How do you put a new spin on a Batman cartoon that's fresh and exciting? How about looking back at the years before Bruce Wayne became an expert crime fighter, before he was filling the cell blocks of Arkham Asylum with the likes of Joker and Two-Face, and before Alfred was a withering butler. It’s a popular concept of late, with Batman’s origins and early years being explored in Batman: Zero Year, a year long storyline in the ongoing comic book series, and Batman: Arkham Origins a new video game coming this October. Newsarama spoke with Glen Murakami and Mitch Watson, producers of the new computer-animated series, Beware the Batman as well as the voice of Batman, Anthony Ruivivar and Alfred, J.B. Blanc at Comic-Con International: San Diego.
"We honor everything that came before it," Ruivivar said. "But this is our chance – not to change it – but put our stamp on it. We're looking at a point in time. Bruce is in his early years, pre-Robin, dealing with that Rubiks' Cube that's Bruce Wayne/Batman and how he navigates that. He'll go out sometimes half-cocked, find himself in bad situations and get hurt. He's not the hardened, grizzled, indestructible Batman in his later years. It's an exciting, fun place to be."
"We also get to see Batman with this rogues gallery of lesser known villains and see them animated for the first time–guys like Professor Pyg, Toad, Anarky, Magpie and a bunch of others I can't reveal right now. You'll see Batman's first encounters with these villains and the genesis of those relationships, which to me is exciting for the fans."
Beware the Batman was the brainchild of two ideas by series producers Glen Murakami, who suggested using lesser known villains, and Mitch Watson who wanted to create a series that focused on the detective aspect of Batman. It was a bold choice to take away what is arguably the best rogues gallery in superhero lore, but that provides some excitement as well in learning about other characters who will come to shape Bruce Wayne into the experienced hero we know today. It proved to be a bigger challenge than animating Batman with computer graphics.
"The harder part came with choosing the villains," Watson revealed. "Glen had some ideas he wanted to explore and I went back in the comic books and found villains. We wanted villains who could illustrate different aspects of the personalities of the characters. All the way down to Barbara Gordon and Lt. Gordon, Katana, Batman and Alfred. The villains had to be able to affect them, they couldn't be just picked for the sake of being defeated. We wanted some villains that evoked some sort of change in the characters. DC was very kind with us where they said if you find a villain you'd like to use – Magpie is the best example – but the personality doesn't fit the story, feel free to change her. There wasn't a lot about her backstory, but they said that as long as we didn't gut something that is canon it's fine. There've been so many permutations of Batman that it's virtually impossible to determine what's canon and what's not. Even going back to the gun thing. If you go back to the very very beginning Batman has a gun. Alfred has used guns in the past."
“What’s been good about using the new villains is that it changes an aspect of Batman that you haven’t seen before," Murakmi explained. "We talked about what are the iconic things about Batman villains are, and how we can bring that to the new villains. A lot of people asked how we were going to approach Professor Pyg, and it’s not like we’re trying to change it, but we only have 22 minutes to tell that story. You kind of have to try to figure out how to make Professor Pyg iconic and narrow him down. We don’t have a twelve-issue story arc, we don’t have a year to develop that character, so we felt like we had to change some things."
"The theme that we went in with Pyg and Toad, for example, was kind of Wind in the Willows, but they also became like a twisted Holmes and Watson. It felt like it flowed, it felt like it had a theme. That seemed more important for that to track rather than all the backstory. In 22 minutes of backstory, we couldn’t get into all of it."
"We were talking about Magpie's dual nature, and that’s kind of like Two-Face, but it’s also kind of like this. It felt like we were on the right track with the villains, that it was something fresh. There are things we couldn’t do with Two-Face or Catwoman, and that’s what’s nice about using the new villains."
"Then we looked at Alfred," Watson said. "There was stuff here and there about his history that I never knew existed and that I don't think was ever talked about in any of the TV shows or movies, like his MI6 background. He was always treated as an upper crust man, but if he was MI6, then he might be more street. There was a character in the World War II book, 'Bitter Seeds' who was a working class guy that I was reading at the time. So we thought, 'let's make Alfred more street smart, and what if he was Sean Connery from The Untouchables or 70's Michael Caine in Get Carter?"
"The way Katana came out is that they didn't want Robin involved. If Alfred is getting on in years, let's find somebody that Alfred would trust; he had a partner that was killed. So let's make that his goddaughter. There was a huge back story that we built for her that most will never know, how Alfred felt responsible for her father's death and so he brought her to America. It was more of an organic thing because he needed a character to trust. Once we figured out their personalities it all came together pretty fast."
Ruivivar came up with three voices, all a slight variance between them, to give a specific voice to each of the personas of Bruce Wayne/Batman. He said that the series will explore the psychological effects of trying to juggle these personas and whether or not he can maintain a healthy balance.
"There's public Bruce Wayne and the face that he shows Gotham," Ruivivar explained. "There's the private Bruce Wane who is introspective with Alfred, honest and quiet; then there's Batman and what happens when he puts on his suit of armor to kick ass. The hardest thing was keeping it in the range when he's Batman and some of the things you have to do vocally are difficult in that range. I don't do the deep gravelly voice. But I didn't spend too much time thinking about how he sounds." "I spent more time thinking who this human being is, as a public Bruce Wayne, what is he trying to accomplish? As private Bruce Wayne, intimately what is he grappling with? And the same thing with Batman, the intimidation factor and him as a detective, he has this lightning sharp mind, he's deducing things, he's thinking 10 steps ahead, everything's a chess match and it's about formulating those thoughts and wrapping his mind around it. That is where I started. I tried to go inside-out instead of outside- in."
"He does refer to Batman and Bruce Wayne as separate people. They aren't one to him. There's a duality to him. Psychologically, its the only way he can keep it in a box. We explore in season one the toll that takes and that's some of the really exciting stuff to me. Without giving too much away he'll have to spend time more as one persona than the other and it starts taking its toll. Bruce Wayne and Batman are like ying and yang, they have to coexist for it to be okay. If Bruce Wayne doesn't have the release as Batman or Batman doesn't have the release as Bruce Wayne, what happens? We play with that."
Perhaps the biggest change viewers will recognize is Alfred. We are used to seeing him as the attentive, sarcastic butler who is mostly bound to Wayne Manor until Batman's beckoned call rings. But if this was to be an earlier exploration of Bruce Wayne/Batman, then it makes sense that everyone else's history is explored too.
"People are skeptical, aren't they?" Blanc commiserated. "People are worried that it's a departure from Alfred. They've given him a harder background, a military background with the MI6 thing. But what remains true is the fundamental relationship between Alfred and Bruce is the same. He's there to support, to nurture, to honor the promise he made to Bruce's parents and I really think we've stayed true to that. All the compassion, and all the wit I hope is still there. People are missing the one liners, but it's there and it's going to be there more. An example is that Alfred is forever trying to get Bruce to eat a decent meal, and all Bruce wants to do is drink protein shakes or a green tea."
"There's still that slight vying for control between the two of them as far as who dictates who's life. That's a very rich vein to tap for these two characters. One we've gone in a new direction, that's for sure and I don't think we're ashamed of that. We're proud of it. The fundamental truth of the relationship is still there and still honored that's what I love about the whole show. It's still very much Batman."
"It's risky, of course. Sometimes fans feel insulted by that, I don't as a fan. It's refreshing and enlightening and takes things in a new direction. What I want is the traditional relationships honored. If Alfred became Batman's sidekick, then that wouldn't wash for Alfred. I think there's concern that that's what's happening, not at all. That is not Alfred's role in this. It's just a younger re-imagining of Alfred. He's realizing that he's slowing up and he's not the guy he once was and he wants to provide that extra support. I think that's an interesting part of the story to delve into."
"Batman the franchise of franchises. It's hallowed ground and therefore risky to do something different. I love the challenge in that. Whenever you enter any kind of genre, you have a duty to honor that genre. So while you're hopefully doing something new you want to maintain the character elements that have always been there. We've kept the compassion, the fatherly relationship, the humor, the acerbic wit, that's why there's a British character in this thing is to set that up. It's a huge privilege. I was like a giddy school girl when I found out. We've been excited since. It's just stupendous when you see it all coming together. I love what they've done with it."
Because so much of this era of Batman isn't common knowledge Beware the Batman has a chance to be something that is both bold and brave. Much like Batman Beyond did from 1999-2001, Beware the Batman thrusts viewers to a timeline with characters that provide a great deal of mystery. That these characters will eventually shape Bruce Wayne, Alfred, Lt. Gordon and Barbara Gordon, into the iconic characters we know so well, Beware the Batman offers plenty of entry points of interest. Only time will tell how long we'll be able to experience this world.
Beware the Batman premiered July 13, 2013 and airs on Cartoon Network Saturday mornings as part of their DC Nation block. There are 26 episodes in season one.