By Bob Clark
Where did I first learn the origin story of Batman, who he is, and how he came to be? It certainly wouldn’t have been from reruns of the old Adam West show, which I watched enthusiastically when I was growing up, which all but ignored the dark foundations that writer Bill Finger laid down for the character created by artist Bob Kane in the pages of Detective Comics in favor of bright, primary colored fights and stale, flat one-liners that would give a bad reputation to the term “comic book story” for years to come. I can more or less place where I first discovered the stories that outlined the beginnings of other superheroes from my childhood. As a young tyke I watched Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie almost as religiously as I viewed the Star Wars films, and even had a tape of the old Fleischer cartoon shorts that would probably be unwatchable if you put it in a VCR today, thanks to how often I played it– either way, I’d have been well exposed to the doomed planet Krypton and the infant Kal-El’s arrival in Kansas like baby Moses in the reeds. When I was in grade school I was lucky enough for Marvel to reprint the first appearance of Spider-Man from Amazing Fantasy, allowing me to discover my favorite hero’s humble roots as Peter Parker, and the tragic way that he grapples with power and responsibility.
But for Batman, I have no concrete memory of where I first heard about his beginnings. Yet like a prime Jungian archetype, he was always there in some corner of my mind, such that when I first saw Tim Burton’s 1989 film, opening on a back-alley mugging in Gotham City, I was bewildered to see the Caped Crusader show up to foil it, at first assuming we were watching young Bruce Wayne being orphaned. Somehow I’d just always known that his wealthy parents had been gunned down when he was just a boy, and that he then channeled his rage and riches into becoming the Dark Knight savior of Gotham City and it’s rogue’s gallery of gangsters and psychopaths. Obviously somebody must’ve told me the story when I was too small to remember, but there’s something appealing in the idea that one could simply uncconsciously intuit where this shadowy avenger in the night came from. There’ve been countless retellings of Batman and his origins in all manner of media in the past few decades, some of which I’ve absorbed gregariously– definitive work from Frank Miller, Dave Mazzuchelli and the team of Loeb & Sale in graphic novels; further films following the Burton years from the likes of Joel Shumacher and especially Christopher Nolan; even the video games of the Arkham Asylum series, pitting the Dark Knight against whole open-world sandboxes of crime. But none have been quite so celebrated or as influential as Batman: The Animated Series as spearheaded by artist Bruce Timm and writer Paul Dini, this week marking the 20th anniversary of its debut on television.
Premiering as part of a line-up of programming on the Fox Network that included the popular, but not quite as decorated X-Men cartoon, the 1992 series enjoyed the creative catalyst of Burton’s two preceding Batman films and built from many of the aesthetic decisions laid down there. Picking up the dark, film-noir enthused design that fueled the films, Timm and the team of designers and directors who visualized the series’ Gotham into a timeless, streamlined world that incorporates elements from the Post-War past and the contemporary world that variously resembles a surreal mixture of 1940’s cinema and retro-futurist science fiction. Most tellingly, Timm took the Art Deco approach to the city’s architecture and applied it to the characters themselves, hearkening back to the classic designs of the Fleischer Superman shorts, turning every citizen of Gotham from the daredevil heroes and villains to the everyday working joes into embodiments of human potential as dynamic and streamlined as the sculptural friezes and tableaux carved into the buildings of Rockefeller Center. For all the darkness on display, they didn’t neglect to incorporate the brightness of the comics into their telling either, giving all of the shadows that much more substance when contrasted with the subtle blue-and-grey of Batman’s cowl, or the teeming primaries of his various villains, making the introduction of color into the almost monochrome purity an act of hostility in and of itself. The Joker’s green hair, red lips and purple suit were never more threatening than when intruding upon an otherwise black-and-white world, like a glimpse of The Maltese Falcon under invasion from colorization.
That sense of color was mirrored by Dini and the team of writers he worked with, concocting plots that drew upon the decades’ worth of storylines and characters from the comics, assembling the best of the Dark Knight’s arch-enemies, bringing them onto the television screen either with a devoted faithfulness to their original spirit or taking otherwise superficial personae and injecting them with new depth. Whether it was returning classic figures like the Two Face, Poison Ivy or the Riddler to the dark, dangerous roots of their depiction on the page, but without sacrificing the over-the-top playfulness earned by years of Adam West-style camp, or inventing wholly new, tragic backstories as with Mr. Freeze, inspiring the writers at DC Comics to adopt their version as the official story, Dini and his team managed something like a definitive digest of the characters, just as much as Burton’s dominatrix antiheroine take on Catwoman changed the game on her. At their best moments, they managed to invent new characters, like the Joker’s moll Harley Quinn or Gotham beat cop Renee Montoya, who seemed to co-exist so perfectly with the classic figures that they would soon become adopted into the official canon of the printed comics, while also plumbing deep into the more obscure reaches of the Dark Knight’s arcana to bring characters most viewers had never heard of into the mainstream.
At the same time, the crew of the series also looked to more recent additions to Bat-lore, like the 70’s creations of Ra’s Al Ghul and his daughter Talia, or the 90’s figure of Bane– all characters who would loom large in the subsequent Dark Knight films of Chrisopher Nolan, who would similarly crib many of the series’ best known motifs (Batman’s repeated “now you see him, now you don’t” gag, popularized on the show) while updating the old-school 40’s cinematic influences for a more Michael Mann-esque, neo-Noir style in the new millennium. In some cases, the more recent characters and stories mined by the Timm & Dini series managed to be almost completely drowned out by their appropriation of them for animation, as was the case of Batman: Year Two and the elements of it which found their way into the celebrated theatrically released feature Mask of the Phantasm. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the four-issue storyline even being permissible to take as a reference point– as written by veteran Batman-scribe Mike Barr and largely illustrated by Todd McFarlane, it stands as a near perfect example of the late-80’s era of mature content excess in American comics, full of graphic violence and gore popularized in graphic novels of Frank Miller and Alan Moore.
It’s especially telling to see the almost perversely dynamic drawing stylings of McFarlane, who would quickly go on to create the acclaimed (and despaired) 90’s mega-hit Spawn, being given a chance to flex his pen-and-pencil imagination with the gritty streets and bloodsoaked murderers of Gotham City. At times, he gives Batman’s presence an almost supernatural personality, his cape flowing in the wind with a life of its own like the hellish costume of his later creation. And yet his artwork comes paired with a story that seems almost juvenile in the way it juggles the camp and extremes of its hero’s and villains’ larger than life personalities with a strained maturity so sober it nearly gives you a hangover just to read it. Set early on his one-man crusade on crime (the title’s reference to Miller & Mazzuchelli’s masterpiece Batman Year One was an editorial afterthought, and one that only makes this work diminish by comparison), Barr pits Batman against the Reaper, a returned vigilante who murders Gotham’s criminals in cold blood instead of merely subduing them, and forces him to team up with the very law-breakers he fights against in order to bring him down. The hero is even brought face to face with Joe Chill, the very mugger who gunned down his parents before his eyes, forcing him to fight the temptation to take bloody vengeance even as he seeks to rid the streets of the Reaper’s eye-for-an-eye campaign.
Barr throws out any sense of restraint or conservatism in his characters or storytelling, from the histrionic register of his campy dialogue (his villain almost always caps his appearances on page with the catchphrase “Fear… the Reaper!”) to the pulpy melodrama of his subplots (such as when dashing playboy Bruce Wayne seduces a Goddamn nun). Similarly, McFarlane takes every chance to illustrate Barr’s script with visual embellishments and flourishes that make the whole story look less like the work of a polished corporate-owned media empire and more like a piece of gratuitously over-the-top fanfiction by comic-book nerds who barely believe how much they’re getting away with. Indeed, it’s that very sense of pedal-to-the-metal creative freedom that makes the book such a lark to read– it doesn’t come with the sometimes overbearing self-conscious air that Miller’s or Loeb & Sale’s graphic novels often have, works by creators so knowingly devoted to the dominant strains of Bat-mythos past even as they’re seeing to reinvent it for themselves. More than anything, Year Two comes off as the work of a writer and artist simply seeking to have as much fun as possible with one of the big three superheroes, and flex their creative muscles in ways that prepare them for future creations of their own.
Granted, it very often overreaches itself and strains so hard for seriousness and maturity that it winds up looking rather silly, almost the same level of 80’s comics-conventions parody that Eastman & Laird’s original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was. But it’s still a great deal of fun to leaf through, as impossible to put down and easily disposable as the best of pulp fiction tends to be, and it’s that flavor of expertly crafted fluff that’s lacking in the Mask of the Phantasm film. With a script co-written by Dini and spearheaded by Alan Burnett, the film takes the “Ghost of Christmas Future” visage of the Reaper and subtly converts it into the deco-streamlined Phantasm, a ghostly menace that goes about hunting down a series of Gotham gang-lords on a quest of personal vengeance with ties to the early days of Batman and the Joker. As directed by series co-creators Timm and Eric Radomski, it matches the look of the show while taking full advantage of the feature-length and theatrical scale for something that aims for genuinely darker and more unsettling depths than stories crafted to match the quick, impatient pacing of television. Timm and Radomski take their time with each scene, stretching out moments as diverse as Batman’s various fights with crime-lords and overzealous cops to his slow-burn stakeouts, to say nothing of his time out of costume as Bruce Wayne, with a long-simmering romance fueling flashbacks throughout the film.
Most of the time they echo the quality of their series, but occasionally they outpace themselves, and perhaps do a good job of discovering the boundaries for their creative disciplines, right at the moments they exceed them. The film lacks the strict, economic visual and narrative clarity of the series, where no stray line or image can be afforded within any given half-hour of commercial television. The emphasis of so many 40’s era fedora wearing hoods in lieu of brightly attired Arkham Asylum inmates especially makes the film suffer at times. In the series, the shortened length made all those outdated depictions of criminal enterprises a little more digestible, whereas here the focus on old-school noir mannerisms makes even the Joker look hopelessly passe– instead of timelessness, it feels behind the times. The animation especially occasionally has a slight clumsiness in the way it mixes grand, striking postures and overdone movement. On television the creators managed to dodge this extreme due to more careful rationing of their resources and assets, but even then you could see them taking just a few too many frames to illustrate an action which really only needed two or three, a hand-me-down creative trait from the animators’ backgrounds in the Warner Bros. house style.
To contrast, it’s telling to look at the expert, but overdone work done here and the Kazuyoshi Katayama-directed anime series The Big O from Sunrise, the same studio that handled much of the overseas production for Batman: The Animated Series. There, you can see the same practiced disciplines that exist in the best of Japanese animation, wrestling with the oftentimes miniscule budgets for television production with careful management of assets for episode-specific action and portions that can be recycled and repeated throughout the series, forging a visual language that balances scenes with minimalist animation and punctuating them with fully done sequences rather than spreading the whole of their resources throughout the entirety. At the same time, one can easily see where Timm and Radomski learned to better manage their assets in future seasons of the series, and subsequent spin-off shows and direct-to-video features as well, better honing their deco-stylings and animation throughout their Superman, Batman Beyond and Justice League productions. Though Mask of the Phantasm won much acclaim from critics like Roger Ebert who likely never would have set eyes on any Batman-inspired animation if it wasn’t projected on the silver screen instead of the same old Bat-channel, it doesn’t represent the zenith of the quality work found throughout Batman: The Animated Series or any of the subsequent work done by Timm, Dini and Radomski. But it represents as well as anything a sampling of the work and craft done there to bring together as much of the DC character’s past and present on the page together into a form would provide it longevity into the future, perhaps becoming its definitive take. Two decades later, it’s as good as any an introduction of who Batman is and how he came to be, and likely will remain so long after we meet our own personal Reapers.