This September marks the twentieth anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series, and the birth of the shared DC animated universe that would eventually expand to present one of the most comprehensive and thorough explorations of a comic book mythology in any medium. To celebrate, we’re going back into the past and looking at some classic episodes.
Adam West’s Batman! occasionally gets a bit of a hard time. Opinion has softened somewhat in the past decade or so, as pop culture has seemed increasingly willing to embrace camp, but there was a time when the sixties television show was unfairly dismissed and mocked for its bright and cheerful portrayal of the Caped Crusader. I’ve always found that a bit unfair, as Batman owes a considerable amount of his pop culture cache to that show, as an entire generation grew up with Adam West’s ham-tastic take on the Dark Knight. Evidently, Bruce Timm and the producers of Batman: The Animated Series understood that, and Beware the Grey Ghost is an affectionate shout-out to that earlier iteration, effectively allowing Kevin Conroy’s grizzled Caped Crusader to recognise Adam West as one of his defining influences.
Beware the Grey Ghost is surprisingly tender at times, as it invites us inside the world of an actor who had a massive break-out part, but somehow never escaped its shadow. Simon Trent, the actor who played the eponymous Grey Ghost, is shown as a “lousy has-been actor” struggling to pay the rent, selling his memorabilia to make ends meet on a month-to-month basis. His agent calls, regretfully informing him that he flunked the last audition. “They still think of you as the Grey Ghost,” his agent confesses.
I wonder how much of that is relevant to West. I’m too young to remember as far back as 1992, but West has always been a bit of a pop cultural presence to me. Like William Shatner, he’s a cult television star who managed to leverage his on-screen persona to off-screen success. It’s entirely possible that there’s an entirely new generation of television viewers who recognise him as the Mayor of Quohog in Family Guy even more than they know him as the Caped Crusader. Either way, it’s great that West has managed to find success after Batman!
However, the show’s depiction of the legacy of the sixties live-action series seems fairly spot-on. There’s a bit of irony about the fact that Beware the Grey Ghost laments that the eponymous television show was not available on VHS in 1992. “We’re looking for a copy of a film,” Bruce tells an archivist. “Actually, a TV show. We can’t find it on video.” At the time, Batman! was unavailable in any home media. It’s ridiculous that, decades later, it still remains completely unavailable. Given how massively influential the show was, it feels like a massive shame that it’s so hard to get.
While Batman: The Animated Series did a fantastic job with the Caped Crusader by pulling the character back to his roots, and treating him as a relatively dark and serious avenger of the night, Timm and his fellow creators were very careful not to stray too far into darkness. Batman, as a character, has always thrived on reinvention and reworking. Darker portrayals like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight can work wonders for the character, but there’s also a place for lighter interpretations like The Brave & The Bold. The Animated Seriesgenerally did an excellent job navigating between those two extremes.
Beware the Grey Ghost manages to do both. Its portrayal of Simon Trent struggling to pay his rent can’t be anything but moving, but there’s a decidedly camp element to the crimes in question. Even Batman finds his suspension of disbelief strained when he discovers that the Mad Bomber is using remote-control cars to pull off his attacks on Gotham. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Bruce exclaims when the villain’s method becomes clear.
Similarly, the relationship between Bruce and Trent is also touching, and yet strangely surreal. There’s an element of mutual respect and friendship at work here, as if Bruce feels quite pleased to discover somebody he can relate to, somebody who understands. After the Grey Ghost saves his life, Bruce timidly asks, “Uh, Grey Ghost? Wanna give me a hand with this?” There’s hesitation, like a kid inviting a friend to his tree house, wary of rejection.
When the Grey Ghost arrives in the Batcave, there’s no small measure of pride as Bruce shows him the surroundings, “almost an exact replica” of “the Grey Ghost’s lair.” He offers, “Let me show you something else.” There’s a lovely collection of memorabilia in the cave, as if underscoring that Bruce is really just a child at heart. One gets a sense of this when Bruce takes one of Trent’s tapes to review as evidence. He doesn’t watch it on the Bat-computer, but in his lavish screening room, with Alfred providing popcorn.
And yet, there’s something just a bit darker lurking just below the surface. Beware the Grey Ghost suggests that perhaps Bruce has extreme difficulty relating to people, and distinguishing reality from fantasy. When he wants to meet Trent, he pins the invitation to Trent’s costume, as if he expects him to wear it to the rendezvous. He introduces himself in typical superhero fashion, emerging from the mist. Of course, a real superhero wouldn’t bat an eye, but Trent is terrified. Back at the apartment, Trent gives him the film, begging, “Take it and go!”
“I’m not the Grey Ghost,” Trent protests to Bruce, and it seems like their first meeting goes terribly askew because Bruce doesn’t really understand that. It suggests, once again, that Bruce sees the world in a slightly childish fashion, even if he doesn’t realise it. He’s unable to distinguish between Simon Trent and the character he played. The episode hints at the idea quite strongly, playing into the idea that would surface again and again that Bruce is not the most healthy of people.
The episode also features creator Bruce Timm in a small role as the villainous Mad Bomber, an over-grown fan boy with all the issues one might expect. He’s entitled, and he’s vain, and he seems more interested in “collecting” toys than he is with actually celebrating them or playing with them. Timm’s casting suggests that he is pretty self-aware, and hints that he’s aware of the responsibility of curating a particular iteration of a character like Batman. He literally positions himself as the force that must unite Kevin Conroy and Adam West, while remaining true to the Batmanmythos. In an episode already ripe with meta-commentary, Timm’s casting almost takes the cake.
Boyd Kirkland’s direction is absolutely superb, and the episode looks fantastic. It’s icing on the cake as far as a solid script and an affectionate homage goes. And it’s one of the best episodes of a fantastic series.