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Batman: The Animated Series

Crusading Animation

Jun 08, 2009 Issue #27 Summer 2009 - Jarvis Cocker Bookmark and Share


When it started, the title sequence didn’t tell you what you were watching. Still, you knew what it was. As a variation of Danny Elfman’s familiar musical score cemented the visual action, two cartoon thieves, making their escape from a bank robbery, suddenly find themselves confronted on a building rooftop by a shadowy figure. With a swiftly thrown projectile and a few agile movements of its body, the white-eyed silhouette dispatches both goons of their firearms and their consciousness, leaving an arriving police force to scratch their heads.

In just over sixty seconds, the opening to Batman: The Animated Series encapsulated the genuine spirit of the Dark Knight without a word. Debuting in 1992 on weekday afternoons, this dramatic comic-book adaptation redefined the way stories could be told in a half-hour children’s program, delivering entertainment that was sophisticated enough to satisfy its demographic of young viewers even as they grew older.

“The series had a look that didn’t follow anything else on TV at the time,” says Bruce Timm, who alongside fellow producers Alan Burnett and Eric Radomski, helmed the series until its closing run in 1995. “We knew in the back of our heads that we had a certain responsibility to make the series accessible to children. But our own self-imposed parameters were that we wanted to make a Batman show that we would have liked to have seen as children.”

A show that would go on to win two Emmy Awards, Batman: The Animated Series’ inception came about largely as a result of Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman. Demonstrating that a mass audience was willing to take a superhero story seriously, it prompted the executives of Warner Bros. Animation to look at the caped vigilante as a possible franchise property.

Taking inspiration from the motion picture’s art deco landscape and incorporating the pulp noir characterizations of the 1940s Superman cartoons by Fleishcer Studios, Timm, Burnett, and Radomski were given a rare creative freedom to do something that did not lend itself to the typical children’s programming. Most significantly, the show was dark, not just visuallywith background painters using black paper instead of the traditional whitebut also in tone and content.

“The fact that I could have a fist fight was a revelation,” says Burnett. “In children’s programs that never happens. You couldn’t have people really going at one another physically, so usually, you know, characters would use either beam powers or super breathanything but a fist. With Batman, that was the first thing that was radically different. And the second thing is we could use guns….It was just more grown up….The stories don’t talk down to you.”

For all its action-based elements, Batman: The Animated Series wasn’t afraid to give its protagonist cerebral depth, with storylines that often took humanizing, even tragic looks at what motivated the Dark Knight and the villains he faced.

“[Batman’s] fascinating because he takes things to the limit,” says Burnett. “And he doesn’t have to. But he’s compelled to. He’s obsessed about it. He’s obsessed that he’s going to stop people from experiencing the same horror that he had to deal with when he was a kid….In a way he’s kind of crazya psychotic….You do wonder if he brings out the craziness of the city simply by being who he is.”

Complementing the show’s dramatic gambit was its approach to sound, utilizing voice acting sessions that were conducted like old radio plays. “We preferred to have all the actors in a room at the same time as an ensemble,” says Timm. “Radio drama was the benchmark we were always aiming for. It made the series have a much more naturalistic feel than any other cartoon on the air at the time. It gave us the chance to make the voices a little bit more stylized.” Standing out among the line readers were Kevin Conroy as the gravelly toned hero, and Mark Hamill, who managed to tap into a healthy middle ground of silliness and psychosis for the Joker.

With so many aspects working together seamlessly, Batman: The Animated Series became a cornerstone of the Warner Bros.’ animation department. Even when the show ended, the spirit of the series was kept alive for several more years with the production of The New Batman Adventures, Batman Beyond, and Justice League. The Animated Series struck a chord with the greater continuity of the Batman universe, as many of the reimagined character traits and entirely new characters themselves have been accepted as canon. The ripples of the show continue even into this year; video game developers Rocksteady Studio are releasing a Batman title with a story written by Animated Series contributor Paul Dini. Titled Batman: Arkham Asylum, it features Conroy and Hamill reprising their classic voice roles.

From Bob Kane’s original concept of a superhero without superpowers, to Christopher Nolan’s cinematic adaptation, Batman: The Animated Series has played its part in shaping who the caped crusader is, and why he matters. “What the Animated Series did was solidify all that was good about Batman in the comic books that came before it,” says Burnett. “Television is a veracious carnivoreand the wonder is that it kept eating up Batman as long as it did.”



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