Batman: The Animated Series 1.32 – “Beware the Gray Ghost”

As an animator with an undeniably strong sense of visual storytelling, it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to assume that Bruce Timm played with toys. Kids are kids, sure, and even the ones who don’t grow into animators with undeniably strong senses of visual storytelling still tend to love toys. But we might assume this love to be especially strong in the visual artists of the future, an unconscious recognition of the memorable facets of personality reflected in a color scheme or a suit or a pair of pointy black ears. Bruce, if you’re reading, feel free to comment with confirmation or denial of youthful toy-loving.

Whatever the case, the Timmverse is populated by designs from a toymaker’s dream. Classic characters — especially those most well-known rogues appearing in Batman: The Animated Series — get fresh, clear-eyed revivals, unmistakably cartoonish concepts that somehow mesh perfectly with the “Dark Deco” cityscapes of Gotham City. If you’re crafting miniature Batmans and Jokers and Riddlers and Catwomen for the kiddies to play with, both you and the kiddies are going to be happiest with the toys that look like Bruce Timm drawings. They’re simple, memorable, cohesive, and there’s nary a muddled line on any of the character designs. See for yourself.

The art was one half of the success of The Animated Series — the other was the episode-by-episode storytelling, which managed to both repurpose classic Batman yarns and create new ones that felt like they’d always been a part of the mythos. The best case-in-point is “Beware the Gray Ghost”, an episode from the first season that introduces a few new characters and still ties in beautifully with the Batman continuity.

We lauded the Timmverse in our retrospective on Mask of the Phantasm, a film which stands up to most live-action Batfilms and puts the majority of them to shame. One thing we didn’t touch on, though, is the element of self-awareness that pervades The Animated Series and is at times absent from some of Timm’s other series. In Pixar terminology, this is the stuff that entertains both adults and children in equal measure, not always for the same reasons but with one swift stroke nonetheless. In “Beware the Gray Ghost”, it’s the cool visual parallels that immediately signify this as something more than your typical episode of TAS. Soon after the episode begins we see a young child — understood to be a pipsqueak Bruce Wayne — sitting and enjoying a Saturday morning show of his own:

Episode titlecard
Show-within-episode titlecard
Show-within-episode titlecard
Episode-within-show-within-episode titlecard
Episode-within-show-within-episode titlecard

In the “present day” we meet the now-aged Simon Trent, the actor who starred in Bruce’s favorite show The Gray Ghost, and when we spot the show’s poster in a glass case in Trent’s home we might also spot a similarity to this show’s poster:

Batman: The Animated Series Batman: the Animated Series

In these images lie the first suggestions of an element of self-awareness, one that brings to the mind of an adult a metafictional acknowledgement of the act of watching and loving a TV show. And sure, a sharp kid will connect these dots, too, especially because they’re probably sitting cross-legged in front of the TV idolizing Batman while Young Bruce Wayne is sitting cross-legged in front of the TV idolizing the Gray Ghost. But maybe there’s something that Thomas Wayne, sitting on the couch behind Bruce, picks up on in Ghost that his son doesn’t. In the same way, “Beware” has a distinct adult-oriented theme of lost fame and a longing for the good ol’ days of yore that the kiddies will likely miss:

Batman: The Animated Series
They’d also likely miss that Clayface shoutout at the top, but then again they might catch it and the parents might not give a shit.

These forgotten souvenirs of an earlier, better time are paired with Bruce’s (Wayne, not Timm) search for old film reels of the Gray Ghost TV show, which — surprise — have been out-of-print and forgotten for years. We simply don’t have superhero cartoons like this any more, certainly not one that would concern itself with the machinery of fame and publicity. It’s not unheard of in what most presume to be “TV for kids”, but TAS certainly has an unrivaled self-awareness.

And here’s the ringer: they got Adam West to voice Gray Ghost. How perfect is that? The original TV Batman plays the guy that the current TV Batman looked up to, watched with wonder as a child, based his look on, and eventually pays tribute to in a meaningful way. We’re picturing a young Kevin Conroy, the guy who voiced Bruce Wayne in TAS and beyond, sitting cross-legged in front of the TV idolizing West’s Batman. Conroy grows up to voice Batman in the best Batman show since the original, and he brings West back into the fold as Batman brings Trent’s Gray Ghost back to action. It couldn’t be more perfect.

And, as usual, TAS still takes it all one step further: who’s the villain in this tale? The Mad Bomber is a toy collector, a Gray Ghost aficionado sucked to the dark side — not the Dark Knight side, like Bruce was, but the Dark Commercialist side — by the publicity. He bases his motives and means off of the villain from that particular episode of The Gray Ghost, one who puts bombs in toys and detonates these objects of affection with devastating effect. Who, then, must naturally voice this pipsqueak villain?

None other than Bruce Timm, the presumed toy lover himself:

Batman: The Animated Series Bruce Timm

“Beware the Gray Ghost” plays like a love letter to TV itself, not just to cartoons or superheroes, and if you pick up on the careful selection of voice actors and the reverence for Golden Age television serials (a club to which Batman also belongs) then the episode is all the more powerful. It plays as a classic part of the Batman canon and as something totally new, a point made explicit with the pairing of Conroy and West as Bats and Ghost. We can go even further into the past and note strong similarities between Gray Ghost and The Shadow, one of Batman’s clear artistic ancestors; we can go even further into the future, too, to Batman Beyond and Justice League Unlimited, wherein the Gray Ghost is alluded to on several occasions.

But perhaps we’ll actually opt for the kid’s perspective when all is said and done. Shorn of all of this — the brilliant voice casting, the Inception-esque show-within-a-show motifs, the deep themes of fame and publicity, the deeper themes of legacy — “Beware the Gray Ghost” is still just flat-out entertaining. Like so many episodes of Batman: The Animated Series and Bruce Timm’s other DCAU shows, this comes first: entertainment. Without that, everything we’re calling attention to here is effectively moot. Without that, not a single kid worth his salt in youthfulness would watch The Animated Series. It would be forgotten, old tapes rotting in the archives of a cellar like the tapes of The Gray Ghost, and a young nerd somewhere would be shelling out a small fortune for one of those toys.

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