One of the best things about The New Batman Adventures was the unfolding mystery drama about why Dick Grayson stopped being Robin. It’s fairly obvious if you think about it, really, but the cartoon did a great job of making us wait for the answer. Along the way, though, they gave us episodes that showed us that the relationship between Batman and now-Nightwing was very fraught…perfect for certain manipulative burglars to exploit, say. The first of these episodes is “You Scratch My Back,” a real game of Cat and Mouse (with wings).
Yes, I’m speaking of course about Catwoman, Batman: The Animated Series‘ go-to anti-heroine/anti-villainess and pseudo-love interest of Batman. What that show did so well was to always pair Catwoman with another, usually less exciting villain, so that he/she could be the real threat and Catwoman could jump across lines of criminal and crime-fighter, with Batman almost always saying “Thanks, but I still gotta take you to jail.” That’s changed slightly for this episode; Catwoman is still up against another, sort-of generic baddie, but this time she’s much more conniving, far more criminal than crime fighter.
The episode starts with Nightwing staking out shipping yard and is joined by Batman and Batgirl, whose assistance he’s not really looking for. He tells them he’s on the trail of South American gunrunners. As the truck drives up, Nightwing springs into action, taking out the thugs, but getting some unwanted assistance from Batgirl. Batman, however, lifts not a finger, but Catwoman, coming out of nowhere, does. Batgirl later asks Nightwing why he didn’t try to catch Catwoman and he says the felonious feline is turning a new leaf. Batgirl is clearly worried about her friend, but he doesn’t want to hear it. Later, as Nightwing tracks the crew of smugglers–led by Enrique El Gancho (aka Ricky the Hook)–he’s joined by Catwoman who says she wants to take down these criminals and would like Nightwing’s help. She can’t go to Batman, obviously, because he’d never believe her.
Batman and Batgirl, however, follow Nightwing and Catwoman, seemingly not trusting their former friend to make the right choices, but Nightwing also recognizes it and attempts to lose them. Ultimately, it seems like not only does Catwoman want to be partners with the newly solo former Robin, but she might also have an attraction to him, which he’s all for. But not everything is as it seems, and several double crosses ensue before the episode’s end. Ultimately, allegiances aren’t what we thought they were.
It struck me watching this episode again that few and far between were the episodes of TAS that actually dealt with Batman and his relationships with…anybody, really. Most of the episodes were very standalone, on purpose, so they could be shown out of order in reruns and it wouldn’t be a big deal. With this show, though, there’s already been a much greater focus on interpersonal relationships, and in “You Scratch My Back,” we have tension between Batman and Nightwing, Batgirl and Nightwing, Nightwing and Catwoman, and Batman and Catwoman. Ricky the Hook is incredibly forgettable but he doesn’t need to be all that important, because he and the smugglers are just a MacGuffin to get all of our main characters talking and interacting.
Now comes the time in the review when I talk about the new designs of all the characters. Let’s start with Nightwing, whom the animators had an easier time with because he had an all new costume to play with. The black onesie with the blue bird logo is the classic Nightwing look, and has remained so pretty consistently, save some red on occasion. The real crazy thing is his hair…why they decided to give him emo mullet in this cartoon is anyone’s guess, but I’m going to blame it on 1997.
Catwoman’s new look…jeepers creepers. The TAS version of the costume felt fairly standard cat-burglary, with a little nod to Michelle Pfeiffer’s cowl in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. That’s also why the traditionally brunette Selina Kyle was a blonde in the cartoon. For New Batman, she’s a brunette with short hair, just like her comic counterpart. So I like that. What I don’t like is how much they took a hard left turn on her costume toward the Pfeiffer suit, with it now being completely black and angular. And why they decided to give her a white-gray-blue pallor when she’s in the costume is totally beyond me. She’s not a zombie. Or maybe she is; I don’t know her afterlife.
“You Scratch My Back,” succeeds in being one of the best examples of the family drama at work in The New Batman Adventures and a quite effective chamber piece for four of the show’s most prominent characters. Thank heck Robin wasn’t in this episode; we’ve had far too much of tiny Tim Drake already, nice to have a breather. We’ll get more of why Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne had their falling out as the series progresses, but it’s interesting to leave them in this episode with begrudging respect. And, Catwoman gets to be a bad guy, and that’s pretty great, I think.
Next week, we get the return of one of my favorite villains from TAS: Arnold Wesker, aka The Ventriloquist and his mob boss puppet Scarface. It’s an episode fittingly called “Double Talk.”
Let me know in the comments what YOU think of this Catwoman redesign, and about shirtless Nightwing, obvs.
Images: WB Animation