jason stives looks back at one of the most amazing animated series in history…
Anniversaries are a rather fractured form of celebration in our culture. The basic forms of an anniversary (birthdays, marriages, deaths) showcase the leaps and bounds from birth all the way through the most important events in a person’s life. In world events they are passing reminders of historical significance either in remembrance or in honoring. In popular culture, anniversaries are bestowed upon films, television shows, and album releases that are culturally significant but only really need to be shared in the most important of anniversaries. When they do occur the media takes that into account but sometimes they go unnoticed. September 5th in pop culture, breezed by like the golden days of Autumn but for a core group (nay LARGE group) of comic book fans September 5th 2012 was honored in quiet as the 20th anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series, one of the most important cartoons in history let alone the most important cartoon in comic book culture.
Batman: the Animated Series set a precedent for superhero based cartoons that has never been matched since and opened up a whole new world of animated properties that has since expanded into multiple television shows and a plethora of quality straight to DVD releases like the recent animated adaptations of Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. There are many iconic things that came out of the series but none, to me, more important than the look and style of the series. Executive Producer Bruce Timm has stated the idea behind B: TAS’ art deco style was the notion of “what if the 1939 Worlds’ Fair had never ended” and that is a definitive analogy of that look. Somewhere between classic and futuristic, the Gotham City of B:TAS is still just as brooding as Nolan’s depiction but less Gothic and more streamlined than Tim Burton’s own vision. It allowed the show to maintain its core dark roots but also made it shiny and pleasant for the kid friendly audience.
You also have a wealth of fantastic voice talent working on the show and some are still lending their voices to the world of the Dark Knight to this day. While many associate the voice of Batman with the inaudible and exhausted voice of Christian Bale, to me when I think Batman’s voice I think of the thunderous gruff of Kevin Conroy who was able to separate the gentile good natured voice of Bruce Wayne from his dark and ominous counterpart in an almost split personality kind of way. I always use to laugh every time Batman would talk like Wayne in his costume because it seemed to completely kill his presence but Conroy’s ability to switch sides so easily was always a testament to the talent of his voice.
However, if we are talking about someone who could fluctuate between a few octaves and still be able to scare me and make me laugh it was Mark Hamill’s iconic interpretation of the Joker. Yes, I understand people view Heath Ledger as THE definitive interpretation of the Clown Prince of Crime but for me it has always been Hamill’s Joker both in tone and even depiction. Something about the way his laugh could go from maniacal to demonic made the vision of a man in a dandy like purple suit both sadistic and unnerving. But beyond these two there were more than enough talented individuals behind these drawings like Ron Pearlman (Clayface), Richard Moll (Two Face), Adrienne Barbeau (Catwoman), and of course Efrem Zimbalist who brought his noble brow to the plate as Alfred Pennyworth.
The show also served as a way of reintroducing and re-imagining Batman’s famous rogue’s gallery. Characters like Mr. Freeze, The Clock King, and Clayface were given new light that made them tragic and complex figures taking them from being goofy bad guys with bizarre personas. While not many new villains were able to grab audiences (Baby Doll is a personal favorite of mine) the most important henchman in Batman’s cultivated history was created specifically for this show, Harley Quinn (voiced by Arleen Sorkin). Initially envisioned as a colorful Hench woman for a one off appearance in the episode “Joker’s Favor,” Harley Quinn quickly became the Joker’s squeaky girlfriend and one that left an indelible impression on comic book culture ultimately becoming just as popular in the comics as she was on the show. To me, Batman: the Animated Series was just as good if not better than a lot of the shows I use I watched on Nickelodeon and Disney when I was young.
Don’t get me wrong those shows were just as entertaining and still are but the care and overall craft that producers Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski put into creating this show is mind boggling. The overall mature tone of the show for some reason never once went over my head and years later as I have rewatched various episodes the mature tones shine more brightly and I’m amazed I was never bored once by them. Combine this with the inescapable quality of writer Paul Dini’s best stories and Batman: TAS was far more cinematic than anything I viewed as a child saved for a slew of quality Disney animated pictures. There are many places to start if you have never seen this show before (and a lot of places you shouldn’t) but there are some that stick out more than others. Here now are my Top 5 personal favorite episodes of Batman: the Animated Series:
5. The Man Who Killed Batman
Batman: the Animated Series was notorious for doing off the cuff episodes that didn’t necessarily focus on the presence of the Dark Knight and this gem towards the end of the first season was definitely a stand out Bat-lite adventure. The story begins in the home of crime boss Rupert Thorne, informed of a mysterious visitor to his domicile, a man named Sidney Debris, who wanders the street under the nickname “Sid the Squid” or his more noted claim to fame, “The Man Who Killed Batman.” Sid retells his scatterbrained tale of offing the mysterious Batman in a factory raid, gaining respect in the Gotham underworld, and befriending the Joker, who ultimately tries to kill the Squid for killing his arch enemy.
Sid is such a schlub of a character, a foil who trips over his own ignorance but it’s these aspects of his character that make him likable despite being a complete pushover in the events of the story. The fact that he just rolls over the events going from being the man who offed the Bat to rubbing elbows with the Clown Prince of Crime is rather entertaining because each situation takes the everyday man and puts him in the most comic book esque of moments. His interactions with the Joker in particular are wonderful and combined with his wonderful introduction complete with a horror movie organ for ambiance it makes for some frightening moments for this poor sack of an average Joe.
While this is an entertaining story all around this episode comes down to one beautifully orchestrated scene. As Sidney is locked in a jail cell after a bar room brawl, he is sprung by the Joker who wants the honor of meeting the man who did the impossible, but the reality of a world where Batman is dead and crime has no punch line simply depresses Mr. Happy. In return the Joker holds a private memorial at the Ace Chemical Factory where he proceeds to throw Sidney in a pine box and drop him into a vat of acid, seemingly recreating his own tragic creation. The great thing here is Hamill’s voice work which goes from a sadistic and solemn sense of reflection into pure hatred and psychotic guile. There is also the fantastic animation which if you have ever seen Bruce Timm’s detailed story board from this scene transitions so well to ink and color. It’s grandiose and quite possibly one of the best moments in 90’s animated television.
4. If you’re so Smart Why Aren’t You Rich?
I hate pulling from some of the more obvious choices of Batman villains to list but many of the classic rogue’s gallery members have such great introduction stories during the shows run. The Riddler much like many other villains reintroduced here was a character saddled with a gimmicky persona but part in partial to some great writing he became a far more puzzling character, no pun intended, seriously. In his first appearance in the Bruce Timm Batman universe, Edward Nygma is an intelligent software engineer responsible for the creation of the successful “Riddle of the Minotaur” game but one day his fortunes are taken from him by a scheming millionaire named Daniel Mockridge, a Clark Gable looking pretty boy with a constant grin and knack for being a corporate bully.
While we aren’t necessarily given a chance to see Nygma become the Riddler we can assume his transformation is an act of revenge. The story is paced very well with a lot of the action beats coming at commercial breaks and the Riddler is given a very ominous portrayal in his introduction as well as the events leading up to Batman and Robin infiltrating the maze at the amusement park.
I must confess that I enjoy a good riddle AND I love Greek mythology and back in 1993 I remember really enjoying the riddles Nygma puts forth to Batman and Robin. While he doesn’t seem too threatening now the idea of being tormented and outwitted by a rather intelligent individual like the Riddler shows the mindset of brains over bronze as Mockridge learns by story’s end. The funny thing is unlike other baddies the Riddler’s back-story or what little we know of it isn’t presented as a tormented figure more of a jealous intellect confounded by his inability to see the big picture just the science and math of it. His sharp speaking tongue mixed with his profound sense of demeanor made him look buffoonish to some but most would learn he wasn’t to be taken lightly. Nygma in costume becomes progressively more chaotic and in further appearances this was amplified a bit to take away the subtlety displayed here.
3. Heart of Ice
Much like fellow rogues gallery members the Mad Hatter and the Clock King, Dr. Victor Fries, otherwise known as Mr. Freeze, was given a rejuvenating makeover when brought to the small screens of the animated series. Determined to revitalize some baddies deemed hokey by the comics, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini rewrote the back stories of many of these villains giving them far more complex lives than just mad men with schemes. Freeze’s debut story, “Heart of Ice,” is for many the best episode of the animated series and understandably it deserves that title for most. From the moving title card to the mat shot glow of Freeze’s eyes in his opening monologue, you know that Freeze isn’t just a gimmick his soul and being is ice cold to the touch.
Heart of Ice is more or less an origin story but without starting from the beginning instead starting with the reports of a series of ice related crimes during a heat wave in Gotham. We soon learn that Mr. Freeze was once a brilliant scientist working on a cure for his wife’s ailment, who is in cryogenic stasis. When Gothcorp CEO Ferris Boyle catches wind of Fries’ hemorrhaging research budget he sabotages his wife’s cryo chamber and scars Fries turning him into a cold hearted man with an obsession for the frigid temperatures that his suit uses to keep him alive. Thankfully we are deprived of any cold related jokes save for a few from Batman, who spends most of the episode with a cold of his own carrying a thermos of chicken soup. For me, the closing moments still get me emotional and it is played off very well. Captured and imprisoned in Arkham Asylum, Freeze sits cradling a globe holding a ballerina that resembles his wife, he repents his sins and only hopes for the warmth of his wife one day. “I can only beg your forgiveness, and pray you hear me somehow, someplace… someplace where a warm hand waits for mine.” The line leaves a lump in your throat as you watch the globe frost over in his cold hands and it’s one of the most beautiful moments in the show’s history.
2. The Laughing Fish
In the pantheon of the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery no one measures up to the Joker and for obvious reasons. The Moriarty to Batman’s Sherlock Holmes, the former Jack Napier is an equal, a man destroyed by society’s flaws much in the same way as Bruce Wayne except to a far more brutal result. While many will say that Heath Ledger gave the definitive performance of the Clown Prince of Crime, I tend to disagree, although his performance was nothing short of fantastic. To me, the animated series interpretation of the Joker is nothing short of a nightmare brought to life, a laughing face with a poetic and murderous undertone. Couple this with the aforementioned voice of Mark Hamill and you have the perfect balance of child like humor and villainy.
While the majority of the Joker’s stories are entertaining and rather good, this adaptation of a late seventies Batman comic is truly terrifying. Devoid of the Joker’s classic theme and replaced with a horror film score, the Joker and his activities is summed up perfectly here as something that only makes sense unto himself. The Joker is out not to murder the masses (although he tries to kill a few) but to make a profit in the form of the branding of his own personal “Joker fish” fish that have been given the Joker’s trademark grin and skin complexion.
‘The Laughing Fish” works so well at being very straightforward and devoid of a zany plot. Sure, the Joker acting as Gotham’s answer to Colonel Sanders seems outlandish but it delves greatly into the ulterior motives that he possesses that range from bizarre to downright sadistic. Couple this with the unfortunate few who interact with the Joker in this episode and you feel the fear that they must endure for just being someone for him to pick on. G. Carl Francis, the copyright paper pusher that the Joker threatens at the start of the episode gets the worse for wear and his introduction to the Joker in this episode still makes my skin crawl to this day.
1. Two Face Parts 1 & 2
While many view “Heart of Ice” as the definitive origin story of a Batman villain, the tragic saga of Two Face eclipses all and is for me the best story that the show ever produced. For at least several episodes leading up to this story we were treated to getting to know District Attorney Harvey Dent, a long time friend of Bruce Wayne’s who has a taste for women and being very chummy. However, this all changes here as we delve into Dent’s psyche where his dark side, dubbed Big Bad Harv, rears his ugly head.
Many of the scenes involving the reveal of Big Bad Harv are truly spell binding, especially in the therapist’s office where Harvey winces his face into an evil vision as well as the brief flash of lightning that reveals the inner Two Face. Dent in his very few appearances up to this point is quite likable and building on the first part of this story you really hope his worst side doesn’t overtake him but after he is seemingly blackmailed by Rupert Thorn there is no turning back. It’s also one of the few stories to have a time lapse jump months ahead in its second part as we deal with Two Face, now hardly remembered as the former District Attorney, robbing banks with henchmen and longing in silent for his lost love, Grace.
There is nothing but personal tragedy here for Batman/Bruce Wayne and the moments when Wayne bleeds through the cape and cowl towards the scarred Dent is heart wrenching. It’s amazing how dramatic this show got at times but it’s so cinematic and gripping that you never think twice that its taking place within a weekly show aimed at children. It’s a testament to the quality of the shows we were afforded as children of the 90s and a testament to the greatness of this wonderful show.
Author’s Note: It was tough to pick just 5 favorites and I had many to choose from that tore me apart to decide upon. Would love to see what YOU the readers feel are your personal favorites from one fan to another!- JMS