Seriously, what was up with the Legion of Doom in those old Challenge of the Superfriends cartoons? Would Luthor just let anyone join? I mean, this is a team that was founded to fight a group that included Superman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, and Luthor thought that Toyman, Scarecrow and the Riddler were major threats, and had the potential to overcome these heroes?! I loved the first episode, when they introduced all the villains, and they spoke about the Riddler’s “super riddle power”. I wonder exactly how that power worked? However, I am not here to discuss the Riddler…not yet, anyway. Today we spend some time investigating the scariest member of Batman’s Rogues Gallery…the Scarecrow!
I think the concept of the Scarecrow is actually a pretty solid one. We start with a college psychology professor, one Dr. Jonathan Crane, who turns to crime because he is fired (I’m constantly amazed at how being fired is apparently very traumatic for some people. I’ve known many people who were fired for one reason or another, but none of them have yet donned odd costumes and turned to a life of crime. Obviously, my social circle must be too small). Because he knows psychology and is fascinated by fear, he decides to use those as his motif (because, if you are going to turn to crime because you’re fired, you can’t just go out, grab a ski mask and knock over a liquor store. No, you have to have a theme!) and becomes the Scarecrow. Although he was created back in the 1940s, he didn’t see much use until the Silver Age, when he was revived. Since then, he’s been a constant thorn in Batman’s side.
The underlying visual and thematic appeal of the Scarecrow can’t be denied. Yes, if drawn wrong he can look cartoonish and silly, but when drawn right he can look terrifying. Honestly, as much as I make fun of The Challenge of the Superfriends, Scarecrow occasionally stands apart from the rest of his villainous teammates in his somewhat fearsome appearance (fearsome, at least, within the confines of the Saturday morning cartoon world). In Batman; The Animated Series they made him look more gruesome still, particularly after he was redesigned for the later episodes. And, in the comics, he’s often looked very frightening. I’ve also always been fascinated by the fact that this is a gentleman who is a trained psychologist, and he should be using that training. Many times, he’s just been a guy with a fear gas, and that’s all they’ve done with him, but they should be able to do so much more. One of the best uses I’ve ever seen of the character was during No Man’s Land, when he situated himself in a church and used his knowledge of psychology to set disparate groups against each other. It was very well done, and there was nary a fear gas canister in sight.
My problem with the Scarecrow is that his characterization and look are all over the board. Sometimes he is presented as a very smart, but cold man, who has no times for games and needs to get on with the business of scaring people. Sometimes he’s shown as a genius in the field of psychology, and sometimes it doesn’t seem as if he’s had any training in that respect. I’ve seen him depicted as a man who lives only to create fear in others, with all other considerations secondary, and as someone where fear is merely a means to an end. At times he appears as a rational man, as he did in No Man’s Land. Then you see him in something like Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Hush and he appears to be nothing more than a madman, quoting nursery rhymes in lieu of intelligent discourse and apparently incapable of anything else. That needs to stop and we need to portray him in a more consistent manner.
So, what do we keep and what do we ditch? What makes Scarecrow a worthy addition to the Rogues’ Gallery? I have some ideas on the subject, but I’ve been babbling on for quite awhile, so I’ll turn this over to the lovely and talented Jason first, to see if he has any thoughts on the subject.
Well, given the fact that this is the cover to Scarecrow’s first appearance, I think we have some explaining to do:
To say the character of Jonathan Crane has been “all over the place” is an understatement. As you’ve noted, he’s gone from respected psychologist to poetry-spewing madman to pharmacological genius to clueless dolt all in the span of a few appearances. Even Wikipedia lists him as insane. His origin has been vague and tweaked and expanded and retconned and ignored. He has been mentioned as liking to frighten birds (makes sense for a scarecrow), then as having a phobia of birds and then, subsequently, being fascinated by birds and given a pet crow. He starts out using his costumed persona to frighten people into doing his bidding, then its said that he actually began his fear-inducing career as a result of early childhood bullying. This later expands to include his constant interest in fear and the experiments he begins that lead to his psychology career. He works at Arkham Asylum and takes the Scarecrow moniker because of the teasing he endured due to his lanky frame. At some point he develops his fear toxin only to stop using it recently in preference to using psychological tactics again. And in Batman: The Animated Series, Scarecrow actually whips up an anti-fear toxin to hold Gotham City ransom. But that’s not all! As you noted, Jeph Loeb writes him singing random nursery rhymes. Judd Winick turned him into a “Scarebeast.” And in other stories he’s revealed to have been born out of wedlock, murdered his grandmother, used a group of young boys to terrorize the city and been beaten senseless by The Joker. Oh, and in every media iteration, from comics to cartoons to movies, Scarecrow has been exposed to his own fear toxins. Not fun.
Whew. Where do we start?
Maybe it would help if we did a quick rundown of his visual appearance over the years. Here’s a semi-chronological recap:
(Sorry, that last one is the epically more interesting Marvel version of Scarecrow. He’s a contortionist!)
Considering he went from looking like Phyllis Diller to a rotting bag of puppy chow, I think there has been some improvement in his style (the later animated appearances are particularly creepy). And, perhaps, this indicates a desire to take the character more seriously as a strong villain. A few things still need to be determined before we can plot a new course for him, however. What is his motivation? Why Batman and why Gotham? Is he truly crazy? And can we definitively work all of his wonky origin bits into one cohesive presentation that makes him believable and a viable threat?
There’s a demented Children of the Corn aspect built into his appearance, his abilities and his origin. He could be like a scary version of Fagin from Oliver Twist or a demented Pied Piper figure. Looking at Ed Brubaker’s recent revamp of Mister Fear over in Daredevil, there are a few directions we could go with Mr. Crane. Using fear as a personal means to an end, i.e. acquiring wealth or status, is a persistent path to follow. Spreading his drug through the masses, as either a psychotrope (as seen in Batman Begins) or as more of a mind control substance (as alluded to in the cartoons), would make sense too. But what is his ultimate goal?
You know, I’ve written my opening line about ten times, flipping back and forth between whether or not the Scarecrow is insane. I certainly don’t think that he’s Joker-level nutso, but I think that he is crazier than someone like Penguin or Mr. Freeze. If nothing else, he’s obsessed with the concept of fear and unlike someone like Freeze, who was forced into his super-villain role by circumstance, Crane chose to dress up like a Scarecrow and terrorize the world. I do believe Crane is crazy, which doesn’t make him any less dangerous, or his knowledge of psychology any less useful.
Nailing down his motivation is even more difficult. Obviously, I think the idea that he wants revenge on the people who fired him from his teaching post is something that we can either ignore, or can say has been achieved (honestly, I don’t buy the firing as why he became the Scarecrow anyway. I think his obsession with fear was always with him, and perhaps was the reason he studied psychology in the first place. When Batman and some of his original Rogues’ Gallery began appearing, I think Crane became fascinated with this new type of character, these icons who evoked such strong emotions from the general public. Crane began to contemplate if such an icon could be created specifically to evoke fear from people, and toyed with the idea of becoming just such a symbol. However, the orderly, obsessive/compulsive part of his brain wouldn’t let him just take up arms against society; that part of him would require society to wrong him. He knew that he needed an excuse to become this villain, and he subconsciously knew that discharging a firearm in class would result in his termination. Once that thought became reality, he could then declare himself the victim and become the Scarecrow, free to spread fear throughout the world!).
Well, it seems that I’ve given him a motivation through my parenthetical musings. However, the idea of his motivation being simply the spreading of fear seems a little thin to me. I’d rather say that, while he is still obsessed with fear, he was a professor at a college, and probably involved in research along the way. I see the Scarecrow still involved in research, but now the entire world is his laboratory. Yes, he’ll perform robberies and the like, for the money they bring him, but that money is simply a means to an end, with that end being his research. In the long run, this could give us a lot of different stories to tell with this character. Each time we see him, he could be testing another theory. For example, perhaps he wants to study the difference between how males and females react to the fear of spiders. He could go about this in multiple ways. First of all, he could try and concoct some of his fear gas that will cause the victim to feel that they are being covered by spiders, and then try to affect a very large group of people at once. In this way, he wouldn’t be able to examine all of the effects of his gas first hand, but he could check casualty figures and reports afterward and get some data from that, and he’d have a large group of specimens to work with. Alternately, he could kidnap people (a few at a time perhaps) and then experiment on them one at a time, perhaps covering them with real spiders, while watching their reaction from nearby.
Imagine the scary here….some innocent is kidnapped while walking home from the grocery store. They wake up in a small, bare room, with most (or all) of their clothing removed, making them feel very vulnerable. Suddenly, a single light flickers on, bathing the subject in a harsh, cold light. A hoarse voice, chilling in its clipped tones, comes over a sound system, and asks the subject to prepare themselves. Suddenly, spiders start pouring through the ceiling, completely engulfing the hapless subject. While this is happening, the voice on the loudspeaker is asking the subject for their impressions, and what they’re feeling (which the subject is ignoring as they scream their heads off).
That’s how I could see the Scarecrow operating, at least if he were researching that sort of theory. However, he could come up with all sorts of theories to investigate, and doing so could lead him into conflict with Batman in any number of ways (or even with different heroes, if we wanted to use him that way). Thoughts?
I think you’ve given him perfectly reasonable motivation without any sort of hint of an ultimate goal. But that’s not a bad thing either. If he is slightly unhinged, then his psyche may not be able to rectify a final outcome…he may just be experimenting for the sake of experimenting without ever reaching his hypothesis because he’s so wrapped up in the minutiae of the moment. I think the fact that this approach makes him so random and creepy is perfect for his persona.
What’s even more interesting is that this accurately blends aspects of his checkered origin stories with the direction the character has taken in the most current movies. It moves him away from the “goofy, costumed theme villain” into more of an intellectual, reason-based antagonist. As he gets from Point A to Point B, the devil is in the details so to speak. I could see him sitting in a high-backed armchair, his spectacles on the end of his nose, scribbling in a leather-bound journal while watching scenes of fear-based torture on a closed circuit television. The fact that he would appear as only a voice and perhaps a grainy black & white visage to his captives lends him an air of detached evil, the kind that is only found in twisted, calculating men like the main baddie in the Saw movies.
This Scarecrow would rely on trusted henchmen to do his dirty work. He would remain in his “Ivory Tower” pushing buttons and taking notes, appearing only as the experiment was winding down. In fact, his costumed identity could be relegated to simply the burlap mask necessary to conceal his true face…or some sort of anonymous coveralls with the mask and a noose necktie…something very serial killeresque. The name Scarecrow would come to symbolize not the actual look of the man, but rather his demeanor. He could even ascend to some sort of post in the criminal underground, similar to Penguin or Black Mask, where he ruled primarily by tactics of fear instead of brute force, the implication of power rather than power itself. I could see Batman visiting him through the window of his richly appointed library, trying to place blame on him for one crime or another, but having no true evidence linking him to such. In that sense, Scarecrow could play a much better control freak than The Joker.
Outwardly, I could even imagine Jonathan Crane playing the victim to the public. Coming forth and showing remorse for his previous actions, swearing to be an upstanding citizen, and launching some sort of charity program for literacy or education. He could gain sympathy from the masses in the face of Batman’s supposed obsession and brutality. Maybe even fooling enough folks to run for office one day, all the while struggling to keep his true self contained in the public eye (and continuing his experiments in secret while decrying them in the media). Double creepy!
Well, everything wrapped up nicely. And much quicker than usual. Still, I can’t improve on this; I think we’ve got ourselves a revitalized, and quite honestly, very scary super-villain.