Sunday, September 18, 2016


So last week after posting my little BATMAN 232/"The Demon's Quest" mash-up picture, I decided I wanted to write a bit more about BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. Since my son's birth a couple months back coincided with La La Land Records' release of their BATMAN: TAS Vol. 4 soundtrack album, I found my interest in the series piqued, as is periodically the case, and as a result I spent more than a few late nights rocking the baby to sleep while streaming random episodes on my iPad. I thought it would be fun to write about them -- nothing in-depth, mind you; you can't spit on the internet without hitting a full-blown TAS retrospective series -- but at the very least, I wanted to compose one post boiling down exactly what it is I like about BATMAN, and what makes it so enduring for me personally.

I still vividly remember the very first BATMAN: TAS episode I saw. Somehow the series' premiere had slipped past my radar, so I missed the first few installments. Thus my initial exposure to BATMAN was the episode "It's Never Too Late" which, according to the internet, aired September 10th, 1992 as the seventh episode broadcast. It might be a good thing this was the first show I saw, because it immediately demonstrated to me what the animated Batman was about. This was not the Adam West version or the Hanna Barbera or Filmation iterations I had known on TV up to that point.

"It's Never Too Late" is a character study of an aging gangster at the end of his career, struggling to defend his crumbling empire from the younger competition. It tackles drug abuse -- something typically taboo in kids' animation back then except for the occasional "very special episode" -- but only in passing as part of the larger story. There are no colorful, costumed villains. The antagonist of the piece is Rupert Thorne, a character I knew at the time from a couple issues in my dog-eared GREATEST BATMAN STORIES EVER TOLD trade paperback, and he and his goons use conventional firearms rather than the laser blasters I'd become accustomed to in my normal weekday afternoon fare.

"It's Never Too Late" may not be the greatest of the animated Batman episodes, but it's a solid entry and holds a special place for me personally as the one that won me over that Thursday afternoon twenty-four years ago.

In retrospect, I find that I enjoyed the episodes in the vein of "It's Never Too Late" more than others in the ANIMATED SERIES canon -- that is, the episodes where Batman tangles with gangsters and one-off villains rather than his typical rogues gallery. Don't get me wrong -- I like a good Joker story now and then, and the Riddler and the Penguin are two of my favorite Batman villains (though Riddler practically is a one-off for TAS, appearing in only two of the initial 65 episodes and a whopping three of the full 85).

But for me, the episodes I most vividly remember are the likes of "P.O.V.", "Appointment in Crime Alley", "The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy", "Robin's Reckoning", "Heart of Steel", "Tyger Tyger", "I Am The Night", "Paging the Crime Doctor", and "Zatanna" -- all episodes which feature gangsters, mad scientists, corrupt businessmen, etc. as the villains. I'd also add to that list episodes such as "The Cat and the Claw", "Two-Face", "Vendetta", "Night of the Ninja", "Day of the Samurai", "Off Balance", and "The Demon's Quest" -- all installments with more "supervillain"-type antagonists but which generally still feature grounded organized crime/international terrorist type of plots. Heck, I even enjoy the likes of "Prophecy of Doom" and "The Terrible Trio", generally considered among the series' lowest points, simply because they fall into this category!

The source of my affection for these sorts of episodes can be found in that same GREATEST BATMAN EVER TOLD collection, as well as its companions, THE GREATEST JOKER STORIES EVER TOLD and THE GREATEST BATMAN STORIES EVER TOLD vol. 2. I was only about ten when the first two of those came out and, while I enjoyed the wacky Silver Age stories they contained, the tales which really captured my imagination were the material from the seventies -- the work of O'Neil, Adams, Goodwin, Aparo, Englehart, and Rogers. To me, that Batman quickly became the definitive version -- and remains the definitive version in my mind to this day. And BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES owes a great deal to the Batman of the seventies, perhaps more than to any other era in the character's history.

Consider that the status quo of the seventies featured Batman fighting crime solo, with Robin off at college and returning only as an occasional guest star -- the exact setup of THE ANIMATED SERIES. Consider that the vast majority of the Batman comics from the seventies were stand-alone, "done-in-one" affairs, much like the episodic nature of THE ANIMATED SERIES, and that many of them -- especially early in the decade-- featured Batman tangling with common criminals and one-off villains, akin to my favorite episodes of the series. Consider as well that the late seventies run by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers introduced the afore-mentioned Rupert Thorne, a recurring antagonist on the show. And consider that THE ANIMATED SERIES featured occasional episodes scripted by the likes of Denny O'Neill, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, Elliot S. Maggin, and Martin Pasko -- generally writers associated with Batman comics in the seventies (or the early eighties at the latest), while there were few to no episodes scripted by latter day Batman comic book writers.

And lastly, consider that on the rare occasion the series directly adapted an issue of BATMAN or DETECTIVE COMICS into animated form, they were nearly all based on comics from the seventies: "Appointment in Crime Alley". "The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy". "The Laughing Fish". "The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne". "Moon of the Wolf". "The Demon's Quest". "Sideshow". All based, in part or in whole, on the works of O'Neil, Maggin, Englehart, and Wein. One could justifiably refer to BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES as a love letter to the Batman of the seventies, even as it drew inspiration from all corners of the character's history -- and that's a major part of its appeal to me.

As a side note, it's interesting that as a result of the sorts of episodes I enjoy, I don't hold Paul Dini in as much reverence as many other BATMAN: TAS fans. He's a fine writer, but his scripts generally veered toward the supervillain side of the rogues gallery (with a strong emphasis on the Joker), and the psychological side of the Batman mythos, neither of which float my boat as much as the more straightforward organized crime stuff. As a result, while I have no particular disdain for Dini and I like many of his episodes, I find that my preferred TAS writer tends to be someone like a Michael Reaves ("I Am The Night", "A Bullet For Bullock") or a Randy Rogel ("Robin's Reckoning", "Paging the Crime Doctor").

So the influence of the definitive Batman decade is probably the main source of THE ANIMATED SERIES' appeal for me personally, but there's so much more to love about the show beyond that . The voice casting and performances are generally beyond reproach, though I think everyone already knows that. Still, it's worth noting that for more than one generation, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are the definitive Batman and Joker -- and foe me, pretty much all the series regulars define difined their roles to the point their voices and characters are forever linked in my mind. I can't read a Batman comic, whether based on TAS or not, without "hearing" Conroy as Batman, Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred, etc.

I've raved more than once about the series' musical score, so I'll only briefly repeat myself from a prior post by saying that "...I firmly believe that BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES had some of the finest music ever composed for television, and certainly the finest ever composed in the field of action-adventure animation."

But, to me, equally impressive is the lack of music on the show. For decades prior to THE ANIMATED SERIES and, really, in decades since, most weekday afternoon and Saturday morning kids' shows have been wall-to-wall background music, as if producers don't believe children will stay interested without some kind of melody underscoring the action at literally every second. Not so, BATMAN -- just as with any "grown-up" show, the music only appears during appropriately dramatic or action-oriented moments. Otherwise, in general, when characters are having a simple conversation or doing mundane things, there is no score. This really helps the show to feel more "adult" in a way* -- like BATMAN could easily play in primetime and not be out of place (notwithstanding the notion so frustratingly ingrained in our U.S. culture that no primetime animated show can ever be anything other than a comedy).

Then there's the artwork. As a kid who grew up on the likes of HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, TRANSFORMERS, and G.I. JOE, where characters were drawn as (relatively) realistically as possible, the stylized designs of BATMAN took some getting used to -- but I eventually fell in love with Bruce Timm's streamlined style, especially when brought to life by the better animation companies on the series' roster, like TMS or Sunrise. I never liked Timm's later double-streamlined designs for THE NEW BATMAN ADVENTURES as much; they generally look too stiff and lifeless to me, and a great amount of character is lost in the evolution. For my money, the BATMAN: TAS designs were, and will always remain, definitive.

Lastly, I need to touch on the timelessness of the show. This is something that appealed to me almost immediately as a youngster. Even though I haven't actually seen a ton of them, old movies have long appealed to me; stuff from the thirties and forties, mainly for the fashions, cars, architecture, and the like. Besides the fact that every BATMAN episode begins with a title card and very brief musical overture akin to those old black-and-white pictures, the show also lives in that era in terms of visuals, and I really enjoy that aspect of it. I did, however, have a bit of trouble as a young fan wrapping my head around the idea that these visuals, clearly influenced from an era long gone, lived in the same world as television, computers, and cordless phones -- even if the producers did go out of their way to make the former two items look like antiques with black-and-white displays and retro form factors. Nonetheless, this was something that bugged me a bit as a kid -- and I still occasionally wonder about it as an adult -- why not just set the series entirely in the forties and be done with it?

Regardless, BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES clicked in every possible way for me when I was thirteen years old. The combination of storytelling style, visuals, and music struck some kind of chord -- as it did for countless other viewers, resulting in the show's enduring popularity today. DC is currently reprinting the tie-in comic, BATMAN ADVENTURES (and now its sequel, BATMAN & ROBIN ADVENTURES) in trade paperbacks, and they've got a great -- and apparently quite successful -- line of collectible action figures based on Timm's character designs going as well. There's really something special about a show if it can remain popular enough to support merchandising tie-ins decades after it ended.

(And note that I specifically say "after it ended," not "after it went off the air." From Fox to the WB to Cartoon Network to Boomerang to Toon Disney/Disney XD to the Hub, BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES has pretty much never left American televison since the day it premiered in 1992. That's a level of syndication success typically reserved for the likes of STAR TREK.)

It occurs to me that next year will be the twenty-fifth anniversary of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES' debut. When the tenth passed, this iteration of Batman was still on TV via the JUSTICE LEAGUE series. But there was no acknowledgment of the twentieth that I can recall. Could it be too much to hope for something for the twenty-fifth anniversary of this groundbreaking show? Even an animated short using the original designs would be great, though in my dream world we might see an entire feature reuniting Timm, Dini, Reaves, and Alan Burnett, as well as all the surviving cast members.

At any rate, all pipe dreams aside, BATMAN is easily one of my all-time favorite television series, animated or otherwise, and it's one I revisit whenever I can (which is, sadly, not as often as I might like). Not every episode is a winner and some are downright stinkers, but at its best, it's an outstanding piece of work which has stood the test of time and will continue to do so for decades to come. If I have only regret about this series, it's the fact that it didn't have more episodes in its original incarnation before it transitioned to the WB Network to become THE NEW BATMAN ADVENTURES. But even then it's hard to complain too much when we have two seasons and 85 episodes, plus a pair of feature films, dedicated to this iteration of Batman.

* Mind you, I say this as an unabashed fan of a lot of those wall-to-wall music cartoons I grew up with, and as someone who would love official score releases for nearly all of them.

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