I read yesterday that, presumably because of the success of Deadpool, a Batman cartoon movie will be R-rated. R stands for restricted. Again: that’s a Batman cartoon.
Now, I hate to sound stuffy and middle-aged but I don’t care how much reverence is shown to the brutal Killing Joke. If Batman were (however bizarre this sounds) purely a Mature Readers/Viewers property and if it were a film, or under the Gotham umbrella, I could see the justification. But it’s a cartoon and Batman cartoons have had a history of being part of children’s programming from the 1960s until as recently as 2008 (on the BBC website). Asda sells Batman fancy dress costumes for kids.
Edgy and “mature” themes appear in many iterations of Batman, however, even in the noir-ish, all-ages Batman Adventures series of the 90s. I recently bought a copy of Batman: Harley and Ivy The Deluxe Edition:
Here, there is a dissonant blend of cartoony hi-jinks and overtly adult imagery and dialogue. Introduced in the animated series of the early 90s that took its inspiration from the Tim Burton Batman, Harley was, perhaps an iteration of the Golden Age Green Lantern’s “loving enemy”, Molly Maynne. Harleen Quinzel’s indoctrination by and abusive relationship with the Joker was recounted in Mad Love. Of course, New 52 Harley ( shortly to appear in the PG-13 rated Suicide Squad) has become even more of a provocative, even transgressive character.
Poison Ivy, meanwhile, has always been portrayed as an alluring and sexually aggressive villain, even in her earliest and campiest incarnation, some fifty years ago. While a B-lister bat-villain, she was also characterised as the temptress in the infamous Batman and Robin.
This book opens with a 2004 miniseries, Harley and Ivy, which traces the pair’s quest for the Zombie Root. Their close relationship in comics always reminded me of Violet and Light(ning) Lass in the Legion: romantic but underplayed. I was surprised, therefore, by the cheesecake shower and underwear scenes in this series and the sequences that recall tentacle hentai. I suppose I personally find it difficult to picture people getting an erotic charge from cartoon characters.
Harley and Ivy also encounter their own distorted reflections: a couple of burly male aggressors named Slash and Burn, who are also implied to be gay ( through their proximity, an earring and a comment about “not liking girls”). The final installment is admittedly quite a clever parody of Hollywood superhero movies but the mixture of horror and humour ( and even environmental themes) is all overtly adult.
Even the 90s features which comprise the rest of the collection often strike a tone which seems very arch or even suggestive.
24 Hours is a silent vignette from 1994’s Batman Adventures Annual in which Harley tries-and fails- to go straight. The look is playful but the arc is pessimistic, even tragic.
“The Harley and the Ivy” is a seasonal screwball comedy from The 1995 Batman Adventures Holiday Special. That’s the comic that really rekindled my affection for Batgirl, since Babs’ costumed identity had been retired in such a brutal, ugly way in the aforementioned Killing Joke.
Here, Bruce Wayne is kidnapped by the pair and they go on a spending spree. It’s the most all-ages example of material in the book.
“Harley, Ivy and- Robin?” With a callback to a classic Infantino image, it’s nice to see a B&R tale ( from 1996). But the Robin-enslaved-by-Ivy trope leads to comments such as “cradle Robin” and ” There’s something about ’em when they’re this age” which seem rather creepy and inappropriate.
I had read “Oy to the World!” before, in the 1998 Batgirl Adventures Special. Babs and Harley team up to save Ivy from Kit Nozawa, a Yakuza assassin. Kitsune, (Japanese for “fox”) is well-suited as a Batgirl villain: her martial arts prowess is augmented with a hypnotic jewel a la the Legion’s Universo. There is a supposedly comic scene where Babs asks if Harley and Ivy are a couple, which again seems awkward and out of place.
I think it’s a positive thing that DC can portray two leading characters in a same- sex relationship. Challenging discrimination and promoting equality are admirable. But I can’t help feel there’s an unfortunate frisson because these characters are criminals– even murderers.
I think, if you look at Marvel’s b/w magazine range in the 70s, it was abundantly clear that those characters were intended for a teen to adult market. The visual cues were different from the colour comics. Of course, there were several exceptions- McGregor’s Killraven and Black Panther or Gerber’s Man-Thing all presented challenging-even shocking-images. I would question, however, if these characters were ever marketed to children in quite the way Spider-Man or Batman have always been.
I’ve written before about my imaginary b/w 70s Batman mag which would have been somewhat more harder-hitting than Detective Comics, say. but I always visualised something that clearly depicted it was less child- friendly. In this “deluxe edition”, the visual language of animation is blurring the lines.
As I’ve said before, DC once proudly proclaimed comics aren’t just for kids anymore. I sometimes feel that should now read : at all. As a business strategy, it makes no sense to pander to an ageing, shrinking audience.
However, here and on Some Fantastic Place in the next couple of weeks, I intend to redress the balance with reviews of comics and graphic novels with a broader appeal…
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