Imaginary Story: Batman and Robin Adventures #16-24

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With one exception, the issues of Batman and Robin Adventures that roughly coincide with the second season of Superman: The Animated Series hew fairly closely to a rather apt–and apparently entirely unintended–theme, namely the positioning of women as a marginalized Other and society in general’s tendency to center the desires of individual men (and especially white men) and privilege them over the needs, safety, and desires of women.

As I write this, the toxic ideology of “incels” is being debated in the mainstream press. Incels are a spinoff of the general MRA/PUA/MGTOW nexus of Reddit misogynists (whom I shall hereafter refer to as the patriarchy-industrial complex), with their particular form of sexist bullshit the claim that they are entitled to sex with (conventionally attractive) women, such that not getting laid is a form of oppression that justifies violent response. Disturbingly, the pundit response is not just the typical middle-right pundits pretending to a position of studied “objectivity” as an excuse to lend their platform to far-right extremists. Plenty of that has happened, with Ross Douthat in particular spewing a vile piece that exists in a state of quantum superposition between endorsing the incel concept of “redistributing” access to sex “equally” and satirizing leftist arguments for the redistribution of property by posing similar arguments for the “redistribution” of women. (Which satire fails, of course, because any decent person–a category which clearly does not include Douthat or incels–reading would immediately twig on to the obvious counter that women are people, not property.)

No, the worrisome part is articles like Jio Tolentino’s piece for the New Yorker, which criticize the worst behavior of incels but allow bits of their thinking to seep in as “givens”–like the idea that the “sexual marketplace” is a literal market in which people have a “sexual value” that determines their success. That’s a horrifically toxic approach to relationships, because it is inherently transactional. It describes sex purely in terms of a hierarchy, of “haves” and “have-nots.” Instead of two people who find each other interesting, sex becomes about who has enough status to “afford” the object of their desire, with the desires of the “purchased” party largely irrelevant to the equation (since it’s assumed that they will want the “high-value” person).

It is, in other words, exactly the kind of patriarchal, hierarchical view that this run of B&RA critiques, without ever conceding its points or lending it unwarranted sympathy. This run of issues gets a bit Feminism 101 at times, but considering this is a late-90s all-ages comic book, even reaching the level of 101 is impressive–and gets more impressive when one realizes that this steady development of the theme plays out across all these issues despite being apparently entirely unintended.

All these issues, that is, except for Issue 20, “Through the Long Night,” a silly little story about Batman catching a bunch of gun-runners and gang members (plus one drunk driver) with zero characterization, where the only real stakes are whether Bullock will win the nightly Gotham PD pool on how many people Batman will catch for them. It’s a pointless and rather uninteresting issue, neither good enough nor bad enough to be worth discussing. It’s just sort of there.

But if we ignore it, we get that unintentional thematic arc, which begins with Issue 16, “It Takes a Cat,” presumably a reference to the saying “it takes a thief to catch a thief.” In this story, Catwoman resumes her criminal activity, but Selena Kyle insists she’s innocent, and investigates to learn who’s stolen her alter ego. It turns out to be a man named Thomas Blake, essentially a wealthy fanboy who is trying to get Selena’s attention because he has a crush on her. He puts her in serious danger of returning to prison, forcing her to go on the run from the law, because he has built up a mental scenario of how she “should” respond to his behavior and he wants those responses. He claims to love her, but treats her like a thing: specifically, like a video game, where giving the “correct” inputs will result in “winning” and receiving what he wants.

Of course when it comes to people treating women as objects, the quintessential example within the Batman oeuvre is the Mad Hatter, the focus of Issue 17, “But a Dream.” Mad Hatter sneaks one of his control devices into Alice’s wedding dress, which causes her to first express pity for him, then run away from the altar and seek him out so they can be married by a mind-controlled priest. In this he is, at least, more honest than Blake, in that he literally uses a machine to manipulate Alice, but in the end he is tricked into and trapped in a fantasy scenario in which Alice’s pity is transmuted by his determination into love, and they run away together. In the end, Hatter is trapped in his fantasy; like the miserable losers who populate the patriarchy-industrial complex, he is unable to get past his instrumental view of women and relationships or insistence on centering his own and only his own feelings, and so remains cut off from reality and any possibility of meaningful connection.

“Joker’s Last Laugh” focuses on a different kind of mistreatment and marginalization of women, as it follows Harley in yet another round of her abusive relationship with the Joker. In this case, as she often does, Harley signifies internalized misogyny: she accepts the Joker’s abuse and takes upon herself the responsibility to make him feel better, while performatively hiding from him the fact that she is vastly more competent than he is. In this case, she dedicates herself to trying to make him laugh, and ultimately succeeds only when he doesn’t realize the situation–the Batmobile getting a parking ticket while Batman and Robin were capturing Joker and Harley–is one she deliberately manufactured. In other words, she uses a performance to protect his ego from the realization of her own competence, skill, and agency.

In direct contrast to Harley, who is a “good bad girl” in that she performs femininity in ways that protect masculine ego (“good”) while violating the law and helping criminals (“bad”), Issue 19, “Duty of the Huntress,” introduces the titular character as a “bad good girl” in that she performs a superheroic role in ways that are unacceptable to Batman. It’s a little difficult to see why–she is depicted using a crossbow loaded with what appear to be tranquilizer darts, which doesn’t seem inherently more violent than the patent Batman technique of dangling people off ledges and threatening to drop them, which he does in this issue (along with countless other stories).

But even accepting that she is being “bad,” what we have is a woman who refuses to play her role, and is punished for it. Her father is killed in a mob hit after a lifetime of “shielding” (read: lying to) his daughter to keep her out of “the business.” His dying wish is that she ensure his enemies cannot profit from his empire by using his records to expose all the crimes he was involved in, but she is so horrified by those crimes–which include forcing immigrants into literal slavery–that she instead begins destroying each enterprise personally.

After Batman forces her to stop and hands over all the information she was using to the police, she is left bereft at her father’s grave. Her final words are haunting: “I only knew you as kind and loving… not… …evil. Somehow you were both. Now you’ve given me a new duty, Poppa. Somehow… …someday… I have to make up for who you were.” It’s more complicated than some men being monsters; monstrosity is a human capacity, and all possess it to some degree. Someone can be loving at home and monstrous at work, or a good friend but an abusive husband, or any other such combination.

But Bertinelli’s choice to “shield” his adult daughter, to lie to her about his work and thereby strip her of agency, is of a parcel with his criminal activity. He simply does not care about the feelings of others; he only cares about what he himself wants. The slaves he forces to work are stripped violently of agency because he wants the product of their labor; his daughter is stripped of agency because he wants her to not become involved in his work. This is not to say that lying to your children about what you do for a living is remotely comparable to slavery; instead, it’s pointing out that the capacity to do the latter implies the capacity for the former, because the former is a vastlylesser form of the latter. We shouldn’t be surprised that monstrous people can seem ordinary or even nice in controlled circumstances–they wouldn’t be able to get away with being monstrous otherwise!

This theme of the nature of monstrosity is touched on again in Issue 23, “Crocodile Tears.” Killer Croc develops an infatuation with Summer Gleeson after she gives a news report humanizing him. The implication–or, rather, the implied justification Croc gives himself–is that his violent behavior is a reaction to being treated as less-than, being regarded as a monster and an animal instead of a human. However, he reveals himself to be the same kind of monster as all the others we’ve discussed when he smacks Summer’s boyfriend out of the way to talk to Summer. She accuses Croc of hurting her boyfriend, and Croc replies, “He ain’t hurt. He’s just warned. I ain’t here to hurt anybody.”

It doesn’t matter to Croc how the boyfriend feels about being struck, or how Summer responds. In Croc’s world, his feelings and intentions are the arbiters of everything. No one else’s viewpoint matters; his pain justifies his behavior, but his victims’ isn’t real unless it’s intentional on his part. So of course he ignores Summer’s protests and insists on doing “favors” for her that she hasn’t asked for, with an expectation of a reward she hasn’t agreed to. In the end, when she calls him an animal, a monster, it is the simple truth. He is absolutely still human–all monsters are, because monstrosity is a human capacity–but his behavior is monstrous, and so at her words he simply stops and gives up, his justifications stripped away.

Issue 22, “Fifty Fifty,” is a Two-Face story, because of course Issue two-two of the second BTAS-based comic series would be about Two-Face. There’s little in it that touches on the theme, but it is notable that the way the villain tries to force Two-Face to work for him is by threatening Grace. When his henchmen break into her apartment, the one who announces he intends to check the bedroom follows up with a “Heh heh” that speaks volumes–if he finds her, he intends harassment at minimum, and more likely sexual assault.

As is all too often the case in our fiction, the only woman in the story is a target, menaced with kidnapping and assault to motivate a male character. This is one source of the entitlement that drives the behavior of the monstrous men in the other issues we’ve discussed–that fictional women’s feelings and needs are generally subordinated to the feelings and narratives of fictional men. This is the “Women In Refrigerators” problem, that women are treated as objects without agency or internality, their only role in a story to serve as plot devices for the motivation or manipulation of male characters.

Issue 21, “Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?” seems to be consciously pushing against this by inverting the formula. The Riddler, seeking vengeance against Batman, captures Commissioner Gordon and will kill him if he can’t solve an “impossible” riddle by midnight. With Batman and Robin unavailable, Batgirl pursues the case instead–in essence, a significant man in her life is imperiled to motivate her to act. She is the driving force and protagonist of the story, and is granted full internality in the form of an internal monologue as she tries to focus on solving the problem without giving in to her fears of what might happen if she fails.

Nice as this is to say, something is slightly off about it. The fact that Batman and Robin need to be taken off the table, that it’s a rare and special event to have Batgirl headline the book–these are reminders that a female character with agency, with her own internality and positionality, is still a rarity, still outside the norm.

And the norm has great power, as we see in Issue 24, “Touch of Death.” Fittingly for the end of an arc about the marginalization of women, the story is told from the perspective of Poison Ivy as she meets a South American boy who secretes a deadly poison through his skin and bonds with him, then tries to rescue him from the American government, who of course wish to weaponize him. (And Ivy, once they have her.) Ivy’s immunity to poison results in a touching sequence in which the boy–who has clearly not been touched in a long time, perhaps ever–simply holds her hand for an entire day, and even more touchingly, Ivy lets him.

She seems to sense a kindred spirit in him, and that’s not that surprising: she and he are both Others, monsters in the other sense of the word, the sense of being “grotesque,” which is to say outside the norm–just like the Batgirl issue. “Normal” has a terrifying power in our culture; to be within the range of “normal” is to be accepted, to be considered worthy of respect and consideration, to live in a society built around your needs. The experience of being outside the norm is, of course, much more varied–“normal” is a very small sphere inside an infinite space of human diversity, but depending on where in that space you stand, to be outside the norm is to be treated with disgust, or contempt, to be ignored or assumed a criminal or a pervert.

This is not, of course, to say that everything outside the norm is good or right or even acceptable; some monsters deserve the label. Rather, it is to say that the normal/not normal distinction itself is monstrous, but it’s not an individual monstrosity but a social one. The fact that we make such a distinction renders our culture monstrous; the fact that we declare some bodies or harmless behaviors to be monstrous indicts our entire civilization. Ivy and the boy are treated as laboratory specimens so that their unique abilities can be extracted and exploited precisely because those abilities are unique, because they are different–and it is telling that their bodies are precisely the kinds of bodies we most frequently Other, most frequently treat as monstrous perversions of the “normal” body (which is to say, the white cis male body): a woman and a person of color.

To be Other is to be poisonous to “normal” society, because either, like Killer Croc, you fulfill what is expected of you and harm “normal” people, or you defy expectations and expose the lie on which society is built. That is what Ivy brought to the new world Harley created to make room for them: poison.

Although, if the beast that is “normality” takes too long to die, there’s always the traditional method of dealing with monsters, pitchforks and fire. Although in fiction, more common still is the hero–and that is another clue to what we’re looking for, at the still-distant endpoint of this long journey through ideaspace: what the hero we’re looking for needs to do.

We need them to kill the beast.


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