ekm’s BAT-MANUAL: CHAPTER 7 – BATMAN IN ANIMATION
The ongoing misperception that BATMAN ’66 was some sort of betrayal to the character and brand is fallacious for numerous reasons, some of which have already been enumerated in this series. However, one contribution to the notion of “Batman as a square” that I intentionally left unmentioned was his early presence in cartoons. This was the mechanism by which the character was introduced to many children of the 1970s who might have viewed the Adam West program as “too adult” by virtue of the presence of actual, three-dimensional actors. Never underestimate the ability for small children to disconnect from realistic portrayals in favor of hyper-fantastical ones, even when the subject is virtually identical. Perhaps a painted universe feels somehow less threatening than one with sharp edges.
Unlike Superman – whose Max Fleischer serials remain the Gold Standard for a character later storytellers forgot works best when he’s punching giant robots – Batman would have to wait to receive the animated treatment. Even once he made the jump from hand-drawn comic book appearances to hand-drawn television presentation, he was typically a team player. Those looking for a mysterious creature of the night were simply going to find more Adam West. CHALLENGE OF THE SUPERFRIENDS might have hewn closer to the greater DC Universe insofar as the Justice League elements were concerned (juvenile rechristening notwithstanding), but it lacked the very adult perspective on very childish content that so defined BATMAN ’66, and consciously so. Much of this was with a specific audience in mind, though it’s unfair to categorize all cartoon depictions of the era the same way.* Nonetheless, if you liked your Batman trading punches with scary, pulp villains akin to his earliest appearances, you were going to have to settle for his semi-regular appearances on SCOOBY DOO, which were sandwiched between guest spots featuring Jonathan Winters and the latter-day Three Stooges. Scary stuff, indeed.
Animated Superheroes were treated in much the same way as comic books in general: it was stuff for kids, and developmentally-stunted adults. None of the many attempts to bring DC characters to the underage set were interested in telling compelling stories, carried along by virtue of a strong (or even competent) selection of voice actors.** There were ratings to win, and merchandise to sell in the post-STAR WARS landscape of ancillary product. Even SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE embraced the garish, primary-colored nature of what is likely the most shallow and superficial property (rendered all the more shallow and superficial by virtue of being the first of his kind, and thus an essay in the craft); any pretense of American mythology by way of serious-minded cinema is dropped once the protagonist appears in Metropolis. In other words, there was no impetus for cartoons to add depth to content that was being treated as fluff, regardless of whether it was Christopher Reeve playing the content straight in a loving homage, or Adam West playing it straight as a gag.
Then BATMAN happened in 1989. Overnight, characters of this sort were fertile ground for new, adult perspectives, and real-world allegory. This reevaluation of merit wasn’t limited to the big screen: television followed suit with a short-lived and cost-prohibitive take on THE FLASH, but the heavy lifting would ultimately fall to animators, as it always did. All it cost was paper, pencils, and ink. That was the genesis for BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, which debuted in 1992 in conjunction with the release of Tim Burton’s sequel, BATMAN RETURNS. Saturday mornings (and weekdays, after school) would never be the same.
Suddenly, cartoons weren’t just for kids. BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD and REN & STIMPY certainly contributed to the accessibility of a medium that had originally been designed for grownups, and at some point had become unfashionable for all but the youngest viewers. This was changing. It was glorious. The so-called “Dark Deco” visual style of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, which captured Fleischer’s Superman through Burton’s lens, was simplistic enough for children to associate with fun, but adult enough to prevent embarrassment if your girlfriend walked in and caught you watching what would otherwise be considered a giant red flag waving in the wind. The stories tackled characters and themes covering the Dark Knight’s then fifty-three year history, and while the movies carried a certain level of influence (never more noticeable than in the head-scratching fusion of Burton’s Penguin with the version seen in the comics), there was a freedom to stay shockingly true in spirit to the printed material.
If anything, BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES only resembled the Burtonverse in the most superficial ways, which almost served as a distraction for how much material was actually mined from DC rather than Warner Brothers. As such, we were given what many would consider the definitive Batman and the Joker, as voiced by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, respectively; there were also first-time characters making their dramatic debut, including Clayface, Ra’s al Ghul, and most notably, Two-Face.*** Beloved on-page stories were adapted for new audiences, including “The is No Hope in Crime Alley” and “The Laughing Fish,” while off-beat episodes like “Almost Got ‘Im” channeled six different takes on Batman as presented throughout the five-plus decades of Batman, Detective Comics, and associated DC publications. Notable original content that was penned specifically for the show (and would have the largely-unheard-of effect of influencing the comics’ presentation of established characters); among these, “Mad Love” is famous for its unfortunate introduction of Harley Quinn, while Mr. Freeze was made relevant for the first time via “Heart of Ice.” Even the superfluous decision to create a theatrical spin-off resulted in MASK OF THE PHANTASM, a semi-adaptation of Batman: Year Two that is still considered by many to be amongst the finest onscreen depictions of the Caped Crusader or the Joker.
The high quality of that first run wasn’t destined to last. BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES would ultimately make the move from weekday afternoons to Saturday mornings (presumably to keep episode counts down), which had the unfortunate effect of reducing its prestige status and making it simply one more show of its kind alongside TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES and the hopelessly overrated X-MEN.**** The animation was simplified. Character designs were softened. Stories became more kid-friendly. Even the name of the show changed, becoming THE ADVENTURES OF BATMAN & ROBIN for no good reason. Later incarnations of retain some of the visual concepts, albeit with different voice actors, and a conveyor belt of changing titles.
One spin-off that remains fondly remembered was BATMAN BEYOND, which poached the animation style of THE ANIMATED SERIES, as well as a few voice actors (where relevant), to tell an Elseworlds-style take on a future version of The Dark Knight who protects Gotham under the tutelage of the elderly Bruce Wayne. Like Harley Quinn, the character of Terry McGinnis has transitioned into the world of the comics, though the revelation that the teenage protégé (who is effectively a mashup of Batman and Nightwing) is in truth the illegitimate son of Bruce Wayne has more or less become irrelevant with the introduction of Damian Wayne. The show nonetheless maintains the quality of its predecessor, and is remembered whereas much of what would follow is not.*****
The influence of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES continues to be felt in ancillary content. The runaway success of the ARKHAM ASYLUM video game likely owes as much to its creators’ decision to employ Conroy, Hamill, and a host of sound-alike voice actors, as it does to its addictive gameplay; the result is a Nolan-ized visual representation of the television show. ARKHAM CITY raises the bar still higher. Meanwhile, Warner Brothers has produced an inordinate number of direct-to-video adaptations of iconic storylines from the DC library as standalone films. Some are great (UNDER THE RED HOOD); some are not-great (THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS); some are nigh-unwatchable (GOTHAM KNIGHT); and others deliver an unforgiveable donkey punch to the soul (THE KILLING JOKE). In all but the last case, casting deviates from THE ANIMATED SERIES (Batman, for example, has been played by everyone from Peter Weller to Bruce Greenwood), but the direction seems to amount to: Sound like those guys did. This is telling.
There are plenty of fans who believe that Batman (and indeed, most Superheroes) function best in the realm of animation. It’s a tempting argument. For a casual viewer who doesn’t give a shit about comic books but thinks Batman is pretty nifty, and just wants to watch an entertaining adventure story, there are five different live-action mini-franchises to choose from; a sixth is apparently being forced on us in 2020. Whatever your preferred version of The Caped Crusader – dark or light, young or old, gay or straight – there’s plenty to choose from. However, the Comic Shop crowd will likely tell you that whatever the merits or deficiencies of Batfleck or rubber nipples or Christian Bale’s unfortunate vocal work, BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES represents their preferred take on the character, and likely because it’s the most accurate to the source.
*Ralph Bakshi’s SPIDER-MAN was, for example, an oddly darker take on a much friendlier character, even taking into consideration the overall toothlessness of the Caped Crusader at this point in his publication history. This likely has more to do with Bakshi’s overall sensibilities, and his gleeful willingness to embrace iconoclasm for no other reason than to paint Pop Culture idols like harlots, and then sit back and wait for the inevitable outrage. If ever there was a contemporary animator who might have achieved greater success by way of perverting the notion of heroism for a Saturday morning audience, it was Ralph Bakshi; and if ever there was a vehicle by which to accomplish his aims, it was Batman.
**The choice of Casey Kasem for Robin is most problematic in hindsight, not due to any prejudice associated with casting a notable radio and television personality in possession of a distinctive voice; rather, the voice is so distinctive that it’s impossible to hear anyone other than “Casey Kasem.” Never an actor with a particularly wide range, Kasem was nonetheless able to disappear (at least for kids of the era) into the tics and tweaks that made up the Shaggy character he’s best known for. Beyond this, every role is notable for sounding identical. The most egregious example of one-note performance is the stupefying decision to cast the actor as Meriadoc Brandybuck in the Rankin/Bass televised version of THE RETURN OF THE KING. This is made all the more bizarre by Kasem’s clear Emmy bid during the death of Theoden, at which time the screaming and vocal trilling causes a viewer (this one, anyway) to engage in unconscious throat-clearing.
***The introduction of Harvey Dent began early in the show’s history, and paved the way for a proper (and appropriate) two-part origin story that remains one of the most disturbing combined hour of children’s programming. Aside from tackling the concepts of physical deformity and multiple personality disorder, this could very well be the first – and only – time that child abuse has been explored during a 4pm time slot, and without a happy (or even hopeful) resolution. There were no attempts to talk down to kids, or even to suggest they READ MORE AT THEIR LOCAL LIBRARY – it was drama for the sake of drama, and effective in the extreme both for what it was, and what it represented during the era of Very Special Episodes.
****Only THE TICK stands apart from its conceptually-similar brethren, mostly for how bugfuck insane it was. Likewise notable was SPIDER-MAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, which was distinctive for being one of the few television programs to present season-length story arcs that required weekly viewing. In 2019, it’s easy to forget how atypical this truly was in 1995.
*****BATMAN BEYOND features actor Will Friedle as the titular hero. Friedle is probably best known for his role as older brother Eric on BOY MEETS WORLD, a show that earnestly taught such valuable life lessons as 1) it’s possible to become an alcoholic after having your first drink, and it’s a disease that can be overcome a few scenes later; 2) if you had a girlfriend in Kindergarten, you should absolutely marry her straight out of high school and then live in a slum together; and 3) that “trailer” the kid keeps whining about living in is bigger than my fucking house. While it’s a show that wonderfully serves a Bad TV enthusiast like myself, Friedle is absolutely, no kidding, exceptionally gifted as a comedic actor, and equally unacknowledged for it. Hey, Will, I’m an indie filmmaker – if you’re reading this, hit me up. Let’s do something awesome.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)