A Very DC Christmas!

Starting off some Christmas cartoon reviews with a trip to the DC Animated Universe.

Christmas with the Joker

This episode is exceptionally weird in retrospect. It’s the second episode of the animated series and the debut of the Joker, played by Mark Hamill, and Robin, as well as featuring Clive Revill in a rare, early appearance as Alfred Pennyworth before he was replaced by Efrem Zimbalist Jr. It aired on November 13th, 1992, not even the same month as Christmas, and it seems strange that they’d go for a Christmas special-inspired episode so early in the run.

The episode kicks off with Joker making a pretty unimpeded escape from Arkham Asylum aboard a Christmas tree rocket. He wears something of a safety helmet with a modified decoration on top of his head. Nobody seems to have cottoned onto him building a rocket and nobody stops him either, unless the anonymous loons have tied them up somewhere. He crashes through a skylight, which makes no difference to his trajectory, and just disappears off screen, heading for Gotham City. No idea how he landed, but I imagine it involved a crash. Just seems like an Animaniacs skit doing Batman at this point.

The actual animation matches that too, very cartoony at this point. Batman and Robin are on patrol, and the only sign of almost danger is a guy running after an old lady, seemingly to mug her, but actually to give her back a present she dropped. She gives him a kiss with stretched-out lips that leave a red mark on his cheek and he immediately goes red. I almost expected eyes popping out too.

Real danger kicks in when Dick, who’s trying to get Bruce to watch It’s a Wonderful Life (Bruce can’t get past the title), sees that Joker has taken over the airwaves with a holiday special, including his captives the Awful Lawful family (Jim Gordon, Harvey Bullock and reporter Summer Glesson). They’ll be killed by midnight unless Batman can find them, but distractions are in place like stopping a train from plunging off a bombed bridge (the engineer is saved, but are we to assume that the one carriage behind him that goes over was empty?) and disabling a cannon on top of the Gotham City Observatory. These two schemes do require the city to be very close to the countryside AND have a mountain right by it that I don’t believe were ever seen again.

A giveaway is provided that allows Batman to locate Joker at the Laffco toy factory, although you’d think it was leading to a giant Betty (Boo) Blooper doll to go on a rampage downtown the way the scene is set up. Instead, Batman and Robin battle giant toy soldiers while Joker plays the Nutcracker Suite in the background, which is probably the high point of the episode. Then it gets a bit Home Alone as it switches to the Russian Dance, before Joker reveals he’s got the Awful Lawfuls suspended over a vat of hot, bubbling liquid. He cuts the rope with massive scissors, inspiring Batman to jump up and tackle them all in one go, which when you consider the size of Bullock is impressive.

A chase then ensues, with a conveniently-misplaced roller skate causing Joker to almost take a tumble, leading to his capture. He spends Christmas Eve back at Arkham in his cell singing carols while Bruce relents and watches the movie with Dick and allows himself to enjoy it.

As I said, weird episode. Those who know will know that Tim Curry was originally cast as the Joker, but Mark Hamill took the role after a stellar turn and campaign as callous boss Ferris Boyle in the classic Heart of Ice, so anything that was recorded already he redid. Joker became the classic villain of the show, but it feels way too early in the show to be doing an episode like this, and they struggled to get him right for a few episodes. It’s not until Joker’s Favor, coincidentally featuring the debut of Harley Quinn, that they get the malicious menace of him right. You need a Joker’s Favor and The Laughing Fish and Almost Got ‘Im before you try this. If they’d tried it a year later, with Harley and an assortment of his gang members and pets in place (hyenas Bud and Lou “watering” the tree, that kind of thing) it would be a lot better. As is, it’s highly memorable, but a symbol of a show that hasn’t quite found footing yet.

Holiday Knights

A comic first, adapted for the show to kick off the new look New Batman Adventures in 1997, with all the voices and characters firmly established and part of animation lore. Strangely, it was still debuted in September rather than given a place in December. Seeing as the episode premieres were so sporadic at the end of this year it doesn’t feel like they couldn’t have held it back, and Sins of the Father, the debut of Tim Drake as the new Robin, could’ve run up front as there is at least the emotional kicker of Drake’s father having met his end at the hands of Two-Face.

A good pace to the show, as it’s a series of vignettes. First up, on December 22nd, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy are holed up in a sleazy dive while living on the lam. They kidnap Bruce Wayne, who’s now in black power suit with ice blue eyes, out of his shabby but character-filled yellow and brown deal, and go on a shopping spree using his credit card. His fury through clenched teeth is quite funny while the girls have a fashion show, although it would appear he only signs his first name on cheques, like he’s Madonna or something. Preparing to give him another kiss with hypnotic lipstick leads to him tumbling down an elevator shaft (“Oh well, we’ve got his credit card!”) before he gets back into his Batman outfit (now sans yellow chest emblem for basic grey and black) and stops them. I love this part mostly for the dazzling array of colours and creepy lighting in the toy shop battle at the end, with Harley cutting as creepy a silhouette as Joker can with dazzling teeth on show.

Next, on Christmas Eve, Bullock and Renee Montoya are undercover as Santa and his elf to investigate thefts in a department store. Bullock is brilliant as a curmudgeonly slob Santa, somewhere between early Homer Simpson and Barney Gumble. Occupational hazards include meeting the children of criminals he’s sent to jail as well as ones that have endless Christmas lists (“… and a bag of marbles and a football and a monster and a comic book and a speedboat…). Barbara Gordon is also shopping for presents at the time and finds that child thieves in the store are all segments of a newly reformed Clayface, last seen dissolving in the episode Mudslide. Benefit of a villain like him is he can be literally kicked in the head, with Batgirl’s foot getting stuck in his cheek as he recoils. He’s quickly taken down outdoors with electricity and ice. Great animation on him being electrified.

We then switch to the end of the year, with Joker making a new resolution – to not kill anyone for twelve months… so he’s going to make up the difference on December 31st. His plan – release a sonic bomb at Gotham Square when the bell rings. The new, black-eyed Joker was a controversial switch (the red eyes were reinstated by the time we got to Justice League), but I much prefer that look with the sharp facial angles, like a Guy Fawkes mask, than the rounded features and raccoon eyes. Pretty accelerated plot, but it works just fine, doesn’t outstay the welcome. No idea how he managed to get everyone to wear masks in his likeness, although “at gunpoint” sounds a fair reason.

In the early hours, at 1:55am specifically, Commissioner Gordon turns into a tavern run by a Paul Dini lookalike for a cup of coffee. Batman shows up to join him. He necks it, leaves the money for the drinks, then swings off into the night. It’s a great little scene that feels more emotional than it’s played for, which makes it better. A fitting conclusion to an awesome episode.

Comfort and Joy

Final one for now, from Justice League. The only one-off episode from the run (JL episodes normally ran two or sometimes three parts), and they actually scheduled it for a showing in the right month (December 13th, 2003). Batman and Wonder Woman are on Watchtower security duty over Christmas (possibly having fun together, but not confirmed) while the rest get some R&R time. Green Lantern and Hawkgirl go off to do their own thing, Superman takes Martian Manhunter back to Smallville to spend time with Ma and Pa, and the Flash plays Santa in Central City.

GL, normally a strait-laced marine, gets to be a kid to Shayera’s bemusement. Clark has the challenge of showing J’onn the true meaning of Christmas. Flash has probably the biggest challenge, finding a sold out toy called DJ Rubber Ducky, a farting, anthropomorphic rapper for some orphans (“Grodd was never this much trouble!”). He goes to the manufacturers for the last one, but a battle with Ultra-Humanite sees it destroyed. Humanite makes amends by fixing it, but with his own modifications (it now reads The Nutcracker in Ian Buchanan’s cultured tones).

Something about this episode leaves me a bit empty. It tries to do too much in one go. The John and Shayera Christmas alien brawl feels forced (but gives us their expected first kiss) and J’onn’s revelation doesn’t work as well as it should because he’d always seemed someone who would be open to accepting new ideas, not closed. His wailing song seems weird rather than heartfelt. It’s not like Batman singing “Am I Blue?”.

I would’ve preferred that they’d taken the Flash story and extended that, maybe have him run into a few of his Rogues as he did. Surely there’d be room for Captain Cold to provide the snow while Heatwave tries to melt it down. So, it’s an OK but not classic episode. At least they tried.

The Bottom Line: Holiday Knights is an awesome episode and I’m already heading off to read my copy of the original print issue.