The closest thing to a graphic novel — Celebrating 25 Years of “Batman: The Animated Series”
In the autumn of 1992, the storytelling adaptations of Batman were at a crossroads.
In June, Tim Bruton had unveiled his fucked-up freak show, Batman Returns, to mixed reviews and angry Happy Meal proprietors. The film, which Burton agreed to only after being granted creative control, not only failed to equal the grosses of its predecessor, but also failed to enter the cultural consciousness the way Batman had three years earlier.
However, a different, better iteration of the Dark Knight was about to be unleashed and it would change the mythology and history of the character forever — while also introducing and reinventing several other characters in the process.
On September 5, 1992, “On Leather Wings,” the first episode of Batman: The Animated Series, premiered on Fox. Hoping to capitalize on the massive success of The Simpsons, the network initially decided to run the show in prime time and thus the show did not have the sensibility or lightheartedness of daytime cartoons. In fact, it understood the character(s) of Bruce Wayne and Batman — and presented the vibe of Gotham City and its inhabitants, including the rogues gallery — better than any film or TV show before (or since?).
The show, which was developed by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski and written by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, and others, was nothing short of a masterpiece:
The series was praised for its thematic complexity, darker tone, artistic quality, film noir aesthetics, and modernization of its title character’s crime-fighting origins. IGN listed The Animated Series as the best adaptation of Batman anywhere outside of comics, the best comic book television show of all time and the second best animated series of all time (after The Simpsons). Wizard magazine also ranked it #2 of the greatest animated television shows of all time (again after The Simpsons). TV Guide ranked it the seventh Greatest Cartoon of All Time. The widespread acclaim led the series to win four Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Animated Program.
There were three primary reasons for its greatness:
- The look
- The writing
- The acting
Batman: The Animated Series was not constrained by the laws of the real, physical universe. Even Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which borrows liberally from The Dark Knight Returns and has scenes that appear to be right out of a splash page, has to create a world in which actual human beings must inhabit. Animation has no such boundaries.
But that’s far from the only reason it was the closest thing visually to a graphic novel.
Batman is a creature of the night, always lurking in the shadows and the show followed suit. It was literally dark:
…as was the innovative artwork which was uniquely created by starting on black paper as opposed to white. A term was even coined by the producers of the show, “Dark Deco,” for the combination of the influential Art Deco design, and dark noir undertones
As a result, Gotham City was always brooding and descending into darkness, as it should. Furthermore, the noir aspect made it feel like a hard-boiled detective story from the 1930s and the look was timeless, so that it is never constrained to one specific epoch.
It wasn’t just the background and the setting. The characters, too, looked the way they do in comics. Bruce Wayne was a large, broad-shouldered man and the Penguin was more like a kingpin than the “aquatic bird-boy” of Batman Returns (unfortunately, the look of the characters would change for the worse in The New Adventures of Batman).
There have been scores of cartoons based on comics but virtually none come close to reaching the depths or exploring the pathos of Batman: The Animated Series. This is true of the majority of the following animated series that focused on the Caped Crusader, which were lighter in tone and subject matter and thus more palatable to kids (and their parents). In contrast, the original series had fought with and even tricked censors to get certain things on the air, not something normally associated with a cartoon aimed at children:
The envelope was constantly being pushed, and the show touched upon a lot of mature subject matter. There were implications of parental abuse, explicit drug references, gritty depictions of violence, and more sexual innuendos than an Austin Powers movie. Timm and his crew knew just what to cut out to get it on the air, so even while a lot of references aren’t explicitly stated, they are heavily implied, like one episode at a bakery where Harley Quinn asks Mr. J [if] he wanted to “try her pie.”
In short, the writing was very mature, particularly when compared to the big budget films of the mid- and late-90s. While Joel Schumacher’s films — Batman Forever and Batman & Robin — attempted to be live-action cartoons filled with over-the-top villains cackling wildly while randomly blowing things up and hating Batman for no discernible reason, the writing of Batman: The Animated Series was filled with gravitas that kept the show tied to at least some semblance of real life so that while the viewer may not have empathy for the villains, certainly a degree of understanding.
In “Heart of Ice,” Mr. Freeze is a man broken by tragedy and intent on exacting revenge on the man that killed his wife:
Freeze, in the Animated Series universe, is perhaps the most sympathetic villain and one whose rage is easy to relate to, especially for Batman, whose entire ethos was borne out of a need for revenge.
Conversely, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s version in Batman & Robin is a pun-spouting mischief maker with spikes on his car and a hockey team in his employ who doesn’t seem to have much of a plan or much of reason for doing what he does.
Likewise, there is the (naturally) two-part origin tale, “Two-Face,” which focuses on the evolution of the character, once a trusted friend to Bruce and zealous district attorney who has turned to a life of crime because of far more than just a facial disfiguration while Batman/Bruce continues to hold out hope to save his friend’s life — and soul:
The friendship between Bruce and Harvey is part of what makes this episode so emotionally devastating, as Bruce ends up with another death on his conscience when he can’t stop the explosion that creates Two-Face. The friendship that Bruce has with Harvey outside the mask has an effect on how Batman approaches Two-Face…Bruce blames himself for Two-Face, although Harvey was damaged long before he was caught in a chemical explosion.
Two-Face isn’t Harvey Dent, and he isn’t Big Bad Harv. What he is is a twisted combination of the two. Big Bad Harv’s rage and disregard for human life is kept in check by a new form of justice: the flipping coin. A two-headed coin, one end scratched, the other pristine: this is the ultimate decider in Two-Face’s mind, having lost faith in a legal system that can’t keep criminals behind bars. All that’s left of Harvey Dent’s morality is that coin, but without it, Two-Face is crippled.
Compare that to Tommy Lee Jones’s purple makeup and manic performance in Batman Forever and it’s clear that the small screen cartoon was running laps around the multi-million dollar summer blockbusters in the ‘90s.
Dini, who won an Emmy for writing “Heart of Ice,” and Timm, who directed the episode, would go on to create Harley Quinn for the series, a character so popular and beloved she was introduced into the comics (and, of course, eventually the movies, as well).
Finally, there were the performances.
In the discussion of the greatest actors to don the cape and cowl, many, many people believe Kevin Conroy to be the best — and he did it all with his voice. His Bruce Wayne was a bit high and airy while his Batman was gruff without having to resort to Christian Bale’s growl or a voice modulator.
Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight was so stunning that it won him an Academy Award (posthumously), but Mark Hammil’s version was nearly as sensational, with the maniacal laugh brilliantly balanced by a quieter delivery that is actually more sinister.
Then there were the other characters — Catwoman, Penguin, Two-Face, Mr. Freeze, even Alfred and Robin — all of whom were brought to life in more complexity than the usual animated show.
A major reason for this? They were all in the room together, as if they were really interacting:
Batman: The Animated Series…usually had all of the voice actors record their parts at the same time in one room. This was done to provide spot on connotation between the dialog of the characters. It paid off, as the voice acting from the series is frequently cited as consistently emotional and powerful.
During the sessions, all of the actors (including star Kevin Conroy) would be seated, except for Mark Hamill who was playing the Joker. Hamill stood during the recording sessions in order to better capture the manic and frenetic energy of the Clown Prince of Crime.
The look. The writing. The acting. All of it came together in a perfect storm, one that could never again be recreated. Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle and Timm, Dini, and the rest certainly did so in 1992.
Twenty-five years after its premiere, Batman: The Animated Series remains one of the defining works of the Dark Knight’s oeuvre and will still be brilliant in another twenty-five years.