Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures have a history of telling surprisingly adult stories in a way that is appropriate for children, but few episodes delve into the chaotic emotional experience of childhood as intensely as “Growing Pains.” Adding a much younger Robin to this series could have resulted in the writers telling more juvenile storylines, but Paul Dini and Robert Goodman use Tim Drake’s youth to tell a heartbreaking tale about childhood friends and overbearing parents. When Tim finds a young homeless girl on the street he makes an immediate emotional connection with her, but there’s more to Annie than meets the eye, especially when her superpowered father enters the picture.
The episode begins with Annie aimlessly wandering the streets of Gotham when she’s ambushed by a motorcycle gang that is quickly disposed of when Robin arrives on the scene. “Growing Pains” is one of two episodes Atsuko Tanaka directed for The New Batman Adventures, and as a resident director at TMS, he knows how to choreograph fantastic action sequences. Tim Drake has never been more of a threat than he is in this episode, which is perfect because the story is all about how Batman still treats him like a child although he’s able to take down an entire motorcycle gang of adults on his own. Anything is a weapon in Tim’s hands, including wooden planks and garbage cans (yay, the return of the weaponized garbage can!), and it’s smart of him to rely on the environment because, as we’ll see later, his fists don’t pack too much punch.
After meeting Annie, Robin joins Batman in Commissioner Gordon’s office to learn about a new burglar terrorizing the city with his super-strength. The man’s face isn’t in the police database, but that’s because it’s just a mask. Robin can’t focus on the job at hand with Annie on his mind, and when Batman has Alfred drive Tim home, he jumps out of the car when he sees his new friend on the street. Tim learns that Annie has no memory of her name or her past, so he gives her a new name after seeing a girl holding a Raggedy Ann doll at the bus station. What Annie does know is that someone is following her, and it turns out that the burglar from earlier is her father, and he wants his daughter back.
With the revamp and specifically Glen Murakami’s designs, this series has moved away from the Fleischer look in favor of a more anime-influenced style, and that’s evident in Tanaka’s action direction, which utilizes speed lines to give the fight sequences added momentum. Tanaka knows how to work the camera to emphasize distance between characters, and you really get a sense of how huge Gotham City is when Batman and Robin chase down Annie’s father. Batman spends most of his time in the background, but when he arrives on the scene he makes a dramatic entrance, swooping down in silhouette to save Robin from the invulnerable villain. Annie disappears when the Dynamic Duo is going after her dad, but when Batman decides to head back to the Batcave to conduct some tests on dirt, Robin runs off for the second time to find his friend.
Bruce treats Tim like a kid because he is one, and “Growing Pains” is largely about Tim coming to terms with the harsh reality of being a child in Gotham. When he goes searching for Annie, he sees homeless children huddled on used mattresses in ruined buildings, and he realizes just how fortunate he was to be taken into Bruce’s family. When he finds Annie, she tells him about her sole memory of a lighthouse, and by bringing her back there, Robin takes the first steps to saying goodbye. Batman has been keeping a tracer in Robin’s utility belt, causing Alfred to comment that he really does treat his partner like a child, but for good reason. After running tests on the mystery mud, Batman realizes who Annie’s father really is, and Tim’s hastiness puts him in extreme danger as he’s faced with an amped-up Clayface.
TMS animated the second half of Clayface’s debut episode, and they remain the best studio at animating the character’s unique physical composition and power set. Shading Clayface is a labor-intensive task, but TMS is more than up to the challenge, going even further than their already fantastic work in “Feat Of Clay.” Clayface has become even more powerful in his time away, and he’s able to shift the density so that he’s fluid as a mudslide or hard as reinforced concrete. After being ambushed by Clayface, Annie gets some of her dad’s mud on her body and absorbs it into her skin. That’s when she remembers what she is. Robin asks her, “What do you have to do with Clayface?” To which Annie chillingly replies: “I am Clayface.”
After the events of “Mudslide,” Clayface floated through the Gotham harbor until his body came in contact with some chemicals that allowed him to reconstitute his body. Alive but confused, Clayface created Annie to go out into the world and find out where he was, but once she was separated from her host body, she forgot what she had set out to do and was left alone to wander the streets. It’s an apt metaphor for a child abandoned by her parent, and when her “father” shows up to take out her new friend, Annie knows where her loyalty truly lies. Annie leaps after Clayface to save Robin, but she’s reabsorbed in the process, resulting in one of the most tragic scenes of this series as Robin is forced to watch his new best friend give her life to save his.
Robins have a tendency to let their emotions get in the way, and after Annie’s death, Robin has vengeance on the mind. He uses a Batarang to spring a leak in a container of solvent that eats through Clayface’s body, but Batman arrives just in time to prevent his partner from going over the edge. Tim is still just a kid and it’s easy for him to lose control, so Batman needs to keep him in check. When the solvent catches fire, the factory explodes and incapacitates Clayface, giving the GCPD time to arrive on the scene on take the rogue away. “Sometimes there are no happy endings,” Batman tells his partner, teaching him a lesson that will help him grow a lot, but not necessarily in the way he would like. When Gordon asks if they should book Clayface for anything other than robbery, Robin says “murder,” walking off into the red Gotham sky as he mourns the loss of a friend taken from him far too soon.
- Batman Beatdown: It’s a very light week for Batman action, and he doesn’t ever actually land a punch on Clayface, instead defeating the rogue by running away and letting the villain blow himself up. Robin’s a total badass, though.
- The voice of Annie, Francesca Marie Smith, is also the voice of Helga on Hey Arnold, which just got the TV Club 10 treatment.
- John Layman just told a great Clayface story in the pages of Detective Comics where the character is tricked into believing he’s been married to Poison Ivy. The Clayface-Ivy pairing is inspired, and it’s surprising that writers don’t take advantage of the dirt/plant relationship more often.
- “Glad my Barbara’s past her wild years.” The look Batman shoots Commissioner Gordon after he says this line is priceless. What daddy doesn’t know…