Sunday, June 20, 2010

Baby Doll Revisited

Way back when, I put up a post on this blog all about the Batman villain Baby Doll. She originated on the mid-90s Batman animated series, only appeared twice and has yet to make the jump to the comics, as the cartoon-originated Harley Quinn has. However, Baby Doll’s debut episode remains one of the better half-hours of TV I’ve ever seen. It also marked the point at which I realized how the old Batman cartoon had broken through the dramatic limitations that keep most cartoon kiddie fare. It’s dark, strange, unexpectedly emotional and ultimately tragic.

My original Baby Doll blog post has recently been on my mind because it has been linked to by the page for “High Octane Nightmare Fuel (Western Animation division)” and has since been directing quite a bit of traffic my way. So I already had reason to remember this minor Batman character when I happened across what seemed like a possible inspiration for her.

A little bit of background:

Around my birthday, Spencer took me to the Giant Robot store on Sawtelle in L.A., since he knew I liked the magazine. It was cool — so cool, in fact, that I didn’t know what to buy and ended up getting a comic book I’d never heard of. A decent investment, it turns out, as it’s a collection of Black Jack episodes from the mid-70s. Black Jack was written and drawn by Osamu Tezuka — the kinda-sorta Walt Disney of Japan, only benevolent. He’s also responsible for more famous titles such as Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, the latter of which is today best known to Americans as the thing Disney seems to have ripped off when they made The Lion King.

Black Jack is named for its protagonist, a no-nonsense mercenary doctor who performs operations for the very rich and the very poor. It’s like Rex Morgan M.D. if Rex Morgan M.D. wasn’t the most boring comic strip ever. Its depictions of surgeries are rather graphic and realistic — guts, gnarly injuries, close-ups of incisions, and sometimes even explanations about human anatomy, but all contrasted against the fact that everyone in the series looks fairly cartoonish. Each twenty-page story centers around a new patient with a specific medical emergency. I like it. It has very few of the elements most people would associate with manga. For example, there are no mooney-eyed teenaged girls with animal ears casting rainbow magic against a backdrop of swirling cherry blossom petals.

An especially strange element of Black Jack, however, is Pinoko, the doctor’s assistant. She looks like a toddler — also disturbingly like those creepy Love Is… kids — and speaks with a cutesy speech impediment.

True to the characteristic contrast of the series, Pinoko has a horrifying back story: She’s a former parasitic twin that Black Jack extracted from the body of an eighteen-year-old patient. He cobbled together the necessary organs from the patient’s tumorous growth and squished them into a plastic exoskeleton that allowed the twin to live. Tada! Pinoko! Importantly, Pinoko’s artificial casing means that she can’t grow. Though she insists that she’s eighteen, she’s still relatively new to the world and will forever look like a child.

If you know Baby Doll, you can see where I’m going with this.

In one of the stories in the collection I bought, Pinoko — who lives with the doc as a sort of ward — asks for his help in writing a love letter. She seems to be experiencing some rather womanly feelings but doesn’t have the means to express or even cope with them. At the end of the story, Black Jack receives the love letter in the mail. Heartache of heartaches — Pinoko loves him, not someone else, but she’s so emotionally stunted that she had to ask the help of her crush in drafting the letter to him. Just a little poignant, I guess. The episode’s last panel is him slipping the letter into his desk drawer.

Midway through the story, however, there’s a page that seems to be echoed with the most poignant scene from the Batman episode “Baby Doll.” In the cartoon, Baby Doll is Mary Louise Dahl, a former sitcom star who is mentally and emotionally an adult but is trapped in a physically child-like body. She can speak normally, but she often reverts to the child-like accent she used on the show, on which she played the moppet little sister even though she was an adult at the time. Nostalgia for her days a TV star prompt her to kidnap the actors who once played her family. Batman intervenes, and a chase leads to an amusement park where Baby Doll ducks into a fun house, successfully avoiding capture until she stumbles into a hall of mirrors that even further distort her form. As Batman approaches, she uses a gun she concealed in an actual baby doll to blast away the mirrors until only one remains — and in it, the viewer sees what Baby Doll sees in her mind: what she might look like as a normal person. She pauses for a moment then breaks the remaining mirror. End scene.

(Here’s the episode’s final two minutes on YouTube, in case you’re curious.)

The episode aired about twenty years after the Black Jack comic ran with a similar scene:

For me, the similarities seem striking enough that I’d wager Black Jack helped inspire Paul Dini to create this Batman character and even stage this climactic scene. Dini knows comics through-and-through, it given that Black Jack is a Tezuka creation, it’s likely that he would have read it. And if this comic does have a connection with Baby Doll, I like the Batman episode all the more, because it gives the character a place in comics even if she hasn’t ever appeared in an actual Batman comic.

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