Monday, September 11, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series- 25 Years Later

Last Tuesday marked the 25th anniversary of the premiere of my favorite animated series of all time, which should surprise no one to be Batman: The Animated Series. And while I didn't have time to get up a post on that day, I decided to hold it back until today, as today marks the 25th anniversary of one of my personal favorite episodes, "Joker's Favor," the episode that introduced one of the series most enduring legacies: Harley Quinn. So today, we say happy birthday to Harley, and we look back on 25 years of the animated series that changed the way people looked at "kids" cartoons, and specifically how it helped foster the already growing devotion of one pre-teen to all things Batman.

I remember the first time I read anything about the upcoming Batman cartoon. In those long ago pre-internet days, you got your comics news on paper, from various periodicals, and the one that had a big feature on the upcoming cartoon was the tenth or twelfth issue of Wizard magazine (it was 25 years ago, cut a guy come slack on not remembering the exact issue number). This was back before Wizard became the slick, glossy embodiment of everything good and ill in comics in the 90s, and was more a price guide with some articles. I remember walking home from a news stand, and stopping dead as I looked at the character models sheets that were published in the magazine: this was a style that wasn't a super slick and "realistic" as comics in the 90s, but was stylized and different, but very cool. I wasn't in love with the clearly Batman Returns inspired Penguin, but everyone else looked great! I liked Batman's costume which was grey and dark blue, something between the classic version from comics of the past twenty years, which had a lighter blue, and the black costume of the Burton films. I even recognized the names of some of the voice actors, although I didn't know this Kevin Conroy who was voicing Batman, or Tim Curry, who was voicing Joker.

The series premiered on a special Saturday morning showing, as the cartoon would normally run Monday through Friday at 4:30 on Fox, back when cartoons were aired on Fox and the WB (or just syndicated Channel 11 before the WB was a thing). That first week, from September 5th through September 12th of 1992, there were actually going to be eight days with eight episodes running, including a primetime, seven o'clock airing on Sunday! This was the kind of buzz you didn't get around a cartoon back in the 90s.

That Saturday morning, I can actually remember sitting down on the floor, closer to the TV than I usually would because I didn't want to miss a moment or a word, and Saturday mornings were primetime for screaming two and seven year old brothers. And when that opening sequence began, with its action and explosions, its mobsters and Batman, it's shadows and substance, I was drawn in entirely. The first episode to air was not the pilot, but "The Cat and the Claw Part 1," probably to capitalize on Catwoman's popularity after the previous summer's Batman Returns, and I was surprised to see a story much closer to what I was just starting to read in the comics than to the still syndicated Batman 1966 TV series: terrorists stealing a chemical weapon, a Catwoman who was sympathetic, and a Batman whose voice was like something out of a dream; immediately I knew that Kevin Conroy was THE voice of Batman.

I'm not going to bore you with a rundown of every episode of the series, but I will say that first week showed exactly what this series could do. "The Cat and the Claw" (part 2 aired the following Saturday morning, wrapping up the initial eight day run) was an action story, akin to classic movie serials, but the rest of the episodes were different. The true pilot, "On Leather Wings" aired on Sunday, and debuted Man-Bat. It was a horror story, with a bat monster, and was truly beautiful to watch; I dare you to look at it and not think it could have been animated today.

Monday's episode was "Heart of Ice," the debut of the animated series Mr. Freeze, whose Mike Mignola redesigned armor is still the gold standard for Mr. Freeze looks today, and more than that, it's a true tragedy, about a good man driven by love to extreme lengths, and the pain he feels at his loss, a story that redefined Mr. Freeze completely. Tuesday and Wednesday was a two part story that introduced Clayface, creating a version of the character with the same name as the second comic book Clayface and a background with similarities to the first, but twists all the animated series own.

Thursday was a complete curveball, an episode entitled "It's Never Too Late," with no supervillains at all, but featuring mobsters! And not funny mobsters, but serious, gun toting mobsters. I remember watching this with a friend who kept waiting for some costumed crook to show up, but I loved it. The episode had heart and pathos, about an old mob boss who was given one last chance to get out of the life. I don't think anything shown in an animated block before had ever strayed so far from the typical toy cartoon model of the 80s so far.

And finally, Friday, came the day I was waiting for: the introduction of the Joker, my favorite Batman villain, to this new version of the Batman mythos. I linked to a piece up above where I wrote about this episode in detail, so I won't go into that here, but other than featuring the story of an everyman trapped between the Joker and Batman, and introducing Harley Quinn, it featured the debut of a voice actor whose Joker would go on to define that character as much as Conroy would define Batman: not Tim Curry, as I had read in that first article, but Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill. It was a perfect week to start off this series, showing it's range, from comedic to tragic, and it's style.

Over the course of 85 episodes, Batman: The Animated Series would introduce most of the great villains and supporting characters of the Batman mythos. We would see the TV/film debuts of villains like Two-Face, Ra's al Ghul, Bane, and supporting characters like Harvey Bullock and Leslie Tompkins, characters who are major parts of the pop culture landscape of Batman now. Not only would we get the surprise superstardom of Harley Quinn, but Renee Montoya was created for the cartoon as well (although she would appear in the comics first due to the longer lead time for animation). And while original characters Lock-Up, Baby Doll, and Roxy Rocket aren't household names, they are still interesting characters, and I personally think Roxy Rocket is one really good story away from being a big hit.

Not every episode was perfect, but give me one series where that is true. What you got though, was a vision. A vision of what Batman can be. I was talking on Thursday to a friend, and we were discussing how there is no platonic ideal of what Batman (or any character who has existed in the public mind for so long) is; everyone has their own interpretation as a creator, and fans gravitate toward one or the other, or create their own head canon. For me, my choice for the platonic ideal of Batman is Batman: The Animated Series. It is a dark knight who is not a psychopath or a fascist. It's a Batman who cares, who exists in this nebulous Gotham City that is somewhere between the 1940s and the now. It's villains are bright or dark, and sometimes both, but aren't a joke. It synthesized aspects from all the previous 50 plus years of Batman into a streamlined, easy to comprehend version of the character that never spoke down to its audience and made them think about right and wrong. It's a world of fleshed out characters like nothing that existed in children's animation before.

That legacy is key to this series. Not only would the rest of the DC Animated Universe not exist, as The New Batman Adventures, Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League/Justice League Unlimited, Static Shock, and Batman Beyond all followed directly on the heals of Bruce Timm's style and vision, but do you think Disney would have been comfortable enough to let Greg Weisman craft his dark fairy tale Gargoyles without precedent for smart kid's TV? Or Fox would have let the X-Men animated series, which appeared about two months after Batman: The Animated Series appeared, push the envelope with some of its darker themes? And series like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Samurai Jack, and other modern action classics all owe a little something to the first show that tried to be more than just a 22 minute toy commercial. This was trailblazing work, this was something different, and something that happens once in a generation.

I mentioned the series that followed in the same universe as Batman: The Animated Series as key to its legacy, but there are other places where the series reached. "Mad Love," Paul Dini and Bruce Timm's one shot comic revealing the origin of Harley Quinn, won an Eisner Award. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, the feature film that was set in the same world and crafted by the same creators, is a lost gem, and was recently released on Blu-Ray if you haven't seen it, or haven't seen in in a while. DC Direct is in the process of releasing a shockingly comprehensive line of action figures based on all these designs, Funko just released it's second wave of Pop! figures inspired by the series, and both a card game and a dice game were released this year with Batman: The Animated Series themes. And just a few weeks ago, Batman & Harley Quinn, a new animated movie featuring art style and many of the voices of the original series, was released, showing that there's still interest (it's a lot of fun, by the way, and you should check it out).

So, twenty-five years later, where am I? In my heart of hearts, I'm still an 11 year old, sitting on the carpet in front of my family's TV in the living room, listening to those first strains of the theme to Batman: The Animated Series. It still sweeps me away to away to a world of dark heroes and villainous clowns, a world that might not be as black-and-white as the other cartoons that I had loved to this point. It's animation, it's stories, everything about it was something that redefined the way superhero cartoons were looked at, and I'm grateful every time I see a new cartoon that is action and story packed, that these creators made something as special as Batman: The Animated Series.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Listen Up!: Comics and Culture Podcasts You Should Check Out

So, I said I'd keep writing, even a bit more infrequently, and so here I am again.

As I haven't been blogging, I've had even more time to listen to podcasts. I've written about podcasts I listen to before, and, working from home, I've discovered so many more that are really worth listening to for comic fans. It's a brave frontier out there, folks, with plenty of interesting shows. I'm going to provide you with a rundown of the show, and a comic or two  to go along with each one; of course since many of today's are directly comic podcasts, some of those are kinda gimmes. I listen to all these podcasts through Stitcher, but they all have websites that you can visit to listen to episodes, and are available on iTunes and other podcatchers. So, to quote Hub of the first podcast I'll be talking about, without any further ado, let's a-do this.

Titan Up the Defense- Silver Age comics are wacky, I think we all know that. They are ripe for riffing and for looking back on in a light, fun way. And that's what the podcast currently known as Titan Up the Defense, and originally known as Teen Titans Wasteland, started out as. Brother Hub and Cory, with a liberal supply of "podcast juice"(that's booze to the uninitiated), spent sixty episodes digging into the madness and wonderment of Silver Age Teen Titans comics. Hub and Cory have a great rapport, with Hub being the old school Titans fan bringing Cory into it, and while you could jump in on most any episode, it's great to start from the beginning, to watch the running gags and Cory's knowledge of the Titans develop. But once they ran out of those sixties and seventies Titans comics, the show got a facelift, to become Titan Up the Defense. The current run bounces back and forth between issues of the 80s Wolfman & Perez New Teen Titans run and the classic 70s Defenders series from Marvel. I can't stress enough how much fun these guys seem to be having, and that comes through in the podcast; you laugh along with Kid Flash chugging maple syrup and appearances from Xemnu the Titan. But for all the humor, there are also some serious-ish discussions of race and politics of the time as reflected through the the lens of these series, which makes for some thing to actually think about. And while that is important, you really are tuning in to hear the guys doing mini-radio plays of Hostess ads, figuring out what Aqualad is up ti in issues he doesn't appear in, and discussions about the Titans favorite past times: eavesdropping and not understanding how secret identities work. DC recently released two Teen Titans Omnibuses of the silver and early bronze age stuff, and there are trades of the New Teen Titans run currently being published, with volume seven due out in August. The Defenders stuff is harder to track down now, but there are Essential Defenders volumes you can still find with some looking. Titan Up the Defense hits every Wednesday.

Thor: The Lightning and the Storm- In my last podcast post, I wrote about Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, a podcast that traces the history of the X-Men and their related books from the 60s to present (well, to the early 90s as of now). But Jay and Miles are taking the summer off, as Jay move to the East Coast (Welcome, Jay! Hope you survive the experience!), and for the summer, Miles is teaming with Elisabeth Allie, regular guest from his X-Men podcast, to spend 13 episodes discussing Walt Simonson's legendary run on The Might Thor. Miles has been talking up that run on X-Plain the X-Men since pretty much that podcast began, and last March I went and I read through the entire run, and hot damn it is as good as he said! And now, he and Elisabeth are hitting all the high points: the war with Surtur, Frog Thor, and "He Stood Alone at Gjallerbru." There has rarely been a podcast that radiated such excitement as this one: these are comics that Miles LOVES, and he loves sharing them with Elisabeth, who is on her first read through, and he loves sharing them with the listener. And since there's a definite beginning, middle, and end to the series, you know what commitment you're in for, and what it's building towards, although there are so many amazing climaxes in this run nearly any episode could be talking about the big finale. Episode eight dropped this week, so there's time to get in there and catch up before that final episode. Oh, and for pure crossover synergy, Elisabeth was the guest on last week's Titan Up the Defense, and Miles will be guesting this week, so check those out to get a chance to hear many great podcasters together, Walt Simonson's Mighty Thor has been collected in omnibus and four trades, all of which may or may not be in print thanks the the vagueries of Marvel's trade program; however the trailers for Thor: Ragnarok seem to be drawing from this classic run, so I bet they'll be back in print soon enough. Thor: The Lightning and the Storm hits weekly on Sundays.

The Adventure Zone- I think I've talked before about how much I love RPGs. I have a biweekly gaming group, affectionately addressed as Nerdstorm, where my wife, five friends, and I get together and sometimes play boardgames, but usually different RPGs: Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, Dresden Files, and others. And if you've never been part of an RPG group, there are certain dynamics that develop in any group. And no show, TV, web, or podcast, has ever encapsulated the development of an RPG group and campaign better to me than The Adventure Zone. Griffin McElroy DMs (Dungeonmasters, or crafts the story) a D&D campaign for his brothers, Justin and Travis, and their dad, Clint. What starts out as fairly standard D&D for beginners becomes something much deeper and more fascinating as the campaign moves forward. The plot is elaborate and the mysteries pay off wonderfully; this is a podcast you really should start from episode one. The great PCs (player characters) are: Magnus Burnsides (Travis), the fighter with a heart of gold and no patience for anything, Taako (Justin), the wizard who is also a chef and does his best work staying out of the fray, and Merle Highchurch (Clint), the at times almost agnostic cleric of Pan, all of whom have become wonderfully three dimensional characters. And Griffin's NPCs (Non-Player Characters) include some absolute delights, the kind of characters you look forward to seeing come back again and again; my favorites are Angus McDonald, the world's greatest boy detective, and Klarg the Hugbear (like a bugbear, only cuddlier; Klarg likes tea). Even if you have no interest in D&D, this is a rollicking adventure story that never goes where you're expecting it to. Currently, graphic novel adaptations of The Adventure Zone are in the works from First Second, an excellent graphic novel publisher, but if you want something with the same flavor to keep you busy, you should try Rat Queens from Image Comics to tide you over. The Adventure Zone is released biweekly on Thursdays.

Myths and Legends- Comics and mythology are inextricably linked: from Wonder Woman's mythical patrons to Thor and the Asgardians in Marvel Comics to Dream of the Endless and all the mythology in The Sandman, the well never seems to run dry for creators to find new creatures and myths. And there are a lot of podcasts that tell myths, urban legends, and stories of the paranormal. But one of the best, and the one that I think fits best with the comic book mindset, is Myths and Legends. Jason Weiser hosts and narrates each episode, and tells the original or definitive (as best as can possibly be found) version of a classic myth, legend, or fairy tale. And I mean the ORIGINAL versions of those Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales, so we're talking, the weird, screwed up versions. But one of the charms of the podcast is it's not just Greek and Norse myths and European fairy tales; nope you get Japanese myths, Slavic myths, tales of the Round Table, tales of the Arabian Nights, and more. Week in and week out, you never quite know what you're going to get. And after each main story, there's a second short story, a Creature of the Week, featuring an odd mythological beast or cryptid. This week's is a personal favorite cryptid of mine, the Skunk Ape, but if you want to hear the ultimate COTW, you need to check out Butter Cat. I will also say, if you listen from episode one on, you see the growth of Weiser as a podcaster and storyteller. The early episodes are enjoyable, but he tells the stories in a fairly matter of fact way. As the podcast continues, you see more authorial voice, more narrative and charm, and it makes an enjoyable podcast a must listen. If you want comics featuring myths and legends, you should check out Image's Wayward, which heavily features Japanese mythology, Dark Horse's Hellboy, for Slavic myths, and of course Vertigo's The Sandman for a little bit of everything. Myths and Legends is released Wednesday morning, and is the podcast I download every week and listen to on my way to the comic shop, so it has a particular association for me with my Wednesday pilgrimage.

The Old Time Superman Radio Show- I first discovered host Adam Graham with his Detectives of Old Time Radio podcast, a daily podcast featuring such luminaries of 40s and 50s detection as Boston Blackie, Richard Diamond, and Johnny Dollar, plus many others. But through that show, I discovered that Graham also has a show that plays the classic Superman radio show from the 40s. It's charming, with plenty of adventure and plots that fit in well with the vibe of late Golden Age comics. There's not a lot more to say about this one, but if you're curious about those old time Superman stories, or enjoy tales of the Golden and Silver Age of comics, you should try this show out. There are plenty of collections of Superman from this era, so any good comic shop should be able to help you find some classic Superman. Stitcher has been doing weird things with my feed on this show, releasing four or five episodes at a go, so I have a hard time telling when it actually drops, but there are 900+ episodes, so there's plenty of back catalog.

The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified- So, in case you haven't read much of this blog before, I have a real soft spot for all ages comics; you know, the ones that appeal to kids and adults on different levels, or just tell stories that are enjoyable for everyone. And when it comes to podcasts, I've discovered one that fits that same criteria to a T: The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified, from my local NPR station, WHYY in Philadelphia. Eleanor Amplified is a radio journalist who knows no fear and will stop at nothing to get the scoop. She's like Lois Lane on the radio, but she doesn't have the Man of Steel to help her out, so she has to take care of herself. Told in the style of classic old time radio drama, this show has a full cast, sound effects... the works! The first season sees Eleanor taking on the CEO of Megablurg, a multinational corporation, who has designs of national and global domination. There are smugglers, robots, prisons, mad scientists, and all the trappings of a wild adventure story. The episodes are nice and short, so they'll work with the attention span of small kids, but there's also a "Road Trip Edition" available, that has the entire first season in one long form audio movie. The show was conceived by one of the producers of the popular NPR interview and review series, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, so there's a bonus episode where Gross interviews series creator John Sheehan and speaks with Eleanor herself. If you enjoy Lumberjanes, Goldie Vance, or Gotham Academy, or basically any comic with a strong female protagonist, you should check out Eleanor Amplified. The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified is currently between seasons, although a couple of bonus episodes featuring the origin of Eleanor were recently released, with the promise of season two to come.

Monday, June 12, 2017

In Memoriam: Adam West

So, it's been a while, huh? And while I'm preparing to return to The Matt Signal on a more regular basis, an event this past weekend has made me shake off the dust and write a little something in tribute to the first Batman that many of my generation share.

I can't remember if I had seen the classic Batman TV series before I received Who's Who in the DC Universe #2, the first comic I was ever given, the issue that spotlighted most characters whose name began with a "B." I know I watched it in syndication pretty regularly from when I was a kid through when it stopped being syndicated, sometime after Batman Returns, but by then I had Batman: The Animated Series and I hardly noticed. But I know that gaudy, lively, energetic series was part of my formative years, and you can't talk about that series without talking about Adam West, it's Batman, who passed away over the weekend at the age of 88.

 People have very different opinions of the Batman TV series. Glen Weldon, the NPR comic book critic who wrote the excellent book on Batman's history, The Caped Crusade, said in an episode of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour (exactly which one I alas cannot recall, and pardon the paraphrasing if you read this, Glen), that most people go through three phases when it comes to that series: as kids they love it as an adventure series, as teenagers/twenty-somethings they hate it because it's so campy and doesn't take Batman as a SERIOUS CHARACTER, and as adults they learn to love it again as a piece of crazy camp art. And a good part of that camp artistry comes from Adam West's straight faced performance as Batman.

It would have been easy to play Batman for laughs, to make him a goof or a joke, but producer William Dozier didn't want that: he knew that having a Batman who was this rock of deadpan seriousness in an absurd world is what would sell the series. And Adam West pulled that off perfectly. He delivered every line with a degree of gravitas. He only winked at the camera when it was written to do it, like when he was pulling the wool of his secret identity over the eyes of the sweet (if a bit dim) Aunt Harriet, Commissioner Gordon, and Chief O'Hara. He was dashing as Bruce Wayne, heroic as Batman, and while the villains often tried to steal the show, he held his own (which is more than can be said for other live action Batmans).

I think everyone who has come to appreciate the madcap genius of the series has favorite episodes. While the Joker is my favorite villain in Batman history, when it comes that this series, Burgess Meredith's Penguin is the performance that always grabs me, and the two parter, "Hizzonner the Penguin/Dizzoner the Penguin," where the Penguin and Batman run against each other for mayor of Gotham is clever and has Batman give great speeches about the importance of elections and government (and the concept of Penguins mayoral ambitions that has been recycled in Batman Returns, Gotham, and the tie-in comics to Batman: The Animated Series). Joker does pop up in the favorite, "Surf's Up! Joker's Under!" where Joker and Batman compete in a surfing contest, which is as delightfully absurd as it sounds. There are more episodes than I can name, with the Catwomans, the Riddlers (although, as much as I love John Astin in Addams Family and Night Court, Frank Gorshin is the truly memorable Riddler, while Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt are equally memorable as Catwoman), and numerous other villains that spring to mind, but Adam West's Batman always stood against the criminals of Gotham.

And if I'm talking about Adam West and Batman, I need to briefly discuss the feature film tied into that series. Not only did it have the most spectacular scenes that ever were tied to West, including Shark Repellent Bat Spray, dehydrated pirate goons in the Batcave, and a bomb on the boardwalk, it also allowed West to do some real acting. Early in the movie, he becomes smitten by a reporter (who is clearly Catwoman in disguise to the viewer), and throughout the movie he romances her, and when it is revealed she is Catwoman, he genuinely looks pained by the betrayal. It's a nice bit of acting, and proves that West is more than just a stiff, cardboard cut-out of an actor, but is actually trying, and acting as Batman.

Sadly, most of the stars of this classic bit of superhero lore have now passed on. Burt Ward (Robin) and Julie Newmar (the first Catwoman) are the only regular or recurring members of the cast who are still with us. Adam West was a fixture at conventions, always out talking to his fans and reminding them of when Batman would dance (I never met him myself, and admit to having heard mixed opinions on how he was with fans, but it is undeniable he was an ambassador for his own take on Batman, and had an easy smile when someone came up to him). Towards the end of his life, I know he was working on a second direct-to-DVD animated film, a sequel to last year's charming Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders, voicing Batman in the lost episode featuring Two-Face, which was adapted into a comic a couple years back, and would have William Shatner voicing the villain; I am unsure if the recording was completed before Mr. West's passing, but I hope it was, as it would make a great final testament to his lasting impact as Batman.

So, goodbye Adam West. Safe journey to whatever might be next, and may you never have one of those days where you just can't get rid of a bomb.