Everything About 3-Dimensional Heroes I Learned From a 2-Dimensional Cartoon

Before I started watching anime, and before I knew that the series I grew up watching were partially animated in Japan or Korea, I waited for Friday afternoon at 5:30 on FOX, when I could watch a new episode of Batman: The Animated Series. My ritual involved shutting off all the lights, locking myself in the basement, and carefully munching sour cream n’onion potato chips one by one, each dune-like ripple of starch vanishing steadily between my fresh-grown adult teeth.

Batman: The Animated Series forged my first real relationship with the Caped Crusader. Sure, I watched the Adam West series in syndication during the long afternoons spent alone at home each summer, but my 1983 incept date interfered with my childhood enjoyment of either the Tim Burton films or Frank Miller’s seminal involvement in the DC canon. From third grade to fifth, Kevin Conroy was my Batman. Which is to say: Bruce Timm and Paul Dini were my Batman, with occasional appearances by Steve Englehart and Dennis O’Neil. Officially, the series lasted from 1992 to 1998, morphing over the years into The Adventures of Batman and Robin and The New Batman Adventures, which were paired alongside a show about Superman. But that first season, a whopping 63 episodes, was the best.

It won the Emmy Awards (for “Robin’s Reckoning, Parts I & II,” and “Heart of Ice”), and it re-wrote the canon to the point of introducing new characters and plot developments (Harley Quinn in “Joker’s Favor,” and Mr. Freeze’s tragic motivation in “Heart of Ice”). Those episodes were darker, smarter, and more enjoyable than any other offerings intended for American children at the time. They had everything: great writing, superb direction, groundbreaking art production and design, and cohesive narrative arcs that rewarded repeat viewing. The series also featured stellar voice actors, with guest appearances from Roddy McDowall, Ron Perlman and Adrienne Barbeau, and Mark Hamill’s unforgettable turn as The Joker.

Kevin Conroy provided Batman’s voice. Most actors portraying superheroes wrestle with how to embody the duality of their characters. Some, like Tobey Maguire, display nebbishy nervousness in their civilian lives, then gain confidence once they’ve donned the uniform. But voice actors must project their opposing natures without the benefit of wearing a costume or standing on set. Under the direction of the now legendary Andrea Romano, Kevin Conroy performed this job deftly, transitioning seamlessly between the privileged self-assuredness of Bruce Wayne to the hard-bitten judgment of Batman, shading the space between with gradients of tenderness, disgust and pity for friends and foes alike. He brought this same talent to the Justice League animated series and other DCAU films, subtly tightening his delivery when speaking with Wonder Woman and layering distrust and suspicion over his conversations with Superman. Reading the comics I now hear Conroy’s voice, because his performance formed my impression of who and what the Dark Knight should be.

Above all, the Dark Knight should be a human being.

“You’re only human,” Dick Grayson tells him in “I Am The Night,” after the shooting of Jim Gordon. “You do all one man can do, more than any man can be expected to do.”

It’s not good enough, Batman reminds him. It’s never good enough.

I Am The Night” functions as a sort of mission statement for the series as a whole. Like Batman’s myth, it begins in Crime Alley. Then it quickly shifts from the ritual of the roses to the rescue of a misguided street kid to the shooting of Jim Gordon by a petty thug. Batman intervenes, but is too late. “If I had only been there five minutes earlier…” he says, spiraling into the deep and ceaseless shame that so defines the animated series’ vision of the character. As he later informs Dick, Commissioner Gordon is the age Bruce’s father would have been, had he lived. Bruce is terrified of losing him. In fact, he’s terrified of losing anyone. This fear fuels the ferocity with which he defends the people of Gotham, and its intensity is matched only by that of his love for the ones who know his secret. Paralyzed by guilt, Batman discards his mask and decides to live entirely as Bruce Wayne. He holds this vow exactly as long as it takes for Gordon’s shooter to escape from prison, and for Dick to slip on the green tights and promise to hunt him alone. For as much as Batman may hate himself, he loves Robin more, and he can’t bear to let his partner pay for his own mistakes.

The episode ends with Batman confronting Gordon’s shooter, jamming his gun with a Batarang just as he’s about to hit both Barbara and Jim. Bullock (who spent the episode blaming Batman for Gordon’s condition) wrestles the shooter to the ground and cuffs him. Because this is melodrama, Jim awakens in that moment. He tells Batman that if he were a bit younger, he’d like to be a hero, too. Batman gently squeezes the old man’s hand. “You are a hero.”

“I Am The Night” might be one of the series’ most heart-wrenching episodes, but even the zaniest possessed this same ability to connect with the audience at an emotional level. The premise of “The Laughing Fish” rests on the Joker’s completely audacious plan to literally re-brand all the fish in the waters off Gotham with his own smiling face, then collect the trademark royalties. He terrorizes the city’s copyright attorneys when he finds out that one can’t trademark a natural resource. It makes no sense at all, but the episode works because we see the awful lengths the Joker is willing to go to get his way: poisoning cats, taking over the airwaves with his own bizarre commercials, dangling Batman and Bullock over a shark tank and then battering Batman with a wrench before throwing himself into the sea.

The Batman/Joker relationship plays out delightfully over the series. While the Joker’s obsession with Batman may have been news to civilian viewers of The Dark Knight, anyone familiar with the animated series saw it coming from miles away. “The Man Who Killed Batman” hits the nail on the head: when a low-level thug named Syd “The Squid” seemingly shoots the world’s greatest detective, the Joker holds a funeral in Batman’s memory. His eulogy for his nemesis is filled with mingled admiration, contempt, and rage at not having done the deed himself.

Similarly, Batman and Catwoman’s chemistry comes across far more clearly in the animated series than it ever did in Tim Burton’s film, partly because there’s more time for it to develop and partly because Timm and Dini’s Catwoman is neither a madwoman nor a victim. I know that according to the Justice League animated series, Batman spent his time on the Watchtower holding his breath whenever Wonder Woman entered a room, but I think that back in Gotham his chest was Selina Kyle’s personal scratching post. The two spend most every episode together either rescuing one another or missing dates with their un-masked personae. When the Scarecrow drugs Batman into living his dream life in “Perchance to Dream,” Bruce is engaged to Selina. And in “Tyger, Tyger,” the series’ most fetish-tastic episode, Batman still loves her even after a mad scientist turns her furry.

Catwoman becomes an actual cat

Naturally, any discussion of Batman: The Animated Series is incomplete without mention of the production design. Unlike, say, the X-Men animated series or its other contemporaries, B:tAS’s production design did a huge amount of worldbuilding. Although the series’ producers had wanted a “dark deco” look for the series, the designs didn’t gain traction until Tim Burton’s films enjoyed success.

But B:tAS’s design sensibility actually does the job a bit better for being less aggressively weird, and supporting the stories rather than distracting from them. The atemporal aesthetic allowed the old-fashioned trickery of small-time crooks to sit nicely alongside science fictional advances in virtual reality and artificial intelligence. It was one of the first cartoons broadcast in America to look better with the lights off, so viewers could appreciate those moments when Batman melted out of the shadows to surprise Commissioner Gordon on a lonely rooftop. It was cinematic in a way that few series since have been, with lingering shots over Gotham’s spires and romantic landscapes featuring Wayne Manor or Arkham Asylum. The series looked stylized without being cartoon-y, and Gotham seemed like a place designed by adults for adults. The towers were tall, the alleys dark and narrow, the streets dirty and the signage elaborate. You could get in serious trouble, there.

When I was nine years old, the place I most wanted to live was Gotham City.

Batman: The Animated Series

Obviously, no single post can articulate everything I love about this series. But aside from the great writing and the superb delivery and the phenomenal design, I appreciate its uncompromising commitment to quality, despite the youth of its intended audience and the sheer volume of its episodes. It took taste to like this show. It required focus. Nearly every kid I knew liked Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Only vaguely creepy kids, like me, obsessed over this show in the way that I did. For the others like me, I recommend:

That said, what I really love best about this series was what it taught me about Batman as a character, and about heroism in general. As Robin reminds Batman in “I Am The Night,” the first step to being a hero is never giving up. Ever. Not when you’re scared, not when you’re hurt, not when you realize that you’re a wreck of a human being, and that all the tools on your belt can’t fix what’s broken inside of you. Not even when you fail. Especially not when you fail. Our families and cities and leagues don’t stop needing us when we fall down or come up short. If anything, they need us more than ever in those moments, because we’ve let them down. Failure is not an excuse for quitting, any more than one’s own flaws and limitations are. Those are human things, and being human is no excuse for refusing to face the night.

Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer, futurist-in-training, anime fan and immigrant living in Toronto.


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