Welcome to the eighth installment of Adventure(s) Time, where we examine a classic episode of an animated series and an issue of its companion comic. This week, we’re going to be looking back on an episode of “Batman: The Animated Series” that many count as their favorite. And an issue of the tie-in “Adventures” comic that is… less fondly remembered.
On November 10, 1992, the forty-sixth episode of “Batman” debuted (or the thirty-fifth, if you’re going by airdate order), written by Paul Dini and directed by Eric Radomski. “Almost Got ‘Im” is a story of a poker game attended by Batman’s deadliest foes -- Poison Ivy, the Joker, the Penguin, Two-Face and Killer Croc. They meet periodically at the Stacked Deck club, where they trade tales of Batman, and exchange other bits of gossip, such as the revelation that Ivy and Two-Face were once a couple (a reference to Ivy’s animated debut in “Pretty Poison.”)
At the Joker’s urging, the criminals all relate previous encounters with Batman, describing how the hero just narrowly escaped death each time. Poison Ivy details her “poisoned pumpkin” Halloween scheme, Two-Face describes a bank robbery that ended with Batman collecting his gigantic penny as a prop, the Penguin dramatically recounts the time he nearly killed Batman with poisoned hummingbirds, and Killer Croc boasts of the rock that could’ve pulverized Batman, if he’d only stayed still. It was a very big rock.
The Joker, who insists on going last, declares that he has the greatest story of all. The previous evening, Joker and Harley Quinn took over the set of a local talk show, prompting laughs at gunpoint from the studio audience. (Is this how CBS sitcoms get the job done?) Batman arrived to stop the show, but was promptly overwhelmed and strapped into a “laugh-powered electric chair.” With the added impetus of the Joker’s patented laughing gas, the laugh-generated electricity assaulted Batman as Harley amused the crowd with a reading of the phone book. To the Joker’s dismay, Catwoman made a surprise appearance to rescue Batman. During the melee, Batman was freed, yet Catwoman found herself Harley’s captive.
And where is Harley? Joker informs his associates that she’s currently holding Catwoman captive at a cannery, where the would-be heroine is soon to be ground into cat food. “I don’t think so,” responds a surprising voice -- Killer Croc, who’s soon revealed by a symbolic shadow to be Batman in disguise. If you pulled this stunt with any other hero, the audience would have every right to cry foul. He’s that good an impressionist? Croc’s associates aren’t suspicious at all, during the entire poker game? Batman was able to discern where his foes meet, and the exact moment they would have this game? Yes. Yes, he can, because he’s Batman. And that’s not childish hero worship -- it’s a perfectly defensible plot development that stays true to everything we know about Batman. He’s trained his entire life to impersonate voices, to notice tiny details that no one else would notice, and to follow a trail and track an escaping foe. All of the stories leading up to this one involve Batman using his smarts in some way, and more than one episode of this series has chronicled the days of Bruce training to become Batman. He can do this because it’s a part of Batman’s shtick to fight crime so efficiently. It’s not a cheat, it’s a classic example of Batman doing only what Batman can do. (Okay, Martian Manhunter could accomplish all of this, too. But he has around sixty-seven powers, so it doesn’t count.)
After Batman gives the signal, the shadowy bar patrons reveal themselves as Gotham police officers, sporting those stylish-yet-realistic guns that somehow bypassed Broadcast Standards & Practices. The villains are placed under arrest as Batman travels to the cannery to rescue Catwoman, who’s seconds away from a horrific fate at the end of the Pussy Kins Cat Food Company’s conveyor belt. Within moments, Catwoman is rescued and Harley is apprehended. The episode concludes with one of the few instances of Batman and Catwoman having a genuine conversation during the series’ run. Previous episodes established an attraction, and perhaps Batman’s given Catwoman a lecture or two on the importance of flying right, but this is the only real discussion of their relationship that I can recall from the Animated Series. Catwoman suggests that she might be able to go straight after all… “Maybe we’d have a place for each other without Gotham, without the freaks, maybe without masks,” she says to him. “Maybe,” he answers, as she leans forward for a kiss. Then, a siren is heard in the distance. Catwoman turns away for a second, only to find Batman has already left. The closing line is one of the best in the series’ history, and delivered perfectly by Adrienne Barbeau. “Hmm. Almost got ‘im.”
It’s not hard to see why so many view this as their favorite “Batman: The Animated Series” episode, or at least a strong contender for Top 3. It was named as the Number Two of the show's run recently on this very site, and it's inspired a new card game from Cryptozoic Entertainment. Eric Radomski, who designed the look of the show with Bruce Timm, creates iconic visuals for every story, and each villain looks as striking as they’ll ever appear in their initial designs. (The episode was animated by Dong Yang Animation and Spectrum, which has its own iconic stamp on the show -- that hawk-like beak they added to Batman’s cowl.) Stuart V. Balcomb provides a jazzy score that stands out from other episodes, while never straying too far from the traditional sound of the series. And the voice actors, who were in the booth together for this episode, have a nice chemistry. It would be easy for Mark Hamill to outshine the other actors during one of his Joker monologues, but everyone holds their own. Diane Pershing’s performance as Poison Ivy has little in common with Hamill’s Joker, but both sound authentic in their own way.
The premise of a menagerie of Batman’s notable foes, all providing stories that are just long enough to capture the viewer’s interest, and a no-fat attitude towards presenting Batman in action, is going to please kids and adults. Each of the vignettes likely could’ve been fleshed out as an episode on its own, but Dini structures his script so that the audience feels as if they’re receiving a highlight reel of each “lost” story. It’s also a testament to the iconic status of not only Batman, but his assorted foes. Of course Two-Face wants to rob two million dollars in two dollar bills from the Gotham Mint.What else would Poison Ivy do on Halloween but concoct a scheme with killer pumpkins?
Even a kid that’s just being introduced to these characters (in a show that’s only been on the air for three months at this date) has a sense of just how right this all feels.And the small touches during the story -- Joker cheating throughout the game, Two-Face having two deuces and two face cards in his hand, Ivy derisively being referred to as “Pam,” the Penguin irritating the others with his extravagant vocabulary, the origin story of Batman’s famous penny trophy -- there’s no shortage of crowd pleasing moments during the twenty-two minutes. Plus, the finale, featuring a more heroic side to Catwoman, and a hint that there just might be something between her and Batman? It’s giving the fans what they want, in the best way possible. Dini teases you with the prospect of Batman and Catwoman taking the next step, but knows the exact moment to pull away.
I’ll also note that two of these villains were anything but “classic” at the time of the show’s production. Killer Croc was a relatively new addition to Batman’s rogues gallery, and Poison Ivy hadn’t made much of an impact since her comics debut in the 1960s. The Adam West television program still dominated the public’s perception of Batman, and the trio of major Bat-villains presented on the series (Joker, Penguin, and Catwoman) even influenced the selection of antagonists for the Tim Burton films…which were developed specifically as a response against a campy Batman. By the time the viewer reaches this episode, however, Killer Croc and Poison Ivy fit in with the rest of the gang, and that’s because the producers have done such a great job developing these villains for the series. Personally, I would have loved to see the Riddler join the game, but he’s not truly missed. Every foe has a right to be there.
The concept of telling little snippets of stories from Batman’s past battles is so strong, surely the “Adventures” tie-in also produced a fantastic issue using a similar idea…right?
Not exactly. “Batman Adventures” (Volume 2) #9 leads off with “Deathtrap A-Go-Go!”, written by Gabe Soria and penciled by Dean Haspiel. It’s an inventory story that opens with Batman and Robin chained inside an unseen villain’s deathtrap. Batman recounts tells of his previous escapes from his villain’s traps to Robin, whose responses range from incredulity to sarcasm. The fans’ response to this issue was bitterly negative -- it might be one of the most hated issues of the “Adventures” run.
One reason for the acrimony is the mere placement of the story. The second volume of “Batman Adventures” was focused on a continuing storyline, with alternating chapters written by Dan Slott and Ty Templeton, which centered on the Penguin’s successful campaign to become Gotham’s mayor. The placement of obvious filler that interrupted the flow of the ongoing narrative wasn’t going to be greeted with enthusiasm anyway. But Gabe Soria’s story wasn’t likely to be pleasing fans regardless of its placement.
For starters, Soria is treating the material as camp, writing both Batman and Robin as comedic figures. (I suppose it's fitting that Soria later ended up on "Batman '66.") Batman is pure Adam West, even admonishing Robin for almost using a swear word, while Robin is…honestly, I’m not sure what Soria was going for here. Sometimes, Robin is a kid in awe of Batman. Other times, he’s cracking terrible jokes. In some pages, he’s a brat. The specific personality of this Robin (the streetwise son of a criminal from later TAS continuity) is ignored, simply to give him whatever dialogue Soria thought might be cute in that specific panel.
Soria’s worse sin is his treatment of Batman’s foes. While “Almost Got ‘Im” provides glimpses of stories that feel like missing adventures of the past, “Deathtrap A-Go-Go!” is a series of dumb jokes that have marginal connections to the featured villains. Would the Mr. Freeze of “Heart of Ice” really concoct a scheme that involves handing out mind-altering ice cream cones during a heatwave? Would Clayface build a deathtrap for Batman that connects a conveyor belt to a gigantic clay fire pit? Clayface doesn’t actually care about clay! Watching even one episode of the series would tell you that much. Unfortunately, many of the “Adventures” series ended up as tryout books for freelancers who’d convinced an editor they were worth a shot. I realize that everyone has to break in somehow, but it’s irritating as a fan to see a book you follow regularly designated as the one that’s showcasing all of the new kids. Gabe Soria was a writer for the “Maxim” spinoff "Blender" who used the story as an opportunity to show off his comedic talents, and the results are rarely amusing, and as a Batman story, this is less than a joke. (Kids, ask your older brother about “Maxim.”)
Now, the story does have Dean Haspiel’s art going for it, and even if his Batman is noticeably off-model in several panels, there’s an obvious charm to his work. In fact, I’d love to see Haspiel’s take on a story set in this continuity that’s actually played straight -- his renditions of Batman’s assorted villains are fantastic. But not even the best artist can save exchanges like this:
The look of the Stacked Deck in “Almost Got ‘Im” is so sparse, it’s almost non-existent. This isn’t due to laziness; it’s a conscious decision by Radomski to work within the confines of animation (crowds are a burden to animate) while also creating a look that’s interesting in its own right. On the audio commentary, Radomski cites the original Fleischer “Superman” shorts as an influence on the club’s look. The heavy shadows, which cover most of the screen in black, will later become a trademark of the HBO “Spawn” series, which was also produced by Radomski.
- It’s possible that “Almost Got ‘Im” was influenced by 1977’s “Batman” #291-294, “Where Were You on the Night Batman was Killed?”, a four-part story that has various villains detailing the death of Batman. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the case, given the number of Batman stories from the ‘70s and early ‘80s that influenced the series.
- Harley Quinn and Catwoman will later become friends in the “Gotham Girls” web series and comic tie-in. Harley’s attempt to kill Catwoman in this episode was not acknowledged, as I recall.
- The appearance of a cassowary in Penguin’s story from “Almost Got ‘Im” is one of several instances of Paul Dini’s interest in zoology popping up in his scripts.
- Not only does Batman play Killer Croc as slow-witted, but Joker also treats him that way during their game (advising Penguin to only use small words). However, Croc was established as a crime boss in his earliest appearances in the comics, and in his animated debut, was a successful mob hitman who successfully framed Harvey Bullock. So…is Croc dumb or isn’t he?
Approved By Broadcast Standards & Practices
In the audio commentary for “Almost Got ‘Im” Paul Dini reveals that Poison Ivy’s story was originally set on Christmas, with her setting Christmas trees ablaze as a protest of their treatment during the holiday season. The censors had issues with burning Christmas trees, so the setting was changed to Halloween.
Over the Kiddies’ Heads
The Pussy Kins Cat Food factory is a reference to the Looney Tunes short, “Claws in the Lease.” Actually, a kid of the ‘90s was probably familiar with old Looney Tunes shorts, but I doubt today’s youngsters would catch the reference.
Battle of the Vignettes
I think the Joker’s story might have to be disqualified, given that it’s longer than the other stories and its conclusion is actually a part of the main narrative of “Almost Got ‘Im.” Based on the remaining choices, I’d have to say Two-Face’s piece would be my personal favorite. Two-Face was always well represented in the show, and the action in this sequence (particularly Batman’s flight on the back of the giant coin) is beautifully animated. There’s also that hilarious “THUNK” sound, as the penny bounces on top of Two-Face’s goons.
That’s all for now. If you have any suggestions for future episodes that you’d like to see featured with the companion comic, let me know in the comments, or leave a message on Twitter. In the meantime, won't you consider setting aside a dollar or two to purchase the Clayburn Moore-sculpted Poison Ivy statue that was inspired by the episode?