It’s September 15, 1992, nine days after “On Leather Wings” aired, so check that article for the news and top song. In theaters, hackers-as-heroic-rebels film Sneakers tops the box office.
In Gotham, we have “Nothing to Fear,” written by Henry T. Gilroy and Sean Catherine Derek, and the first encounter (both in production and airing order) with the Scarecrow. Scarecrow is immediately very distinct from prior villains; although he shares with the Joker an essential sadism, he adds onto it a revenge motive that is actually fairly rare in Batman villains. Also unlike the Joker, he is given a civilian identity right from the start, as research psychiatrist Dr. Jonathon Crane. As a scientist turned to villainy, he therefore somewhat resembles Man-Bat, but lacks the victim aspect of that character; Crane is depicted as simply always having been a sadist who takes pleasure in frightening others, and the rejection by academia for which he seeks revenge is implied to be fully justified by his unethical experiments.
No, the character he most resembles is actually Batman himself, as noted in the episode by Alfred: a masked, vengeful warrior who uses his considerable intellect to wield the power of fear against his enemies. This kinship makes Crane’s self-description early in the episode quite interesting: “I am fear incarnate. I am the terror of Gotham. I am Scarecrow!”
This line is mirrored by a line of Batman’s own, one of the series’ most quoted, later in the episode, but perhaps more interesting is another character it recalls. Both the phrase “I am the terror” and the three-sentence structure closely resemble the catchphrase of Disney’s Darkwing Duck: “I am the terror that flaps in the night. I am the [strained, ridiculous, or bizarre metaphor]. I am Darkwing Duck!” Now, given the typically long lead time for television animation and the fact that Darkwing Duck (which we will discuss at greater length later on in this project) only started airing in September 1991, it’s possible but not hugely likely that the line is a deliberate reference. Regardless, however, the common structure makes it a point of contact between the two works in ideaspace, so let us briefly consider what light this connection might shed on Scarecrow and, therefore, his mirror-image Batman.
Darkwing Duck is often described as a Batman parody, and certainly there is some truth to that. However, his costume actually more closely resembles the Shadow, and his gas-gun recalls the (now almost entirely overshadowed by the largely unrelated Neil Gaiman character) Sandman. He can therefore be regarded as a parody of the entire “cape, mask, fedora” genre of crime-fighting vigilantes, of which Batman is probably the most successful and well-known instance. (Yes, he has a cowl not a fedora, but then again the Question has a coat instead of a cape, and he is if anything an even more traditional example than Batman is.) Generally speaking, this genre involves a vigilante who, gifted with some kind of unusual power, skill, or device, takes up a shadowy and extralegal war against criminals or subversives who disrupt the well-being and orderly operation of society but for whatever reason are out of reach of the normal authorities.
Scarecrow actually fits fairly well into the genre himself. He has the mask, and while his hat isn’t quite a fedora, it is quite distinctive and broad-brimmed. More importantly, at least in this episode his primary target is academia, which at its best (which it rarely is) serves as a subversive element that disrupts the orderly operation of society, and in a free society at least is generally out of the reach of the authorities. Even taking a more positive view of the vigilante, that they fight injustices which the authorities can’t or won’t, he still fits: according to him, his expulsion is an injustice.
However, he is most certainly not treated as a hero by the narrative, and understandably so, as he is essentially a sadist throwing a tantrum because his favorite toy was taken from him. This then forces us to look at the differences between him and Batman, and this episode does an excellent job of conveying one of the most important: guilt and self-doubt.
This episode is largely remembered for Batman’s version of Scarecrow’s/Darkwing Duck’s line: “I am vengeance. I am the night. I am Batman!” But the line is frequently misunderstood as an accurate depiction of Batman, probably because of the utter conviction and power with which Batman’s voice actor, Kevin Conroy, delivers it. And it is most likely what Batman believes. However, neither the Darkwing Duck line nor Scarecrow’s version of it are to be taken at face value. Darkwing Duck is actually a self-important, bumbling egotist whose victories are mostly attributable to a combination of the kind of indestructible tenacity only a recurring victim of cartoon slapstick can possess and the sheer narrative force of being the title character, while Scarecrow is actually a weaselly little man who can only scare people by dosing them with hallucinogens.
Batman’s line is not quite as straightforwardly false as theirs. The first sentence is: he’s not very good at vengeance, seeing as literally none of his villains have any connection to the event he is ostensibly seeking vengeance for, the death of his parents. Instead, what this episode shows is that he is driven not by vengeful rage, but by fear and guilt, specifically the fear that he is not living up to the example set by his successful, well-loved father. Part of this guilt doubtless comes from his Bruce Wayne persona, which this episode shows is viewed as vapid, wasteful, and disgraceful. But Batman’s fear toxin-induced visions of rejection by the judgmental specter of Thomas Wayne imply another source of guilt, namely survivor guilt. It is an understandable feeling: why is he alive? He witnessed his parents’ murder; why didn’t the killer eliminate him? Most likely, given the circumstances, it was either a panicked oversight or an unwillingness to kill a child, but a young Bruce Wayne surely must have wondered if it was perhaps because he wasn’t worth killing. One can imagine him striving to prove his worth, trying to earn his life, because only by making sense of his survival can he ever hope to make sense of his parents’ death. (The DCAU movie Mask of the Phantasm would eventually move this from subtext to, more or less, text, but more on that when we get to it.)
Batman, you see, is not the night, not in the sense of being the darkness between dusk and dawn, a time of fear and the unknown. He is The Night, that one specific night when an eleven-year-old boy went to see the Gray Ghost movie with his parents. He is driven by the pain of that night, the fear and the guilt of it, which casts new light on his choice to wear a disguise (and keep in mind that Superman the Animated Series would eventually imply that Batman is the first costumed superhero in his world). Because of course only an eleven-year-old would think that dressing up like a bat and punching psychopaths is the best way for a billionaire to address social ills and promote justice; it is the logic of a child–and like a child, he thinks that by putting on a mask and pretending to be someone else he can hide from his guilt and fear and pain.
Batman is still that boy, frozen in that moment of trauma, desperate for parental validation that he will never receive. Which is in turn interesting, because as the first, he is the prototype for all future superheroes in the DCAU. And, as we will see as we continue to explore this ideaspace, the superheroes of the DCAU–and, arguably, in general–are as much or more perpetual trauma victims as they are power fantasies.