The Condiment King: An Oral History
You think Batman’s annoyed with the Condiment King? Try his writers.
Like a ketchup stain on your favorite pair of khakis, the Condiment King just won’t go away.
Batman hates him for being a nincompoop who makes just enough trouble to distract from the true baddies. But DC writers hate him even more, for being a one-note bit that persists over the years, surviving deaths and reboots with a mind and agenda of his own.
Isn’t this why we love the comics?
Much to my own astonishment, I’ve become the self-appointed obsessive chronicler of the two-bit–actually, more like one-bit–Batman villain introduced by “Batman: The Animated Series” in the 90s and continuing, in one way or the other, up until the 2017 “Lego Batman Movie.” And beyond.
It’s not that I’m a condiments fan. (On a diet these days, anyways.) And truth be told, I don’t even like the character all that much. What I like his surprisingly intricate back story and the layers of self-referential humor–like two eyes winking at each other–that manage to say more than you’d expect about the Batman universe.
For a follow-up I decided to talk to the writers and producers who breathed life into the Condiment King and kept him going over the years. Perhaps not surprisingly, I found a lot more annoyance than affection.
But I also found an interesting look into the organic and unplanned way that writers grow a comics universe–and how it can sometimes grow on its own.
After all, Condiment King was only supposed to last one episode. No one’s more surprised to see him live on than his creator.
“It seems the more thought you put into front-loading a character with motivations, backstory, history, connecting them to the hero, etc., it doesn’t necessarily translate into reader popularity as much as a character with a goofy gimmick and an alliterative name,” Paul Dini, writer for Batman: TAS and co-writer of “Make ‘Em Laugh,” the episode that introduced the Condiment King, wrote to me.
The man who gave us Harley Quinn and Mr. Freeze’s tragic backstory can’t quite comprehend how one of his other enduring contributions to the Batman mythology is a a bad guy in underpants who shoots streams of ketchup and mustard at his victims. Especially as some of the other characters the show introduced–say, Lock-Up, a tyrannical former Arkham warden out for vengeance–remain more obscure.
“Sometimes, it’s frustrating,” he admitted.
Dini said the idea of the Condiment King–who’s less a villain than a gag in the episode, a costumed shtick the Joker forces onto a poor Gothamite through mind control–came from a regular hangout for the TAS writers, Mel’s Diner at Universal Studios in Burbank, Calif. That diner, like almost every diner and sportsbar in America, uses those colored ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles, which became part of the Condiment King’s arsenal.
“Many Batman villains are memorable because they take something commonplace or harmless and twist it into something bizarre. Kites, penguins, plants, hats, etc.,” Dini said. “Catsup and mustard are pretty harmless, but if you add capsicum tear gas and potential allergens like walnut oil to your arsenal, you can be much more formidable.”
It was perfect for the script of “Make ‘Em Laugh,” in which the Joker figures out devilish ways to make his targets act ridiculous as part of a revenge plot.
“We deliberately wanted to come up with some nutty Silver Age-style names in the vein of Crazy Quilt or Clock King,” he said. “Condiment King and his gimmick just seemed to fit.”
But while Dini was the King’s creator, in some ways the man responsible for his endurance was one of DC’s greatest monster-makers, Chuck Dixon, co-creator of Bane and a long-time DC scribe.
“When I saw the character on the animated show it really made me laugh. What a ridiculous idea!” Dixon wrote to me in an email. “I appreciated it as a kind of parody of Batman’s theme villains. A meta joke. ‘What happens when all the good themes are taken?'”
To Dixon, the King was perfect grist for the relentless mill of monthly comics production.
“I always was in need of loser villains for cold openings and side scenes. How many times can you beat up the Polka Dot Man or Kite Man? Condiment King fit right in,” he said.
Of course, no one goes through the DC translation process unchanged. Dixon’s version of the Condiment King was different, a bit grittier and more homegrown. Now he was a crazy kid who squirts ketchup and mustard on passersby at a mall, until Poison Ivy teaches him to deepen and darken his sauce obsession at Arkham Asylum.
Dixon said he came to a revelation that Condiment King could become a repeat villain after reading an article about the Scoville scale, what food scientists use to measure spiciness. Wouldn’t a condiments-obsessed villain know the right combination of herbs, powders and spices to produce anaphylactic shock?
“I realized, ‘Hey, this goofball might actually be dangerous,'” he said. “So I wrote him in a few times after his first appearance and portrayed him as a surprisingly effective baddie. But still a goofball, so he always gets his clock cleaned in the end.”
Of course. It’d be a betrayal of the whole idea of the Condiment King to ever make him too effective at being a villain. He’s always been a guy who makes just enough trouble that Gotham’s guardians have to deal with him, to their own amazement.
Condiment King persisted here and there in the DC canon until reaching a brutal and shocking death in “Final Crisis Aftermath: Run!” Condiment King falls in with a crowd of similar second and third-rate villains, the “Army of the Endangered,” ran by a megalomaniac hoping to improve them through surgery. Except one of them, the Human Flame, isn’t so second-rate after all, and armed with cybernetic enhancements he kills the King, beating him to a pulp and cutting off his nose with the King’s own ketchup bottle.
To me, the ignominious end formed something like a tragic arc for the King–from troubled goofball, to ne-er-do-well with delusions of grandeur, to Gotham roadkill. And it’s all the more remarkable because it couldn’t possibly have been planned by anyone.
Turns out, though, it was a hit job.
Lilah Sturges, author of Run!, wrote in a message to me that killing Condiment King–as well as the other two-bit members of the Army of the Endangered–was an assignment from DC Comics. Why? We’ll never know–DC didn’t return my e-mails. Sometimes a comics universe just has to thin its herd.
But singling out Condiment King for extra-harsh treatment was Sturges’ idea. There’s something about the Condiment King that makes writers want to punch him in the face.
“I just thought he was so ridiculous and I wanted to make a pivot such that this silly character suddenly became a real person who was just being brutalized to reinforce that Human Flame wasn’t some kind of anti-hero but rather a horrible, violent thug,” she said.
What else do you do with the Condiment King?
“He’s ridiculous and that makes trying to add depth to him complicated,” she said. “You’d have to come up with a reason why he does all this dumb stuff and that’s a tall order.”
In fact, I’d argue that you can’t give Condiment King a true motivation–it’d ruin the joke.
Of course, the King didn’t stay dead forever. Two universe-wide reboots later, he showed up in Gotham again, in Tom King’s Batman chronicles.
It feels like the right kind of side character for King, who mixes a gritty present with a thoughtful affection for DC’s goofier past.
But King hasn’t made his contempt for the character much of a secret.
“I think you could make any Batman character amazing,” he told a TV interviewer. “Except maybe Condiment King.”
Explaining why he liked Kite Man–another goofy Batman staple, created in the latter days of the Silver Age–he contrasted the two characters.
“Condiment King, that was created as a joke. Someone’s like, ahaha, that’d be funny, if Batman fought someone named Condiment King,” King told a Polygon reporter. “Dude, someone took Kite Man very seriously to create him!”
If Kite Man is “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” Condiment king is “Sharknado,” and any movie buff could tell you the difference.
And yet Tom King still brought Condiment King back into the DC canon, as he received a resurgence in interest following a brief appearance in the “Lego Batman Movie,” which included dozens of references to all of Batman’s eras.
Dini said he was “stunned” to see Condiment King in the movie, along with March Harriet, “another momentary inspiration”–a Lewis Carroll-influenced escort who wears a bunny suit, like a hostess at the Playboy Club in hell.
No one involved in the Lego Movie returned my inquiries about Condiment King’s inclusion. But it isn’t hard to figure out why he showed up–he’s the perfect punchline for the Joker’s long roll-out of his gang of Batman villains, taken from all years of the mythology. A too-perfect example of what we all know–that for all of his somber grimness, Batman used to have some truly mind-boggling and absurd antagonists. And that sifting through those to find a new favorite, just to say that you did, is every Batman fan’s indulgence.
“Maybe it’s his obscurity that makes him popular with the core fandom,” Dixon said. “‘You don’t know the Condiment King and you call yourself a Batman fan?'”
You could say the Condiment King’s rise signals that Batman has entered a new phase of ironic, self-referential awareness–incorporating the obsessive fan interest, the identification, the cosplaying and Comic-cons, the hype and burnout, as well as the amusement of just how silly this can all be.
Batman’s been ironic before–just check out the 60s. (Ironically, in Glen Weldon’s “The Caped Crusade,” Dixon himself recalls getting into fights as a 12-year-old over the classic Batman show, which he felt was making fun of “his Batman.”)
But back then, Batman was never let in on the joke. Producer William Dozier told Adam West to deliver each line with the “deadly seriousness” of someone announcing the H-bomb drop on Hiroshima.
Fifty years later, Will Arnett’s Lego Batman bragged to Tiffany Hadish about his “Val Kilmer lips” in the latest Lego Movie sequel.
Batman can now wink a bit–even be a fan.
At the time of writing this, I hadn’t yet seen that Condiment King makes a brief appearance in the fantastic Detective Comics #1000 landmark issue–in a funny story from Paul Dini himself, puncturing an anthology that overall is heavy on pathos. Quite an accomplishment for the little guy. In his classic white-briefs-on-blue-jumpsuit and pickle helmet get-up, he makes a one-panel cameo during a Gotham Insider segment on henchmen–the “anonymous flunkies risking prison or death to back up any psycho with a few bucks to throw their way.”
But it does raise the question–just what is Condiment King’s gravy train?