Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's 94th installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This week, the animated debut of an enduring Batman supporting player. (One whose appearances in other media have taken quite a turn lately.) Then, a story from the tie-in comic highlighting this mystery character who will be revealed in a paragraph or two. The suspense! And if you have any suggestions for the future, I'd love to hear them. Just contact me on Twitter.
Debuting on Sept. 17, 1992, the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Appointment in Crime Alley" is from writer Gerry Conway and director Boyd Kirkland. Like many of the early episodes, it's a slow character piece focusing on organized/corporate crime instead of costumed foes. The plot has Batman returning to Crime Alley to honor the anniversary of his parents' deaths. The same night, ruthless businessman Roland Daggett is staging a gas-line explosion that'll wipe out the aging buildings he wants cleared for his mini-mall.
The evil developer who really wants his mini-mall is a plot device that showed up consistently in the 1990s. (I think there's a basic disconnect here between writers with idealized images of the past and the '90s kids who honestly did love the mall.) Really, from Warner Bros.' point of view, the guy's just opening up new venues to sell more Batman merchandise, so I don't know what their issue would be. Seriously, though, the plot makes Roland irredeemable because he's violating a city ordinance ... and, oh, yeah, doesn't care if any innocents die in the explosions.
Early in the episode, we meet Dr. Leslie Thompkins, who runs a free clinic near Crime Alley. She's expecting Batman, and doesn't know why he's late. The episode doesn't just blurt out who she is; there's a nice mystery surrounding her for much of the episode.
Batman's late because he keeps running into problems in the area: Daggett's goons chasing a family out of their home; a runaway trolley; an unstable citizen who's holding a Daggett employee hostage. When Batman does finally reach the clinic, he learns Leslie has been taken captive by two of Daggett's henchmen.
Batman locates Leslie, learns the neighborhood's historic hotel is another target, and soon stops the goons Nitro and Crocker. Because this is a TV show, we still have some explosions. But these are uninhabited buildings, while the still-populated hotel is saved. Daggett exits his speech just in time to gloat about what a nightmare Crime Alley is. Batman confronts him, but Leslie pulls Batman away. Daggett can't escape the law forever, she reminds him, and informs Batman that he has an appointment to keep.
The final scene is quintessential Batman. Two roses to commemorate the dead. A quiet moment between Batman and Leslie, one of the few people to know Bruce Wayne's secret. Leslie laments that good people used to live on this street. Batman assures her that "Good people still live in Crime Alley."
On paper, some of this sounds pretty cliché. And the prospect of Batman running around a neighborhood, stopping occasionally random disasters doesn't sound particularly exciting. There's a somber mood to the episode that helps to sell much of this, however.
Even in the midst of a predictable greedy-developer plot, you have scenes that stick with you. Batman quietly flipping through Leslie's scrapbook, reliving the degradation of this neighborhood, reading the news report of his parents' deaths, studying a photograph of Leslie comforting him as a child ... those moments define the show.
Looking back, the majority of Leslie's Batman appearances were mere cameos. (The only other episode to give her a decent role is the largely forgettable "Paging the Crime Doctor.") Still, she made enough of an impression this episode to cement her place in this canon. So, when creating a Batman Adventures arc as a celebration of this canon, it makes sense for Leslie to reappear.
Batman Adventures #8 (January 2004) comes from writer Dan Slott and penciler Rick Burchett. The main story "Masquerade" follows up the previous issue, which had Batman in his Matches Malone guise taking a bullet for his boss, Black Mask. With his buddy Eel (not yet Plastic Man) O'Brien, Matches goes to the only clinic open for a low-rent gunsel such as himself.
Leslie finally recognizes that Matches is Bruce, which is perfect comic book logic. She can't see his face behind the glasses and mustache, but the unique scars on Bruce's back immediately expose him. By the way, the backup story from Ty Templeton and Burchett provides an origin for the Matches disguise. We learn here that the real-life Matches was always a dead ringer for Bruce.
Back to the present, Alfred enters, searching for Bruce. Leslie immediately covers for Bruce Wayne's butler's sudden appearance in Crime Alley.
The bulk of the story is devoted to Black Mask's fall from grace. His mysterious benefactor has lost faith, declaring now that his role will be fulfilled by Phantasm. Black Mask becomes unglued, taking his two "loyal" soldiers Eel and Matches for an impromptu attack on Wayne Enterprises. Then, the romantic subplot involving Matches and the single mother Bruce has been helping out takes a dramatic turn...
...while Batman has another unproductive run-in with Phantasm. The big shock ending is the revelation that Phantasm's boss is none other than...the Red Hood?
But the most touching scenes in the comic belong to Leslie. Bruce arranges a surprise date between Alfred and Leslie after his confrontation with Phantasm. It's a sweet moment that cements Alfred and Leslie as Bruce's surrogate parents.
This episode marks Leslie Thompkins' first appearance in animation ... or any other medium, outside of comics. The story is loosely based on "There Is No Hope in Crime Alley" (Detective Comics #457, March 1976) by Dennis O'Neil and Dick Giordano. That comic is Leslie's debut, and follows a broadly similar story of Batman stopping random crimes on the night he returns to Crime Alley to visit the scene of his parents' deaths. (No greedy developers, though.)
Leslie has become one of the most important figures in the Batman's supporting cast. Which is a sure sign she's received some horrible portrayals over the years. We've learned she played a pivotal role in Bruce's childhood following his parents' deaths, which is nice. We've also had stories where she allowed one of Batman's child sidekicks to die on an operating table, in order to teach mean ol' Batman a lesson. Which is bad. (And later retconned.)
The oddest portrayal of Leslie just might be the final years of the FoX drama Gotham. There, Leslie is "Lee," the love interest of Jim Gordon. And because Gotham was mercilessly dumb/crazy, summing up her character arc would give anyone a migraine. She's played by Morena Baccarin, the same actress cast as Deadpool's girlfriend, so there's a Marvel/DC crossover for you.
Regarding the DC Animated version of the Red Hood: It's odd to see Phantasm refer to Hood as a "he," clearly ignorant of "his" identity. (Slott publicly revealed who this Red Hood was meant to be.) Apparently, Phantasm was out of the loop, as well.
HEY, I KNOW THAT VOICE
There are some frankly odd guest players in "Appointment In Crime Alley." Leslie is voiced by Diana Muldaur, who's played several roles on various Star Trek series. She also portrayed Rosalind Shays on L.A. Law, a character famous for her bizarre death scene. Ed Asner is another TV veteran who got into animation in the 1990s, voicing Roland Daggett, among other characters.
Daggett's two goons, Nitro and Crocker, have surprising voice actors. Nitro is voiced by David Lander, famous as Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley. Jeffrey Tambor, already a fairly well-known actor in 1992, voices the goonish Crocker (and, according to some databases, the SWAT officer with whom Batman has a brief conversation).
IT'S MY HOME
"Masquerade" continues what could be the greatest addition to the DCAU canon. (I've stated before this second volume of Adventures is severely overlooked.) Leslie fulfills her role perfectly. Not only as a nod to the devoted fans who remember her from the show, but as a thread between all aspects of Bruce's life. In her own way, she could be just as important as Alfred in humanizing Bruce.
"Appointment in Crime Alley," meanwhile, should always be remembered as the adaptation that brought O'Neil's classic to the mainstream. It's significant not only as Leslie's debut, but also as the story that popularized the idea of Batman revisiting the alley every year with two roses. That's firmly in the lore today.
But there's a problem with "Appointment in Crime Alley" -- assuming you think about it for too long. How can we accept a Crime Alley...while also buying Bruce Wayne as the philanthropist with virtually unlimited funds? The neighborhood formerly known as Park Row obviously does need help. And while Daggett is someone who doesn't care, and is going about things all wrong, the solution clearly isn't the status quo.
Why isn't Batman personally renovating Park Row? Why is Leslie relegated to this humble clinic, instead of given an opportunity to make a real difference?
It's the kind of thing you can't dwell on because it stands in the way of some storytelling basics. (Crime Alley's important to the world of Gotham as a kind of hell on Earth. Bruce Wayne helping out the average folks he comes across is important for making him likeable and compassionate, in his own way.) Still, using Daggett and a real estate scheme just draws attention to the other rich guy in the story, who's not bringing any lasting change to Crime Alley. But, hey, we forgive because the emotional themes outweigh the logical inconsistencies.
So that’s all for now. I'm always open for suggestions, and you can also check out my Kindle Worlds novels for free over at Smashwords.