Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's sixty-fifth installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This week, we're covering one of the more controversial episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. Then, an issue of the tie-in comic with a familiar concept.
So, a few weeks back, we reviewed "I've Got Batman in my Basement." Many view this as the weakest episode of Batman. And series co-creator Bruce Timm doesn't disagree; he's stated his dislike of the episode publicly. There was some reaction against this, with fans citing another episode as far worse. It debuted on October 21, 1992, with Tom Ruegger, Jules Dennis & Richard Mueller receiving story credit. And, hey, it's all about Batman and the kids, too.
"The Underdwellers," featuring direction from Frank Paur, is one of the earliest episodes of the series. (Although it seems as if FOX delayed its debut by several weeks.) Sean Catherine Derek has a story editor credit, which means it's a script written in the very beginning, during an internal struggle over the direction of the series. Derek and others viewed Batman as fairly standard children's entertainment. Positive messages for kids, no real danger for anyone involved. Bruce Timm was pushing for a more faithful translation of what the comics had become. The "darker" Knight, with deeper stories not specifically tailored for children.
So, what do we make of an episode that opens with the public, including Batman, entertaining thoughts of a "leprechaun" stealing purses in Gotham? Actually, before we even get there, there's an opening that has Batman saving two delinquent kids from playing chicken atop a train. He gives them a brief scolding before slipping away. It's the first of three Bat-lectures this episode.
Now, for anyone old enough to remember the days of the actual G. I. Joe PSAs, this feels familiar. Not nearly as cheesy, but the intent is clearly the same. Batman's the adult, so you kids better listen to him. So, no cheating death with above ground trains in motion, because that's what all the kids were into in 1992.
There is some story justification for this opening sequence, as we'll soon learn. And the animation, from Japan's Studio Junio, has a stylish anime flair to it. (They clearly had fun playing around with the lighting effects here.) The next sequence has Batman swooping in too late to stop a child in a green cloak from stealing a woman's purse. She's convinced it's a "leprechaun," and while Batman thinks this is crazy, he doesn't totally discount the idea. His conversation with Alfred, who dryly plays along (and suggests Batman take a vacation), is perhaps the best moment from the episode.
Actually, Alfred probably has the best showing of anyone. Batman investigates further, discovering this "leprechaun" is a thief living in the sewers. The kid, named "Frog" by his captor, is taken to the Batcave and entrusted in Alfred's care. And it would seem as if this kid was abducted when still a toddler, given his inability to ever stop stealing. An exasperated Alfred attempting to socialize the little monster is silly, but also funny. The animation is fluid enough to aid the comedic timing, rather than hinder it.
The sequence also brings us our second Bat-lecture, when Frog comes across Bruce Wayne's antique gun collection. Now, given just how virulently anti-gun Batman's been portrayed since the 1970s, it's highly debatable if he'd ever maintain even an antique collection of rifles. Even if he did, stopping the story just to remind kids they shouldn't play with guns doesn't do the narrative any favors.
Between Frog's hijinxs, Batman is continuing his investigation of The Underdwellers. He stumbles across their leader, the Sewer King, a refugee from another time period, it seems. Or another reality.
He speaks like a Victorian-era villain, leading this underground kingdom of pickpocket children. They act as his slaves, sewing clothes, mining coal, and harvesting crops. (And they're doing this in the sewers, mind you.) Where he does he find these children? What is he doing with the money? Charitably, he can be viewed as an homage to Oliver Twist’s Fagin. In the context of this world, though, he feels far too ridiculous.
Batman fights off Sewer King's alligator guards, then pursues him into the subway. He has an opportunity to allow the train to run over the King, but opts to save his life. And, in Bat-lecture #3, explains that the courts must mete out justice. But he was sorely tempted to let that train kill this creep. The dialogue is overwritten, but serves as a dramatic way to close out such a goofy episode. Kevin Conroy deserves credit, as always, for delivering this material so well.
A decent number of the early Batman episodes went out of their way to work kids into the story. Not so much in the tie-ins. Yet, there is September 2002's Gotham Adventures #52.