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The Blame Game: A Look at "Old Wounds" and the Dick-Bruce-Barbara Conflict
by Alex Weitzman

With close to 13 years now behind Bruce Timm and his relationship with the immortal character Bruce "Batman" Wayne, it often seems like Timm may very well have told the entire story of this single man's life, with perhaps only the remainder of Justice League Unlimited yet to add to the timeline. We've seen his past in Mask of the Phantasm, For The Man Who Has Everything, and numerous flashback-laden B:TAS episodes. We've seen his future with Batman Beyond. However, I suspect that, no matter how much further Timm goes with the life and times of Wayne, there is one event he will be too scared to breach, and that is the particulars of a fling referred to but never flatly described: Bruce Wayne's romance with Barbara Gordon.


The lovebirds that will never be: Dick and Barbara, Old Wounds.
 To those unfamiliar with the few moments in the DCAU when the above relationship was mentioned, the implications of simply reading the sentence for the first time is probably more than a little sickening. Bruce and Barbara? Isn't that, like, MASSIVELY wrong? The DCAU fails to provide solid facts about the characters' ages, but it can be assumed that, during Old Wounds at least, Barbara is 22-23 and Bruce is probably pushing 35. Perhaps a little more May-September than May-December, but it's still extremely awkward. And yet, while the hints, mentions, and scenes may be ambiguous towards the deed itself, there is no doubt that it occurred. This is, obviously, an overt contradiction and betrayal to the way most folks perceive the love life of the Bat family, because Barbara was supposed to be with Bruce's surrogate son, Dick Grayson. The shift from one man to the other is more than a little disgusting, even if blood is not involved.

Old Wounds does not introduce this facet of the triangle. The episode is not about the building up of Barbara's relationship to Bruce, but rather the destruction of Dick's relationship to Barbara. That it also includes the destruction of Dick's relationship with Bruce, the vigilante life, and basically all that he's ever known....well, it's pertinent, but in the scheme of the whole DCAU, it's not quite as scintillating as the previous element. Dick may slug Bruce in the episode, but if he wasn't quite so hot-headed, he'd probably want to slug Barbara instead. After all, it's Dick's relationship to her, not to Bruce, that goes through the most change in the course of the episode. By the time Old Wounds begins, Dick's already pissed at Bruce. Dick comes to his conclusions about Bruce at the halfway point, not the climax. The break occurs when Robin sees Batman roughing up Connor, a lowly thug of the Joker's who knows nothing, in front of Connor's own five-year-old son. There's a hell of a lot of story left in the episode to go - the Joker has to make his move, Batgirl has to get involved, and then the big rooftop shouting-fight between the heroes.

What's the deal with each participant in the problem here? Let's look at them individually:

Dick: He's growing up, he's leaving the nest, and he doesn't feel especially welcome at home anymore. Bruce fails to show up for his graduation because he's busy doing Batman stuff; worse, Dick seems to feel that there's too much Batman these days and not enough Bruce Wayne. Essentially, Bruce was his adoptive father whereas Batman was his drill sergeant. In the beginning of the episode, though, he's really happy with Barb. He's talking about things with her that are none-too-subtly related to marriage, barring getting down on one knee. After the Connor scene, he knocks on Barb's door at 3 AM and raves about his fury (without giving away any Bat-secrets), clearly seeing Barbara as a sympathetic ear. Later, when all is revealed about who's behind the masks, he punches Batman out. The Old Maid at Toon Zone had this to say:

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Nevertheless Dick is traditionally blamed for most of the fireworks in "Old Wounds" simply because he's the loud one. Understand, slugging Bruce was inexcusable and we cannot excuse it. We can only consider whether he was provoked. (In law, "inciting to riot" is no excuse for a riot ; all parties are responsible.) On the one hand, Barbara almost died. Had Dick not personally saved her, she absolutely would have died. (Batgirl does more skydiving than any other character except Bats/Terry.) On the other hand, Dick only held back information from Barbara to protect Bruce's secret, not his own. Yet Barbara scolds him for not telling her. This places Dick in a no-win scenario (which we know from experience he hates). No matter what he told, or didn't tell, someone would have yelled at him for doing the wrong thing.

The question of the success of Old Wounds as a stand-alone episode rests on how well it resolves the situation of Dick. The episode is framed as a flashback with Dick, now christened Nightwing, relating the story of his departure to the current Robin, the young Tim Drake. In the end, Tim takes Dick to see that Connor has been granted a new and better life by Bruce Wayne as a employee of Wayne Enterprises. Dick is pleased and goes with Tim to answer the recent Batsignal, on the implications of him being sure to reunite with Bruce upon his arrival. We are never granted a Beyond viewpoint of the Nightwing story, excepting a throwaway line in Return of the Joker: "Look up Nightwing some day. Has HE got stories!" Thus, to effect, this is the end of the Bruce/Dick conflict, at least until we get further expansion. (Said "stories" may very well be the ones taking place in Old Wounds' flashbacks.) As closure, it's fine enough for the Bruce/Dick conflict itself, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the Bruce/Dick/Barbara conflict. The Connor issue only resolves the inherent disagreement between the do-gooders in regards to how to do the job. The big climax, which includes Barb, is about betrayal of secrets and loyalty, and possibly love. From Dick's side, it remains wholly unresolved, giving plenty of reason for his cold treatment of Barbara throughout most of the TNBA episodes.

Barbara: I've been working my ass off to try and find a reason to sympathize with Barbara. It's very hard, in my opinion. To me, she's clearly at fault for a great deal of the problem. Looking at Barbara in individual episodes usually doesn't hurt one's opinion of her, but looking at the span of her actions is very unbecoming for her. She starts as the daughter of Commissioner Gordon, and even in this role, she shows a dangerous lust for an unrealistic lifestyle. (Her closing comment after helping Batman in Heart of Steel before even inventing Batgirl: "I sort of liked it!") She sports a good reason for dressing up in Bat-insignia during Shadow of the Bat - she's actually impersonating the Bat for benefit of her father making bail - but in Batgirl Returns, she betrays an itch for the Batlife that also expresses itself in a daydreamy crush on Batman himself. (Interestingly enough, throughout Batgirl Returns, it is Dick who provides the realist's POV, constantly questioning Barb's involvement and reason for putting on the cape and cowl.) Later on, in Batman Beyond - particularly, A Touch of Curare - Elder Barbara relates this little story:

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"[Dick Grayson and I dated] In college. Puppy love. Later on we just never talked about it .... Dick finally got fed up living in Batman's shadow. He decided to leave. He was hurt when I chose to stay behind, with Bruce .... On the street, it was like ballet. We were the perfect duo. But for Bruce (harder) Batman, there was nothing but the street. (briskly) Time comes when you gotta hang up the cape. But Bruce wouldn't. Or couldn't. (confidently) So I left, and never looked back."

That's where everyone went, "WHOA." And it's also where I start eyeing Barbara a lot more suspiciously. After all, her account above isn't really all that accurate. Certainly not when it comes to Dick, which is the one we can verify with full authority. Hearing Elder Barbara denounce her relationship with Dick as "puppy love" betrays Barbara as someone who has a dangerous ability to reinterpret events for her own benefit. Dick was obviously serious; worse, there's little in Old Wounds' early scenes to justify Elder Barbara's dismissive claim on her own part. Barbara also acts just as interested in Dick, if not more. It's been developed elsewhere that they're a mutually-attracted couple (in SubZero, they planned to spend a weekend vacation in the country alone). In Old Wounds, they seem to be functioning on exactly the same level until Barbara gets an "in" into the world of Batman. This makes her a shameless opportunist: I may love you, Dick, but I'll throw it aside the second I've got a shot at something better, and perhaps someone. Her romantic interest in Batman is still concealed during Old Wounds, but it's clear in later stories like Mystery of the Batwoman that Bruce is not the one driving their relationship.

Is Barbara sympathetic on any of this? Well, I can't entirely hold it against her that she wanted to jump into action when Bruce got a call about the Joker right in front of her. It's possible to chalk that up to the superhero's justice instinct. But it doesn't change the fact that she immediately and callously forgot about what she had previously said was important to her, like Dick. In the rooftop fight in Old Wounds, Dick's anger at Barbara comes from protectiveness. Hers comes from "How dare you get in my way!" At least one of these people forgot about love, and I leave it to you to decide who.

Bruce: Somewhere in this story is Batman himself. As much of a victim as Dick is, it's my opinion that Bruce is the most shafted by the events of Old Wounds. He's to blame during the Connor section of the story, a fact that is not lost on Bruce himself, as he then clearly goes out of his way to rectify the problem and give Connor a real future. For the Dick/Barbara thing, however, Bruce was sadly out of his league. The main trespass that Dick accuses Bruce of doing is his introduction of Barbara into the official Batworld. He insists that Bruce willfully put Barbara in danger, and that Bruce is therefore a manipulative and harmful figure.

But where is Bruce doing any manipulating? He knows that Barbara is Batgirl, yes, and never told Dick. Perhaps that was a mistake, but then, as far as Bruce knew, the two kids were getting along fine and there was no reason to spoil the deal by introducing their alter-egos into the courtship. If anything, Bruce was trying his damnedest to keep the romance between the two healthy and normal by never revealing the secret he knew. (It is fairly obvious he figured out Batgirl's identity back in Shadow of the Bat.) However, to grant poor credit to where poor credit is due, Batman wasn't helping matters in Old Wounds by aggravating Dick with his interruption of Dick's date with Barb to demand backup. Again, though, this relates to the non-Barbara Dick/Bruce conflict that Bruce did show remorse for.

When he finally reveals the truth to Barbara in Old Wounds, after Dick's 3 AM appearance at Barb's apartment, is it in manipulation? Of course not. What he saw was a young woman confused and disturbed by this strange unexplained anger she was seeing in her loved one. He had not foreseen Dick's conflict with him, but now it was there, and he knew that the relationship between Dick and Barbara could not continue if Barbara didn't know what the heck was going on with Dick. What Bruce didn't know - couldn't know - was that Barbara harbored these ridiculous feelings for his alter-ego and that her metaphoric introduction into the Batcave would result in her finding a reason to drop Dick like a rock. Barbara certainly didn't help Bruce by essentially pointing at him when Dick started angrily interrogating her on the rooftop about her own actions. After all, Bruce didn't propose taking Barbara along against the Joker. Barbara did. Which leads me to...

The writers: Ah, let us not forget these folks in the equation. The invisible fourth party in the struggle. Old Wounds is written by Rich Fogel, adapting a comic story by Hilary J. Bader ("Batman Adventures: The Lost Years"). Having read the comic as well as watching the episode, both writers make a couple of key blunders. I hesitate to accuse the writers of poor work when a character acts in a way not necessarily enjoyable, because there's a difference between flawed writing and flawed characters. As tough as it may be for some to accept, the story of Barbara Gordon may very well be the story of how a Bat-vigilante can screw herself up due to her own misplaced ambitions. However, Old Wounds suffers under the big angry conflict being greater than it perhaps needed to be by virtue of characters not acting quite in character all the time.

First off, Old Wounds can't quite sell the Dick/Bruce conflict all the way due to Dick being such a seething volcano about Bruce from the very beginning. They've got their Robin's Reckoning behind them, but the episode just asks us to accept their major friction carte blanche without any setup or recap. Dick comes off looking like a jerk in the rooftop argument because he's all sound and fury without that much reason. (Again, the Connor thing barely involves itself in the Dick/Bruce/Barbara conflict. Perhaps if the Connor event involved itself more thoroughly, the whole episode would feel more connected.) Worse, there's no truly presented reason for Bruce to take Barbara with him against the Joker. She offers, sure, but Bruce easily should have turned her down flat; he hasn't trained her at all and this is the frickin' Joker we're talking about. On the reason that there's no episode without her going, then at least Bruce should've dealt with the matter. The writers' mistake in leaving that facet out is what makes Bruce look like the villain to Dick. Bruce (and the writers) can defend every move he makes up until bringing her into battle, and it's not because Bruce says something wrong, but because the writers didn't say anything at all.

In conclusion, though, the few mistakes of the writers are not enough to turn the Dick/Bruce/Barbara conflict into simple folly. It's a lurid turn of events for the characters, and one that tests them to their limits. Dick is so disgusted he leaves, Barbara maintains that she never did anything wrong, and we never quite hear from Bruce on the topic, although his demeanor in Beyond implies a deep regret. (After all, he viewed Gordon as a contemporary, which makes sex with his daughter a major betrayal in various ways.) Timm will probably never tell the story of Bruce's physical relationship with Barbara, but we can still get a sense of what it did to all these great characters, and how the perversity of it stained everything to come in Beyond. Elder Barbara is often a plain-faced bitch, commonly butting heads with Terry and Bruce, almost as if she's proving something. She's mostly proved that you really need a motivating tragedy to be a Bat-person, because doing it for the thrill like she did is a perfect path to tragedy. Old Wounds shows this well when considered amongst the rest of DCAU continuity, even if viewing the episode on its own doesn't serve it as well.

 

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