As someone who remembers when Batman: The Animated Series premiered back in 1992 – hell, who remembers how they had the first episode, “On Leather Wings” on continuous loop at Heroes Con that year several months before the series premiered, and how it made the hairs on his arm stand up – attending the 21st anniversary panel for the series at San Diego Comic-Con was a reminder of just how groundbreaking that show was, and continues to be.
The series set into motion a DC animated universe that continued for almost two decades in and of itself, from the WB reboot of the Batman series to Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond and the attendant Justice League cartoons –and of course, the many fine animated series with the DC characters that continue to premiere on TV and DVD to this day. That’s not including all the great comics that resulted from those shows – both the ones based on them, and the ones that took such ideas and characters as Harley Quinn or the revised origin for Mr. Freeze and made them canon in the “regular” DC Universe.
The legacy of Batman: TAS was apparent in the packed meeting room at Comic-Con, where series producers Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski and Alan Burnett recalled the making of the show, and its impact on both themselves and the series’ fans.
-How did the creators know when their vision for the series would work? They didn’t, according to Dini, especially after they saw an early test from a Korean studio: “It looked like G.I. Joe, like any other action show on TV. It turned out it was just that one studio.” It wasn’t until they saw the rough footage for the pilot “On Leather Wings” that they knew it would work.
-Radomski discussed how he and Timm were first-time producers on the show, and had, “a lot of eyeballs wondering if we knew what we were doing.” “The hardest thing was getting folks who don’t do what we do wondering if we can do what we do.” Timm credited former head of Warner Bros. Animation Jean MacCurdy for letting them do what they wanted on the show: “To this day, I wonder – what was she thinking, letting two totally green guys do a show?”
-According to Radomski, the first six months doing the show were “kind of torturous,” with a story editor whose vision didn’t jibe with his and Timm’s (Batman was going to have a dog, and there were going to be recycling bins in the Batcave to echo the environmentally-friendly message in many cartoons of the time).
-Eventually they brought in Burnett, who in turn brought in Dini. Radomski recalled his reaction to Burnett’s first script, “Two-Face,” as “Hosanna!” (They were less thrilled with “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement,” though Burnett defended the episode as being a Fox idea.)
-Burnett credited Fox for letting them make a show for show for 9-14-year-olds instead of 6-11 year-olds. “The network was our best friend in that respect,” –letting them do fistfights and guns, “because it’s not Batman without fistfights and guns.” He added that “The best thing I did was I forgot all the Broadcast Standards and Practices stuff I knew.” Burnett quickly added that he was pro gun control, but as Timm pointed out, this was a crime show, and guns were a necessary part of the story.
-When they couldn’t show violence, the creative solutions “made the show better,” such as the death of Dick Grayson’s parents in “Robin’s Reckoning.” The unofficial rule was, “You can’t punch ‘em in the face, but you can kick ‘em in the chest.”
-Timm noted that for many fans, this was their “gateway drug” into comics. “And I think only one or two were serial killers.”
-What stories didn’t they get to do? One idea was a vampire story with Nocturna from the comics. The idea was that that she bites Batman and next morning Alfred comes in and pulls the curtain and Bruce’s skin starts to bubble and burn…but Fox said “No vampires.”
-On a different note, Burnett wanted to do a “Silent Knight” story with no dialogue, based on Neal Adams’ “The Silent Night of the Batman.” They were later able to do something similar with the Batman/Catwoman short “Chase Me.”
-Can the producers watch the show today with the same enthusiasm of the audience at the panel? Timm admitted he couldn’t (“I literally haven’t watched an episode in 10 years”). “Even at the time, all I could see were the flaws,” he said. He can look back and appreciate the art direction, music, voice acting, but feels the animation was bad in some episodes, and noted how slow it is compared to cartoons of today.
-Dini, on the other hand, rewatched the theatrical release Batman: Mask of the Phantasm recently, as his wife had never seen it, and found he “really got into it.” He was mocked by the other panelists for finding the DVD in a grocery store bin for five bucks and paying for it.
-Favorite episodes? For Dini, it was “Heart of Ice,” which was “just…right.” Timm seconded that, and also cited “The Laughing Fish,” and his soft spot for “On Leather Wings,” and recalled the experience of going to a soundstage with Radomnski to watch the late Shirley Walker record the soundtrack with a full orchestra before their eyes.
- Radomski agreed with the earlier choices and cited “Robin’s Reckoning” as another major one, while Burnett cited Joe Lansdale’s “Showdown,” his own “Two-Face” and the hallucinatory “Perchance to Dream,” which climaxes with Batman jumping out of a tower to wake up: “I called Standards and Practices and said, ‘I’ve got suicide as a way to get out of a trap.’” Timm also recalled Radomski being happy to be at a recording session because one of his childhood crushes, Meredith MacRae from Petticoat Junction, was cast.
-Favorite characters? Dini and Radomski both picked the Joker, and Radomski said he loved that character the most with Dini and Timm paired him up with Harley Quinn. “The comedy and the psychotic nature of their relationship was always a blast, and to see what the directors and the board artists came up with for those characters,” he said. “Every time you come to a con and see people dressed up as Harley, it’s amazing to think of how much that character caught on. She was just as crazy as the Joker, but better to look at.”
-Burnett picked Alfred as his favorite character, which Timm seconded. All the panelists expressed their admiration for his portrayer, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr, and it was noted that Zimbalist had recently told them that while he had starred in such long-running shows as 77 Sunset Strip an The FBI and occasionally was asked about those, not a week goes by that he doesn’t get mail about Alfred.
-A guest question from voice casting director Andrea Romano inquired as to whether the producers knew any of the voice actors were right for their characters right out of the gate. Surprising no one, everyone agreed on Kevin Conroy as Batman.
-Timm added Mark Hammill was a similar case. The producers brought him in to do guest spot as bad guy Ferris Boyle in “Heart of Ice,” and an enthusiastic Hamill had asked if he could play any of the main villains. Though Tim Curry had already been cast as the Joker, the producers made the decision to replace him, calling Curry “a brilliant actor, but not a good fit for our vision of the Joker.” After the new auditions didn’t work out, Hamill came in and “blew us away.” “I was so expecting him not to be that guy, and he was just amazing,” Timm said.
-Asked about what happened to the title cards used to introduce episodes, Radomski said that about half of them were original pieces that still exist somewhere, while many of the later ones were digital, one of the first times they applied Photoshop to the process.
-A surprise guest was Loren Lester, the voice actor for Robin/Nightwing. Timm said that originally the producers did not want Robin at all, and to play the series like the first Tim Burton movie, but the network insisted on the character to help bring in kid viewers. The compromise was to make Robin/Dick Grayson older and away at college, so he could come in occasionally. Dini chimed in to praise how Lester transitioned the character into Nightwing in the later episodes.
-Asked if his kids watched Batman: TAS Lester replied that they loved it, but they were daughters, so they weren’t as fanatic as boys, which got a “Woah!’ from the audience. Lester explained that his daughters were actresses who were big into musical theater, so Batman wasn’t as to their taste.
-Lester said that having come from voicing other cartoons, that Batman: TAS “wasn’t a children’s cartoon – this was serious, like the way movies are made.” He remembered that “20, 30-year-olds” were watching it when it first aired.
-Dini then interjected that “we found out we were actually pretty big in prisons.” This unsettled him: “Why are criminals watching us? Are they trying to figure out what they did wrong?”
-The last part of the panel involved questions from the audience. The first fan said that the show had a “psychological effect on me” (get in line), and recalled seeing the reveal of Two-Face, and asked about what “psychological horrors” from their own lives the producers had poured into the show. Burnett recalled how he went to child psychologists to ask if someone could get a multiple personality without it being sexual, and that he always felt that Two-Face needed to be a multiple personality before he was deformed, which got some applause from the audience.
-On that note, Radomski recalled how inspiration for the show came from things the producers watched and liked, such as horror movies. Many of the situations in the show came from a shared love of “being scared or being put in a position where you’re asked to figure your way out of it,” and what had made an impact on them growing up. “Hope it didn’t mess you up, though,” he added.
-Another fan, pointed out how Harley Quinn became a breakout character, wondered if the producers had any characters they’d created they wished had broken out. At this, Timm recalled how he and Dini had created Roxy Rocket for the Batman animated tie-in comic and introduced her in the show, because the complicated contract for Harley meant that they didn’t get royalties for her because she premiered in the show, but Roxy, who premiered in the comics and moved to the series, would qualify for realities. Needless to say, their hopes for a “Second Harley” did not come to pass: “There’s no action,” Dini said. “I’m still waiting for my royalty check,” Timm seconded.
-What was the most challenging episode of the show to produce? “They all had their difficulties,” said Radomski, who recalled an early episode worked on by a Chinese studio that had dust on the glass plate used to photograph the animation, meaning that every scene had lint visible on the edges. “We were horrified because we couldn’t fix it.” Mask of the Phantasm, originally intended as straight-to-video, was a big challenge, as Warners decided to make it a theatrical film when it was almost done. A big regret for the producers was that they didn’t get to do “a Batman animated feature the way it was intended…maybe someday,” which got big applause from the audience. Burnett ribbed Radomski, pointing out it was the CGI he did for Phantasm’s titles that convinced Warners to make it a theatrical film. “Bad choice,” sighed Radomski.
-What drew viewers into the superhero universe of Batman: TAS, and given that there weren’t many superhero cartoons when Batman: TAS premiered, and that kids today are pretty much born hearing the word “superhero,” what could draw audiences in today? Timm said he’d thought about this a lot: “There wasn’t anything like Batman in 1992. Nowadays, there’s tons of shows that vie for people’s attention.” He wasn’t sure if it was possible for any show to be the kind of breakout TAS was in 1992.
-Radomski added that “We benefitted from the fact that once we started, we were pretty much left alone” and that “we were allowed to make the show we wanted to make.” “Warners was distracted by the launch of Animaniacs.”
-Burnett pointed out Fox was a new network that wanted to make a splash, and unusually, they encouraged them to push the envelope, but he heard that high executives were expecting something like the 1966 Adam West Batman TV series. This made him anxious when it was shown to the higher-ups, but they loved it.
-What were some characters the producers wanted to use on the show, but that they didn’t get a chance to touch upon? Dini said they stayed away from superpowered characters, with Jonah Hex appearing because it was a flashback, and Zatanna because she was an illusionist, as opposed to a magical character He said they figured they’d do Superman eventually, and wanted to keep Batman as a crime show.
-Dini said they had an idea for doing a dream-like Sandman-type story with Morpheus and Death, with Batman stuck between life and death. They pitched to Neil Gaiman, who liked it, but Burnett thought it was too metaphysical. “I would do anything with Paul,” Burnett said. “I’d give him as much rope as he wanted – and he’d come in and say ‘I have this idea about Harley and ivy together,’ and I’d say, ‘Go!’” However, he added that they had rules in beginning: “No ghosts, and no Humanitas Awards.” (i.e., no Very Special Episodes about drugs and alcohol). “With Ra’s al Guhl, we got into that mystic area a bit.
-Asked what it was like to grow up watching Adam West as Batman, then to create this unique corner of Bat-mythology, Burnett recalled how he’d read a giant stack of comics to get through long car trips as a kid, and how blown away he was by Batman: “It was an adult world…I felt like I’d lost my virginity. I never went back to Scrooge McDuck.”
-At one of the early recordings at Sound Castle, Burnett was told Batman’s credited creator Bob Kane was next door shooting some promos. He went over to the Batcave setup, where Kane was sitting in a mock-throne. “I was thinking, ‘I’m standing in the Batcave with Bob Kane. I have finally arrived!’”
-Why is Batman iconic, and why does he inspire so many creators to do such amazing work? Timm: “After 20 years, you’d think I’d have a great answer.” He thought it was the character’s look: “He’s just a guy. He doesn’t have any superpowers. He’s just really fit and smart and stuff.” His first exposure to Batman was the Adam West show, which he didn’t know it was a comedy, but just thought “he looked frickin’ cool.” “He’s the good guy who dresses like the bad guy.”
-Radomski said he didn’t like the Adam West show, but liked Batman because “he did the right thing because it was the right thing to do.” For Radomski, Tim Burton’s movie was first time it occurred to him that “This character is really friggin’ cool.”
-And finally, what do the producers think of the different versions of animated Batman such as The Batman, The Brave and the Bold and the new Beware the Batman? Timm admitted he only saw a few episodes of “The,” but thought it looked visually cool, and had the same opinion for “Beware.” Radomski said he was “even more ignorant,” while Burnett thought The Batman was more for 6-to-11-year-olds, “and I thought it was pretty mature for that range.”
And that’s it – and if you’re anything like me, experiencing this will have you cracking open your DVDs or streaming on Netflix some great memories of a show that changed the face of superhero cartoons – and told some great stories, period. If you have an hour to kill, you can view the panel in its entirety in the video below.