Ask Chris #230: ‘Beware The Gray Ghost’
A: With Simon Trent's surprise return in this week's issue of Gotham Academy, it seems like everyone's been thinking about the Gray Ghost. Or at least, I've been thinking about him a lot, and I can assure you that I've been thinking about him enough for all of us.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I'm probably involved in more conversations about Batman: The Animated Series than your average person, but in my experience, at least, "Beware the Gray Ghost" isn't one of the ones that gets talked about all that much. And that in itself is actually pretty weird, because it gives the world of The Animated Series something that it never really got from any other episode: It built a story around fandom.
When you get right down to it, BTAS did a much better job than most other incarnations of Batman in making Bruce Wayne seem like a character you could actually relate to, particularly in the first few seasons when he was rocking that mustard-yellow suit. I actually love that version of Bruce Wayne -- he's every bit as serious as every other incarnation of the character when it's time to get down to the crime-fighting, but he's also a guy who will occasionally grab lunch with Harvey Dent because they're friends or swap a few quips with Alfred. It's something that I think the series lost when the redesigns hit for The New Batman Adventures and Bruce became, at least visually, a much more severe character.
I mean, if nothing else, that original design made for a much better cover for his secret identity. If there's one thing Bruce Wayne should never be, it's a grumpy dude dressed in a black suit, you know?
Either way, the core of the character was one that's more aspirational than relatable. Batman is a character that you want to be, but even watching the show at ten years old, I knew I was never going to be Batman, if only because I wasn't a billionaire with a photographic memory. Batman's attributes distance him from readers every bit as much as any other character's super-powers, and as a result, as well-built as those characters were, they were missing something that fans could really latch onto, that crucial element of seeing yourself in a character.
In other words, they were missing Tim Drake.
Don't get me wrong, they'd been using his costume since the pilot and they'd eventually use his name, but the costume was on Dick Grayson and the character who had his name was, in every other respect, pretty much just Jason Todd. The actual character was missing, which is a real shame.
I'm pretty sure I've been over this before, but Tim Drake is, without question, the best Robin, for the simple reason that he's the one who wants to be there. There's no motivating tragedy in his origin, there's just a kid who really loves Batman and Robin, and realizes that Batman without Robin just isn't as good and sets out to solve that. It's the same reason Barbara Gordon's such a great character as Batgirl, in that they're choosing this life because they know it's the right thing to do rather than because they're driven to it by hardships. They're fans, which makes them the easiest viewpoint characters for the fans watching at home to identify with.
BTAS never really had that with Tim Drake, and since they wouldn't get around to doing it with Barbara Gordon for another 40 episodes, they did something even more interesting. They make Batman himself the fan.
I mean, really, they went a little further into making him a huge friggin' nerd, but, you know, it's basically the same thing.
The trick about what writers Dennis O'Flaherty, Tom Ruegger and Garin Wolf and director Boyd Kirkand are doing in this episode is that they build everything around the idea of fandom, on every possible level. The most obvious aspect, getting Adam West for the voice of Simon Trent, the actor who helped inspire Bruce Wayne's crime-fighting career, is probably the most brilliant, because it makes Batman's Batman Batman.
For the record, West is fantastic in this episode. I doubt it really required a lot of method acting for him to get into the role of an actor who had been typecast for years because he played a superhero on TV, but there's so much emotion in his performance that it felt real, even when I was watching right before an hour of Batman '66 on the same channel. There's even a visual nod to West's era as Batman in the Batcave, when they look for fingerprints using something that looks an awful lot like a BTAS version of 66's Hyper-Spectrographic Analyzer:
If they would've thrown in a clip of Simon Trent showing up at Memphis Wrestling to promote a boat show with Jerry Lawler, it'd be perfect.
It doesn't stop there, though. For starters, there's the other guest star in this episode, the Mad Bomber himself, who's voiced by Bruce Timm.
Even beyond the idea that the hero and villain of this episode are both obsessive fans, Timm showing up as the bad guy (which is great) points to the idea that the people making it are obsessive fans, too. Visually, the Gray Ghost is a pretty obvious analogue for the Shadow, the character that pretty directly inspired Batman's creation and provided the template for his Golden Age adventures. The Gray Ghost show that we see Little Bruce Wayne watching, though, is based on the Max Fleishcer Superman cartoons. The way it's shot, the music, and even the narrated introduction (also pretty similar to the Shadow's "weed of crime") all echo the '40s Superman -- and it makes sense that they would be. The creators of BTAS were, after all, huge fans of the Fleischer films, to the point where their dark, Art Deco Gotham City is directly inspired by them.
Every single thing in the episode orbits around the idea of fandom, from the plot and cast all the way down to the visuals and score, and it all works on a level that Batman stories very rarely do, because it's all about how he's one of us. He's a dude who has a special secret room in the Batcave -- which is an almost exact replica of the Gray Ghost's lair, a hilarious aside that makes me imagine just how much eye-rolling Alfred was doing during that bit of construction -- that he keeps all of his Gray Ghost memorabilia in.
Watching this as a kid, the idea that Batman had a TV show that he loved as much as I loved Batman blew my mind, because it meant that we had something in common. Seeing Little Bruce Wayne sitting in front of his TV in a goofy hat with a towel tied around his neck made me, sitting in front of my TV with a pair of green dishwashing gloves and a Robin shirt, feel like my hero and I had something in common, and it can never be overstated how much it means to identify with your hero on a level like that.
Admittedly, that last line of the episode probably could've used another take, but I'm willing to forgive it. After all, I'm a pretty big fan.