Part of the beauty of Batman: The Animated Series is that it was made by people who grew up loving Batman. There was a real reverence not only for the character’s comic history, but his various filmic and televisual incarnations as well. These guys truly loved Batman and wanted to share that love with audiences, many of whom were children just discovering the character themselves. This is why the episode “Beware the Gray Ghost” is such a beautiful piece of nostalgia. Melancholic yet uplifting, the episode shows how much a fictional character can mean to people watching and what playing such a beloved figure can mean to the life of an actor. And, naturally, they found the perfect vocal embodiment of that idea.
Gotham is being held for ransom by a mad bomber. No one knows how he’s getting his explosives into the various city buildings, but they know that after each explosion, they find a note. In his dreams, Bruce Wayne remembers where he’s heard the words of the note before: as a child, he watched an episode of his favorite serial – The Gray Ghost, the exploits of a masked and caped crime fighter. He used to watch it with his father before bedtime and a lot of what the Gray Ghost did and used in his adventures, Batman eventually adapted for his own fight against evildoers.
The man who played the Gray Ghost all those years ago, Simon Trent, is having a rough go of it, unfortunately. He’s living in a scummy apartment and is having problems paying his rent on time. His agent tells him it’s because audiences still only see him as the character he played all those years ago. He makes any money he gets from selling off Gray Ghost memorabilia to a local toy collector/shop owner. The problem is nobody buys the merchandise anymore and he doesn’t get much for it, eking by every month. After selling his final batch, he falls asleep in his empty apartment, but wakes up with it full of all his belongings again. There is a note that tells him to meet at the Gotham Art School, and it’s signed “a friend.”
That friend turns out to be Batman, who asks Trent for help. Trent wants nothing to do with the Caped Crusader and tries to run away. Just then, they hear a strange noise and Trent recognizes it momentarily before the school building explodes, another victim of the Mad Bomber. Trent gives Batman the last surviving film strip of the episode in question but wants nothing else to do with Batman or the Gray Ghost anymore. Batman is, understandably, feeling a bit of hero deflation.
After watching the episode, Batman learns that the bombs were delivered via remote controlled toy cars and he informs Commissioner Gordon of this. Sure enough, a bevy of cars come zooming toward the cops as they wait outside the next target. They manage to ward off the explosives but are soon set upon by even more toy cars, all exploding as they hit various things. Batman is trapped in a blind alley when a rope appears and Batman is able to climb up to a roof in the nick of time. The rope was offered by Trent, in full Gray Ghost regalia. Batman asks him to come to the Batcave to help put an end to the case. After outrunning more cars, they get to the Batcave and Batman discovers the only fingerprints on the car belong to Trent himself. But, it couldn’t have been him! He was forced to sell his cars to… Oh, no!
This is not the best animated episode, and in fact a lot of it looks kind of poor by the high standards of some episodes, but the storyline and voice acting are brilliant. The main reason for this is the perfect choice of casting Adam West as Trent. West, of course, became synonymous for playing the title character in the 1960s hyper-camp Batman series, and in many ways never overcame it. His plight directly mirrors Trent’s, and I would imagine the episode would not have even been made if West had turned them down.
It’s very fitting to have West as the person Batman idolized as a child, who inspired him to fight crime the way he does in a lot of ways. Adam West to a large swath of people WAS Batman, even after the Tim Burton film, because they’d all grown up with it. Having Kevin Conroy say to Adam West that he looked up to him and considered him a hero, in character of course, is a really touching tribute to that era of the Dark Knight, at a time when it became very uncool to like him. Opening the episode with a flashback of young Bruce Wayne watching the program, you get the feeling the writers and artists themselves did the same thing and were probably equally inspired to get into comics and animation.
The episode ends with Trent, now a hero for helping Batman stop the Mad Bomber, signing autographs and selling huge amounts of Gray Ghost merchandise, including the first video release of the series, of which he owns the only film copies. We get the feeling he’ll be okay again, especially when Bruce Wayne comes up to get his VHS set signed. You never forget your first hero, and the show’s creators wanted to make sure we never forgot who was the face of Batman for over 20 years.
Next week, we’ll look at a really wonderful episode which has five villains battling each other… in a game of cards. They talk about how close they’ve each come to killing Batman, and they’re each more explosive than the last. It’s the complete classic “Almost Got ‘Im” next time.
If you like this column or want to request I cover a specific episode, let me know in the comments!