After ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ is listed by several publications as the best animated television show ever, with ‘TV Guide’ ranking it the seventh Greatest Cartoon of All Time. You can’t fault the good folks at ‘TV Guide’ for being wrong even though they are in this case.
Who knew when the show first aired on Sept. 5, 1992, it would not only be worshipped by fans 25+ years later, but it would be a stepping stone for other superhero shows and movies, both big and small screen? The creators of the show didn’t. The actors cast to give life to these characters didn’t.
And yet, for more than 25 years, ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ is still considered the stuff of legend for fans of the Dark Knight and comic books in general. Comic book characters that are wildly popular today were created for this show. Popular Batman video games brought in millions of dollars to their respective production companies because the games had roots in this show. The success of the DC Animated Universe is mostly due to the success of this show.
In short, no one knew what they had on their hands back in 1992. You can bet your sweet batarang they do now. Before we go too deep, let’s back up a little.
POW! BANG! THUD!
In 1965, a black-and-white TV show called ‘The Munsters’ filled homes with the zany antics of the Munster family, led by patriarch Herman, who was Frankenstein’s monster. I won’t go into too many details, but it was silly, good-natured fun that families could enjoy together. It was a very popular show until 1966, then the ratings plummeted because families (in particular, young boys) were tuning in to this new show – ‘Batman,’ starring Adam West and Burt Ward. While ‘The Munsters’ was filmed in B&W, ‘Batman’ was brightly colored, and loud, and, well, Batman basically killed Herman Munster.
Why is it important to know all this, you might be wondering? Patience, good folks. To understand greatness, you must know from whence it came. (I promise, it’s worth it. Keep reading.)
‘Batman’ was a very campy, tongue-in-cheek show and, if you know anything about the ’60s, you know that the show was a VERY ’60’s kind of show. It wasn’t the first time a comic book superhero went from page to screen (Superman did that years earlier) but it was the first time a colorful rogue’s gallery of evil-doers was brought to life on TV.
After the TV show ended, West would reprise his role as the Caped Crusader for the animated show ‘Super Friends,’ which was loosely based on the ‘Justice League of America’ comic books. That show lasted for nine seasons over 13 years. The show was created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, the duo who brought us everything from ‘The Flintstones’ to ‘The Jetsons.’
All of this is to say that, up to this point, Batman was very much a cartoon character. That is, until 1989.
Ever Dance with The Devil in the Pale Moonlight?
In the summer of 1989, filmmaker Tim Burton took what everyone knew about Batman and turned it on its cowl.
‘Batman,’ starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. This Batman was dark. This Joker was still goofy, but he killed people. Not only was Batman dark, but all of Gotham seemed dark. This film was the turning point, from campy Batman to the Batman we know today.
Due to the success of ‘Batman,’ Warner Bros., set into motion production of ‘Batman: The Animated Series.’ Originally developed by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, the show kept the dark tone of the movie. In fact, animators actually drew on black paper so the show would always have that dark feel. Instead of “Art Deco,” the duo decided to call it “Dark Deco.”
‘B:TAS’ was extremely artistic – looking as though everything is set in the past and the future all at the same time. Don’t ask me how, they just did it. In my mind, however, there are two reasons why the show still stands out 25 years later: the voice actors and the writing.
‘I Am Vengeance, I Am the Night …’
Every fanboy and girl of ‘B:TAS’ gets goosebumps when they hear that line. While the show could have dynamite writing, it would do no good without a strong voice cast to bring it to life.
While the show had an incredible cast of well-known and award-winning actors of the stage and screen – John Vernon, Adrienne Barbeau, Loren Lester, Arleen Sorkin, Diane Pershing, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Robert Hastings, Melissa Gilbert, John Glover, Marilu Henner, Helen Slater, Ron Perlman, Ed Asner, David Warner, I seriously could go on … – the show really rested on the vocal talents of two unlikely actors; one, a graduate of Juilliard, the other known the world over as being from a galaxy far, far away.
Kevin Conroy took the cape and cowl and made Batman his own, just as a completely unrecognizable Mark Hamill took the mantle of the “Clown Prince of Crime” to a completely different level. And managing this star-studded team was the now-retired Andrea Romano, who was the voice director for just about any bit of animation Warner Bros., released for decades.
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to talk with Conroy about the show, and he emphasized just how much Romano and everyone associated with the show wanted to avoid anything sounding “toony.”
“(Romano) always liked to cast people who had a lot of acting experience,” Conway said, “because she liked to get a real ensemble feel. She always tried to get the actors in the booth together. … So, it’s a lot like doing a radio play. You only have your voice to tell the story, but they didn’t go for overly ‘toony’ sounds, overly dramatic, overly cartoony sounds.”
When Conroy first auditioned for the role, he said he was unfamiliar with the Batman legacy. The only exposure he had to it was the ’60s Adam West version. So, when he auditioned, he just went with his gut and channeled West.
“When Andrea was auditioning me for the role, she was like ‘No, no, no, that’s not the direction we’re going! Wipe your brain clean of that,’” Conway laughed. “And they explained to me the Dark Knight history. It was really just an odd kind of happenstance that I came into that audition COLD, with no preconceptions, but with this heavy theater background, and just winged it.”