Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

Liquid Nostalgia: Batman The Animated Series

 

I love Batman. I think I noted that in my previous article covering the first Batman film by Tim Burton and how the entire country was Bat-Crazy in the late 1980s into the early 1990s. The thing is, I'm certainly more of a casual fan of Batman than anything. I've only read a handful of the comics, mainly just the large-arcs like Hush, The Long Halloween, Killing Joke etc... but I at least know the history and evolution of the character and his world even if I'm not hugely detailed on the depth side of things. I was first introduced to Batman with the 1960s Television Show, got into Batman thanks to the Burton film, but really only came to love Batman in the early 1990s with Batman: The Animated Series.

It's really then I came to appreciate and understand Batman. I didn't know this at the time, but the series was a lot more than I realized beyond it's cartoon stature. Sure, I could see there wasn't quite anything that looked or felt like it, but what I didn't know is just how good it really was in terms of faithfulness and love of its source material. Even Batman fans ended up loving it, and they can be a fickle bunch from what I've learned over the past 20 years being a (casual) fan myself. 

I started watching from the very first episode on Fox and even though I recently re-watched every single episode of the series, my memories of a lot of them were still quite clear. In fact, my re-watching of them all not only brought back the memories of nostalgia I had, but it also allowed me to look at them now as an adult. It turns out, the quality hasn't dropped off at all. The animation is still incredible, the art style still the quintessential art style I think of when it comes to Batman (Gothic/deco) and the writing....

...if you go back to a lot of animated shows in the 1980s and early 1990s, and there's a lot of them, I would say 80 to 90% weren't what I would consider "well written." Even less than that would I be able to say are "well written" outside the realm of mere cartoons. Superhero cartoons, especially, were pretty disingenuous. They just wanted action and not much else. Batman: TAS, though, took a different approach which is the reason why it's probably the best aged cartoon you could ever see. In fact, it hasn't aged a day thanks to the writing team.

I can think back to my childhood again on that. The reason why I loved it as a kid was, and really had to be, the writing on the show. There weren't stories that were like this, especially something that put so much time and care into characters. There weren't things that paced themselves like Batman The Animated Series or presented itself so unassuming. It was as non-"cartoony"/comic book-cartoon of any show out there as the writers approached it more as a grounded comic book hero story than something over-the-top and fantastical. The writing was what drew me. i can see that now. I simply just didn't know it at the time.

Now I realize it, and I also realize that it's the main reason why it transcends being merely a "kid's show" into something loved and appreciated by people of all ages. Even Batman fans.


 

A Brief History of Batman: The Animated Series

-Warner Brothers was riding a high of popularity thanks to Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns films in the late 1980s, early 1990s. At the same time the studio was developing an animation branch to begin production of animated shows for television, Warner Bros. Animation. They were looking to adapt Batman, owned by thier sister company.

-Producer/character designer/artist Bruce Timm joined Warner Bros Animation in 1989 and, after working on the studio's early shows (Tiny Toon Adventures) looked to start developing a Batman animated series based on the Tim Burton films, the Frank Miller comics blended with the classic Fleisher animation of the 1940s. He, along with Eric Radomski and Jean MacCurdy, developed a "dark deco" style and "take" on the series. Another big contributor was writer Paul Dini who was also with WB Animation at the time and worked with Timm on Tiny Toons.

-The "take" was much darker and more adult-themed than most cartoons, as seen here in this early test animation which would later become the basis for the show's opening credits, which allowed the show to not only find an audience amongst children, but adults as well and earning the respect of critics, Batman fans, other animation houses and the Academy of Television. It was an instant success after debuting in fall of 1992.

-Contributing to the atmosphere of dark art style and mature writing, is the score. Shirley Walker, a long-time collaborator with Danny Elfman who scored the Burton films, composed much of the music.

-The voice talent was also highly acclaimed, notably Kevin Conroy as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Mark Hamill as The Joker. Other notables were Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn (a new character created by Paul Dini and now beloved by Batman fans) and Michael Ansara as Mr. Freeze (now completely rewritten to much acclaim by Paul Dini and designed by Hellboy artist Mike Mignola). 

-During the show's run, the title (and opening credits) were briefly changed for one season to include Robin in The Adventures of Batman and Robin as Robin (Dick Grayson) started to become a more prominent character.

-Though overlooked at the time, the feature length film based on the series, Batman Mask of the Phantasm, is not heralded as one of the best Batman films created. Another canon (as in related and intertwined into the story and world of Batman: The Animated Series) is the Paul Dini-written Batman-Mr. Freeze SubZero in 1998, which was direct to video and fills in the gaps to Mr. Freeze's story.

-The original Animated Series ended in 1995, earning four Emmys and nominated for six others.

-The show went through various changes and evolved into The New Batman Adventures in 1997, which takes the world of The Animated Series and jumps ahead two years with a new Robin in Tim Drake, Dick Grayson as Nightwing and Batgirl more prominent. Other interpretations of Batman in animated for include Batman Beyond, a re-imagined Batman which takes place in the near future and is also produced by much of the same team, and The Batman, which is a completely different and separate series that follows a young Bruce Wayne.

For a more detailed look at the episodes, character and the changes of the series, check out the retrospective for my thoughts.


 

Top Ten Things to Love About Batman: The Animated Series

There's a lot, and I mean a lot, to love about the series, from the original series to the New Batman Adventures I could go all day detailing the things to love about this series. So instead of that, let's paint with more broad, all-encompassing strokes. Here's Ten Things I know I loved about the series, and I'm willing to bet you do too.


10: The Art Style

Sharp, clean, bold lines, simple but effective design of characters placed in front of a dark, art-deco inspired backdrop is one thing on paper, but to see it live and in motion, this gothic meets retro atmosphere that is a blend of 1940s look with modern efficiency (jeez, this sounds like a classified ad for a house) made the look and style of Batman The Animated Series memorable. Not quite a dark as Burton's films from which it's inspired, but not light either. Labeled "dark deco" by the producers and the main concept designer Bruce Timm, it's a great blend and putting in the nods to classic, noir gangster movies by implementing large vehicles, tommy guns and pin striped suits are a nice touch.

The characters are unique to the show, completely identifiable, yet still giving homage and identifiable (in some cases, overshadowing their comic book counterparts and highly influencing them there as well). They're animated versions of them, but very much them from simply looking at them. Everything isn't muddled and complex, but a streamlined approach that is just set outside of reality.  


9: The Re-Imagining of Mr. Freeze

For decades, Mr. Freeze (aka Mr. Zero) was a joke of a villain. He rarely appeared in the comics and was only made popular due to the original 1960s television series starring Adam West. Before and after that, he was a lesser villain that, quite honestly, nobody cared about. Then something happened when Paul Dini and Bruce Timm got ahold of the character to plug him into Batman The Animated Series. The result? The character of Mr. Freeze and the story found in Batman TAS not only made the character respectable, but brought a resurgence to how he was approached in the comics. Now he was a complex, tragic individual that walked the line of right and wrong, felt no emotion and stood alone. Tragic, poetic. Perhaps outright beautiful in many respects, and that's something you can't say for most of Batman's rogues.


8: The Soundtrack

Atmosphere is more than just visual, it's also auditory. With the dark deco approach comes a musical soundtrack incorporating a sense of jazz meets Danny Elfman fusion, of course much of that is because a) the retro style needed a call back to a time and place and b) Shirley Walker was a long time collaborator with Elfman. Walker's score, along with the contributions of others such as from large sweeping fight scenes to moments of dramatic contemplation, bring the world to life. Try watching an episode with no music track or the volume down. Something is greatly lost in the process because the music is so unique and defines a great deal of the show. There isn't quite anything that sounds like it and Walker more than deserving of her Emmy win for the it, though it's only one score of many she did for various movies and shows. Walker passed away in 2006, the world of music a little quieter since.


7: Thematic Complexity

It's never black and white in Batman's world, even to Batman himself. Many episodes of Batman The Animated Series are, at heart, morality plays. The choices of us as people, the many paths we can take, are all explored whether it's some kid on the street that Batman prevents from going into crime, redemption of an old gangster, the difficulties of tackling "villains" like Mr. Freeze or Catwoman, or even the decisions of Batman himself to be Batman. In many cartoons, you have a clear "good guy" and "bad guy." They have that here, but the path is a lot less straight and the lines drawn are a lot more blurred.  


6: The Creation of Harley Quinn

It's hard to believe that until Batman: The Animated Series, one of everyone's favorite characters of the Bat-universe didn't even exist. Harley Quinn is a hard character not to like. She's bubbly. She's a bit dumb. But she's strangely cute and sweet and you wish she would stop hanging around that the local Gotham psycho, The Joker. She's a great addition and a good way for the Joker to interact with someone that isn't Batman, and she just happens to be the center of many of the series' strongest episodes, including Harley and Ivy and the incredible Mad Love.

 


5: It Knows When to Be Fun, Funny and Charming (The Illusion of Self-Containment)

Batman isn't always about dark brooding angst and mystery solving with thematic complexity. If you have that all the time, you'll get pretty bored with it pretty damn quickly. The Animated Series knew when to pour on the drama, when to hit the action, but especially knew when to have a little bit of fun too, usually when the situation and character called for it. What's more is it didn't try hard to write in moments to be funny and fun, it seems to organically grow from the story itself with nary a punchline or pun...more a tone or a wink.

The series is able to do this because each episode, outside of a few two-parters, are all self-contained stories and can alternate from tone to tone, style to style depending on each one.  But the producers did something even smarter. While each episode will have its own story and plot, cast and so forth, there's a behind-the-scenes level at work and always chugging along. Batman the Animated Series didn't want to thrust out a big, over-arching storyline where every episode is to be continued and ends on a cliffhanger, but it did manage to create an over-arching world where each of those seemingly non-connected stories are still intertwined in the world itself. Often an episode will reference something that happened in another episode, or foreshadow something to come in an episode later on. One of the strongest episodes comes in The New Batman Adventures where Dick Grayson, now as Nightwing, recounts the time between his ending as Robin (the period where the show leapt ahead a few years) and became Nightwing. It's smart writing like this that allows the show to have its cake and eat it too. A huge amount of variety and style, comedy and drama, heart and action all mixed in and still managing to appear cohesive and of the same world.


4: The Storytelling

I could have just called this entry "writing" but I wanted to specify "how" the series tells a story more than what the stories are about themselves which is a combination of smart writing and directing as it presents its story and plot. Unlike a lot of cartoons, especially those involving superheroes where "grander is better" is so often the approach, Batman understood subtlety and actually slowed the pace down to capture human drama in the mix of men fighting and shooting at each other. It utilized dialogue well beyond just trying to capture some one-liners and be "cool." In this animated series, people actually had conversations with each other to balance with the often-craziness of some of the characters. Great episodes like Two-Face, which I'll use a prime example, show all this perfectly as we establish our characters, they actually speak realistically, dialogue never hurried or rushed and humanizing cartoons as actual people (animation not even considered, it could have been live-action) makes the fall of Harvey Dent that much more tragic as his turn across one hour is paced beautifully.

Batman: The Animated Series is a perfect example of restraint. Even in the lesser episodes, the stories are told wonderfully. It only goes overboard if it fits the scenario, but otherwise it presents itself more a film noir drama than some spectacle of a superhero show...or a cartoon for that matter. The storytelling is one of the, if not the most important factor, to why the show has aged so incredibly well for being nearly 20 years old.


3: Treating the Audience With Respect

So many cartoons can really pander to the lowest common denominator. They really try to push in big moments and be spectacular, sometimes with cheap animation. For this show, there is no "oooh" and "ahh" moments, no attempt to get fanboys excited or riled up, it doesn't throw everything at the wall and just rush through it in some poor attempt to assume children all have ADD and won't pay attention. 

What we have here is an approach of visual subtlety. The approach is thusly: instead of compounding everything with action, let the story breathe. A pause, an expression, a closeup of an object or a lingering shot of a character. Not everything has to be a bombardment of superpowers, over the top stories and effects. In fact, some of the best Batman episodes go against such an approach on every level, even making Batman a secondary character in his own show in some cases. It lets the writing, the characters and the craftsmanship do the talking. As long as something is well made and well told, it doesn't have to jump through hoops to garner your attention or your appreciation. More importantly, is the producers, writers and directors didn't assume that their audience wouldn't find it entertaining.


2: The Voice Acting

The one entry that really needs no explanation, I suppose I better at least write something. The producers not only got the right people and the right voices for most of the characters, they ended up making many of them iconic. Kevin Conroy's duality in Batman and Bruce Wayne is still desired today in anything that is Batman and Mark Hamill's voice as The Joker is second to none - it's a blend of a campy Romero or Nicholson energy with a seething and malicious undertone. Just perfect.

When you listen to anyone else doing these voices, something just feels off, but all the voices are damn good, Two Face/Harvey Dent and The Ventriloquist/Scarface are a couple more examples of a dual performance done right, Harley Quinn is lively and memorable and just as iconic as Conroy and Hamill and Mr. Freeze is a cold, monotone sound that captures the mood perfectly. Even lesser villains, like Clayface or The Clock King are perfectly cast and the personalities are projected through some of the best voice work in any form.


1: Finding the Humanity in a Cartoon

This relates to the writing again. Hey, the series didn't win Emmys for writing for nothing. The approach of the show wasn't just about Batman fighting crime. It wasn't just showcasing action with fun characters and doing it well. All throughout the series, the main aspect holding it together is a simple, subtle touch of showing us characters with emotions and feelings.

By definition, the human condition, when it relates to storytelling, is the expressed nature of being human: those elements of personal and emotional contexts as it relates to the plot and how we identify with it. It makes for believable and well-rounded characters and, by treating these people in this fictional, superhero world as real actors and performances and human beings, they're that much more relatable. It goes on to explore the facets of it, such as Batman’s fears or the Joker’s perspective of life versus those around him. The show didn’t HAVE to do this. It could have just been a simple good guy versus bad guy every single episode and probably still have succeeded in being entertaining at the very least.

But it DID do that, and we end up with something that has aged gracefully, is as appealing to adults as it is children and expands its own universe without having to force it. We soon find this Gotham and the people within it are real and appealing, not merely characters spouting expository dialogue and fighting each other.

The through-line isn't Batman. It's not crime fighting. It's humanity. From first episode to last, even if it's just a nod here and there, it manages to approach its material with that in mind. We have a show with depth and class that goes out of its way to humanize its characters and that one, pretty unique approach for an animated series is its greatest, most defining element.


 

Batman the Animated Series (and the subsequent New Batman Adventures, which I've only watched recently and not when they first aired) brought credibility to animation as a generation-transcending medium for superhero stories as well as a huge audience along with it. Right now, Warner Brothers animation is riding high with some very well made animated direct to video features and all of that success can be credited to the early years of the studio's animation and, specifically, the acclaim and success of Batman the Animated Series.

So it makes it that much sadder that there really isn't quite another show like it on television, outside other Batman series, at least, and even those have turned down different paths than what we got with the original Animated Series.  There are certainly quality animated shows out there, though few in number and even fewer US Animation, but the writing, for me at least, hasn't repeated the level of quality found here. The Animated Series seemed to make constructing these small, self-contained pieces of noir/pulp fiction a work of art.

 

 

Batman was a superhero cartoon that had little to do with action and crime fighting and more about pacing a story and developing characters. You can even re-watch other superhero cartoons of this era and you can see a major, major difference in the "take" of their respective materials, and likely notice how much better the Batman series aged in comparison.

 

By not approaching it like a comic book superhero, we got something far better. Oh, that comic book aspect is certainly the baseline, it's structured and self-contained in that world, but it's not the point of the show as I spent a good half of the reasons why in the section above explaining. It doesn't treat its audience like children, it certainly doesn't insult the source material and presents itself as a human drama and Greek Tragedy more than you would expect a mere "cartoon" to do. Batman the Animated Series is consistently listed as one of the, if not the, best animated show ever created - and the more you try and think of something else that might be considered, the more you realize that's probably true.

 

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