Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's ninety-first installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This week, an episode from the "New Adventures" era of Batman: The Animated Series that is, frankly, not a classic. Then, a follow-up from an unjustly overlooked corner of the canon. And if you have any suggestions for the future, feel free to share them. Just contact me on Twitter.
Debuting on June 13, 1998, "Torch Song" comes from Rich Fogel (writer of what feels like dozens of episodes of DCAU shows in this era) and director Curt Geda. The episode marks the first appearance of Firefly, a villain the FOX network banned from the original run of the show. Why? No fire villains. They're too scary for kids, said the censors. (Or just too easy for kids to imitate.) Now, how Pyro slipped by on X-Men, which tended to suffer more scrutiny from the censors than Batman...well, that's a mystery for the ages. Heck, Pyro was even a villain on the clearly made-for-kids Pryde of X-Men pilot back in the '80s.
New network The WB! didn't share many of the censor concerns of FOX. Even though they wanted a faster-moving, more action-oriented version of Batman with brighter colors, the network had looser restrictions on violence and scary images. Hence, the producers were free to express their true creative vision and gift the world with the story unjustly denied them. And it turns out to be pretty dull.
"Torch Song" opens with Bruce Wayne's latest fling dragging him to a show from pop star Cassidy. We're only thirty seconds into the episode, and already forced to endure a contrived setup to get Batman close to the action. Realistically, wouldn't Bruce's answer be a simple "no" when some girl he won't remember by next week pesters him into attending a concert?
There's a tease that maybe something interesting this episode might occur between Batman and Batgirl, as Barbara Gordon is also there. Later, there's even a scene that has Bruce asking Barbara her plans for the night. Yes, clearly he's inviting her to play superhero with him that evening, but it's also an allusion to him asking her out on a date. Barbara's response is to reference Pinky and the Brain. That's about as deep as the episode gets.
Shortly before Cassidy goes onstage, she firmly dumps Garfield Lynns, her pyrotechnics expert. He grows increasingly upset during her performance, cranking up the pyro and setting the venue on fire. There's an obvious bit that could be done with Bruce abandoning his date to rescue Cassidy as Batman. But, to the creators' credit, he instead shows faith in Barbara and allows her to pull off the rescue as Batgirl.
(Barbara arrives to the concert alone, so it's easier for her to slip away. And, you'd think having Barbara show up at concerts alone -- which is darn sad -- would be another clue the episode's implying something about her relationship with Bruce. But the story doesn't even seem to be trying to hint at anything deeper than what we see.)
From there, Lynns is officially unhinged. He adopts the supervillain persona Firefly, develops a flame-proof body armor and state-of-the art jetpack, and declares he'll watch Gotham burn. Also, he's still hung up on Cassidy, so he's a stalker on top of being a pyromaniac.
Virtually every beat of the story is predictable, with one exception. After his first encounter with Firefly, Alfred suggests Batman don a new heat-resistant suit before heading into the big finale. So, this marks one of the very few times a Batman episode has him adopting a new look for plot purposes.
And the Fireproof Batsuit is pretty cool. It's amazing this is one of the very few alternate Batsuits of the era. The Kenner line of '90s Batman toys released dozens of alternate Batsuits, seemingly with each wave of figures. It's easy to imagine the executives forcing the show to work those dorky suits in, but thankfully this never happened. The new Fireproof Batman seems like he'd be a perfect fit for Kenner (and a superior design, compared to the other alternate suits.) Looking online, it seems as if it's only recently become a toy, however.
Now, to be fair, this is also an attempt at the episode's conclusion to avoid an easy, pat ending. After Firefly's apprehended, Cassidy is having dinner with her agent. He informs her Firefly's kidnapping and arson spree has made her even more famous. He suggests publicizing this with a fire-themed tour, as a flambe dessert is ignited at their table. Cassidy recoils in horror, as the camera pushes closer and the screen goes to black.
This is reminiscent of the ending of the Riddler's origin story, which ends with the executive who cheated him now too terrified to sleep at night. Or the bratty teen in "The Terrible Trio" facing the reality of prison at the story's end, or the corrupt cop's gas chamber realization in the closing seconds of Superman's "The Late Mr. Kent." Those characters pretty much deserve those endings, however. Cassidy is largely innocent. True, there's some effort to play her as shallow and self-absorbed. But she doesn't come across as truly hateable. Honestly, the episode's so inoffensive leading up to this moment, the shift at the end just comes across as mean-spirited.
Firefly would later appear in the Justice League series as a member of a villain collective or two. His clear psychological issues from his debut seem to have been forgotten, with creators apparently viewing him as a flunky and little else. November 2003's Batman Adventures #6 isn't much different. But it's a far more satisfying story than Firefly's debut.
Featuring a plot from Dan Slott and art from Rick Burchett and Terry Beatty, "Playing with Matches" folds the almost-forgotten Firefly into the book's ongoing arc perfectly.
The current arc has Batman going undercover as Matches Malone to infiltrate Black Mask's False Face Society. The hapless hood that's buddied up with Matches is Eel O'Brian, the character we know is destined to become Plastic Man. (This run is packed with these nods to continuity, but they never get in the way of the story.)
Black Mask's latest hire is Firefly, who we meet burning down a club owned by Boxy Bennett. This could've been any random character, but it's another nod to the hardcore fans who remember Boxy from the cartoon.
When Matches realizes one of Boxy's employees is still inside, he pressures Eel into helping him rescue her. We're then treated to the cameo appearance I know everyone was hungering for, Leslie Thompkins.
And hold on to your seats, friends, as Lucius Fox (miscolored a shade of mayonnaise) also appears, agreeing to Bruce Wayne's request to find the lady a job. Seriously, there is another cameo this issue that is worth noting. Andrea Beaumont (either with a new hairstyle or just more off-model coloring) is waiting for Bruce when he returns home.
He refuses to see Andrea, declaring he can't forgive a murderer. Bruce isn't given time to reflect on his lost love, as he dons the anti-fire suit once again to face down Firefly.
Or does he?
Hey, another Batgirl appearance. There's even a bit this issue that has her making a pop culture quip Bruce doesn't get, just like in "Torch Song." (It's Friends this time.) What stands out today, however, is Batman's acidic response to Batgirl daring to order him around. Yeesh. Aren't the two of them supposed to be falling in a forbidden love right around now?
Meanwhile, more mysteries as we learn Black Mask is serving an unseen employer (with Andrea/Phantasm secretly watching)...
...and the nice lady who was working for a mobster reappears to thank Matches for finding her a new job. At Wayne Enterprises. There's a joke in the issue about what a silly disguise this is, but at a certain point our noses are just being rubbed in it.
THE WRAP -UP
The animators seem to enjoy the background model they based on Spider-Man's gal, Mary Jane. She appears at Cassidy's club opening this episode, and will later pop up in “Beware The Creeper.”
HEY, I KNOW THAT VOICE
Mark Rolston, perhaps best known as Agent Dan Erickson in the Saw series, voices Firefly. Cassidy is voiced by Karla DeVito, who had a fairly successful singing career in the 1980s. (She performed with Meatloaf and even had a song on The Breakfast Club soundtrack.) Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go's is also here, voicing Bruce's date Shannon.
APPROVED BY BROADCAST STANDARDS & PRACTICES
Plenty of fire and explosions to hypothetically make the old censors at FOX nervous. And it's surprising just how short the censors allowed Cassidy's outfits to be.
"AS COLD AS A BURNT-OUT FUSE!"
Does "Playing with Matches" expand on Firefly's character in a way his animated debut does not? Nope. But it's vastly more entertaining. Why? Because it takes advantage of the existing canon, pulling from the past while building something new for the characters. It's not a done-in-one or a forgettable filler story. It's a part of a puzzle, while providing enough fan-pleasing moments to make the issue entertaining in its own right.
"Torch Song" does none of these things. Which would be fine, if Firefly had a more compelling origin. But there's nothing here to make him sympathetic. Nor is he really that creepy -- sure, there's plenty of material here to hint at just how disturbed Garfield is, but it's never dramatized effectively.
I'd be curious to see how Firefly would've been handled during the FOX days, if the network ever approved his appearance. FOX might've been skittish about fire, but never shied away from psychological drama. The later emphasis on action and spectacle hampered the creators' ability to give many of the villains' real depth. And of them all, Firefly perhaps suffers the most because of this.
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.