Crafting a Whole Different – and Beloved – Take on the Classic Hero 5
Season 1 13
Season 2 30
Season 3 35
Season 4 37
Batman: The Animated Series:
Crafting a Whole Different – and Beloved – Take on the Classic Hero
The world, it seemed, was in need of a Batman.
Though the Caped Crusader had never really slowed down over the years since he first appeared in 1939, he experienced an amazing resurgence with the release of 1989’s motion picture “Batman,” starring an unexpected Michael Keaton. High-tech special effects, a smart, updated, glossy black appearance for the hero and his car, and new, dramatic dialogue … This was no campy 1960s show, it was clear. And it was Bat-mania all over again, from there on out, with the Dark Knight gaining an all-new generation of fans. The movie’s sequel, “Batman Returns,” followed in 1992, cementing the popularity.
Batman first came onto the scene in Detective Comics No. 27 in May 1939, at top. Adam West surely popularized the character in the 1960s TV series, but it wasn’t until the 1989 and 1992 motion pictures starring Michael Keaton that the comic-book hero gained a whole new superstatus.
Then came a whole new installment for this Bat-generation: “Batman: The Animated Series,” in September 1992. It took the new movie franchise and set it down-and-darker another notch or two. This was a Gotham City that was always night; this was a hero who was always brooding, always driven, always remembering the pain that had shaped him. This was a return to the truer comic-book tradition of the character, many fans felt. It seemed to imply that the ’60s Adam West series and the Filmation cartoons never happened. This Batman embodied incomparable strength. This Batman would never crack a joke. This was a Batman we could really believe in, much more like the hero created by 22-year-old artist Bob Kane in issue No. 27 of Detective Comics.
With a creative team that included Paul Dini, Alan Burnett and Bruce Timm, “Batman: The Animated Series” in many ways reinvented the Bat-world, and it came to be known as the preferred Bat-world for many fans, especially after the movie franchise sputtered with its further installments, 1995’s “Batman Forever” and 1997’s dreadful “Batman & Robin.” So did the animated-series team know just how loved their interpretation would become?
“I was drawing storyboards for ’Tiny Toons’ when Jean MacCurdy, then vice-president of Warner Bros. Animation, announced at a staff meeting that we would be developing Batman, as well as other Warner-owned properties, for possible cartoon series,” Bruce Timm said in the “Batman: Animated” coffeetable book by Paul Dini and Chip Kidd. “I rushed back to my cubicle, tossed Plucky Duck into the corner, and in about an hour, filled an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of paper with designs that, with very minor tinkering, became the main model sheet for our show.”
Timm’s blending of elegant simplicity and exaggerated style for Batman and his surrounds were paired with co-producer Eric Radomski’s dark, film-noir mood to create the overall look of “Batman: The Animated Series.” The writing geniuses of Burnett and Dini completed the picture. With this team, and others added along the way, the original creation of Kane (“who truly caught lightning in a bottle,” Timm said) flourished, all in what Radomski termed a “retro-40s feel” — ironically also reflecting the influence of the Max and Dave Fleischer “Superman” cartoons of the early 1940s. In this Gotham City, VCRs, Tommy guns, zeppelins and computers all exist together in a mind-bending way.
The voicework of the show was also key to its success. Just as Michael Keaton had transformed fans’ perceptions as Batman on the big screen, casting Mark Hamill of “Star Wars” fame as the comically menacing Joker (though Tim Curry was originally cast) and sexy star Adrienne Barbeau as Catwoman here lent a wonderful aura. Film legend Roddy McDowall as the Mad Hatter? Somehow appropriate. Songster of the ’70s Paul Williams as the Penguin? Bring it on! Listening for celebrity voices added a fun element to the series. “Major celebrities have worked on our show, and it’s wonderful,” said voice director Andrea Romano. “The benefit, of course, to this kind of work is, there’s no memorizing, no makeup, no wardrobe.”
The voice casting even brought a classic Bat-name out of the woodwork: the aforementioned Adam West, 1960s Caped Crusader, voiced aging actor Simon Trent (who, like West, was once an action hero on screen) in the episode “Beware the Gray Ghost.” In a November 1998 interview, I asked West the story behind that gig. “They just called, and they had a script, and they asked,” he told me. “I said to the agent, ’You know, I wouldn’t mind doing this,’ because maybe they would make it a series. I kinda liked the Gray Ghost; he was sort of a humanlike guy.”
When those first episodes of the series premiered, DC Comics President Jenette Kahn said, “they represented the most exhilarating animation ever created for the television screen. The art relied on mass and volume, not on line, giving the characters a substance that was as much contextual as visual. The superbly controlled palette filled Gotham with an atmosphere of brooding and menace, a sense that anything could happen in a city lined day and night by shadow. And it did.”
At Batman’s crimefighting side in this series were Robin, then Batgirl, then another Robin and eventually Nightwing. (The initial Robin was given more prominence in the earlier days by mandate from the show’s original network, Fox Kids, which was, of course, intent on appealing to kids.) Serving Bruce at home was trusty butler Alfred. Helping him out at the Wayne Enterprises offices was a much-needed splash of color, Lucius Fox. Forming an alliance with him was Police Commissioner James Gordon. And battling Batman every step of the way were his “Rogues Gallery” of villains: Joker (heavily used in the first season as the villain producers no-doubt felt was the most recognizable), Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman and Mr. Freeze as the classics, with Man-Bat, Clayface, Mad Hatter, Two-Face, Scarecrow and others thrown in. Many had origin episodes in this animated incarnation, and some, such as Penguin and Catwoman, were purposely based on their big-screen counterparts of the same era. Some, such as Poison Ivy, were lesser-known villains in the comics who were given whole new life in the animated series.
The series also introduced new characters to the Bat-universe, some of which were brought into the comic-book realm as a result. Case in point: the wildly popular Harley Quinn, girlfriend to the Joker, whom Dini created after seeing his college friend, actress Arleen Sorkin, wearing a court jester outfit in a dream sequence on the soap “Days of Our Lives.” He tapped Sorkin to voice the character. Harley’s origin story, “Mad Love,” was a very well-received 1994 comic book because of her popularity on the animated series, and she was introduced into the regular Batman continuity with the graphic novel “Batman: Harley Quinn” in 1999. “Bruce, Eric, Alan and I agreed that while we never wanted to delve too deeply into the rotting offal that passes as the Joker’s soul,” Dini wrote in “Batman: Animated,” “we did want to broaden his character a bit. One way we humanized the least human of Batman’s enemies was to put him in a relationship with a woman who, for whatever reasons, adores him.” Rumors flew during the 1990s that Harley might emerge in the big-screen franchise, as well (at one time, Madonna’s name was attached to this particular rumor). Dini told me in 1999 that “Batman & Robin” director Joel Schumacher actually told him, on the set, that he was considering Harley Quinn as a villain for the next film in the franchise, “if they got through this film,” Dini said.
Also emerging for this series were Lt. Renee Montoya, adding more diversity to the cast. Dini and Timm created the thrill-chasing villain Roxy Rocket / Roxanne Sutton, as well. She pops up in the latter part of the series’ run. The villain of Baby-Doll was created, a former child star who couldn’t make it as a dramatic actress and turned to a life of crime. Summer Gleeson, red-haired reporter, has been compared to Vicki Vale of the comics’ lore. Add to that the Red Claw (rolled out in the first season), the Sewer King, Lock-Up and Tygrus, special characters created to liven up the animated series, some of whom crossed over to the regular Batman comics continuum.
The title screens of “Batman: The Animated Series” reflected the creativity of the show’s crew, each giving an artistic hint as to what would happen in the episode. This formula is rather unique to the series; the same creators didn’t continue it with shows such as “Justice League” and “Superman.”
Arkham Asylum plays prominently in this series. We often get a glimpse over the prison walls at the Rogues Gallery within, so important in our understanding of the Batman character himself. Wayne Manor and the Batcave provide prominent settings for this animated series, as does the sprawling, beautiful Gotham cityscape itself, so tongue-in-cheek at night with blinking neon lights advertising various retro-seeming commodities. Batman’s vigilante inception at the moment of his parents’ murder is often referenced, and the playboy, lighter-voiced persona of his billionaire alter ego Bruce Wayne provides an ideal foil. “He is Batman,” said actor Kevin Conroy, who voiced the Dark Knight for the series. “Batman needs Bruce, however hollow that identity feels to him from time to time. Bruce keeps Batman human.”
The series cranked on for years. Paul Dini told me at the time that each episode of this animated series was taking about six to eight months to complete. That included three to four weeks for writing, three to four weeks for storyboarding, and 12 to 15 weeks in animation, he said. Of course, they were working on several episodes at a time, by necessity.
Despite the fact that this was a show created by adults that did, indeed, appeal to adults, it was still a Saturday-morning cartoon. The series had more than its share of run-ins with the Broadcast Standards and Practices group, causing the production team to edit out references to such things as hell and picking up soap in prison showers, as well as shots of animal excrement hitting characters and thugs that are only non-white.
Like many animated shows, “Batman: The Animated Series” got its own comic-book title. “In 1992, when I was handed the assignment of producing a comic book ’The Batman Adventures,’” editor Scott Peterson was quoted as saying in “Batman: Animated,” “I was more than a bit trepidacious. How on earth could any book possibly live up to such lofty standards? Rather than simply adapt the shows that Paul Dini, Bruce Timm and the rest of their team had already produced, Kelley Puckett, Mike Parobeck, Rick Burchett, Ty Templeton and I tried to do what Paul and Bruce had done: lift directly what we could from the source material (in our case, the animated show; in their case, our original comics), regretfully abandon what wouldn’t translate effectively from one medium to the other, and try most of all to recreate the magic the animated guys had captured so effortlessly — a Batman who’s dark, mysterious, moody, but above all, human.”
And the toys … oh, the toys … Was there a Batman incarnation that had quite this amount of merchandise? Once the show hit the airwaves, the stuff hit the shelves. Clocks, bed linen, clothing, toiletries, dishes, watches, cookie jars, playing cards and games and much, much more — all in addition to the more traditional action figures. (You get just a glimpse of BRBTV’s own vast “Batman: The Animated Series” collection here.)
A sprinkling of merchandise from the series: Above, Zak Designs dish sets from 1993, 1997 and 1998 (the latter reflecting the evolution of the series into “The New Batman Adventures”). Following, various candy tins released by Whitman’s Candies in 1997, also featuring Superman in his own “Superman” animated series by the same creative team.
The creative team took their animated Caped Crusader onto the big screen with a full-length theatrical film, “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm,” on Christmas Day 1993, which then released on video in April 1994 and DVD in December 1999. It followed up that full-length feature format with “Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero,” released straight to video in spring 1998, then to DVD in April 2002, and “The Batman Superman Movie,” which was the “World’s Finest” episode arc compiled into a feature film and released to video in August 1998 and DVD in 2002.
The show evolved over the seasons. Though many fans still think of the whole run as “Batman: The Animated Series,” its title changed to “The Adventures of Batman and Robin.” In late 1996, the news arrived that the series was moving from the Fox Kids network to the Kids WB! The Warner Bros. Animation team decided to “freshen the package,” as Dini put it in “Batman: Animated.” Also, the “Batman and Robin” movie was emerging on the horizon. “Warner demanded new episodes that showcased the film’s newest star, Batgirl, as a full-time member of Batman’s team,” Dini said.
Warner wanted a little more Robin on the show, too. “We decided to bring in young Tim Drake from the current Batman comics as our new Robin,” Dini said. “Departing from his comic-book origin, we made Tim the abandoned son of a crook with ties to Two-Face.”
Radomski and prolific director Kevin Altieri were gone, hiring on elsewhere in the animation world, so new talent was brought in. Timm had created the “Superman” animated series in 1996 with sleeker lines and simpler designs, and he decided to apply that look to the new episodes over in the Bat-realm. He dropped all color from Batman’s costume, keeping the Dark Knight in only gray and black. He took Joker’s outfit down to just purple and green, and narrowed the Clown Prince’s eyes. He took off Poison Ivy’s green tights, made her leaner and gave her flesh a sickly white appearance. Catwoman also got lighter in skintone, beneath a midnight black suit, rather than the gray she’d worn in “Batman: The Animated Series.” The Scarecrow had a more dramatic change, looking more like a hangman with a noose around his neck and a sinister-looking Western hat. Killer Croc became more green and less gray, more like the reptile he was in the comic books. Batgirl went from a gray outfit (which had matched her comic book days) to a black one with yellow accents and a blue cape.
The Creeper was called out of the comic books into active duty for this new evolution of the animated series, now called “The New Batman Adventures.” And the daring exploits didn’t end there — the “Legends of the Dark Knight” episode alone showed what lengths the creative team would go to, to dazzle and delight hard-core Bat-fans.
In 1997, this new Bat-look was combined with the “Superman” series for “The New Batman Superman Adventures.” The last new Batman episode to air in this series was “Mad Love” in January 1999, though an episode of “Superman” featured Batman in September 1999, and Batman went on to the “Justice League” animated series.
The Bat-animated world got a little more life with the straight-to-video movie “Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman” in 2003. Warner Bros. also partnered with Noodle Soup Productions to offer the Internet-based “Gotham Girls” series, featuring Harley, Ivy, Catwoman and Batgirl, voiced by the actresses who brought them to life on the TV show. Later came “The Batman,” a sort of prequel series, and “Batman: The Brave and the Bold,” each with a different look — and voice — for the Caped Crusader.
The lore of this one animated series, like the larger Batman lore, lives on. The moments created on the 1990s TV screen stay forever with fans, and with those who created the show. Favorite episodes? Paul Dini told me: “I’ve got probably two or three that are right up there. ’Heart of Ice’ is definitely on the short list, because it was the one that redefined Mr. Freeze. That was the first Batman episode that I wrote. It was like stepping up to the plate for the first time and hitting a home run.”
Dini went on, “A lot of the fans like an episode called ’Over the Edge.’ You know it’s a dream, but who’s having the dream? You wonder if maybe it’s Batman’s perspective, but it’s not. Also, you found out at the end that Commissioner Gordon now knows his daughter is Batgirl, so it was a good episode for that, too.”
Batman stands guard over Gotham in this 1993 clock by Top Banana, which, when the alarm goes off, shines the Batsignal on the ceiling and says, “Gotham City is in trouble! Call for Batman!”