Your Holiday Guide to the DCAU

I pulled this out of the archives of my old tumblr, Time Likes Comics, dusted it off, and made some minor edits to present to you this helpful guide to celebrating Christmas with the heroes of the DC Universe.

Find yourself having trouble getting into the holiday spirit? Something missing in your life this Christmas season? This looks like a job for Superman. And Batman. And the Martian Manhunter. Because nobody demanded it, I’m going to run down for you fine folks the antidote to this year’s Scrooge Blues and give you the lowdown on what the DC Animated Universe has to offer your eyeballs and cold, cold hearts. Like Batman throwing a cup of scalding hot chicken soup at your face, this cup of DC Holiday cheer is the cure for all ills.

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Christmas with the Joker (Batman: The Animated Series DVD Volume 1 Disc 1)

I’m going to be honest, I’ve never particularly cared for this episode. The animation is some of the show’s worst, it is the first of many Joker stories about Joker hijacking a television feed, and Mark Hamill’s first outing as the Clown Prince of Crime finds him still grappling with how to portray the character. My original write-up of the story here reflects my  long time bias against it. It didn’t help that when my younger brother was just a toddler he would watch this episode on repeat.

Removed a few years from any previous watching, I have to admit… it’s pretty charming. What makes it work is that it’s played straight. The Joker hamming it up is perfectly in character and the use of the canned laughter is pitch perfect.  It’s over the top in a wonderful way and there is a lot of great subtle humor. From Batman having to be coerced into a night off, to his reason for never having seen “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and the general juxtaposition of Batman and Robin at Christmastime, there is something pleasantly absurd and humorous about the entire proceeding. I just can’t help but love Batman refusing to get into the spirit. 

Joker utilizing the Christmas variety show and twisting it to his criminal ways is the kind of thing he would do, and the way he balances the mayhem with his jokes is a fine example of who this show’s Joker is: equal parts clown and criminal. 

Of course, this episode has what every episode of Batman: The Animated Series does, even the worst ones: gorgeous music and lavish background artwork. Even when the animation or writing itself is lackluster the design work and atmosphere are gorgeous. And I’ve got to admit, it’s one of the first classic, memorable episodes of the series. It doesn’t quite have the holiday charm of some of the other episodes of this series, but if you’re looking to combine Batman and Christmas, then how can you ignore this pleasant romp through Gotham City? I also can’t deny the pure nostalgia that goes along with this classic.

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Heart of Ice (Batman: The Animated Series DVD Vol. 1 Disc 2)

This isn’t technically a holiday episode…or at all, really. It explicitly takes place during August. But do we need an excuse to watch one of the best episodes from Batman: The Animated Series? Listen, the snow, Batman having a cold… To me, it all feels like the holiday season. And something about it gives me that cold December evening feeling—so I’m just gonna go ahead and put it in this holiday bunch.

It’s a beautiful, haunting story propelled by the tragic and brilliant acting provided by Michael Ansara. The animation is stunning and seamless—the frost effects on Freeze’s helmet make him look better than he does in any subsequent appearance. It also digs into an interesting character component about Batman. Mainly, that his goal is more than just stopping criminals: it’s about redemption and second chances. He saves Freeze from himself, prevents him from committing murder. But it’s too late—Freeze has already lost the piece of who he is that makes him care about real justice. 

Maybe it isn’t a feel-good story, and it doesn’t really have much thematically to do with the joy of giving, and peace and such that we should look for during this time of year, but it’s…got something that feels kind of sweet, doesn’t it? Batman’s generosity of spirit is as important in August as it is on Christmas Eve.

Oh well, whatever—just watch it. There’s snow. And chicken soup.

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A Bullet for Bullock (B:TAS DVD Vol. 3 Disc 2)

Set in the week between Christmas and New Years Eve, A Bullet for Bullock is a hidden gem from Batman: The Animated Series. With an Emmy-winning score, great animation, and a story that focuses on a supporting character, it’s a superb, noir-inspired hardboiled detective story. The snowy, holiday backdrop perfectly compliments the moody jazz that plays through the episode and makes it feel straight out of a different era. If you are one of those “Die Hard is a Christmas movie!” types, this story should be right up your alley.

Batman The Animated Series’ Bullock is a great, complex character, brought to life with fantastic voice work—as most characters in these cartoons are. His team-up with Batman is handled perfectly, with neither man really liking the other very much. Later episodes focus more on superheroics, so the time spent with a supporting character benefits the world of Gotham as a whole.

While this episode isn’t explicitly holiday related it definitely benefits from its setting. The contrast of the deadly mystery and the jazzy Christmas twist to the score keep the episode off balance.

The somewhat twist ending gives Bullock an almost Scrooge-like lesson to think about. If you’re looking for reasons to watch Batman and want it to coincide with the season—look no further. 

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Holiday Knights (B:TAS DVD Vol. 4 Disc 1)

This is the DCAU Christmas episode that really fills me with nostalgic holiday spirit. It so far outshines Christmas with The Joker as a holiday special. It perfectly combines the holiday spirit with Batman. Written with wit and heart by Paul Dini, it is chock full of humor, action, and emotion. The mix of Animated Series score and classic Christmas tunes is part of what really makes this episode so delightful. From Harley and Ivy’s shopping spree, to Harvey Bullock as the Worst Santa in History, to the subtle playful animation of the new, younger, Robin, there is plenty to love.

With playful and sharp animation, Holiday Knights serves as an excellent introduction to the new look and feel of the final season of the series, now known as The New Batman Adventures.

What I love most about this episode is how much it emphasizes just how hectic Batman’s life is—over the course of just a few days all of these outrageous plots take place, and over the holidays no less! For Batman, there are no days off. Which is exactly what makes the final vignette all the more rewarding. A quiet moment between Jim Gordon and Batman relaxing as old friends and toasting to the new year and hope for better days to come. If that doesn’t capture the essence of this time of year, I don’t know what does.  It is a touching character moment made all the more poignant by how uncharacteristic it is to get in a 20 minute action cartoon.

This is probably THE holiday special to watch this season, if you have time for only one holiday cartoon. Frankly, I can’t understand why it’s not on TV somewhere every year.

BONUS: Holiday Knights was adapted from the BATMAN ADVENTURES HOLIDAY SPECIAL, and while the episode largely improved upon the source material, with a bit more room for the stories to breathe, the voice acting, and the music, there is one tragic piece missing from that book. The Adventures Holiday Special includes a wonderful and moving story featuring Mr. Freeze. Thanks to the release of the movie Sub Zero, Mr. Freeze’s wife Nora was brought back to life,and so the story wouldn’t work anymore. Nonetheless, it is an excellent short story that captures the best parts of the DCAU version of the character. If you can find it, and with some internet sleuthing you may be able to, it’s worth reading for that story alone. 

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BATMAN ADVENTURES HOLIDAY SPECIAL, art by Glen Murukami

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Comfort & Joy (Justice League Season 2 Disc 4)

While I don’t have the nostalgic affection for this that I do for Holiday Knights, since I didn’t grow up with it, this episode is an excellent holiday treat. It’s also a nice breather from the intensity of the Justice League series, especially before the epic finale, STARCROSSED blows everything up.

Taking a break from saving the world  (and the surrounding ones, as they do in the beginning of this episode) the League splits up for a holiday respite. Green Lantern and Hawkgirl spend some quality time together, Superman takes J’onn (Martian Manhunter) home to the Kent farm so he won’t be alone, while Flash takes it upon himself to get the local orphanage the most-wanted toy of the season. All of the stories are charming in their own way, but my favorite is the Clark and J’onn story. Seeing Superman as Clark in this series is simply wonderful, and it is the Kent’s welcoming of the lonely, alien J’onn that is the most heartwarming aspect of this show. And just watching Clark get so excited about Christmas is fun.

The Flash teams up with a super villain to bring some Christmas cheer to the children, and thus brings out the best in him. Meanwhile, GL and Hawkgirl have fun with their superpowers and flirt—thus taking part in one of the most extreme snowball fights in history. 

Justice League spends so much time chasing plots and action set pieces that to spend 20 minutes with these characters is a refreshing examination of who they are as individuals, helping making the subsequent stories even more heartbreaking.

It’s perfectly charming, superbly executed and 100% Christmas Cheer. What a fun way to spend 20 minutes.

That’s all, folks. Hopefully with this trip through the DCAU you’ll be in the spirit of the season and ready for a visit from Ol’ St. Nick.

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