“You Scratch My Back” (season three, episode five; originally aired 11/15/1997)
Look out, Gotham criminals! Here comes the new dynamic duo: Nightwing and his Amazing Mullet! Despite “You Scratch My Back” being produced and aired in the late 1990s, Dick Grayson is rocking a haircut that went out of style well before that point, and it looks just as good now as it did then. It’s unfortunate because the DCAU Nightwing design is so sleek from the neck down, but then there’s that mess of hair that puts a damper on the whole picture. Cosmetic nitpicking aside, Dick Grayson’s first spotlight episode of The New Batman Adventures does a great job showing how the character has changed in his time away, introducing a new hero that doesn’t need the Dark Knight by his side, but one who could always use the help.
While scoping out the Gotham shipping yard, Nightwing finds himself confronted with his old allies Batman and Batgirl, because where else are they going to be at dawn? Batman stands back as Dick takes out a group of South American gun smugglers with the help of Batgirl, then conveniently disappears just as Catwoman enters to tie up the last thug as a present for Nightwing. Selina Kyle has apparently turned over a new leaf, and she wants to get in Dick’s good graces so that he’ll help her take out a shipment of smuggled goods run by Enrique El Gancho, a.k.a. Ricky the Hook.
Like the Joker, Catwoman’s redesign is one of the revamp’s most divisive looks, but I’m a fan of the solid black costume. It’s stealthy, yet it pops against the red Gotham sky—although I’m not quite sure why Selina’s exposed skin is completely white instead of flesh-colored. Does she powder her chin before she puts on the costume? Out of costume, Selina has ditched the Michelle Pfeiffer long blonde hair and transitioned into the short brunette style of her comic book counterpart, and this helps make her look tougher and less glamorous. “You Scratch My Back” is one of Catwoman’s stronger episodes on this series, turning her into a manipulative femme fatale who has only her own best interests at heart.
The relationship between Bruce, Dick, and Barbara has changed considerably since Batman: The Animated Series, and while this episode doesn’t delve too deeply into the source of that animosity, it uses that new dynamic to distract viewers from Nightwing’s real plan. Barbara and Dick are still friendly out of costume, but their previous intimacy has disappeared. He’d rather not share the extra seat on his motorcycle because he knows Barbara would probably rather be in the front seat of the Batmobile next to Bruce.
Catwoman seduces Dick into helping her track down El Gancho’s shipment and beat up the mob boss’s henchmen, and he actively helps her get Batman off her tail when he spots the tracer on her whip. For a second, it seems like Selina Kyle may really be working on the side of the angels, and that’s when she retrieves the stolen Cat’s Eye Emerald that she had snuck into Gancho’s loot. Dick reveals that he’s been teamed up with Batman and Batgirl all along to track down the jewel, and while his partners take out El Gancho and his goons, Nightwing chases down Catwoman to put an end to their short affair.
The popularity of the Hawkeye Initiative Tumblr has me thinking a lot about male and female gaze as applied to superheroes, and “You Scratch My Back” is an interesting case where both are at work. Dick Grayson is one of the few male characters that has been overtly sexualized over the years; Marv Wolfman and George Pérez realized that the book’s female readership liked seeing Dick in compromising positions (especially with those short shorts), and his acrobatic background meant that he was drawn with more grace than other male heroes. In this episode, we have some Dick Grayson fan service when he takes off his shirt while talking to Barbara, and while he has the composure of Batman when he’s on the ground, Dick moves more like Batgirl with he actually jumps into action.
On the flip side, there’s a whole lot of male gaze happening with Batgirl and Catwoman. They kick a lot of butt in this episode, but when they’re not fighting, they’re standing around with their hips cocked to emphasize their curves. During the opening rooftop sequence, Batman and Nightwing stand grounded and confident while Barbara is bent at the waist, resting her hands on her in-turned knees. It’s a much more submissive, immature pose, making her appear like less of a threat, but it also makes it more powerful when she hops into battle and starts delivering knockout blows.
“You Scratch My Back” is the first animated Batman episode directed by Butch Lukic, who begins to establish himself as one of the DCAU’s best action directors with this story. There’s a clear anime influence in the fight scenes, where character expressions and movements are exaggerated to create more dynamic movement. Lukic is a great director for Nightwing’s first episode, and he takes advantage of Dick’s circus past in the fight choreography, continuing to evolve the combat style he used as Robin.
Dick’s transition into Nightwing is a major development in Batman’s life, showing him that his allies are capable of working on their own. It also makes Bruce cognizant of his own age, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Bruce would take so much inspiration from Nightwing’s costume when he created the Batman Beyond gear. Nightwing represents the future, and Batman would be dumb not to embrace him.
- Batman Beatdown: When a thug flees from Batgirl and Nightwing at the shipping yard, he runs into Batman casually leaning against some packing crates, looks the Dark Knight in the eye, and freaks out. Beatdown with a glance!
- Beyond Dick’s mullet, the thing that most dates this episode is the giant floppy disc he retrieves from the shipping company.
- Loren Lester has lowered his voice for TNBA Dick Grayson, and it does a lot to make the character sound more mature and aggressive. Dick’s not the college boy he used to be; now he’s a man.
- With the redesign, the blue in Nightwing and Batgirl’s costume unites them visually, while Batman’s black, grey, and brown color scheme leaves him on his own.
- “You’re the one who raised him.” I love the way Batgirl acts like Dick’s stepmother when she’s in the costume.
- Bruce: “Not bad.” Dick: “Yeah, for a guy your age.”