The Sewer King’s first and only comic book appearance is in 52 #25–14 years after his Batman: The Animated Series debut—and he's dead before he even gets a word balloon. If we could only be so lucky. “The Underdwellers,” the Sewer King’s first and only B:TAS appearance (noticing a trend here?), is one of the low points of the series. With all the rogues in Batman’s gallery, why the producers would devote one of the series’ first episodes to a cheap Fagin knock-off is a mind-boggling decision. Fox apparently agreed, and the episode was the 27th to air, well after the series had gathered a fan base that could forgive a scene where Alfred tries to get a little boy in Ray-Bans to take a bath.
After an opening sequence where Batman saves two boys playing chicken on top of the Gotham elevated train, the action shifts to the streets, where a pick-pocketing “leprechaun” has been terrorizing the city’s pedestrians. The leprechaun is just a little boy in a green cape, but he must have some sort of fairy magic if he can escape Batman, right? This entire scene just feels wrong and begins the streak of unexplainable events that plague the episode. Streets that were previously empty are suddenly packed with traffic, and Batman abandons any notions of stealth to jump across the hoods of cars as he pursues the child, although he has no idea which way the boy has gone. And when the Gotham P.D. shows up, he abandons his search altogether, fleeing to a rooftop overhead. As confusing as the scene is, I do love when Batman delivers silly lines with absolute seriousness, and Conroy’s gruff delivery of the single word “leprechauns” against the ominous full moon almost matches “Bees. My God.” in terms of comedic value. Almost.
The scene that follows is easily the highlight of the episode, a short conversation between Alfred and Bruce that provides a surprising amount of insight into their relationship. As Bruce tries to convince Alfred he indeed saw a leprechaun, he asks, “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?” To which Alfred replies, “In what sense, Master Bruce?” Bruce assumes he’s joking, but we already know that Alfred is one of Batman’s only tethers to Bruce Wayne. Alfred is constantly trying to put Bruce’s double life in perspective, and that often comes in the form of humorously criticizing his employer’s mental health. But I think a part of Alfred is seriously concerned with what Bruce is becoming. Alfred spends the latter half of this scene trying to convince Bruce to take a break, leading to another revealing piece of dialogue:
ALFRED: I do believe a break from Wayne Enterprises and crimefighting would do wonders. Perhaps a vacation. A little golf?
BRUCE: Sounds boring.
ALFRED: In the Bahamas?
BRUCE: Hot. And boring.
So it’s more than just that whole avenge his dead parents thing. Apparently, Bruce Wayne has a bad case of ennui, and the only cure is dressing up like a bat and putting down criminals. Unfortunately, this week that criminal is the Sewer King, and he just plain sucks.
The episode’s above-ground action happens in Gotham’s Theater District, and I hope that’s an acknowledgment from story writer Tom Ruegger that Sewer King’s children-as-pickpockets idea is taken from Oliver Twist’s Fagin. But it still doesn’t explain how someone thought a new Batman rogue should come from this:
There is no motivation for Sewer King’s actions, no explanation as to who he is or where he came from. I try to suspend my disbelief the best I can with anything superhero-related, but Sewer King’s underground empire is nonsensical. Where did all these kids come from? They’re sewing clothes. Is this some sort of sewer sweatshop, too? And why are they mining coal? The situation is so absurd that I couldn’t help but burst out laughing when one of the children accidentally hoes himself in the shin. Everything about the Sewer King, from his semi-British dialect and his never-ending arsenal of crocodiles to his wine glass full of urine, is senseless to the point of stupidity. This is the kind of villain the producers were adamant about avoiding.
Batman eventually finds and rescues the leprechaun boy, and entrusts Alfred to watch over him while he puts a stop to the Sewer King. Another hole in the episode’s logic is Alfred countering Batman’s request with the argument, “I know nothing about children.” Alfred’s been tending to Bruce since he was a child; he should have no problem taking care of his green-cloaked charge. But it’s not convenient to the story, and it leads to a series of scenes where Alfred comically tries to get Frog (yeah…Frog) to eat, wash dishes, and (less comically, more creepily) take a bath. This all builds to a scene where Frog naively points a rifle at Alfred and Batman pulls it out of his hands, growling/preaching, “Kids and guns don’t mix. Ever! You’re lucky it wasn’t loaded, but it could have been!” He then asks for Frog’s help getting to the Sewer King, effectively throwing him back into danger. I feel like Batman’s relationship with his kid sidekicks is like a game of Russian Roulette. The gun's not fully loaded, and five times out of six you walk away with the thrill of escaping death. Or the Joker beats you to death with a crowbar. Frog is lucky one of Sewer King’s crocs never gets him, although the probability of getting an empty chamber is better this early in Batman’s career.
Beyond the abysmal story, the animation of “The Underdwellers” is severely underwhelming, especially in relation to the episodes that bookend it, “Pretty Poison” and “P.O.V.” Director Frank Paur’s (G.I. Joe, The Real Ghostbusters) action sequences lack the refined choreography of Kevin Altieri, and the character interactions lack the emotional gravity of Boyd Kirkland’s episodes. The quality of the animation is much more reminiscent of the ‘80s Saturday morning cartoons Paur made his name on, the same look that Bruce Timm tried to shy away from with his sleek style for the series.
The best episodes of B:TAS are driven by character and emotion, humanizing Batman’s rogues or exploring his deeper psychological issues. “The Underdwellers” does neither, instead offering a predictable Batman vs. Stock Villain story that is almost entirely filler. At the end of the episode, Batman shows some cracks in his usually steadfast demeanor after he rescues the Sewer King from an oncoming train. “I don't pass sentence. That's for the courts. But this time–this time–I am sorely tempted to do the job myself.” What has pushed Batman to this point? The episode doesn’t explain. Despite the Sewer King’s unoriginality, the story could have made some fascinating observations about the sins of adults destroying the innocence of children. Frog is Bruce, Crime Alley is the sewer, a lone gunman is king, and Batman a broken little boy’s savior.
- This episode’s Bat-Beatdowns: Batman slaps a crocodile with a giant bell, then knocks another unconscious by forcing its jaws open (physically impossible). Oh, hell yeah.
- Beyond crocodiles, the episode’s only other major threat comes in the form of trains, which are always coming down the tracks the moment Batman lands on them. I wish I had that kind of luck on the El platform.
- “You play chicken long enough, you fry.” Save the jokes for Robin, Bats.
- Frog steals the silverware he’s supposed to eat his food with and the silver trays he’s supposed to be watching. That gag’s actually pretty funny.
- Batman blows up a wall in the subway. Does he carry grenades?
- I’m not sure if Batman having a collapsible dumpster to hide his Batmobile in is the lamest or the most awesome thing ever.
- Frog’s exclamation of “The light! The light!” when he sees the sun is another of those moments that should have been emotional but just made me chuckle.
- My favorite Fagin analogue: The Provost from Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s Runaways Vol. 2 #13. And not just because I had a letter published in that issue.
- Cartoon Network’s Young Justice officially premiered this weekend. I saw the pilot and thought it was a pretty good extension of the work started by B:TAS and JLU. Gorgeous animation and a whole lot of cameos rounded out the package for me.
- I’ve started watching the Fleischer Superman shorts and was thinking about supplementing Batman with some commentary on those. Any interest?