Greatest Batman Stories: Beware The Gray Ghost

beware-the-gray-ghost-btasWhat happens when a foundational memory from Bruce Wayne’s past plays into one of his current investigations as Batman? The trail leads him an actor and television hero whose knowledge and support are the only way to crack the case in the classic Batman: The Animated Series episode The Gray Ghost.

When reviewing the series as a whole, the strongest episodes of Batman: The Animated Series typically focus on iconic villains (like Almost Got ‘Im) or do something really out of the ordinary with the plot (like Over the Edge). On the other hand, the weakest episodes most often focus on original villains that are fairly bland and forgettable, which is unfortunately a trend with the first season of the series (like The Underdwellers or Prophecy of Doom). However, Beware the Gray Ghost is one of the few episodes that completely bucks the trend, using one-off original characters to tell a touching and meaningful story that resonates through its real world connections.

At its core, Beware the Gray Ghost is a story about nostalgia and human connection, as well as their positive and negative effects on others. The episode opens with a flashback to young Bruce Wayne watching his favorite television show “The Gray Ghost,” a series about a pulp hero fighting crime, which clearly has parallels to modern Bruce’s adventures as Batman. However, a series of bombings in Gotham City by “The Mad Bomber” has distinct connections to a previous episode of “The Gray Ghost” that also followed The Mad Bomber and his ransom demands. Bruce’s search for the old television episode leads him to Simon Trent, the now-washed up and desperate actor who once played The Gray Ghost.

Batman Art Reflects Batman Reality

simon_trent_dcauLife following “The Gray Ghost” has been difficult for Trent, with no one interested in him outside of the old superhero role. Trent is broken and desperate, but when Batman arrives at his doorstep seeking his help, Trent is reinvigorated to the point of donning the garb of The Gray Ghost and helping out The Dark Knight in his mission. But who is The Mad Bomber? What is Trent’s connection to the villain? And can Batman’s childhood memories aid him in the quest for justice despite his trauma during his early years?

The major key to the success of what could have been a forgettable episode and the strength of its underlying emotions is the metatextual nature of the story. It’s no coincidence that Trent is voiced by Adam West, who portrayed Batman in the camp classic Batman ’66 TV series. Following the cancellation of Batman, West struggled for years to find another truly successful series or film due to his association with the superhero character by both viewers and producers. By the time Batman: The Animated Series premiered, West’s Batman ’66 was still out of fashion with mainstream audiences and West hadn’t experienced the career revival that he would by the late 90’s/early 2000’s. As such, the similarities between Trent and West add a far more real and emotional bent to the story at hand.

Choosing West for the role shows that producer Bruce Timm, director Boyd Kirkland, and voice casting director Andrea Romano clearly knew what they were going for with the story of Gray Ghost. And it took guts for West to accept a story that so clearly reflected his own struggles and allowed for an honest portrayal of the dark moments experienced by an actor who has been pigeonholed by a past role and is desperate for both a job and money.

Thankfully, like West himself, Trent’s story has a far happier and cathartic ending that contrasts the lows he experiences during the episode. On several occasions throughout the story, Batman tells Trent that The Gray Ghost helped inspire him as a child and directly influenced his life as a crime fighter, with everything from the layout of the Bat Cave to a hidden stash of Gray Ghost collectibles proving to Trent that this mission is far more than just the quest to stop The Mad Bomber.

batman-animated-series-gray-ghostBruce’s past as a young boy obsessed with the adventures of a pulp hero in the time before the murder of his parents gives some added reasoning behind his choices to be a superhero in the aftermath and helps reinforce the idea that Bruce has never completely grown past being a traumatized boy crying out for vengeance for his murdered parents. Being in a state of arrested development is the only way that someone like Wayne could stay as obsessed and tortured by his parents’ death and his connection to The Gray Ghost adds another wrinkle to the idea, even if it is never directly addressed within the story.

The animation of the episode also helps to draw strong parallels between past and present, with scenes from the old TV show being juxtaposed against the modern day bombings and investigation. All of child Bruce’s scenes are shot in black and white, adding to their older nature and given a stark contrast to the present day scenes’ heavy usage of oranges and reds that are cast by the bombings and fires. As the camera swoops around young Bruce, we feel his all-consuming excitement, which in turns transfers to adult Bruce and Batman, who are continually propelled by The Gray Ghost’s influence in their past and the present day needs of Simon Trent.

Trent’s team-up with Batman is just as focused on the value of The Gray Ghost, both as a real person and as an idea. Being able to see that his time on the series actually made a positive impact upon a viewer, who has then changed the lives of countless more, gives value to the idea of entertainment. Even an old show that is out of print and out of fashion can have a positive, life-changing impact upon the lives of viewers.

gray_ghost_bruce-wayneThat outlook on the positive aspects of nostalgia is met with some counterbalance in Beware the Gray Ghost, as it is revealed that the bombings happening throughout Gotham City are indeed directly modeled after those that happened in an episode of “The Gray Ghost.” Not only that, but the person committing the crimes is motivated by nostalgia and a crippling need to fulfill their love for the past. While The Mad Bomber may be a fairly forgettable villain whose secret identity is generally underwhelming, these ideas blend well with the rest of the episode. Indeed, The Mad Bomber really is just a reason for Trent and Batman to come together and for the show’s themes to be explored in a more dynamic, action-heavy setting. The Mad Bomber would never make anyone’s list concerning the best villains of the series, but he doesn’t undermine the power of the episode.

Beware The Gray Ghost’s arc is seeking after catharsis for Trent in the world of B:TAS and West in the real world in a way that wasn’t yet possible at the time of its original airing in 1992. By having Trent not only find meaning in what he once created, but to also make a difference in the modern world and find new recognition for his work, B:TAS is most certainly successful in achieving catharsis in its ending. In fact, Trent’s success and Bruce’s sly admittance of his secret identity to the man make for one of the most genuinely uplifting endings ever created in the show.

Nearly 20 years later, it’s wonderful to know that Adam West has found a new wave of success and recognition by numerous generations for his work as The Caped Crusader. It’s thanks in part to Timm and the team behind Batman: The Animated Series, as well as other series like Family Guy, openly displaying their affection for West and his past as Batman that helped create as resurgence in West’s career, as well as a reevaluation of Batman ’66 being a far more intelligently made and subversive comedy than what was often thought at the time.

As a tender, heartfelt with some genuinely strong character moments and action sequences, Beware The Gray Ghost is one of the great character-focused episodes of Batman: The Animated Series and one that will make you revisit it time after time.

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