Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's seventy-seventh installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This week, we're returning to Batman: The Animated Series. In fact, we're beginning what I hope to be a multi-part series, shining a light on an underrated piece of that canon. I was planning on starting that series with this episode, which was also suggested to me by Gravity Falls Poland on Twitter.
Debuting on May 16, 1994 is "Trial," an episode written by the classic team of Paul Dini & Bruce Timm, and directed by Dan Riba. "Trial" has two things going for it. It's the episode everyone remembers for featuring all of the major Bat-villains, staging a show trial for Batman. "Trial" is also the episode that began life as the animated Batman film.
Reportedly, the expanded version of the story would've featured detailed flashbacks to each villain's origin. Through their retellings, the viewer would understand why Batman is "to blame" for their life of crime. Ultimately, the producers went in a different direction. For one thing, these origins had already been told in the animated series. Sure, it'd be nice to see the stories animated with the increased film budget. But why use your movie to recycle old ideas? It's also been reported producer Alan Burnett felt the plot lacked the emotional depth necessary for a film.
Burnett pitched the idea that eventually led to Mask of the Phantasm. You're not likely to find a living Batman fan who doesn't hold that movie in high esteem. So, it looks as if everything worked out in the end.
The tightly-plotted episode establishes its premise within a few minutes. DA Janet Van Dorn is frustrated that so many of Batman's foes are sentenced to rehabilitation instead of prison. (Being apprehended by a vigilante instead of the police apparently tying the court's hands.) She declares Batman "a drug" the police keep taking to avoid dealing with the real issue.
Janet's premise is one often repeated since the days of the more "adult" '80s comics. The garish supervillains wouldn't exist without a man in a bat costume inspiring them. And, really, is this guy in a cape any more sane than the loon dressed like a scarecrow?
Dini and Timm cut through this cynical reading of the concept rather quickly. Both Batman and Janet are kidnapped, and the Arkham inmates declare Janet must defend Batman in their own kangaroo court. Janet's now forced to present a view she doesn't believe -- to prove Batman isn't responsible for escalating Gotham's madness.
Her cross-examinations quickly expose the villains for what they are. Poison Ivy is filled with murderous rage over the plucking of a flower. Mad Hatter declares he would've killed his crush Alice rather than respect her wishes. (A brutal reading of the Hatter's rather sympathetic origin episode. Which was also written by Dini.)
The climax of the episode has the Arkham jury reaching a surprise verdict. Not guilty. But they're going to kill him anyway. Showing rather remarkable (and, to be honest, implausible) restraint, the villains wait until now to unmask Batman. It's Janet who acts as the hero, using the batarang she's palmed to knock out the lights. Batman, who's apparently waited until the most dramatic moment possible, slips free of his straightjacket.
Are Batman's foes any threat against him in the dark? Of course not. And just as many are taken out by their fellow inmates as Batman. Order is restored in Arkham, and Janet acknowledges there is a place for Batman in Gotham.
"Trial" is a fan-favorite episode. With good reason. But there's another tale of the animated Batman facing the assembled villains of Arkham. Unfortunately, many Batman: The Animated Series fans aren't aware of it. (Recently, the Watchtower Database channel devoted a video to this great series.)
"No Asylum" is the debut issue of the second Batman Adventures volume. Ty Templeton returned as writer (alternating issues with Dan Slott), along with Rick Burchett, one of the finest artists to work in the "animated" style. Bruce Timm provided the first issue's cover.
The premise of this Adventures volume was actually a stretch for the series. The Adventures book built a reputation for solid, one-issue stories anyone could read, unencumbered from any continuity. This volume is all about continuity! Not the obsessive, exclusionary kind. But the brand of continuity that made superhero comics a unique storytelling platform. Stories that build with each issue, individual chapters that add up over time, creating a new mythology.
"No Asylum" serves as a mission statement that this is not the Adventures of old. The opening page introduces us to the Penguin as Gotham's mayor, smashing the Bat-signal and ordering Commissioner Gordon around.