This week’s episode of Batman: The Animated Series takes its title from a Cole Porter tune that gives career advice to guarantee future happiness: “be a clown, all the world loves a clown.” While public opinion has changed since Porter’s day, our society still maintains a morbid fascination with clowns, especially after John Wayne Gacy, Jr. and Stephen King made them synonymous with psychopaths and demons. Their smiling faces harboring unfathomable evil, clowns have come to represent the dangers of trusting people at face value, a lesson Jordan Hill, the son of Gotham City’s Mayor Hamilton Hill, learns the hard way in “Be A Clown.” When the Joker attends Jordan’s birthday party as Jekko the Clown, Jordan sees the charming character Cole Porter writes about, but when he decides to run away with Jekko, he finds himself involved with something much more sinister.
While the Joker may be this week’s rogue, Mayor Hill is the real villain of “Be A Clown.” After Batman stops two criminals that have opened fire at a press conference, Hill thanks him by lumping him in with the Joker, telling Gotham News the two are “cut from the same cloth.” Watching the broadcast from his abandoned carnival hideout, the Joker vows to make Hill pay for the insult by crashing his son’s birthday party, a birthday party that Jordan doesn’t even want to attend. Mayor Hill’s bad judgment is what sets the episode’s events in motion; as a public figure, he doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, and as a father, he neglects the needs of his son. Hill brings the Joker’s wrath down on himself, more concerned with networking than celebrating at the party, and when Jordan sees the carefree yet compassionate Jekko, he latches on to a new father figure. One that may put dynamite in birthday cake, but at least takes the time to make Jordan smile.
Sneaking into the back of Jekko’s truck, Jordan follows the Joker back to his lair, an amusement park that any kid would be happy to call home. Jordan can finally hone his magician skills, maybe even apprentice the great Prosciutto. The fantasy of the clown is a life of jovial opportunity, but the reality is a deranged, smile-scarred man talking to himself as he removes his eye makeup in a funhouse mirror. The fantasy is Jekko, the reality is Joker. Mark Hamill captures the dynamic remarkably, giving Jekko a high-pitched voice and hint of lisp that makes the switch into the deeper, deranged Joker voice even more effective. When Jordan reveals himself, Joker’s infuriated response threatens to give him away, but he quickly adjusts his voice and body language to assume the more amiable Jekko persona. Despite the inconvenience of having the kid around and the inevitability that Batman will show up to retrieve him, the Joker can’t resist an opportunity to corrupt an innocent soul.
Unlike his previous two appearances, the Joker’s m.o. in “Be A Clown” is as much about corruption as it is destruction. The Joker gets as much of a thrill from watching good people do bad things as he does from watching them die, and the writers return to this conceit throughout the series. Two of the best B:TAS episodes, “Joker’s Favor” and “Mad Love,” explore this idea to a much deeper extent, and Jordan Hill’s experience pales in comparison to the torture Joker puts Charlie Collins through or the complete psychological break he catalyzes in Harleen Quinzel. The Joker’s compulsion to corrupt is what makes him such a psychological threat. Just look at what he’s done to poor Jim Gordon over the years in the comics. Once the Joker decides to ruin your life, he will stop at nothing to pull you into his insanity, including killing your wife and crippling your daughter. While his Joker venom recreates the physical effects of the toxic liquid that scarred him, the Joker takes it upon himself to create the mental effects through sheer emotional trauma. And what better way to get at Hamilton Hill than through his son?
Father figures have always been an integral aspect of the Batman mythos, and this episode makes the Joker one of them when he takes Jordan on as his protégé. Jordan Hill and a young Bruce Wayne have similar childhoods, growing up wealthy with parents in the public eye, but while Thomas Wayne showered his son with affection, Jordan Hill is largely ignored by his father. I’ve discussed how Batman and Joker symbolize the good and bad within Bruce, and this episode offers even more insight into the relationship between the two masks. When Bruce’s parents are gunned down, Batman awakens and eventually takes full ownership of Bruce’s personality, but the Joker persona doesn’t appear until well after that point. The Joker as an aspect of Bruce Wayne that rises from his subconscious guilt concerning his part in the creation of Gotham’s supervillains. A new kind of hero requires a new class of villain, and Gotham’s criminal element evolved into something much more dangerous after Batman surfaced. Yet Bruce doesn’t succumb, and the Batman is able to keep the Joker at bay.
But Jordan’s parents weren’t gunned down. His dad’s alive; he’s just an asshole. If Batman is a child’s response to loving parents made absent through violent force, the Joker is a child’s response to hated parents made absent by their own choice. Jordan abandons his family, and Bruce can’t let go of his. Before Jordan can fully commit to the Joker mask, though, Batman appears to save him, just like he did for a little boy all those years ago.
1940’s Superman: Part Three (“Japoteurs,” “Showdown,” “The Eleventh Hour,” “Destruction, Inc.”)
With the Fleischer brothers no longer at the creative helm, Paramount’s Superman cartoons undergo a major shift in subject matter, moving away from the spectacular sci-fi of the first nine installments to tell stories grounded in more realistic situations. The wave of anti-Japanese propaganda during the war had swept Superman in its wake, and while the cartoons feature some unfortunate depictions of the Japanese, I think these shorts have far more compelling stories than the Fleischer installments. The effects of World War II make the world of the cartoon feel much more real, with murder mysteries set in munitions factories and Superman committing acts of military sabotage overseas, and the conflicts have a bigger impact on the characters and the audience.
A significant change in the Famous Studios cartoons is the absence of the classic speeding bullet, locomotive, tall buildings sequence, now replaced with “Faster than a streak of lightning! More powerful than the pounding surf! Mightier than a roaring hurricane!” The shift from mechanic to natural imagery transforms Superman into a force of nature, beefing up his power levels so that he can sink battleships and fly across oceans. He's no longer a super-powered alien but an elemental force that judges those that would do wrong against America. It’s pretty terrifying, and Superman shows no regard for any Japanese lives, basically becoming a one man Pearl Harbor on the other side of the Pacific. The image of Superman against a red background as he destroys the Japanese fleet reminds me of Mark Millar’s Red Son, and I’m reminded of the dangers political superheroes can pose. As big as his power boost may be, on the occasions when tension needs to be built, Superman is often reduced in strength, usually when there’s someone behind a locked door. It’s hard to believe that a man that can catch a falling plane would have trouble ripping a metal door out of a wall, but they consistently prove to be the hardest thing for Superman to get through.
The plots for these four shorts are much closer to the types of stories told in B:TAS, particularly in “Showdown,” where a mobster has one of his goons dress up and frame Superman for a series of bank robberies. Casting the hero in a negative light is common for Batman. Mayor Hill does it this week, and Harvey Bullock does it all the time. But Superman rarely gets labeled a menace. The stakes are higher in “Showdown” than the usual Superman short, and giving Superman a stronger personal investment makes him a much more terrifying opponent. The level of emotional investment has been heightened in all the stories, whether it is by having Superman fighting for his country or showing Lois Lane working in a munitions factory, doing her part for the war effort. By bringing the real world into the fantasy, Paramount creates a Superman that is more relatable, despite the negative influences of the time.
- Bat Beatdown: Swinging in on a construction girder, Batman slams into the two men shooting up the Gotham Acres groundbreaking. Two in one!
- Where’s Mrs. Hill?
- Joker has a cream pie handy for whenever the TV frustrates him.
- “Alright, Joker. Get ready for a little Bat-magic!” Awful.
- “Quiet, kid! It’s a free ticket.”
- “The great Prosciutto! Now there was a ham!”
- Joker tells kids to clear the area when he puts the dynamite birthday candle in, probably because Broadcast Standards and Practices won’t let them get blown up.
- Lois’s pulls off some Spider-Man level acrobatics as she escapes the munitions factory.