It’s September 6, 1992. Boyz II Men are in the middle of a record-breaking thirteen weeks at the top of the Billboard charts, though of course nobody knows that yet, it still being the middle. The top movie this week is Honeymoon in Vegas. Major news stories this month include the arrest of Shen Tong by Chinese officials for his role in the Tiananmen Square protests three years prior, and the first African-American woman in space, Mae Jamison aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor.
And, of course, the airing of the pilot, but not premiere, episode of Batman: The Animated Series, “On Leather Wings.” Some brief explanation may be in order regarding the difference between the two. In simplest terms, a premiere is the first episode of a show broadcast to general audiences with the understanding that this is a new show. The function of a premiere, therefore, is to introduce audiences to a show.
That is not “On Leather Wings.” Even though, as the first episode in the DVD set and on streaming sites, it is usually the first episode a new viewers is likely to encounter now, it was the second episode in the original broadcast–probably a good choice, as it is almost aggressively non-introductory for audiences. There is no origin story here, no exploration of why Bruce Wayne dresses up like a bat, investigates crime scenes, or punches Jekyll-and-Hyde gargoyles. The city officials, particularly police detective Harvey Bullock, know he exists and are hostile toward him, and their conversations with one another are straightforward discussions of task assignments and tactics, with no reference to past encounters.
The former is, perhaps, explicable by Batman’s status as a cultural icon. Between the campy, perennially syndicated Batman television show and the two rather darker Tim Burton movies–the latter of which was still hanging on in theaters when this episode aired, three months after its debut–it seems unlikely that very many members of the audience didn’t know who Batman was or where he came from. The hostility of the police is a more interesting choice, however. Both the Adam West TV series and the Tim Burton films had the police, or at least Commissioner Gordon, as allies to Batman, in order to use the iconic image of the Bat-Signal silhouetted against the sky. Batman is thus depicted as an ally of the established authority, existing outside it but ultimately doing its work. Here, however, Batman is depicted as a rebel, which implicitly allies the police with the criminals he hunts.
That Harvey Dent–who will transform into the villainous Two-Face by season’s end–appears in the discussion of strategy with the police and mayor, with shots lingering on his coin-flipping and his face half-lit by lightning, further emphasizes this alliance. It is less pronounced in BTAS than later, but from the start, for both better and worse, the DCAU is suspicious of established authority. Further, the deliberate foreshadowing of Two-Face is interesting because, unless they were familiar with the source comics, most viewers would have no idea who he was–he never appeared in the live-action TV series, and would not appear in the films until Batman Forever, still three years off.
No, this episode is not an introduction to the series for audiences. It’s a pilot, not a premiere; its function is as an introduction and sales pitch for network buyers. That’s why the animation (done by the short-lived Japanese studio Spectrum Animation Co., who would go on to animate critical- and fan-favorite episodes such as “Heart of Ice,” “P.O.V.,” “Beware the Gray Ghost,” and “Robin’s Reckoning Part I,”) is noticeably smoother and more complex than in most episodes, especially where minor and background characters are concerned, almost filmic in quality (and indeed, Spectrum would be one of the two companies brought in to do the actual BTAS theatrical film). Part of the point of a pilot is to put the show’s best face forward.
It is interesting, then, that the episode does not use one of Batman’s more iconic villains, such as the Joker or (as the actual premiere does) Catwoman. Instead we get the Man-Bat, a Jekyll-and-Hyde mad scientist who had never before appeared in television or film, but who nonetheless functions near-perfectly as a demonstration of what this series is going to be doing with his villains.
First of all, there is a very standard writing trick in which the villain is a twisted reflection of the hero. One common reading of Batman’s rogues gallery is that they represent aspects of himself taken to even more unhealthy extremes, or that they represent various forms of psychosis. As we shall see in later stories, these schema don’t actually work very well for most of the BTAS villains, who reflect Batman in a very different way, but they are fairly applicable for the Man-Bat.
In this case, the name’s the giveaway; Man-Bat is an inversion of Batman. As Batman Beyond will eventually reveal, Batman is, at least in his own opinion, the “real” person, while Bruce Wayne is a mask he wears as needed in order to accomplish his work. We see that earlier in the episode, where he blows off what’s implied to be a romantic rendezvous as Bruce Wayne in order to investigate Man-Bat’s crimes. As Bruce Wayne, he lies and manipulates to try to get the information he needs; his only genuine interactions with something like a friend or family in this episode are with Alfred, when he’s in full Batman costume. That is his real, genuine self, the one that can exchange mild snark with his butler/best friend/surrogate father.
Man-Bat, however, is the opposite. His real life, real relationships, are as Langstrom, with his wife and mentor. He himself describes Man-Bat as an alien presence, one that is gradually taking him over. He transforms into a hideous gargoyle, a hulking, brutish figure that contrasts strongly with the more slender and graceful Batman. Batman, in other words, is not the monster Bullock is determined to see; he is a man who has absorbed something of the bat, while Man-Bat is a bat which has absorbed something of the man.
What Man-Bat serves to do, in other words, is to illuminate the “bat” half of the Batman equation. It is bestial, violent, angry, a force of destruction–more akin to the shadowy figure that curves and strikes in the opening credits than to the upright lightning-crowned image of Batman at the end of those credits. But much as the series’ unusual art design–white and colored ink on black paper, instead of the more typical black on white–uses light to carve spaces out of darkness, so does this illumination of the bat serve to show us the man. He is that which is taken over in Man-Bat, but which dominates in Batman, a restraining force which channels that rage against monsters and villains.
This, then, is the initial thesis statement the series gives us on Batman: that he is not Bruce Wayne, not a person with a family and a tragic past. That is the mask; what lies underneath is a monster turned inside-out, a bottled violence that can be tapped as needed in service of… what? What is it, exactly, that he fights for? We do not yet know. We know only what he fights against: a monstrous bat, lurking within a man.