Gotham City appears to have the highest amount of people with severe mental and emotional problems per capita of any city in the DC Universe–very possibly in all of fiction. Everybody’s a nutbag, and they all seem to flock to the rainy, red-hued skies of the most dangerous place around. A big part of that is Batman of course, who presents a worthy challenge for the criminally insane.
Of the mentally ill with whom Batman has to contend, a startling percentage consists of people with some form of split personality disorder. You’ve got Two-Face who is constantly at war with his two sides; Man-Bat who physically becomes a monster a-la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; and everybody else puts on a costume to become someone less insecure and helpless. With episode 59, “Read My Lips,” Batman meets a man whose split personalities are so distinct, so separate, that he has actually created a separate body he can control–a wooden dummy. It’s a criminal mastermind whereas the real man is not. Weird, right? The man is “The Ventriloquist,” and the dummy is the new baddie in town, “Scarface.”
From a story by Alan Burnett and Michael Reaves, “Read My Lips” is one of the more disturbing episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, with its overall tone slightly on the side of darkly comedic. This is probably due to having the teleplay written by short story author Joe R. Lansdale, well known for his humorous horror tales like Bubba Ho-Tep. The episode is aided in its unsettling nature by the direction of the great Boyd Kirkland and the animation team who really make the mannequin warehouse where Scarface and his goons operate six kinds of creepy. I mean, creepier than a mannequin warehouse already is.
When the episode begins, a new gang is staging a heist. It’s a three-man job and everything appears to be planned to the letter. One of the three men is enormous. The heist is successful. The gang continues pulling jobs and, because they’re so well-planned, the police are finding it impossible to track them down. Here’s my only issue with this episode: masks and gloves? Are criminals in Gotham, even the super villains, really so stupid that they never thought to simply wear masks and gloves to confound the cops? I guess these guys are based on 1930’s gangsters who happily announced their crimes via Tommy Gun blasts, but still.
Batman has managed to find one piece of surveillance camera footage in which the giant member of the gang smashes through a wooden fence with his head. The Bat Computer is able to slow it down and spot that during the smash, the man rips his shirt, exposing a tattoo. The computer is then able to match that tattoo with the criminal database and find the culprit to be Charles “Rhino” Daley. Batman finds Rhino walking around, without a care in the world, and OF COURSE this would have been the guy. He’s drawn to be at least 8 feet tall if not larger and as wide as a semi truck. He towers over Batman and the police. While Rhino doesn’t talk to Batman, the Dark Knight is able to follow him to the mannequin factory where he is met with a real shock.
The boss of the outfit, Scarface, doesn’t want to be disturbed, but Rhino convinces The Ventriloquist to wake him up. When the Ventriloquist walks down the stairs, Batman sees that Scarface is nothing more than a very well-made dummy, in full Al Capone-looking regalia and a tiny machine gun in his hand. Ratso, the new guy in the group, isn’t as familiar with the way the outfit works yet, talking to the man behind the dummy and incurring Scarface’s anger. Rhino later explains that The Ventriloquist is just a stooge and it really is Scarface who’s the brains of the operation.
That night, Batman breaks into Scarface’s room and sees the dummy “asleep” in bed. He then grabs Ventriloquist when he enters and pulls him into his own room, nothing more than a closet with a tiny bed. He tries to get the meek man to give himself up and tell him what job they’re planning next, to which he replies that he really doesn’t know and that only Scarface knows the plan until they get ready to do it. Batman then says my favorite Batman line ever: “You can think I’m stupid, but don’t act like I’m stupid.” Ventriloquist says he truly doesn’t know anything, and just then Scarface “wakes up” and calls to his dummy from the other room. Batman puts a small microphone on the Ventriloquist’s suit and leaves, marveling to Alfred later that he really IS two completely separate minds and that he’s even better at throwing his voice than Zatarra, the magician who taught Batman all he knows. Important plot point.
Batman listens at how Scarface is planning something new but is sure someone’s double crossing him. At the heist, Batman arrives only to be knocked out and brought back to the factory, where he is tied up and dangled over a pit of jagged mannequin arms. You know, like in a living nightmare. Scarface wants Batman to tell him who’s been giving him information and Batman, the genius, says it was the Ventriloquist, thus leading to the dummy turning on the man who operates him. Batman throws his own voice (remember, plot point) and sounds like the Ventriloquist calling Scarface dumb and useless. Batman is able to free himself and throws a Batarang which cuts off Scarface’s gun hand. A fight ensues and the other gang members begin opening fire while the Caped Crusader jumps around and pummels them. Eventually, Scarface is flung on the ground and, in a stupor, one of the thugs opens fire, riddling the small wooden man with bullets, one one of the more harrowing moments in the series.
The Ventriloquist and Scarface were introduced into the comics in 1988, making them only 4 years old when he made their animated debut. They represent such a strange and unfortunate scenario for psychology. The man is clearly a genius and can concoct elaborate and foolproof heists. He’s also very good with his hands and working with wood, but he’s so timid and likes to be bossed around so much that he’s created a completely separate, angry, and dangerous personality. This little wooden dummy is so charismatic it earns the respect of criminals. It’s quite sad; like so many Batman villains, they’re tragic figures on top of being deadly and terrifying.
This is an episode I’ve seen quite a few times, mainly because it was on a tape I recorded back in ’93 along with episodes of Animaniacs, my other favorite cartoon at the time. I was always fascinated by Scarface and wondered why I’d never heard of him before. The images of his angry face, the mannequin arms, and him being shot to death in a hail of gunfire, have seared themselves onto my brain. I wonder how many other kids at the time were enthralled/traumatized by this episode. Let me know below, if you would.
Next week, we’ve got the debut of another hero. It took 65 episodes, but there we are. Barbara Gordon returns, but this time she decides to help clear her father’s name by picking up the Bat Mantle herself. Batgirl arrives in “Shadow of the Bat.”