If you were a superhero-loving youngster in the 1970s, the pickings were pretty slim. Animation was limited, even if the character designs and theme songs could be pretty cool. Worse, as the 1970s progressed and concerns about violence on children’s television grew, the networks started to seek more “pro-social” messages for their superhero fare. While some might remember “Superfriends” through the rosy lens of childhood, if you were old enough to have any critical faculties, it was tough going and incredibly wimpy. No punches were thrown; villains were misguided souls in need of a little rehabilitation. The complete lack of violence made me feel like doing violence to my television set.
Cut to 1992 and this full-grown adult steps into a Comic-Con screening of a new animated Batman show. Expectations were not too high as I’d seen my share of pitiful superhero adaptations. Moreover, since this was for network television, how good could it really be? Within maybe a minute or two, though, it was clear this was something completely different. Beautiful animation in the broadly stylized vein of Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s, clever dialogue, good voice acting from name performers and… what was this? Batman was punching bad guys! Be still my fanboy heart.
“Batman: The Animated Series” premiered back in 1992 and, since then, superhero animation is no longer seen as something for small children – more like something for 11-year-olds of all ages. DC Comics regularly churns out animated direct-to-video films through Warner Brothers that are often better than the mostly awful live-action movies.
The only problem was that over the years it became increasingly difficult to see the original program. Recently, the series has been available through Amazon in decayed-looking standard definition for a cool $19.99 a season. As of the time you read this, however, the complete run of Bu-rays of a fully restored, limited edition box set of the complete four seasons of “Batman: The Animated Series” for the low, low price of $99.96 has sold out more than a week prior to dropping. Never fear, as Warners has seen fit to make a bunch of additional pressings because people are buying the things, and for good reason.
I was fortunate to be in the company of a number of the creators of “Batman: The Animated Series” last July at San Diego’s Comic-Con. As usual, they were gracious before fannish writers who were all a little bit in awe and asking questions along the lines of “What’s it like to have done something so awesome?”
Here are a few highlights of what they had to say, presented oral history style.
Writer-Producer Alan Burnett, formerly of “Superfriends”
Journo: What was the one single element you wanted to bring to a Batman cartoon that hadn’t been done previously?
AB: Violence….”Superfriends” was the nicest experience and a horrible experience, because I was making a show that I discovered had to be appropriate for 2 year-olds….I had such hopes to change the “Superfriends” and, I got into it and it was just impossible. The thing about Batman is, if he’s not going to do a fistfight, if there’s no guns going off, what is the point?
[In the early days of preparing “Batman: The Animated Series” I thought] something’s going to go wrong; they’re going to say “no” to it in the end. But they didn’t. We had very good people at Fox who were pushing us to make this a different show. And it was on at 3:30, so adults could watch it and kids could watch it. We got sort of a tween demographic, 14-year-olds, which nobody had ever gotten. Two-year-olds liked our show! Because it was quiet and it was colorful.”
Actor Kevin Conroy on becoming the Batman
I was a New York actor who happened to be in LA shooting a pilot. My voice-over agent said “Go over to Warner Brothers.” It was really a true Hollywood moment; an actor in a booth, using his imagination, and nailing it. That doesn’t happen. It might happen in movies from the thirties or forties, but it doesn’t happen in real life.
I think the reason it happened was that I had no preconceptions. I didn’t know a lot about Batman, the only thing I knew about him was the Adam West show. I just improvised on the spot and it led to 27 years of work.
Voice Director Andrea Romano on the show that made her an unlikely fan superstar.
I had mostly worked on the more cartoony shows, the broader shows. What I had to find casting-wise was killer actors; really good actors who could act with their voice. As I’ve said before, actors who have stage experience, they tend to be the best actors for animation, because the energy is right. It’s a little bit more boosted. People who work only in film and TV, it’s small and quiet because the camera picks up a lot, right? So, finding a whole new talent pool was really a challenge, and a joyous challenge. It was relatively easy to get people interested, the trick was to see if they could do it.
Actor Loren Lester on stepping into the shows of TV Robin Burt Ward.
I was a fanatic about [the original “Batman” TV show with Adam West]I was a really little kid, and I was obsessed with that show. As you probably remember or know, it played on a Tuesday and Wednesday. On Tuesday if there was a cliffhanger. I was convinced that it would be terrible [for the next day]“Oh, they’re gonna die”
Writer Paul Dini on when he knew “Batman: the Animated Series” was going to be a special success.
I remember being at Comic-Con 26 years ago. We showed “It’s Never too Late,” which is one of the darker episodes. It’s very noirish. There is no super-villain in it. It’s about a crime family. I remember [creators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski]and I watching it and saying “Is this gonna play/? Are they expecting the Joker or something. The episode started and there was just silence and I’m going “they either love it or they hate it.” Afterwards, everybody applauded. They got it! For 22 minutes we pulled off a noirish crime story. I thought that was great. I thought we could go anywhere.
Alan Burnett on the show’s (mostly) positive press.
“We got a bad review in the LA Times and I was like, “come on.” [But, then, many years later] I was on “Justice League Action.” We got a lot of live-action writers who wanted to do the show because they watched our “Batman.” As kids, they rushed home from middle-school or whatever. It was must-see TV and that told me a lot. That was a nice going-away to retirement.
Paul Dini and with a parting thought or two.
I’m very grateful that [“Batman: The Animated Series”] has lasted, because so many people have come up to me and said “I loved that show when I was a kid’ or “I’m showing it to my kids, now that I have kids.” It’s very gratifying to know it’s existed that long … [Still], your ideas are only yours for awhile. You put them back in the toy box and somebody else gets to play with them.
Andrea Romano with an additional final thought.
But, I always wondered, why does everyone keep going to Crime Alley? Don’t they know the stuff that’s going on there? It’s like building a house in Tornado Alley.