15 Exceptional Title Cards Introducing Episodes From Batman: The Animated Series
1. The Last Laugh
When Batman: TAS first aired in 1992, one of the defining elements of the show’s art deco/noir-inspired aesthetic was the use of title cards introducing each episode — cards that wouldn’t have looked out of place introducing some of the classic crime thrillers of the 1930s and ’40s. “The Last Laugh” is one of the earliest episodes to go to air, and its title card remains one of the best because when you get right down to it, Bill Finger was on to something when he created the Joker: Them clowns are goddamn scary.
2. Be a Clown
See above re: “clowns is scary,” with the added inference here of child abduction and God knows what else. You don’t need to know the specifics of the James Bulger murder (which took place in early 1993, just weeks after this episode first aired) to imagine how terrifying this image would be to parents, and the fact that this image depicting the shadows of a potential child abductor and his victim — at an amusement park, no less — led off a Saturday morning cartoon on Fox says volumes about the confidence the show’s creators had in their product.
3. I’ve Got Batman in My Basement
Most Batman:TAS fans tuned in for the grand battles between Batman and his gallery of rogues, but there were a number of episodes that featured other Gotham residents in prominent roles, like this one in which two young adventurers hide an injured Batman from the Penguin and his goons. Let’s be frank; this episode is one of the worst in the series, but at least it has an intriguing title card going for it. Most titles aren’t as playful as this one, preferring instead to cut to the chase with an obvious callout to the featured villain (“Cold as Ice,” “Make ’em Laugh,” etc.). Here, the ambiguous title (Who has him in their basement? For what purpose?) and doorway leading down into darkness give this card the extra chill of the unknown.
4. Mad as a Hatter
Not that I’m suggesting title cards with obvious clues about the identity of the guest villain are bad things. This image, a clear homage to Sir John Tenniel’s visual interpretations of Alice in Wonderland, is one of the few title cards that wasn’t done in the distinctive Bruce Timm style, and the design perfectly complements the story of how the sad little man known as the Mad Hatter — a man more enamored with storybook notions of happily ever after than dealing with the petty cruelties of real life — came to be.
5. If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?
Any episode featuring the Riddler in a non-Jim Carrey capacity gets my vote, and the title card for his origin episode (hotshot game designer screwed over by a money-hungry executive turns to crime and revenge) doesn’t disappoint. It’s a title phrased in the form of a question for obvious reasons, and the labyrinthine design mirrors perfectly the twists and turns in the Riddler’s riddled psyche.
6. Almost Got ‘im
Under a low hanging light in a smoky room, a group of shadowy figures are sitting around a table. Are they playing cards? Plotting a crime? Trading stories? Based on the title, it’s most likely the latter. The “how he got away” flashback is a staple of noir storytelling, and the decision to go with generic silhouettes (instead of, say, images of the curvaceous Poison Ivy or the hulking Killer Croc) deliberately pays homage to those great old movies.
7. The Terrible Trio
Speaking of great old movies. The plot for this episode — spoiled rich dudes don animal masks and rob for fun, only to be stopped by a lawman who can’t be bought — would feel right at home in any detective thriller from the ’30s or ’40s. For extra chills, the words in the title were animated in the style of an old-fashioned horror movie trailer — which is more style than an episode about rich jerks in Halloween masks deserves, all things considered.
8. The Man Who Killed Batman
For all the praise the show got for bringing Batman back to his dark roots, people tend to forget it was also pretty hilarious at times (Harlequin playing “Taps” on a kazoo? Priceless). The short stature and wide eyes of this shadowy figure could only belong to Sid “the Squid,” a low-level mobster whose dreams of becoming a bigshot go horribly (and hilariously) awry when a freak accident leads to him getting the credit for finishing off the Dark Knight — a bit of news that doesn’t go over well with a certain someone who wanted that honor for himself. Plus you gotta love any cartoon episode so eager to put “KILLED” front and centre like that.
9. Paging the Crime Doctor
Is it the syringe? Must be the syringe. Pretty much everyone gets the heebie-jeebies when a normal doctor hoists something that big and pointy; now imagine a CRIME doctor waving something like that in your face. In truth, the doctor in the episode is a man with mob connections whose biggest sin is trying to save his own neck by risking someone else’s — not exactly Humanitarian of the Year material, but not quite deserving of the Dr. Giggles treatment here, either. Still, this one scores major points for knowing how to make viewers wince before the first scene even starts.
10. Harley and Ivy
Maybe it’s because I’m a big Mad Men fan, but seeing this title card reminds me of the 1960s, when this type of font and art design were more in vogue than in the 1930s or ’40s, the era evoked by most BTAS title cards. That seems appropriate, given the rise of the women’s movement in the ’60s and the fact this episode is about Harley and Ivy establishing themselves as criminal threats who are just as much of a threat as their male counterparts. Plus I can’t stop marveling at how they managed to blend the contrasting red-and-green title characters’ signature colors so effortlessly and not have it look like a Christmas decoration.
Accept this as a given: any BTAS ep featuring Harley Quinn is automatically a joy to watch, and that goes double when she’s the main event. Most title cards either eschewed showing the guest villain or only showed him/her in menacing shadow, but that kind of treatment just wouldn’t do for a “henchwench” as in-your-face as Mr. J’s main squeeze. FYI, this image was later recycled by Bruce Timm for the cover of Mad Love, the award-winning comic that told the story of how Harley Quinn came to be, and eventually paved the way for her introduction into the “real” DC universe. So, like the lady herself, the artwork has legs.
12. House & Garden
I mentioned this episode in an earlier list about DC animated episodes that may not be entirely suitable for children, and trust me when I say this image couldn’t be more perfect for this episode, in which a supposedly reformed Poison Ivy says she wants nothing more than a quiet life of tending her garden and raising her new husband’s two darling boys — and, sick twist notwithstanding, she’s telling the truth. This child’s crayon drawing of a stick-figure family captures perfectly Ivy’s own childlike belief that she can just wish her own perfect family into existence — and not expect anyone to be freaked the hell out by the way she does it.
I’m not a big Bane fan, not least because his whole shtick is he’s a steroid addict and he was the main villain in one of the most overrated Batman story arcs of the 1990s. I’m also not crazy about comic images where someone is shown busting through a brick wall, as if that’s the only way to convey someone’s super-strength. And yet I don’t hate this title card; in fact, I kinda like it. Maybe it’s the stark shadowing that’s hiding his silly wrestler’s mask, or maybe it’s the big chunk of space between each letter in his name. Either way, this image screams “power,” which is pretty much what Bane is about.
14. Harley’s Holiday
Is it possible to make a screwball comedy out of the story of an abused, mentally ill woman who gets sent back to the loony bin after her one day of freedom? Apparently so. Often cited as a fan favorite, “Harley’s Holiday” is also one of two BTAS episodes with title cards that didn’t use black as its base color (the other being the Indiana Jones-ish “Avatar”), which makes sense considering its more lighthearted treatment of the material. (Plus, is it all right for a hetero dude to admit he’s in love with Harley’s ensemble here?)
15. Deep Freeze
Though introduced in the Batman comics back in the 1950s, Mr. Freeze (originally Mr. Zero) was a popular recurring guest villain during the Batman TV show, but it wasn’t until his first BTAS episode that he received a proper motive for his obsession with ice, one that instantly rendered him one of the most sympathetic Batman villains. Because of the accident that makes it possible for him to survive only in subzero temperatures (and his resulting disconnect from the rest of humanity), Mr. Freeze acts dispassionately, often claiming the inability to feel anything, including emotions. This title card, introducing one of his subsequent BTAS adventures, beautifully captures the inhuman nature of Mr. Freeze — or, perhaps, the inhuman nature he strives to achieve so he can’t feel the depth of his loss.
(Hat tip to World’s Finest Online for providing the artwork for this list.)