A Plant in The Audience

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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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…

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners

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3 comments on “A Plant in The Audience

  1. TC says:

    There is a story that some parents were angry at Fred MacMurray after they took their kids to see “The Apartment” (an adult-oriented movie having to do with business executives cheating on their wives). They assumed that the movie would be family-friendly, since MacMurray was by then known for Disney movies (The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor) and for the ultra-wholesome TV sitcom, My Three Sons. There is a similar problem when a character like Batman is co-starring with Scooby-Doo in cartoons while also appearing in grim ‘n’ gritty graphic novels. I shudder to think of some parent buying The Killing Joke or The Dark Knight Returns for a kid, thinking it will be like Batman:The Brave & the Bold on Cartoon Network, or like reruns of the 1966 TV series on MeTV.

    And it’s even worse, when sexual suggestiveness and other adult themes creep into the supposedly “all ages” editions like Batman:Gotham Adventures or whatever.

    I remember that Batman issue that introduced Poison Ivy, and I remember Julie Newmar as Catwoman on the TV show. Both were femmes fatales, and there was some inevitable sexual suggestiveness, but somehow it just doesn’t seem the same. Neither of them ever did more than kiss Batman, and, when I was seven, I might have even thought that’s how babies were made. A lot of the suggestiveness went over my head.

    Maybe I’m just getting to be a prude and a curmudgeon in my old age.

    • Dougie says:

      Hi, TC. I’m not convinced that it’s an age thing. I rather wish that a character like Nightwing or Batwoman was the vehicle for face-eating villains and child killers. Then Batman could have been retooled as an all-ages character. Like Dr. Who he could be accessible to the widest audience but still walk the line of Gothic horror.

  2. sean says:

    Dougie, I see plenty of discussion about Batman cartoons online, which seems odd to me too but, you know, each to their own. An R rating seems more about a cautious studio forestalling any problems with parents (who might quite reasonably assume a Batman cartoon is suitable for young kids) than anyone getting an “erotic charge” or anything.
    Can’t see why a differently formatted (allegedly) mature Batman comic precludes DC also putting out an all-ages book, so don’t really see a problem. Although I share your general sentiment…

    A disagreement – Killraven, Man-Thing et al were marketed in the same way as the superhero comics. Its clear that Gerber and McGregor were writing for an older audience, but not by editorial direction; all the US colour comics had the same code restrictions and were sold interchangeably back then.

    Enjoy reading the blog btw, even if I don’t have much to say (for a change!)

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