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.

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