Wondercon 2014: BATMAN 75th Anniversary Celebration

Batman 75th Anniversary Logo
Credit: DC Comics

With Batman turning 75 this year, DC Comics will be holding many events to commemorate the Dark Knight and the impact he's made in popular culture. At Wondercon 2014 in Anaheim, California, they held a memorable panel recapping some of the character's biggest cultural touchstones while DC Comics Co-Publisher and artist Jim Lee, senior VP at Warner Bros. Animation Peter Girardi, Batman: The Animated Series Producer Bruce Timm, longtime voice of Batman Kevin Conroy, filmmaker Kevin Smith and his co host on the Hollywood Babble-On podcast and collaborator on the Batman '66 Meets the Green Hornet Ralph Garman shared their personal stories associated with those moments. Vice President of Marketing John Cunningham moderated and began with Detective Comics #27, kicked off the panel by asking each guest to share their favorite member of Batman’s rogue gallery.

Jim Lee: Catwoman because we all know that temptation we must resist; she's always been a criminal and Batman being a vigilante shares common ground. She's a character that he's got to stop but can't for whatever reason and she knows that too and she plays with him. I think they make a great couple.

Peter Girardi: I grew up on Batman '66 so I like a lot of the crazy characters like King Tut but in canon I think Two Face for sure in the same way Jim likes Catwoman.

Bruce Timm: I don't think I can narrow it down because I love them all for various reasons but if I had to Catwoman because Julie Newmar.

Kevin Conroy: I have an unusual relationship with Mark Hammill, so I’d have to say the Joker. He brings out the best in me, and I bring out the worst in him.

Kevin Smith: I'm so pissed because Batman stole my answer, I'm going more esoteric with my answer so I'm going to skew it a bit and say my favorite aspect of the Batman character is his humanity. That's the only thing that stops him. That's his frustration in every medium, the inability to go that one step further. As opposed to Superman who has no limits, Batman has spent his whole life searching for those limits and it's only when he hits the ceiling of his humanity that he could possibly stops and sometimes overcomes it.

Ralph Garman: Crap, anything I say is going to sound lame. Like Bruce and the TV series the Riddler has a special place in my heart because of Frank Gorshin was indelible and I always think of him in that way.

This served as the perfect segue way into a plug for the Batman '66 TV series as the next topic of discussion, the upcoming DVD/Blu-ray release of the box set, and the digital comics that are being collected into a New York Times Best Selling hardcover on April 27. Smith and Garman were prompted to speak about their upcoming web series, Batman '66 Meets the Green Hornet.

Garman talked about the aspects that they needed to adhere to and as a fan he got to work out a "what if" situation and what wasn't seen in that legendary TV crossover.

"When you think about it, that was our Avengers when we were kids," Smith joked. "Holy sh*t, two dudes in masks–standing next to one another! That was my Batman growing up and I got into the comics when the movie came out in 1989–There was this general sentiment that if you grew up with the Adam West Batman, you kind of turned your back on it in the way that Peter denied Christ."

"People would ask, 'Hey, man do you like that old Batman?' and you'd go, 'NO MAN, I don't watch THAT Batman. That Batman is stupid.' Somewhere a cock crows."

The first person who Smith recalled was Matt Wagner who wrote and drew Batman/Grendel crossovers and had to fight to keep a line where Batman refers to Robin as his "old chum". Marketing wanted to remove it because even they were aware of the negative sentiment of Batman '66. But Wagner chose to keep it because that's the version that introduced many people to the character and felt it should be honored. Since then, Smith has chastised anyone bagging on the show. "You're a poser, man. You should HONOR that Batman!"

The dialogue moved to The Dark Knight Returns and Miller's influence and Lee recalled when he was a senior in college and all he could remember about Batman was ironically, Batman '66 and was uninspired having to live up to that. “I was unenthusiastically collecting comics at the time, but The Dark Knight Returns changed that in its prestige format, sophistication in storytelling and hand coloring.” There was a scene that made Lee tingle in a weird way–where the old Bruce Wayne is 75, naked and taking a shower.

Lee, needing to quickly explain said, "He had a moustache and realizes when he shaves it off–oh snap–it was the force of Batman. He thought he could drop the cowl but it was deep inside him. It was powerful, mythical, and got me inspired to get into comics. I put my first portfolio in 1987 and got work soon after. It was a life changer."

In 1989, the Tim Burton Batman film exploded fan fare and Smith was eager to share his long and vivid account of working at Domino's Pizza and worming his way out of being trained to see the film. When Batman first descends into the film to take out two thugs on the rooftop, Smith and (friend, frequent collaborator) Walter Flanagan shared a moment. "We don't even make eye contact, we just Thelma and Louise'd it." Smith acted out, grabbing Garman's hand tightly.

Naturally, as it did in that era, Batman opened the doors for Batman: The Animated Series and Timm explained how different the world was back then and how much money Warner Bros. was willing to spend on the cartoon. This is before the internet and video games took off and Bat-mania was ubiquitous. "I knew it was going to take off," said Timm. "We had to screw up badly, not to be a hit." However, Timm had no idea of the critical acclaim Batman:TAS would receive considering no one was covering cartoons in the press.

"I didn't have a clue," Conroy said about if he was aware of groundbreaking show they were making. For those that don't know, this was Conroy's his first role and first audition in the business. "Talk about getting the brass ring! We had been recording these things for months, they go off to the artists and then it comes back for ADR where you synch up the sound with the visuals. We had been working six months before we saw anything and I was with Mark Hamill on the first day of ADR. On this full screen, the lush color comes up, the rich graphics, the full symphony score--just WHOOOSHED off the screen! I looked at Mark and asked, ‘Did you have a CLUE that THIS is what we were working on?’ We were both speechless. It was overwhelming. You (pointing at Timm) knew what you were doing. We knew the characters we were creating, but we didn't know what the visuals were going to look like. It was breathtaking the first time I saw it and that was the first time I knew it was going to be a hot show."

Smith added that whenever he reads a comic with Batman, it's Conroy's voice he's hearing and when he hears Conroy speaking in his normal voice it almost sounds like Bruce Wayne when he is stoned because he's so happy.

Cunningham then screened two small but in no way minor Warner Bros. animated shorts, the first created by Timm and Girardi.

"I had an itch to do a straight up period piece in 1939," shared Timm, "It was the year he was created, with the clothes and technology of that time. Then I thought, if I'm doing '39 I gotta do it in black and white." "Bruce had this idea," Girardi added. "I wasn't going to say no."

When Cunningham asked Conroy if that was the easiest money he earned, he laughed and replied, "I wanted more lines!"

Before showing the second short, featuring Batman Beyond, Timm shared his anecdotes about the conception of the revolutionary cartoon, working with then-president of the WB network Jamie Kellner during the period of time when The New Adventures of Batman and Robin were airing and “we were really into it.” He wanted to do something different with him for the next iteration. "I'm thinking teenage Batman," Timm recalled. Timm also remembered how scared he was about working on it, believing that the reception was going to be negative. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was also a breakout hit for the WB and that might have had some influence.

Timm talked with Paul Dini after the meeting and they thought if the setting was in the future, when Bruce Wayne is old, he'd have to pass the torch. Then he ran it to his Co-Producer on the show, Glen Murakami, and he was on board. It was at that point that Timm believed the idea had traction. "Leading up to the premiere, everyone was convinced it was going to be a travesty. This was the early days of the internet and message board comments saying, 'This is so much cooler than I thought it was going to be.' Cool. Good on us... people were polite back then.”

"Once we did the short for the early version of Batman," Girardi said. "The next thing Bruce and I talked about is a new Batman Beyond short. We called Darwyn Cooke (who was a storyboard artist for Batman:TAS and Superman:TAS), and it was like getting the band back together and they came up with a great take." The short aired and as the adrenaline is pumping, their approval grew, especially for the last line.

"Batman Beyond vs. B:TAS Batman?" Girardi responded. "That's a total nerdgasm there. That's what that was."

The conversation was brought back to comics once Batman: Hush was discussed and Lee was asked if he had knew how transformative Hush would be while in the moment of drawing Jeph Loeb's script. Lee dismissed that because only three people knew he was actually drawing the book. "I had been at DC for three years and really hadn't done any monthly work and I felt it was time to do something," Lee recounted. "Jeph called me up and told me we should do Batman because he was the most popular character and that's how I'll make my mark. He asked me, 'what villain do I want to use' and I said, 'well, I kind of like all of them' thinking that he'd pick one. Maybe he misunderstood me or is just sadistic, but he'd pick a new villain for every issue."

"We really wanted to do a story that actually did tie into a lot of the stuff that you had seen before in different decades of Batman mythology. It starts out looking like Frank Miller's Batman with the shorter ears and with each successive issue he transforms into a lighter, more acrobatic Neal Adams' Batman. There's a shot I did with all of that Batmobiles and I tried to incorporate all the ones from the cartoons, TV shows, and at the time I don't think we had the rights to do the '66 Batmobile, but I put it in there anyway. [Laughs and cheers] So if you see it, and there are little tweaks to fudge it, so I had good reference, I knew what I was doing. Don't blame me."

"That book introduced me to the fanaticism of Batman fans. When you get into comics as a professional, you see the loyalty and passion of the fans, but when you do a Batman project, it goes to a whole different, secret, über level. There's fanaticism at that level. It opened up my eyes to the power of that mythology."

Lee went on to joke about how he did a total of nine issues in secrecy before it was solicited and because he is notoriously slow, he was still almost late on the last three issues but he did it and won a $100 bet with Mike Carlin who was the editor at the time. Staying in comics, Cunningham announced that Lee's next project was the controversial All Star Batman and Robin with Miller, which is coming out as an Absolute Edition in the summer. Lee revealed that two people nearly got fired during the making of this series due to the black bars gaffe.

"The proof and testament to the power of Batman, as crazy as that story was, is that the quote, 'I'm the goddamn Batman' is part of the vernacular and part of the mythology. It shows you for as human as the character is, he is bulletproof. You can tell a zebra story on the moon in the 50's, he's dark in the Arkham games and Dark Knight movie, and still works. He's multi-generational and appeals to little kids and older fans. All of this goes into a giant creative pool and you are in that way shaping who Batman becomes."

Winding down the panel, the panel touched on the conquering success of the Arkham Asylum video game franchise, Batman's recent appearance in The Lego Movie and Fox's upcoming Gotham series. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's run on the New 52 Batman series was also mentioned and their streak of being the best selling comic for three years including each trade and hardcover being New York Times Best Sellers, along with a sneak peek at the upcoming fall release of a book and mask gift set that packages the third volume of their run, with the creepiest, wearable Joker mask from that storyline.

An image of Batman Begins showed on the screen with the theme of where does Batman go next? Cunningham described his own experience watching Christopher Nolan's trilogy and how Batman underwent another "seismic interpretation" where the lore of Batman felt real.

"It's the humanity of the character that makes him so resonant for so long," Conroy responded. "He's mortal, he doesn't have any super powers. He's got such a great moral compass that he always does the right thing."

Timm compared Batman to the ebb and flow of James Bond where they got progressively sillier to the point of Moonraker and the need to veer back towards the tone of the early films and then rebuilding to the Daniel Craig films. Timm had a conversation with Executive VP of Creative Affairs and Warner Bros. Animation, Sam Register after doing so many serious interpretations. They agreed that the next logical step in animating Batman at the time was to go back to the character's lighter days and embrace the version they liked as a kid--that's how Batman: The Brave and The Bold came to be and Timm believes that it remains a valid show in its own weird way despite the shift in tone and style.

"I'm looking forward to seeing what that next version of Batman will be," said Timm. "I'm looking forward to Ben Affleck because it's going to be a really different take. As we found out when you see him up with Superman, it's a whole different world. It's not just a world that's bound by hard science and physics; you could go to the moon if you want. We'll see."

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