Bat-Mite Asks "Why So Serious?" on Batman: Brave and the Bold

I can't think of enough good things to say about Batman: Brave and the Bold. While it isn't on the scale of achievement as Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s animated version of the DC universe, it's a deeply sincere love letter to DC's Silver Age comics that simultaneously parodies and celebrates the colorful, campy and openly absurd story lines that defined this particular era of superhero comics. In fact, Brave and the Bold's ability to seamlessly reference other eras of DC comics while staying true to Silver Age logic is proof of just how well-written and drawn this show is, perhaps making it the smartest and wittiest superhero show on TV right now--smart enough to weave engrossing tales of superhero adventure by using narrative threads from all over DC's multi-decade history (no matter obscure), yet witty enough not to take itself too seriously and maintain a sense of both visual and narrative playfulness.

With that in mind, I've decided to do this post regarding the most recent Brave and the Bold episode, "Bat-Mite Presents: Batman's Strangest Cases!" If Batman: Brave and the Bold is bursting at the seams with both narrative and visual references to all sorts of characters and events throughout DC history (take the recent Superman episode, for example), then "Batman's Strangest Cases" is a tour-de-force of obscure Batman trivia and satirical jabs at cartoon story telling conventions during the 50s, 60s and 70s. Read on for a more detailed review of this half-hour of superheroic, animated history bliss.

As the episode's title suggests, "Batman's Strangest Cases" is hosted by the recurring character of Bat-Mite (gleefully voiced by Paul Reubens), an interdimensional, reality-bending imp who is also Batman's biggest fan. Bat-Mite was originally introduced into the Batman comics in 1959, and the character has since been uses to make both Batman comics and animated shows more kid-friendly. In contrast, Brave and the Bold rewrites Bat-Mite from being a juvenile character who is a fan of a superhero to being a clever parody of actual hyper-obsessive, trivia-educated superhero fans themselves.

"Batman's Strangest Cases" is very similar to the "Legends of the Dark Knight" episode on Timm and Dini's Batman: The Animated Series; however, where "Legends of the Dark Knight" looked at the more well-known versions of Batman done by Dick Sprang and Frank Miller (along with a brief potshot at Joel Schumacher's Batman movies), "Batman's Strangest Cases" features Bat-Mite hosting a retrospective looks at some of the much, much more obscure, off-the-wall portrayals of Batman, including:
  • An almost exact retelling of a Batman parody published in Mad Magazine during the 1950s;
  • An anime-inspired Batman story from Japan's line of Batman manga from the 1960s; and
  • A Hanna-Barbera Scooby-Doo/Batman story (guest starring Weird Al Yankovic as himself) that’s modeled after other Scooby-Doo crossover cartoons from the 1970s. (This story has a nod to the moral lesson shorts that were part of the Superfriends cartoon from the same era, a nod that also mentions the "Shark Repellent" joke from the 1966 Batman movie.)
As a true die-hard fan would do during any sort of marathon viewing of the franchise of his/her desire, Bat-Mite provides commentary regarding the quirks that were common to each era represented in the stories. For example, at the end of the Batman manga story, Bat-Mite slyly explains how Japanese cartoons are usually more violent than American cartoons and thus have to be carefully edited and redubbed to tone down the violence. Then again, some of Bat-Mite’s quips are not so much jokes about Batman and superheroes as they are jabs at DC's willingness to sell the rights of its characters for the production of cheap merchandise and weakly-scripted and poorly-drawn cartoons.

What really strikes a chord for me about the "Batman's Strangest Cases" episode (and Brave and the Bold as a whole) is that I grew up during late 70s and 80s. During that time, superhero stories outside of the comics were largely dominated by shallow, poorly produced cartoons such as Superfriends and a seemingly endless line of goofy superhero imitations of the campy Batman TV series from the 1960s. Thus, when superhero comics became darker, more nuanced in their style and content during the mid- to late-80s (and when their movie and cartoon adaptations later followed suit in the 90s), it was a breath of fresh air at the time for superhero fans.

Yet in spite of all that, Brave and the Bold is a long overdue reminder that what came before the "serious" era of comics was fresh and imaginative in its own right, and it deserves its own time to shine in the form of a sharply written and well-animated cartoon. Sure, "Batman's Strangest Cases" eagerly satirizes the shortcomings that were common in the superhero comics and cartoons during the eras with which I'm familiar, but it also appreciates and fully embraces the fantastic, whimsical nature of superhero stories.

That said, I can only wonder what a future version of a Brave and the Bold-type animated show will do with the modern era of serious, more violent superheroes. What will it do with current plots from the Batman comic books, such as the time-travelling Bruce Wayne who assumes the Batman mantle in each era in which he finds himself (including a caveman Batman and a pilgrim Batman, no less) and the Batman Inc. story lines? Or for that matter, how will it portray a character such as Stephanie Brown, the latest Batgirl? According to Wikipedia, her background consists of the following:
  • Before becoming Batgirl, she first assumed the identity of another costumed vigilante, The Spoiler. She then became the fourth Robin. Then she died.
  • Her dad was a criminal named "Cluemaster".
  • She was a romantic interest for Tim Drake, the third Robin.
  • She became pregnant by an ex-boyfriend (not Drake), gave birth, and then gave the baby up for adoption.
  • When she was a child, her babysitter attempted to rape her.
  • Before she "died", she was tortured by the Black Mask, a Batman villain. He used a power drill to torture her for hours, and DC even made a special "Power Drill Black Mask" action figure after the publication of this story(!).
  • While she was "dead", she was hiding in Africa under an alias "until an attack from a local witch-hunting tribe prompted her to return to crimefighting" (yes, that's exactly what it says on the profile).
  • Her immediate predecessor to the Batgirl mantle was Cassandra Cain, a mute super-ninja who was trained to be an assassin. 
Did I happen to mention that each of the above narrative twists happened before Stephanie Brown graduated from high school? (It kind of makes you wonder what kind of sick day excuses Stephanie turned in to her teachers, doesn’t it?)

As I mentioned before in my comparison between the movie Kick-Ass and the direct-to-DVD release Batman: Under the Red Hood, there's a very fine line between convoluted, flamboyant camp and convoluted, overwrought melodrama. They both ultimately end up in the area of the absurd, with camp eagerly wallowing in self-referential absurdity and melodrama becoming absurd and then keeps getting more absurd without even noticing (think daytime soap operas, for example). So I ask you comic book fans: Are the examples that I just mentioned genuine examples of serious superhero story telling, or are they headed towards inevitable campification in a future Brave and the Bold-like series? I suspect that Bat-Mite knows the answer, but he’s not talking.


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