begun a new review series on Chris Claremont's 2000 return to the X-Men on my blog!  You can also check out my Kindle Worlds novels for free over at Smashwords.

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