Twip (Animal Act)

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It’s September 26, 1998. The top song is Aerosmith with “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”; Monica and Jennifer Paige also chart. The top movie is still Rush Hour, with Ronin and Urban Legend opening at second and third, respectively.

In the news, English-language media report that the President of Iran retracted a fatwa on author Salman Rushdie, ending that country’s official support of and call for his assassination. By failing to translate the word, said media perpetuate the common, but Islamophobic, misunderstanding of what a fatwa actually is: it is a judgment on a point of religious law, and thus almost never a call for assassination. (Indeed, whether it can legitimately be used to call for assassination is a matter of some debate among Muslim scholars.)

There are days when I really regret committing myself to doing a chapter for every single episode of every single DCAU show, and this is one of those days. “Animal Acts” is not, despite Bruce Timm’s claims, one of the worst episodes of Batman: The Animated Series or The New Batman Adventures; however, it is exceedingly mediocre, and those are always the hardest episodes to write about.

This episode’s purpose seems mostly to be as set-up for “Old Wounds,” reminding us that Nightwing exists and is Dick Grayson, former acrobat. Things are suitably tense between him and Batman, but he is clearly bonding with Robin. He also makes some snide remarks to Batman that imply he sees being Robin as less than healthy for a young boy, which of course it is; thus, in the next episode he will launch into the story of how he left as a kind of warning to Tim.

This is also the second episode in a row to feature animals as the villain’s primary muscle, but in a very different way than the previous episode. Farmer Brown’s genetically engineered livestock were grotesque; these animals are physically ordinary, with only their behavior surprising. Both Brown and Mad Hatter use their technological and scientific expertise to acquire their minions, but what Brown does to the animals is framed as inherently horrifying in a way that what Hatter does isn’t.

This is a very strange decision. Brown, ultimately, doesn’t actually violate any living thing: he uses and exploits them, but he is a genetic engineer; everything he does to his animals is done before they’re alive. The Mad Hatter, meanwhile, controls living animals, forcing them into unnatural behaviors in ways that are likely physically painful, and almost certainly psychologically damaging. And of course, at the episode’s climax he falls back on his old standby, controlling people. Surely, in any remotely moral accounting, he is far worse than Brown?

But this is the old familiar problem of substituting Us and Them for right and wrong, now projected onto the body instead of onto others. The “natural” body and “natural” behaviors are good and right, in this view, and “unnatural” is wrong, with “natural” inevitably being defined as whatever is most familiar. The animals and even people under Mad Hatter’s control are not abject; they remain intact bodies, under the control of a different mind from the usual, but then we are used to thinking of bodies as being distinct entities under the control of minds. Hatter’s control doesn’t force us to confront that we are bodies; we can continue to pretend that we are something else that merely inhabits a body, and is momentarily displaced by his technology. It’s wrong, but not inherently distressing in the manner of the grotesque.

To put it simply, the Mad Hatter’s treatment of animals doesn’t seem as bad as Farmer Brown’s because we’re used to seeing animals perform under human control. The circus environment in particular is one where animals are forced, often under extremely poor conditions, to act for human gain and amusement. It is familiar, and therefore non-threatening; he simply does with technology what Miranda does with a whip. At least the technology probably involves less pain and fear.

But then, what of the humans he controls? But again, this is a circus–show business, as Dick reminds us at episode’s end. We are used to seeing people perform here, too; Mad Hatter simply does with technology what the circus does with a paycheck and tradition. What any job does with a paycheck and social norms, the carrot and stick by which we are all conditioned to perform.

That really is all there is to it. The Mad Hatter ultimately violates neither the social order nor the body; he is a loathsome little parasite guilty of, at minimum, sexual assault, but he is not a threat to order. Batman and company take him out with absurd ease once he reveals himself, and everything is returned to normal: animals in their cages, people performing their roles.

As Dick observes Tim, tricked into mucking out the animal’s cages, he says he misses it. The implication is that at least part of him would rather be knee-deep in gorilla shit than out fighting crime as Nightwing. For all its mediocrity, this episode is the perfect setup for “Old Wounds,” because it shows us the source of Dick’s angst. He loves the safety and stability of even the nastiest parts of the social order, which is why he works to preserve it as a superhero; but as a superhero, he is necessarily on the fringes of that order, rather than inside it. He is a guard, but he would rather be inside the cage.

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