It’s September 29, 1992, between “Two-Face, Part 2” and “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement,” so see the “Two-Face” article for headlines and the box office and music charts.
One of the odd things about Batman the Animated Series is the degree to which its main character exists on the periphery of his own show. Batman is a major character of almost every episode, but the main character of the episode, the person on whom it primarily focuses, is very often someone else. This is unsurprising; Batman is a creature of the shadows, lurking on the edges of the light, not out in the middle of it. Nonetheless, we often learn a great deal about Batman from episodes which focus on others, “Two-Face” being an excellent example of that approach. At other times, however, the focus on a character other than Batman really is mostly a matter of telling us about that particular character, or about the show as a whole, as in “Feat of Clay.”
So with this episode we have, for the first time, something focusing on Robin (who at this point in the series is Dick Grayson). Sadly, we don’t learn a whole lot about him here. He’s notably older than he seemed in “Christmas with the Joker,” where I would have pegged him as a young teen in contrast to the college student in this episode. It’s also quite interesting that he is living on campus and has a roommate, which seems like it would make it difficult to go out every night to fight crime. This suggests an explanation for the relative scarcity of his appearances thus far: he’s staying on campus as part of an effort to live a more “normal” life, and only being Robin occasionally when he visits home.
Either way, what we get of him in this episode is interesting, namely that fearlessness is a fundamental part of his identity. The fear of heights introduced by Scarecrow’s toxin is clearly traumatic for him, causing him to feel utterly useless–as he says, he grew up among acrobats and as one himself, and he implies he was already performing or learning to perform acrobatic stunts as a toddler. His role as Batman’s sidekick is likewise full of swinging on ropes, climbing buildings, jumping between rooftops. His fear means he is no longer either Dick Grayson of the Flying Graysons or Robin the Boy Wonder; he’s a scared college kid in a ridiculous sweater.
We get a sense of the dynamic between Batman and Robin here, and it’s an appealingly familial one: Batman is supportive, non-judgmental, calmly reassuring that Robin will get better. He is tough, telling Robin to work through it, but also quite clear that he trusts Robin to be able to work through it. It’s very much the stern-yet-loving traditional father-figure, which makes sense given the series’ construction of Batman as a father-figure for a young and recently traumatized Bruce Wayne. He says to Robin the things he wanted someone to say to him when he was young and afraid.
Yet the episode is not entirely Robin’s. After all, Arkham Asylum is depicted here as a place of gothic horror, from the brooding exterior shot of the old high house on the hill to the dark hallways within, echoing with the Joker’s shrieking laughter. The asylum’s namesake is a fictional Massachusetts town in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, a college town surrounding Miskatonic University, which in turn was a thin veneer of respectable scientific scholarship surrounding the kind of place that would have one of the world’s few complete copies of the Necronomicon in its library. Compare Arkham Asylum, with its seemingly ordinary–for television, anyway–high security mental health institution, down to the corrupt and cowardly orderly. But beyond that is a library of horrors, the kind of place where one can walk down the hall and browse grotesque, deadly individuals–it is as much a freak show as it is a prison, and in this episode at least appears to be more of either than a hospital.
And it is Batman who walks down those halls, not Robin. It is Batman who walks into the dark corridor lined with monsters in their cages, which in an episode about confronting fear implies that, in some sense, this is Batman’s fear: all his villains, locked away behind glass.
It is Batman who confronts the Scarecrow himself and finds–well, nothing but mockery. That’s the point of a Scarecrow, after all; it’s just there to scare the crows, and is actually entirely harmless to them. The Scarecrow is just an image of terror–especially in his redesign, which looks far more frightening than his first appearance–push past it, and there’s a weak little man underneath.
Yet there is something about him compelling or important enough to the show that he becomes the third villain to recur (the first, of course, being the Joker; the second was Rupert Thorne). It’s fairly obvious why the first two villains recurred: the Joker is Batman’s eternal foil, the single villain most closely associated with him. Rupert Thorne, meanwhile, is a synecdoche for Crime itself, a stand-in for all the violence, theft, and corruption that rule the Gotham streets.
So what is it about the Scarecrow that brings him back? The answer is simple: fear. I have talked before about how Batman is driven by hope and guilt, but fear is a powerful component in him as well. We saw in both “Nothing to Fear” and “Two-Face” that inside Batman is a scared little boy reaching out for parental approval that will never come. Batman exists to protect that boy, to turn his fear outwards and wield it as a weapon against those who frighten him. Like Scarecrow, Batman uses fear itself, rather than pain, to torture his victims–and like him, underneath the figure of terror there is a weak and fragile human being.
Consider: what would happen if Batman won? His greatest fear is that his father wouldn’t be proud of him, and he fights that by fighting crime. But what if there were no more crime left to fight? Would his father be proud of him then?
And Bruce knows the answer to that question: no. Thomas Wayne can never be proud of his son, because Thomas Wayne is dead.
We’ve asked before why Batman has chosen such a ridiculous, impossible route to fighting crime, punching it in the face one person at a time. And here is a partial answer: because he cannot allow himself to actually win. Without anything to protect against, there is no more need for the protector, and without the protector he is a frightened child struggling with survivor guilt.
“Fear of Victory” indeed.
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