*YAWN* *STRETCH* It feels like I haven’t done one of these in slightly over two years. Back in 2014, I spent just about the entire year doing weekly essays about episodes of the 1992-1994 series, Batman: The Animated Series (you can find all 51 of those filed under Batman: Reanimated), but as most of you know, that wasn’t the end of Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, et al’s forays into Gotham City.
After Batman: TAS ended its run of 85 episodes on Fox, the same crew began a new show, Superman: The Animated Series over on the brand new Kids’ WB. That series took a similar approach to Batman and his weekly adventures fighting enemies, but the animation was much less intricate and looked a lot less like paintings. After the success of Superman, and the three-part crossover “The World’s Finest,” Batman and his Bat Family returned to screens in 1997 with The New Batman Adventures, alternately referred to as Batman: Gotham Knights. The first episode of this series aired in September 1997 and was the decidedly winter-themed “Holiday Knights.”
This episode is a good beginning episode for the new-but-old show, and is atypical for the storytelling method. It was split into three segments and a denouement, the first two taking place on Christmas Eve and the final two taking place on New Years Eve, and featured all the main characters and some of the villains who’d be recurring in the series. 24 episodes in total were produced, and the animation style was changed to match that of the Superman series, something which was a lot easier and less time consuming to animate due to simpler designs. All of the characters got partially redesigned, and some were drastically changed.
I’ll talk about the particulars of the characters’ redesign as they become important, but overall this series just looks like Kids WB to me. All of their super shows had a similar vibe and frankly don’t have the visual complexity or beauty of the earlier Batman show. That said, Timm and Dini have spoken at length about how much more creative freedom they had at the WB versus at Fox, and the storylines in this series do tend to be more in keeping with comics lore. So, at least the series kept its emotional and intellectual integrity while losing its visual superiority.
Okay, so let’s get to the episode. It actually takes place later than a lot of the episodes that would come after, in terms of the show’s continuity. We know this for a number of reasons, but the main one is Tim Drake’s version of Robin is fully established, and the very next episode to air, “Sins of the Father,” is Tim’s introductory episode. Oh well! It sort of offers the show in media res and doesn’t require too much foreknowledge.
The first segment has everyone’s favorite pair of villainesses, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, lamenting having no family for Christmas, and deciding to go on a shopping spree, using someone else’s money. They intercept Bruce Wayne at a fundraising party and, unbeknownst to him, Ivy kisses him with her toxin-laced lipstick under the mistletoe. He loses all ability to resist and the two use his cash to buyout most of the department stores in town, in a really fun montage. Eventually it wears off and as Harley tries to reapply, Mr. Wayne “falls” down an open elevator shaft. “Oh well…, they were going to kill him anyway.” But, of course, Batman shows up and acts as a real Grinch.
The second segment, also on Christmas Eve, finds Barbara Gordon shopping for a tie at a department store. Detective Harvey Bullock and Officer Renee Montoya are undercover as the store Santa and elf, respectively, because there’s been a string of shoplifters. Barbara spies a little kid pickpocketing and as she and the cops give chase, it’s discovered that the kid is really just a piece of Clayface. Barbara springs into action as Batgirl and lures Clayface out onto the ice rink where she and the cops have to stop the malleable menace.
Segment three skips to New Years Eve where the Joker has promised to do some damage and kill a ton of people. Batman, Robin, and Commissioner Gordon figure out that he’s going to wreak havoc on Gotham’s countdown celebration. The new Dynamic Duo show up to see everyone wearing Joker masks, and the real Joker about to detonate a bomb. Though Batman is shot in the arm, he and Robin manage to drop a huge bell on the Clown Prince of Crime.
And the final round-up sees Gordon, at about 1:30am, go into a diner to meet someone for coffee. As expected, that someone is Batman, and we learn this is their year tradition, to have a quiet cup of coffee to celebrate a New Year, even if Batman always leaves and pays without Jim being able to do anything.
This is a fun episode that gives a nice glimpse of what this new version of Gotham City will be like. The sky is constantly red and menacing, but the tone of the story is decidedly brighter than most of the earlier Fox episodes. This series really brought Batgirl to the forefront, and she appeared in 12 of the 24 episodes, more than either Robin or the as-yet-unseen Nightwing. Batman’s redesign kept the basic shape, but removed all traces of blue or yellow from the costume, focusing on black and grey entirely. Robin and Batgirl’s costumes also lose most of their color, with Robin being just red, yellow, and black (no green), and Batgirl being just black with yellow highlights (no blue).
While this series also makes Jim Gordon look a little thinner and less sturdy, and Bruce Wayne quite different in terms of hair and eyes, the big changes for the update come in the form of the villains. Harley is almost unchanged, as is Clayface who simple gets a little boxier than before. Ivy’s head and body shape changes a bit and her skin becomes pale. The big change, however, is Joker, how now looks much more cartoonish, and his face and hair lose all color other than chalk white for his face and black for his hair. He even loses the fiendish yellow in his eyes, as they too become just black. If I’m totally honest, I really dislike the Joker’s redesign, to a degree I hadn’t fully accepted when I was a kid.
Those redesigns aside, “Holiday Knights” is a fun and spry episode that immediately reminds people what the animated Batman universe has to offer. It’s also very clear right away that while most of the Fox series depicted the Dark Knight on his own, this one is all about his new family, his surrogate children, surrogate father and brother figures, and the series would go on to put those relationships in peril quite often.
Next time, we’ll discuss Tim Drake’s origin story, and how it pertains to Batman’s penchant for taking in strays. “Sins of the Father” is next week! Until then, share your thoughts on “Holiday Knights,” and the character redesigns, in the comments below!
Images: WB Animation