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Reopening Batman: The Animated Series' 'Old Wounds'

Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's 93rd installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This week, we're revisiting some (notice I said some) of the stories that bridged the gap from Batman: The Animated Series to the New Adventures. (Including one moment from the comics tie-in many don't know about.) And if you have any suggestions for the future, I'd love to hear them. Just contact me on Twitter.

"Old Wounds" is the 18th episode of Batman: The Animated Series' follow-up, The New Batman Adventures. Originally airing on Oct. 3, 1998, it's impressive just how long the producers waited before telling this story. "Old Wounds" (from writer Rich Fogel and director Curt Geda) reveals the story of Dick Grayson's split with Batman, following a year of stories with Tim Drake as Robin. Also, the episode depicts how Barbara discovered their secret identities and joined the team. Not to mention Dick also discovering Barbara's role as Batgirl. And Joker's first encounter with Batgirl is here, as well. Plus, it's the episode that ends the estrangement between Bruce and Dick from the first year of New Adventures. Clearly, there's a lot going on here.

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Very likely, "Old Wounds" is the most plot-heavy episode of this run. And, to its credit, the story doesn't feel that way at all. Fogel's script moves at a steady pace, hitting the character beats it needs to hit, and then putting the cast where they need to be to move forward.

The episode opens with Nightwing and Robin running into each other while on patrol. Robin asks the question the audience has been asking for a year, "What happened between you and Batman?" Nightwing's story is a lengthy flashback, taking up most of the episode. It opens with Bruce missing Dick's college graduation, as he's pursuing the Joker's latest scheme.

Then, Bruce interrupts Dick's celebratory dinner with Barbara, bluntly telling him he needs Robin's help at an aerospace facility targeted by the Joker. The mission ends badly, with Batman ruthlessly interrogating one of the Joker's henchmen in front of the man's terrified family. Robin leaves in disgust.

This scene, taken on its own, is pretty risky. The comics had been going this route for at least a few years, but the animated series tended to present Batman in a more traditional light. (He's even rather chatty in the first season of TAS.) The grim avenger of the night with horrific people skills and a singular focus on stopping all crime -- that hasn't really been the animated Batman.

The New Batman Adventures

Fogel's script earns a pass for establishing that things were already getting strained between Batman and Robin (indicating there are other incidents we aren't privy to; perhaps ones that pushed Bruce to become even darker.) Plus, there's a redemptive moment at the end. But first, we have the origin of Batgirl joining the team.

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It begins with Dick barging into Barbara's apartment in the middle of the night, frustrated over the situation with Batman but unable to talk to her about it. This is one of the episode's better moments, and it's a shame there isn't more time to explore this dynamic. Dick's relationship with Bruce prevents him from sharing with Barbara the most important aspect of his life.

Meanwhile, Barbara has her own secret, her life as Batgirl, that she's also keeping from Dick. Yet, as Dick later discovers, there's no great reason for anyone to be keeping these secrets. Batman's already guessed Barbara's secret (not that he's telling Dick, as Bruce feels that's Barbara's responsibility.) And, when Barbara appears at Wayne Manor, upset over Dick's growing agitation, Bruce takes it upon himself to reveal Batman and Robin's secret identities.

So, with all of this established, the nasty confrontation between Bruce and Dick makes sense. Meanwhile, the Joker's using a radar jamming device to extort Gotham.

Batman invites Barbara come along as Batgirl to stop him, not fully appreciating just how much this will upset Robin. After Robin arrives, he discovers the decisions Bruce has made with little consideration for Robin's wishes.

Robin, already agitated, has discovered his girlfriend has been keeping a massive secret from him, and that his father figure has decided to reveal Dick's own secret without consulting him. A secret he likely didn't want to keep, but was doing so out of respect for Bruce. Plus, he's just witnessed Barbara risk her life against the Joker as Batgirl, acting as Batman's fill-in sidekick.

There's a bit with Dick proclaiming Bruce manipulates his young sidekicks to fulfill these roles that just feels wrong to me, but given Robin's current mental state, it almost works. It's not as if the story itself is presenting this as an argument. More like it's Dick's perspective at this moment. (Highly emotional and already feeling betrayed by those closest to him.)

So, given everything we've witnessed in the preceding twenty minutes, is it a huge shock when Robin punches Batman?

Others have disagreed, but I think the moment is earned. Maybe Dick's anger would feel more justified if Batgirl had been injured by the Joker on this case (not that I'm advocating a Killing Joke moment). But I think what Fogel has presented so far is enough of a case for Dick to separate from Batman. And if this had been a concurrent issue of the "official" Batman comics canon, the story likely would've ended there.

Thankfully, there's a coda that redeems Batman. One of the stolen wallets Nightwing and Robin have collected, as luck would have it, belongs to the thug Batman brutally interrogated years earlier. Nightwing and Robin personally return the wallet and meet Connor, who now works as a night watchman for Wayne Enterprises. Connor reveals his experience with Batman essentially scared him straight. And, thanks to Bruce Wayne, he has a second chance. Bruce even stops by to make small talk, and always makes a point of asking Connor about his son.

The episode ends with the Bat-signal appearing in the sky, and both Nightwing and Robin swinging off to join Batman. There doesn't have to be a drawn out, emotional conversation between Dick and Bruce. We know Dick forgives Batman by his actions, which is a great "show don't tell" moment from Fogel. And just like in real families, the potentially traumatic wounds between father and son are, well, swept under the rug and never spoken of again. Just think, we've covered all of this angst without even mentioning Barbara's crush on Batman and their inevitable romantic relationship.

Carrying on from the New Adventures, the second volume of Batman Adventures continues Barbara's story. The main story of #7 (December 2003) from writer Dan Slott and penciler Rick Burchett has Batgirl joining Batman on his mission to stop the False Face Society. She runs afoul of the Phantasm (a great confrontation we never got to see in the cartoon)...

..and soon imprisoned in an old school deathtrap. There's a nice, tense scene that has Bruce in his Matches Malone disguise, forced to prove his loyalty by drowning Batgirl.

Batgirl of course escapes, and Matches "proves" his loyalty to Black Mask by taking a bullet for him in the subsequent shootout.

But the more memorable story of the issue is the backup, "The First Time." Writer Ty Templeton and penciler Rick Burchett's story is explicitly set four years ago, before the dawn of New Adventures. The stark opening has Batman in a no-win situation involving two criminal brothers.

He's forced to trust Batgirl to carry the weight of one of the brothers, something she literally can't do. (Amazing layout here.)

But Batgirl's bravery and dexterity save both her and the purse snatcher.

In the end, Batman realizes he's been underestimating Batgirl. It's the moment he realizes she truly can join his team. But, as the narration makes clear, Batman's not ready to tell her this yet.

CONTINUITY NOTES

"Old Wounds" is the first and only time we see Robin's TAS outfit in the New Adventures style. It's not redesigned, just streamlined to fit the more angular look of the new series. Batman and Batgirl, however, are wearing their current New Adventures outfits in the flashback. Note also that Batman's wearing his New Adventures look in the "Mad Love" flashback, which has to take place before the first episode of the original Batman: The Animated Series. (Or at least its earliest days, as it features Harley's first team-up with the Joker.)

All of this creates the question of just what's going on with these costumes. It'd be great if the animated series followed the comics' habit of keeping the outfits straight in the flashbacks. Unfortunately, the show's producers seemed to be working under the premise of the characters always having these looks.

So, how do you explain the previous episodes? Merely creative license. Which also means Batman's horned ears, blue highlights, and heeled boots in Justice League isn't truly a new look. It's the same costume; the creators just chose to draw it differently.

HEY! DO I HIT YOUR KIDS?

"Old Wounds" has a lot riding on it. Not only must it "fill in the gap" between two shows, but the script has to convincingly sell the dissolution of Batman and Robin's relationship in less than twenty minutes. (And remember the duo rarely had any disagreements in the TAS days.) There's a tiny amount of cheating, with the brief reference to Batman and Robin already growing apart before the flashback begins. Still, the emotions feel real, and neither Batman or Robin are made unlikable by the end of the episode.

That's a feat modern comics (and, arguably, the later Bruce Timm canon) seems incapable of executing. It's okay for characters to have their own point of view and disagree. It's not okay for Batman to mistreat those closest to him; to continually manipulate "soldiers" for his "war."

"The First Time" isn't the kindest portrayal of Batman, but it feels consistent with the New Adventures character. He does care about those around him, but isn't in a place where he can open up to them. And filling in the gaps, presenting the moment Barbara went from borderline-nuisance to Batman to someone he can trust -- that' s a great use of the tie-in comics.

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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