Friday, October 19, 2012

Batman: The Animated Series (1)

Batman:  The Animated Series (season 1)

I rewarded myself, after having expended a lot of time and energy writing and researching a book chapter about Batman, by buying what really started it in the first place for me, Batman:  The Animated series, which, along with Animaniacs and Power Rangers, is one of my principal memories of after-school during fifth grade.  While many people I’ve spoken to have memories of Batman as camp because of the Adam West series (which, as I understand it, was heavily syndicated in the UK), I always knew that Batman was dark, angsty, and to be taken seriously as a hero (to this day I still haven’t seen the Tim Burton film, so all my knowledge pre-2005 and pre-my TDK comics binge is really from B:tAS).  Unsurprisingly, B:tAS is so good, re-watching it as an adult has only made me desperate to acquire the whole run of the series. 
However, I think I came into the series after this initial run of 28 episodes, because none of them were really ringing any bells (though I was familiar with four or five because I watched them on YouTube post-TDK).  So it was quite exciting to see episodes that were almost completely new to me.  Mostly this meant good surprises, but it also occasionally revealed some duds.  

What makes B:tAS work so well is that aesthetically it is some of the best animation you will see anywhere, much less on network cartoons; the talent behind the scenes, including the voice actors, writers, and producers is second-to-none.  Not only are these people fans of Batman, but they are also committed to a good story and are willing to take risks and reinvent things.  Certainly there is not the same amount of reinvention seen in the Nolan!verse, but that really is like comparing apples and oranges.  B:tAS is the epitome of one version of Batman.  The visuals want to be taken seriously, and so do the stories.  Mostly they succeed.  

I grew up wanting to be an animator.  To this day, I hate drawing backgrounds and would have loved to have gone into character animation.  So while I can’t pretend to be really qualified to discuss the art of B:tAS, I think anyone who looks at it has to be knocked out.  I found out that the backgrounds were painted on black paper; this is “Dark Deco.”   The mood and the tone are really established before anyone says a word.  I had a conversation with my dad not too long ago about Batman on the radio when he was a kid.  I really had to ask myself how Batman can work on radio, considering it came from comics and has flourished in visual media.  Radio can paint visual pictures of menace, darkness, and atmosphere (“Who knows what evil lurks in men’s hearts?  The Shadow knows . . .”), and although I have heard one episode of The Green Hornet, I still have difficulty imagining how a serious Batman story could succeed on radio[1] (I suppose it would have to have a lot of dialogue between Batman and Robin, perhaps even a narrator).  All this is to say that B:tAS creates a Gotham that is beautiful even when it’s being terrible.  It really is the kind of sublime that Friederich painted in the 19th century.  

B:tAS is also written in an alternative universe where cars have retained their sleek 1930s shapes, buildings are still built in Deco styles, Bruce Wayne can wear a double-breasted suit, and reporter Summer Gleason wears a shirtwaist-style dress (contrast her with Ginger Coffee in Darwyn Cooke’s rejigged The Spirit).  TV exists but only in black-and-white, and people still listen to the radio.  The police of Gotham have blimps (!) and the Batmobile has features Nolan!verse Tumbler could only dream about.  

I’ve said before that Batman is a hyperdiegentic universe (give that one to Matt Hills, of course), and B:tAS really demonstrates that by its first episode dropping us into Gotham.  There’s no Batman Begins/Year One-style introduction.  We can assume it’s relatively early in Batman’s experiences, but he is by no means a rookie in “On Leather Wings.”  All the visual (and narrative) shorthand you need is in the opening titles, surely some of the best titles ever made.  As was pointed out to me, no one says anything and nowhere does it ever say “Batman.”  The Warner Brothers logo dissolves into the (faintly scary to me, when I was 11!) police blimps.  Like the Doctor, Batman has had a troubled relationship with authority throughout his 70-odd year existence, but B:tAS is there to set a moral example to kids, so we immediately understand from the titles that when the police can’t catch the criminals, Batman steps in.  And with such style.  Batman’s glare at those two criminals could freeze your heart (and it’s done so simply, just shifting the white shapes that stand for Batman’s eyes).  The stylized hand-to-hand combat establishes something we’ll see over and over in the stories:  Batman knocks the guns out of the criminals’ hands before he knocks the criminals out, and he is always using his martial arts in a clever (and visually arresting) way.  And the backdrop of the moon shows both the series’ Romantic side and its love, again, of the visually interesting.  

And who could forget Shirley Walker’s music?!  It’s as much a character in the titles, and in the series, as Gotham itself.  Quite frankly, the title sequence is so good that my boyfriend and I still sat and watched it, not looking down at our plates while eating dinner, the subsequent times we watched the 28 episodes.  He had never seen B:tAS before.  

And finally, those “title card”-type introductions to the names of episodes are another stunner.  They remind me of silent film titles with their artistry and attention to detail, and clearly each episode is important if they are introduced in such a way.

“On Leather Wings” has garnered a reputation as one of the best stories in B:tAS, and while I didn’t think I would like it much given that Man-Bat is a rather one-note villain, I was surprised to find it still holds up as a truly great episode.  Visually it still pushes the envelope, and I can imagine how wowed people would have been in 1992.  The director and animators have treated it like a mini-feature film, and the “camera” soars and swoops with Batman and Man-Bat through the skies of Gotham.  Also within it is the trademark gentle humor that cracked more than a few smiles during the course of the episode—the security guard who wants to be a radio presenter is just one example.  You get the sense in B:tAS that even the minor characters have a story to tell.  For example, the two scientists going out on the fire escape to neck have more depth in 15 seconds than Petra and Sutton in all 7 parts of “Inferno.”

The Bat Cave is a lot more dark and fantastical (and uncomfortable-looking!) than Christian Bale’s, and the Bat Computer, though it hasn’t aged all that well, still keeps the story going.  Alfred is the gentleman’s gentleman and though possessed of a dry humor that never fails to get a chuckle, is still the restrained character from the comics.  Kevin Conroy, of course, is the ultimate Batman and Bruce Wayne; what a voice.  He is absolutely believable throughout the series, even though Batman has to shout epithets like “scum!” at criminals (in lieu of bad language inadmissible in a cartoon; do you think, like the Lone Ranger, Batman is not allowed to swear?).  

The simple story actually works well and provides the anchor for the visual flights of fancy.  There are also the first of the voice cameos from the likes of René Auberjonois, and it became a game for my boyfriend and I to try to figure out who was this week’s guest star.  B:tAS understood, like good audio understands, that casting the right voices is half the director’s job done.  

One of my favorite pieces of my own fan fic is “Christmas with the Joker,” which is vastly different from the one presented in B:tAS and obviously inferior.  Anyway, this is another very enjoyable if extremely screwy story and a rare outing for Robin.  I’m rather on the fence about Robin; it’s so easy to make him camp, lightweight, and inessential to the story, so I often prefer just ignoring his existence altogether.  However, at his best, he can be a great foil for Batman/Bruce’s monotone wit, and this proves to be one of the best examples.  The ending, which shows Bruce and Dick watching the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, is utterly surreal.  

“Christmas with the Joker” also gives us the Mark Hamill Joker who is really great and memorable, and is in fact everything the Heath Ledger Joker is not.  I appreciate them both.  I think the B:tAS Joker is absolutely mad.  Even if he appears to be planning his madness, I don’t think it’s something he can really help.  I don’t remember enough of B:tAS to confirm whether this Joker was a fairly inoffensive Red Hood before falling into the chemical vat (though the fact that he gets called Jack Napier in “Dreams of Darkness” suggests this is so), but I think it’s just possible this Joker might have been driven physically insane by the chemicals.  Whereas I think the Nolan!verse Joker is mad north by northwest. (Oh dear, first Milton’s Satan, now Hamlet . . .)

The Joker is used a lot in the first few episodes of B:tAS, so the producers and writers clearly have a fondness for him.  Shirley Walker’s bravura music reaches a new level in the jaunty yet bizarre “The Last Laugh.”  There’s also something innately funny about Batman battling the Joker’s robotic admiral clown!  Paul Dini, however, proves to be (in my opinion) the most consistently good writer that Batman ever had.  “Joker’s Favor” is, on one level, a silly outing and an excuse to bring in Harley Quinn.  On the other, it’s a diabolical story.  In B:tAS, with so many villains-of-the-week and crime bosses, the stories that revolve around actual citizens make a real impact, and everyman Charlie Collins is a lovely creation. As in many of these stories, the Joker’s motives seem shrouded in mystery, and when at the end, Charlie threatens him and causes him to cowardly seek Batman’s help, he makes a character more pathetic than archetypal.

The Scarecrow also seems to be a real favorite with the B:tAS folks as he clocks in at least as many stories as the Joker and is introduced immediately after him; perhaps his methods give the most possibilities for stories, or perhaps the fact that he uses non-lethal gas makes him easier to adapt for kids’ TV.  I have to confess I never really cared one way or the other for the Scarecrow until Cillian Murphy came along.  In the twisted way that fan canon works, I forget that the back story I gave to my Jonathan Crane is not the one that chimes with the one that introduced him in the 1940s.  Nevertheless, there is enough murkiness to the character here, played by Henry Polic II, to be able to sustain a richer back story (she says, hopefully . . .). 
The Scarecrow must have struck the Nolans as being particularly suitable for their Batman, as he was a crucial part of Batman Begins and his cameo in The Dark Knight Rises was perfect.  This is because, I guess, his weapon is fear itself, which is both potent and multifarious.  Fear can attack Batman like almost no other adversary.  Scarecrow’s introduction in “Nothing to Fear” does not differ visibly from the expected DC one, but Bruce/Batman’s visions about a father who is disappointed in him are notably poignant.  He appears again in “Fear of Victory,” which somehow seems so contemporaneous it could have appeared in the Nolan!verse—or in the current run of comics.  Robin makes one of his few appearances here, paralyzed with fear when he accidentally exposes himself to fear toxin meant for his college roommate and football star (visions of “The Pajama Game” . . . ).  He appears again in “Dreams in Darkness,” a wonderfully crafted episode with some of the most visually inventive artwork of the series so far.  His scheme in this story is so remarkably similar to the one employed in Batman Begins, you do begin to wonder if the right people are given their dues.  

The next villain to be introduced is Poison Ivy in the superb “Pretty Poison,” which intertwines her story with that of Harvey Dent, underlining the friendship between Harvey and Bruce and putting their relationship on the slow boil for the eventual culmination.  I fear Ivy is one of the most one-dimensional villains, benefiting the most when combined with Harley so the pair can compare and contrast their personalities and methods.  Ivy is a bit one-note, and I can only imagine that her perennial popularity is due solely to the fact that she can be drawn voluptuously, even practically naked, to become the kind of sex object she herself would decry.  Like environmental extremists in a Barry Letts Doctor Who story, Ivy is doing bad things for good reasons.  But why should that make her a man-hater and/or a lesbian?  Shouldn’t her animosity extend to all humans and not just men?  I don’t see all the dots connecting; she is written like the way Sarah Jane Smith was written, by men imagining how feminist women would act and talk.  Nevertheless, I don’t in the least condemn this episode, as Ivy’s attempted seduction of Harvey only proves that she is self-interested and obsessed with plants above people.  

I do believe that B:tAS is at its weakest focusing on stories about children.  Sometimes children-centric stories can work on kids’ TV, but generally I adhere to what the creators of Doctor Who thought:  children prefer stories about people slightly older than themselves.  And as for adults watching?  I found I was least enthralled by stories that had children at their focus.  It’s most difficult (and most ludicrous) in “The Underdwellers,” which builds on the urban legends of the Mole People and crocodiles in the sewers of New York.  Not only are there crocodiles in Gotham’s sewers, there’s an insane Fagin-esque character who dresses in the manner of Drosselmeyer from The Nutcracker.  His pre-pubescent slaves get sent up into the world at night to pick pockets, but all are stunted and apparently speechless.  It’s difficult enough doing a cartoon about kids, much less making them voiceless kids!  Although Batman gets to display the right kind of righteous indignation, this is all a bit too weird for me.

A similar feeling of unease pervades “Be a Clown,” which involves Mayor Hill’s young son Jordan, who gets lured away from home by the Joker masquerading as a clown in a foiled attempt to blow up Mayor Hill and his guests.  The unease arises, I think, from wondering whether the Joker will hurt Jordan or take him on as an accomplice.  Worse than killing him, though (not that he would; this is still kids’ viewing), you do have to wonder if child abuse is on the cards.  Again, of course, no hint of this is given by the episode.  The Joker’s hideout (a ha-hacienda in training?) is a broken-down amusement park which gives the artists something to enjoy.  

The possible exception to this is “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement,” which follows the fortunes of kid detective Sherman and his friend Roberta (whose good advice he often ignores, to his peril).  This is the only appearance of the Penguin in the first DVD, which is rather surprising.  As far as cartoons go, Sherman, Roberta, and their friends make convincing foils to the Penguin, though Batman’s help comes just in time.
Much of the series is taken up in introducing the supervillains of all stripes who love to play in Gotham.  The two-part transformation of Harvey Dent into Two-Face is quite moving and well-written, never talking down to kids but showing how a monster can be made from a good person.  Although, as in The Dark Knight, the physical rupture (in TDK the fire and gasoline, in B:tAS the chemical explosion) is only the catalyst to an existing problem.  In both tales, Harvey’s frustration with a justice system that doesn’t seem to do enough brings about mental stress that threatens him and his loved ones.  In B:tAS, his anger management issues have already brought about a split personality, “Big Bad Harve.”  As in The Dark Knight, there is a woman involved:  in this case, it’s Harvey’s fiancée, Grace.  

Harvey has a wonderful character design, relying on curves and ovals where his friend Bruce is all hard rectangles; yet he has the makings of a good-looking hero (as did Aaron Eckhart, undeniably).  In The Dark Knight, Harvey is one of the Joker’s pet projects; like in The Killing Joke, he is determined to drive someone insane through grief.  In B:tAS, Two-Face is the unexpected result of the machinations of evil mob boss, Rupert Thorne (played with an absolutely amazing basso profundo by John Vernon).  Richard Moll does a good job conveying Harvey’s angst and Two-Face’s gravelly disregard (I think he is also the voice of the Batcomputer).  

“Heart of Ice” is by Paul Dini and won an Emmy in 1993, yet I’ve never been able to get into it.  It’s a nice self-contained story, but I just don’t see it as anything special.  Certainly Batman sympathizes to an extent with Mr Freeze and saves some damning commentary for Mr Freeze’s attempted murder victim, Ferris Boyle (voiced very well by Mark Hamill).  There are some visually creative moments, such as the one where Freeze breaks open a fire hydrant and shoots his ice gun into the water, allowing himself to be carried to the top floor of a building (Jamie actually exclaimed “cool!” when this happened).  

On the other hand, I didn’t at all expect to like “Mad as a Hatter,” featuring, of course, the moments that make Jervis Tetch into the Mad Hatter.  I have often wondered what a villain based on a Lewis Carroll character can actually bring to the table but actually, this script—written, unsurprisingly, by Paul Dini—has given me a whole new insight on the Mad Hatter—and the very fine line between someone creepy and yet sympathetic like him, and someone soulful yet scary like the Phantom of the Opera.  Why does obsession by one for an impossible love for a much younger girl feel less offensive in the character of the Phantom when they are, rather essentially, similar characters?  Visually, too, “Mad as a Hatter” is quite a treat, though it’s rather impressive and dubious that Gotham has an Alice in Wonderland-themed park!  

The B:tAS Catwoman is one of my favorite versions of Catwoman, though the costume seems to be drawn more for animator’s ease than sexiness or style.  Her introduction in “The Cat and the Claw” feels a bit old-fashioned—surely Bruce Wayne/Batman knew not to underestimate women, either for evil or good—but Kate Mulgrew makes a surprising cameo as evil Slavic terrorist Red Claw (at first I thought she was Talia).  

Clayface has a very interesting and sympathetic though not one-dimensional introduction in “Feat of Clay.”  A cosmetics industry implicated in causing an actor’s dependence on its drug-enhanced facial reconstruction?  It’s rather heavy stuff and one feels almost as much sympathy for Matt Hagen’s best friend—it seems a stormy relationship at the best of times.  The story also gives the animators a chance to show off their skills as Clayface continues transforming.  He is one Batman villain to genuinely fear as he doesn’t seem to be able to be destroyed.  

“Vendetta” is as much about Harvey Bullock and his possible shady past dealings as it is about Killer Croc, an unlikely villain whose sideshow origins are crying out for an episode of their own (surely there is one?).  Yet with the previous trip to the sewers of Gotham, it feels slightly like a runaround.

One of my favorite stories is “P.O.V,” which introduces Detective Montoya (woo!) and is about the closest thing you’ll ever get to a Bill / Rashomon / Batman hybrid.  It’s intriguing and very well-done.  I don’t know if, as a child, I would have been bored by Batman’s rather minimal role in it, but as an adult, I think it’s great.  Similarly, the set up for “The Forgotten” is quite impossible—Batman, while undercover investigating disappearances from homeless shelters is kidnapped and loses his memory.  It’s rather a good story with an interesting, non-Gotham setting, courageous, everyday characters, and some very funny moments (as well as a superb score by Shirley Walker).  I found I was quite touched by “It’s Never Too Late,” a very unusual Batman story, taking elements from Two-Face’s previous story arc and a haunting backstory of gangsters and priests.

“See No Evil” was both very creepy and heartbreaking.  In this story, the mother is quite right to keep her daughter away from the father, but personal circumstances made me feel quite sorry for the father even so.  You could accuse “Beware the Gray Ghost” of fanwank, but in that respect it was no worse than the New Adventures novel Legacy; in fact, their villains proved to be rather similar!  (How often do you get to animate yourself as the villain?!)  It probably wouldn’t have worked as well without Adam West as the voice of the Gray Ghost, but it was a wonderful story and tugged at the heartstrings.  It also looked very retro and cool.  

“Prophecy of Doom” came out of left field slightly, though it was quite funny and featured an exciting visual sequence in a planetarium!  “The Clock King” seemed to pre-empt the introduction of the Riddler.  Last but not least, “Appointment in Crime Alley” again tugged at the heartstrings and seemed made from the mould that would have decently fitted in the Nolan!verse.

I can’t wait to continue watching Batman:  The Animated Series.     

[1] I know that Batman worked on audio because Pendant Audio did a fine series called The Ace of Detectives before it was shut down.

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