As the first season of Batman: The Animated Series carried on into the fall of 1992, many like myself, quickly became regular viewers. The Tim Burton films had introduced a number of new fans to the mythos, and the animated series was showing us another medium in which the caped crusader could play in.
Of course, this wasn’t the Batman’s first foray into television. One need only think back to the 1960’s, and the first time Batman appeared on TV. Actors Adam West and Burt Ward became the live-action faces of Batman and Robin for many years, until the film series came along.
In the summer 2017, Adam West died, and many were quick to remember and honor his legacy. Of course, when it came to Batman: The Animated Series during it’s first season, the show’s creators were not just fans of who Adam was, but sought to find a way to give him a small tribute role in their show.
Thus, Mr West found himself in the 32nd episode, Beware the Gray Ghost, which premiered on November 4th, 1992.
The show starts with the opening to The Gray Ghost television series, and a title card for the episode: The Mad Bomber.
We soon see a young Bruce Wayne, watching the show with his father. On the TV screen in their living room, a plastics plant is rocked by an explosion, and the fragments of a ransom note are found.
We then cut to present-day Gotham, where a number of buildings are being leveled by massive explosions (one of them also a plastics plant). Commissioner Gordon finds a ransom note after the last explosion, and shows it to the Batman. It’s message is very similar to a note on the Mad Bomber episode, jogging the caped crusader’s memory. Even with this revelation, Batman is stumped: the current events seem to be tied to the Gray Ghost show, but he isn’t sure exactly how.
Under the guise of Bruce Wayne, he visits a film collector, looking for episodes of the show. Sadly, the collector says that the studio that made the series, burned down some time ago, along with the original negatives stored in their film vault.
“So the Gray Ghost doesn’t exist?” asks Bruce.
“Not anymore,” says the collector.
Bruce then goes to the Television Actors Guild, where he manages to find information on the actor who played The Gray Ghost: Simon Trent.
Unfortunately, Trent has fallen on hard times since the days of his show. He is late paying his rent, and his agent is not able to get him any new roles, with those who remember Trent, typecasting him based on his most famous role.
Desperate for money, Trent sells off some merchandise and all of his props from the show (including his original costume!) to Ted Dymer, the owner of a vintage toy store called Yestertoys. Trent has done the same in the past, but Ted tells the actor that as the last stuff he sold to him isn’t moving, he can’t pay much for the latest offload.
“I’ll take whatever you can give me,” says Simon.
Returning home, Trent gazes at his empty display shelves, and falls asleep. Awakening some time later, he is shocked to find that all of the items he sold, have been returned! Nearby is his costume, with a note, requesting he meet ‘a friend’ at The Gotham Art School.
He does as requested, but is shocked when out of the shadows, emerges the Batman!
Fearing for his life, Trent takes off running, but Batman catches up to him, and gets him to listen. Batman explains that the recent bombings that have plagued Gotham, are similar to what happened on one of the Gray Ghost episodes. Even with this information, Trent just demands to be left alone.
Suddenly, a strange whirring sound is heard, causing Trent to stop. A few moments later, the Gotham Art School explodes! Trent takes the chance to run, and gets back to his apartment…only to find the Batman waiting for him!
Batman noticed how Trent recognized the whirring sound, and reveals that at the Art School scene, he found another note, this one claiming the Gotham Library is next.
“Help me,” he pleads.
Trent finally relents, and goes to his closet, which contain his personal copies of the show’s episodes. Pulling out a film canister labeled The Mad Bomber, he hands it to the Batman.
“Here’s your answer,” he says, angrily. “Take it and go! Please!”
Batman does as requested, but before he leaves, he turns back to the old man.
“I used to admire what The Gray Ghost stood for,” he says.
“I’m not The Gray Ghost,” responds Trent.
“I can see that now,” says Batman, a tinge of hurt in his voice, as he vanishes out a nearby window.
Returning to Wayne Manor, Alfred runs the film through a projector, and Bruce sits down to watch it.
When Bruce had originally seen the episode as a boy, he fell asleep before it ended. Now, he gets to see the rest of the story. As he does so, the same whirring sound is heard. On-screen, he sees that it is coming from a small, remote-controlled car.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” says Bruce, as the small car drives toward a building, that then explodes in a giant fireball!
Batman then reports his findings to the Commissioner, and the Police set up positions around the library.
Suddenly, three cars just like on the show appear, streaking through the barricades and cops milling about!
Batman and a rifleman manage to stop two of the vehicles. The third one takes off, but doesn’t get far, overturning in an alley nearby. Opening it up, Batman finds no explosives inside.
“A decoy?” he ponders, as suddenly, two more cars streak out of the darkness toward him!
Just then, a rope is lowered down from the building behind him, and Batman grabs for it. As he does so, the cars hit the nearby wall and explode, the force of which throws him up onto the building’s rooftop, where he meets his savior: Simon Trent, clad in his Gray Ghost costume!
“Hey, I owed you,” say Trent, “you got me my outfit back.”
As Batman looks over the toy car he obtained, he offers Trent the chance to come along with him to check it for fingerprints.
Trent is in awe as he gets into the Batmobile, but is soon assisting the Batman, when several more remote-controlled cars give chase. The two manage to trip them up, and arrive at the Batcave (with Trent having been blindfolded before they entered). Looking around, the TV star is surprised how much it resembles the Gray Ghost’s lair.
Batman even shows him a small shrine to his character (complete with the hat and cape Bruce wore as a young boy, when watching the show!).
“As a kid, I used to watch you with my father,” he says, happily. “The Gray Ghost was my hero.”
“So it wasn’t all for nothing,” mutters Trent, amazed that what he thought was just a ridiculous TV show, actually inspired one of the city’s greatest heroes.
Batman then runs a diagnostic on the car, but both he and Trent are shocked when they find the only set of prints on it…match Trent’s!
Trent pleads with Batman that he isn’t behind the bombings, but Batman notes how he (Trent) had the only copy of the show, and the bomber followed the episode’s plot to the ‘T.’
Trent claims it couldn’t have been him, as all of the remote control cars from the show that he owned, were sold to Ted Dymer at his collectibles store some time ago…leading to a sudden conclusion!
Batman then goes to Dymer’s store, where he finds the owner in a control room, filled with monitors, knobs, and dials.
Like any delusional villain with an audience, Ted starts monologuing, claiming that he loves toys, but in order to satisfy his collecting habit, he needs money. Remembering the Mad Bomber episode of The Gray Ghost, gave him the idea.
“And then I remembered what else a toy can do,” he claims. “It can carry a bomb. It can hold a city for ransom. Oh, the power of the toy. It can earn millions…millions for the little ol’ toy collector: me!”
However, Ted is so caught up in his monologuing, that he is shocked when the Gray Ghost bursts in through a window, knocking him into some shelves, that wreck his control panel that quickly catches fire!
Batman scoops up Ted, and he and Trent rush from the building, before it too explodes, the blast destroying Ted’s store, and his precious collection.
Following the events, Ted Dymer is locked away, and Simon Trent allows for his copies of The Gray Ghost series, to be released as a home video boxset. Trent now has a new source of income, and is also surprised at the massive lines that greet him at a signing event at a local Gotham video store.
One of the men in line is Bruce Wayne, who kindly asks Simon to make the signature out, “To Bruce.”
“You know, as a kid I used to watch you with my father,” says Bruce, repeating what he told Trent in the Batcave. “The Gray Ghost was my hero.”
“Really?” says Trent, recognizing the wording, before turning his attention to another fan.
“And he still is,” smiles Bruce, walking away.
And that was Beware the Gray Ghost.
Up until watching the episode, I had no idea who Adam West really was. While I would watch the old 60’s TV show when it popped up on reruns, it never really electrified my brain the way the 1989 film did.
Over the years, I’d often see Adam West in a number of smaller roles (like a crooked cop in the 1987 film, Zombie Nightmare, which was skewered on the show Mystery Science Theater 3000), but out of all his parts in the last couple decades, his role here as Simon Trent, is still the one that stands out the most to me.
I did wonder what may have gone through West’s mind, when there were scenes of Trent frustrated that he could not escape the shadow of his biggest role. Word is that showrunners Bruce Timm and Paul Dini had the idea to have West voice Trent, but would not have made the episode if he hadn’t agreed to play the character.
The episode really felt like the show writers getting the chance to build up their own mythos for the Animated Series. Also, the emotions that both Trent and Batman go through, are a bit more ‘adult’ in nature. Most kids probably wouldn’t get Trent’s frustration, or the tone of disappointment Batman feels, when Trent seems to want to bury anything to do with his character.
The episode even manages to combine elements of the 30’s serials, notably in how the Gray Ghost seems to be an homage to the radio character, The Shadow
Even Ted Dymer (voiced by the show’s co-creator, Bruce Timm), has a plan almost worthy of the 60’s TV show’s bad guys (though much more explosive than anything those bad guys ever did!).
The story starts out pretty strong, but it seems when it comes to the conclusion with Ted Dymer, it is wrapped up incredibly fast, with the bulk of the storytelling being focused on Batman, and Trent. Dymer just monologues, is knocked out, and his place goes up in smoke in about 2 minutes of screen-time!
Over the years, West was often ripe for parody, but with his role here, he is given a wonderful ‘thank you’ by some great Bat-fans.
Most notable looking back on it now, is the ending in which Simon Trent gains a new lease on life as the Gray Ghost. This comes about when he is able to release the series on home video.
The same feeling came about in the last few years, when the 60’s TV series of Batman, was finally able to be released to consumers. It also brought forth a number of merchandising items honoring the show, from Mattel action figures, to a massive LEGO set that combined Wayne Manor and the Batcave from the show!
Speaking of merchandise, I was genuinely surprised in recent years, when the Batman Animated Series got a line of DC Direct action figures. With new molds and following the show designs more accurately, I was disappointed that even with the line making some figures that were never released, we never did get a newer molding of The Gray Ghost (who has had a few different figures released over the years!).
1992 could be considered a big year for Batman.
While the Tim Burton-directed Batman Returns was a hit in theaters that summer (despite it’s somewhat ‘darker’ tone), a new incarnation of the Dark Knight,would find it’s way to the Fox Kids block of weekday afternoon shows that fall.
With it’s retro-stylings and entertaining writing, the show quickly became one that I and many kids watched after school (if any cartoon block could give The Disney Afternoon a run for it’s money, Fox Kids could!).
While there would be plenty of colorful members of Batman’s rogues gallery that came to light, the show would also give time over to the mobsters within Gotham City, as well as members of it’s police force (two areas that the movie series at the time, failed to properly focus on).
It also gave us some interesting one-shots, dealing with the average people that lived within the city, and how Batman and his adversaries interacted with them.
The first ‘average Joe’ we encountered, was Charles Michael Collins, in the 7th episode of the first season, titled Joker’s Favor.
On the freeway heading home from work, Charlie Collins is taking stock of his bad day: his boss turned down his request for a raise, his son needs braces, and his wife is making meat loaf for dinner.
Charlie feels the world is further treating him like a punching bag, when several police cars and the Batmobile flash their lights, making him move to another lane. Right after this, a station wagon cuts him off, and Charlie decides he’s had enough! Catching up to the wagon, he begins to rant at it’s driver.
“Hey, you,” he yells. “Yeah, I’m talking to you, clown! You think you own the whole road? Why for two cents, I’d-”
Charlie quickly shuts up, when the street lights reveal just who cut him off: The Joker!
Fearing for his life, Charlie pulls off onto some side roads. Eventually his car gives out, and he is soon confronted by the Joker. The Clown is about to teach his rude friend some manners, when Charlie pleads that he’ll do anything if the Joker will spare him.
This request intrigues the Joker, and he asks for Charlie’s wallet. Taking his driver’s license, the Joker claims he’ll let Charlie go, if he’ll do him a favor.
“Okay,” agrees Charlie. “What?”
“I DON’T KNOW!! I haven’t thought of it yet!” Yells the Joker, before his voice softens. “You just toddle on back to your mundane, meaningless little life, and when I need you, I’ll call.”
The Joker then walks away laughing, as Charlie is left behind, shaking from the encounter.
Two years later, we cut to the Gotham Police Department. A testimonial dinner is being planned for Commissioner Gordon at the Gotham Peregrinators Club, but deep down, he finds the whole thing a waste of time and money.
As he sulks in his office, the Batman shows up.
Gordon claims that the Batman should be honored instead of him, but the Dark Knight puts things in perspective, claiming he just works “the night shift,” while Gordon has to deal with things on a daily basis.
The Commissioner accepts the Batman’s ‘endorsement,’ but as he asks if his friend knows where to rent a tux, he finds the room empty.
“I hate it when he does that,” mutters Gordon.
Meanwhile, the Joker has gotten out ‘on early parole,’ and feels he should be able to honor Gordon at the event as well. As he looks through his little black book, his assistant Harley Quinn, asks if he’s looking for ‘a specialist.’
“No no,” says the Joker, pulling out Charlie’s license. “Just an old friend…who’s dying to do me a favor!”
Some time afterward, the phone rings at the residence of Don Wallace, in Springdale, Ohio. When the caller asks for Charlie Collins, Don claims the caller has the wrong number. However, the Joker is on the phone, and he knows he’s talking to Charlie! He even rattles off Charlie’s new address, and claims he’s made knowing about Charlie and his family, his ‘hobby.’
The Joker tells Charlie that there’s a ticket on the next plane to Gotham for him, and that he should tell his family he’s visiting ‘a sick friend.’
Once Charlie is face-to-face with him again, the Joker is all-smiles, as if he’s seeing an old friend. Charlie pleads that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but the Joker simply tells him that once the favor is repaid, he can go home.
Soon, the Joker outlines Charlie’s part of his plan. Harley is to deliver a huge cake to Gordon’s party at The Peregrinators Club. Charlie will stand by the main doors to the party room, and once Harley knocks three times, he opens the door…and that’s all he has to do!
When Charlie enters the club’s room prior to the start of the party, he sees two of the Joker’s henchmen standing nearby, keeping an eye on things. With the two men in the room, he realizes there’s no way he can alert any of the cops about what is going to happen, and wishes he could somehow contact the Batman.
Walking into the nearby Hall of Inventions, he sees a glider in the shape of a bat, hanging from a crane. Willing to try anything, he maneuvers the glider to a nearby window.
It just so happens that Bruce Wayne had been at the party a few minutes prior, congratulating Gordon. As he and his butler Alfred drive away, Alfred points out the bat-symbol in the window behind them, wavering back-and-forth.
As Gordon gives a few words inside, three knocks are heard at the door. Charlie opens it, and Harley enters with the cake. Charlie then attempts to leave, but finds an adhesive keeping his hand stuck to the door handle!
Harley gives a little ode to the Commissioner, when suddenly, nerve gas erupts from some nearby candles. Harley gives Charlie a gas mask, and the two watch as everyone in the room freezes in place!
The Joker then emerges from the cake, and has Harley place a small bomb on Gordon’s jacket.
“Wear it in good health,” he chuckles, “all remaining 59 seconds of it. Toodles!”
“Wait! You promised to send me home,” pleads Charlie, still stuck to the handle.
“I never said, ‘alive,'” laughs the Joker, as he and Harley leave the room.
A few moments after they leave, Batman appears through the skylight in the room. Charlie points out the bomb, and Batman quickly sends it hurtling outside of the building (where it conveniently blows up the Joker’s van).
Back in the main room, everyone has started to regain movement, and Batman loosens the adhesive on Charlie’s hand. He tells Batman about the Joker using him as part of the assassination plot, before Batman rushes into the club to find the Joker.
He quickly subdues the Joker’s goons and Harley, but ends up chasing his adversary into a recreated ancient temple (“Right down to the poison-tipped darts!” laughs the Joker at one point).
The Joker attempts to blow up Batman, but mainly succeeds in the bomb destroying the temple, as both of them run for their lives.
Escaping into an adjoining alleyway, the Joker is confronted by Charlie. At first, he laughs off seeing the little man again, but Charlie then punches him, knocking him to the ground!
“You miserable little nobody!” he spits out. “If I get caught, your wife and son are history!”
Charlie then claims that he’s got some insurance…and reveals one of the Joker’s bombs, which is ticking!
“This is how it ends, Joker.,” he says. “No big schemes. No grand fight to the finish with the Dark Knight. Tomorrow, all the papers will say, is that the great Joker was found blown to bits in an alley, alongside a ‘miserable little nobody!’ Kinda funny, ironic really. See, I can destroy a man’s dreams too…and that’s really the only dream you’ve got, isn’t it?”
“Stop! You’re crazy!” pleads the Joker, struggling to get away.
“I had a good teacher,” smiles Charlie.
The Joker desperately calls for Batman to help him, and his adversary emerges from the shadows. Batman tells Charlie to stop what he’s doing, but the angry little man is determined to finish off the Joker, claiming it’s the only way to keep his family safe.
It is then the Joker empties out his pockets, claiming all the information about Charlie’s family is there.
Charlie then freaks out the white-faced clown, and chucks the bomb at him! Joker ducks behind Batman, and the detonator goes off…just causing a puff of confetti, and a paper reading ‘boom” to pop out.
“Gotcha!” smiles Charlie devilishly, as Batman laughs at his little ‘joke.’
“Oh, very funny,” smirks the Joker, like a bad sport. “A million laughs.”
As Batman leads the Joker away, Charlie heads off, eager to get home to his family.
After all these years, Joker’s Favor is still one of my Top 5 favorite episodes for this series, and in the release schedule for the show, it was our first story to feature this incarnation of the Joker.
It was nice to see that the showrunners didn’t just decide to make an animated Jack Nicholson, and gave this Joker his own spin on the Clown Prince of Crime. It also was one of the first times I think many of us realized actor Mark Hamill’s talent for voices. He manages to provide a voice that becomes impossible to separate from the mad man we see on-screen.
This Joker is also a bit theatrical, but does have certain vestiges of pride.
Notable is when he asks for Charlie’s wallet. Charlie thinks the Joker wants whatever cash he has, and the clown is somewhat disgusted at what Charlie is thinking.
“Oh please, don’t insult me,” he snaps.
Of course, the character also revels in the power he has over this little man. The Joker even gives Charlie all sorts of nicknames, from ‘Chuckers’ to ‘Charlie Brown.’
To many a Batfan, what is most notable about the episode after all these years, is that it marked the first appearance of one of the modern era’s most famous Batman characters: Harley Quinn (voiced by Arleen Sorkin).
In the beginning, she seemed little more than a cute hench-girl for the Joker, but as time went on, a backstory was developed for her, and she began to appear in more material related to Batman. In this episode, she is the main ‘cheerleader’ around the Joker’s plans, and has some memorable lines.
When she tries to sweet-talk Batman as a distraction, he quickly subdues her, and leaves her handcuffed for the Police to arrest.
“Beauty school’s looking pretty good about now,” she mutters.
And then, there’s Charlie Collins.
Of all the ‘average Joe’s’ the show has had, Charlie is the one who definitely stands out. He’s just an regular guy, who ended up thrust into circumstances beyond his control.
My favorite moment for the character, comes at the end when Charlie freaks out the Joker. It’s the equivalent of seeing a person whose been bullied, getting ‘the last laugh’ on their tormentor. Actor Ed Begley Jr, provides Charlie’s voice, and it’s fun to hear him go from timid, to almost crazed as he makes the Joker squirm.
Plus, it is funny that Charlie manages to do what the Joker couldn’t: make the Batman laugh!
We also get some fun little character moments, with members of Gotham’s police force. At the time, we were just beginning to meet other members of the force, such as Detective Harvey Bullock, and Officer Renee Montoya.
At the Peregrinator’s Club, we see Montoya acting much more ‘refined’ than Bullock, who seems to be there just for the free food. There also comes a moment where he tries to sweet-talk Harley, and gets the business end of a baton to his knees.
While one of my favorites, the episode isn’t perfect.
What is notable is that when Charlie throws the bomb at the Joker, Batman has a split-second look of panic, yet doesn’t run! With a (supposed) live-bomb inches away from him, it is surprising that he wouldn’t try to kick it or toss it away (even with seconds to spare!), given how we saw him handle the last few explosives the Joker was using. Of course, it is funny to see both Batman and the Joker, in this split-second shot of utter panic.
There also is a thought, that maybe the episode could have been better utilized later on in the first season of the show. I mean, we’re seven episodes in, and we have a guy threatening to blow up the Joker!? If Charlie had gone through with it, I think Hamill’s Joker would have had slightly more screentime than Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad!
Even the music for the episode, has it’s own special ‘flavor.’ The late Shirley Walker often never gets enough recognition for the themes and musical pieces she did for the series. While there is a tinge of Danny Elfman in some areas, she brings a regality to Batman’s theme, and a playful-yet-ominous tone to the Joker’s theme.
Joker’s Favor has a theme that feels like a distant cousin to the Joker’s Theme. It has a happy-go-lucky feel with a chorus whistling a tune, but becomes somewhat humorous with an added synthesizer piece put in, that sounds like someone is squeezing a whoopee-cushion. It’s never stated outright, but I sometimes refer to the piece as Charlie’s theme song: it seems the kind of song for a ‘lovable loser,’ who just wants something to go right in his life.
Overall, I feel Joker’s Favor should be ‘required viewing’ for anyone who is introducing someone to Batman: The Animated Series. As we celebrate the show having been around for over 25 years, stay tuned, as we recap several more episodes in the coming months.