In 1992 Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm brought us the world’s first cartoon crime noir. The show took the ideas set out by the late Anton Furst in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and made them gospel. This was the Gotham of a bygone era, unlike anything we’d ever seen on television, let alone children’s television. It was the lovechild of Burton’s Batman and Fleischer’s Superman. Gotham has never looked so beautiful.
In Kevin Conroy the series found the voice of Batman, and I don’t mean the voice for this series, I mean this is how Batman talks. Kevin Conroy IS Batman. He is quiet, commanding, and trustworthy. In the series’ first truly great episode, Nothing to Fear , we explore Batman’s tortured psyche in the wake of his exposure to the Scarecrow’s fear toxin. Haunted by visions of his dead father, he must confront his greatest fear: that he has failed to live up to his murdered parents’ expectations. This was the series showing our hero’s battle for self-worth, unable to escape his guilt over the death of his parents, Alfred tells Bruce at the height of this, “I know your father would be proud of you because I’m so proud of you.” Some heavy themes for a children’s cartoon but the show balances this in a way that never overwhelms. The episode showcases some of Conroy’s finest work, and builds to Conroy delivering the series most famous line, “I am vengeance. I am the night. I AM BATMAN!”
Conroy’s Batman was aided by a supporting cast featuring Bob Hastings’ Commissioner Gordon and introduced mainstream audiences to the true professional partnership the character shared with Batman—a relationship that had been seriously underplayed in the films thus far. At his side were Detectives Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya, each showing the different sides of public opinion towards the caped crusader.
Although this was a show about Batman, the star of it was his Rogues Gallery. The creators were able to bring us the forgotten villains of Batman’s past that had been tainted by the 60s TV show. Mark Hamill’s Joker was just as memorable as Conroy’s titular hero, and introduced us to an entirely new villain as well, Harley Quinn. Joker’s henchwoman / girlfriend, brilliantly portrayed by Arleen Sorkin, and was so popular she made the jump to the Batman comics, while her origin was told in the book Mad Love and eventually adapted for the show. The series defining Heart of Ice reinvented Mr Freeze from silly super villain to a compelling, tragic figure. Once again, this is aided by the look of the series, Mike Mignola’s design of the character immediately sets him apart from every other iterations of the character, and along with Michael Ansara’s voice, he is menacing, mechanical, cold. Batman was our avatar throughout the tragic stories of his adversaries. Regardless of the acts they committed, the series insisted on showing us that these characters were human, and flawed, much like our hero. Victor Fries was perhaps the greatest example of this.
Shirley Walker’s score is as much a part of Gotham as Police Blimps cruising past art deco skyscrapers. Although the superb theme of the series was composed by Danny Elfman, and is instantly recognisable, it is Walker’s work that deserves praise. Her work provides the series with a cinematic quality, which she would then showcase in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Take the episode Feat of Clay, the story of Matt Hagen’s tragic transformation into the shape-shifting villain Clayface, Walker’s score is subtle, set against truly beautiful animation, culminating in Hagen unable to maintain his form, Batman watches on in horror, unable to help his foe.
The success of Batman: The Animated Series led to a renaissance for Warner Brothers Animation, including the theatrically released Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. A beautifully crafted film that is the culmination of the series mythology. It is a simple yet intricate story, and gives us a look at a Bruce Wayne who doesn’t want to be Batman anymore, a Bruce Wayne who is whole, best showed with his heartbreaking pleas to his parents’ grave “I know I made a promise, but I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t count on being happy. Please…tell me that it’s okay.”
The series (and Mask of the Phantasm) capture the essence and scope of Batman and his character in a way that has not been managed since, this is a fully formed Batman. This is my Batman. This series meant so much to me when I was four years old. Twenty years on it means more to me than ever.
The writer of this piece was: Ben Macintosh