25 years ago today, everything changed. 25 years ago today, Batman: The Animated Series debuted.
Batman Returns had been the big summer blockbuster, and Warner Brothers had already prepared a follow-up in the form of a new animated series set to premiere on Fox that fall. It promised to be darker and grittier than the usual afternoon fare, from the action figure commercials of the 1980s to the many FCC-pleasing eco-friendly Captain Planet-type shows the 1990s had offered so far.
But no one was prepared for what came next.
Batman: The Animated Series set a new bar for TV animation, and a standard for superhero stories that’s still being felt today. As each new episode aired, Kevin Conroy’s gravel-voiced take on the Caped Crusader became a complex, driven figure, while members of Batman’s classic rogue’s gallery were gradually reintroduced to the Art Deco-style Gotham redefined with elaborate, sometimes tragic edges, from the widowed Mr. Freeze to the shattered psyche of Harvey Dent/Two-Face to the gleeful sadism of Mark Hamill’s Joker. And that’s to say nothing of a certain Harley Quinn the show first introduced.
The show gave way to Superman: The Animated Series, followed by Batman Beyond and the Justice League cartoons - along with countless other DC animated series and DVD-movies, with main Batman: TAS designer Bruce Timm gradually moving up to mastermind the animated universe. And it combined the talent and mythology of the comics with new talents, such as the late Darwyn Cooke, who got his start working on the series’ WB incarnation, The New Batman Adventures.
In honor of the series' twenty-fifth anniversary, Newsarama reached out to a number of comics pros to ask what made the series special to them (in the process, we inadvertently guilted a few creators into finally getting around to streaming the show on Amazon Prime). Sit back as we take a look back at the square-jawed Dark Knight who for many, remains a definitive take on the character.
Newsarama: How did you first encounter Batman: The Animated Series?
Jimmy Palmiotti (writer/inker on many, many, many Bat-related books, most prominently Harley Quinn): Like everyone else, I saw they were going to do an animated series, and when it came on, I caught it more than a few times. Later on, I went back and watched the ones I had missed.
Ed Brubaker (Kill or Be Killed, Fatale,Criminal;former writer, Batman title): It must have been within the first few years of it being released. I think I was in a comic shop and they had a video tape of some of the episodes playing on a TV on the counter.
Mike Allred (Madman, Silver Surfer; Batman ’66 Meets the Legion of Superheroes): There was an instantaneous tidal wave of word of mouth. I remember a renewed excitement and appreciation for animation. Ren & Stimpy was bursting with insane innovation and Batman: The Animated Series came with a consistent stylized energy.
Steve Orlando (writer of many books including Batman: Night of the Monster Men and Batman/The Shadow): I actually watched the first episode at its first airing ever! I think it was on Fox back then, on network TV. I remember it debuted in the evening, which made it seem very mature. It was a Catwoman two-parter, if I remember (Newsarama note: Orlando is half-right – the Catwoman two-parter, “The Cat and the Claw,” was the first to technically air, on Saturday morning, September 5, 1992, though the official pilot, “On Leather Wings,” aired in prime time the following evening). So I have been there from the beginning, as much as any young TV viewer could be.
Declan Shalvey (artist, many books including Moon Knight, Injection and the upcoming Savage Town graphic novel): The animated series debuted on Saturday mornings in Ireland/the Unted Kingdom to much fanfare, it was well advertised as far as I can recall. I had loved the Tim Burton Batman film, so the show was looking right up my alley – it was appointment viewing for a 10-year-old kid.
Nrama: What was your immediate reaction to it?
Allred: Blown away! Quality animation on television was very rare, and this take on Batman arrived fully-formed, pulsating with everything great about the Batman universe. It was revelatory.
Orlando: To be honest, a bit of confusion? As I remember it, there was no origin for Catwoman, or Batman, we just dove in. As a kid it was confusing, but I was still beyond sold.
Palmiotti: Well, I am a lover of a done-in-one story, so right out of the gate, I loved that, and I also enjoyed that it was not weighed down with too much continuity and it also had a sense of humor.
After that, simply the visuals were some of the best animation out there, and this is why I eventually fell in love with everything Bruce Timm. The use of shadows and the understanding that a graphic and film noir look can work in animation was just brilliant.
Shalvey: The mood, the atmosphere, the visuals, the music, it sucked me right in to that world, and I wanted to stay there! I remember really, really hating his massive chin. I eventually came around to it, though.
Orlando: Debuting it at, I think, a 7 p.m. evening showing of the first episode made it seem special. This wasn't just for kids, it was prestige TV before that was so named. It was gorgeous, it had imminent style, and I couldn't wait for the next episode.
Brubaker: I remember being pretty blown away, not just by the animation, which was Fleisher-esque at the beginning, but by the boldness of what they were doing. There was a sequence where Batman was drugged by the Scarecrow and he relives his parents’ murder, but this time, his parents are walking into a tunnel, and the tunnel becomes a gun barrel and then it fires and blood drips out of the gun. It was super f***ed up, especially for something aimed at kids.
Nrama: Favorite character and why? And Jimmy, a handicap - you can’t just say “Harley Quinn,” though you can talk about why you liked the character.
Palmiotti: Besides Harley, probably just Batman. I know it’s a cop out, but that’s what I came to watch the show for and he is just one of the coolest comic characters ever created. After that, the rogues gallery and Ivy are probably my favorites.
Honestly, Harley was just a fun character, and it was nice to see another side of Joker when she was around. I think the print versions of the character done by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini explored the character even more as time went on, and that’s how she finally grew on me. I never thought, when seeing the animated version of Harley, she would ever become one of DC’s main characters. It says a lot about all the creators involved, that’s for sure.
Orlando: Easily Andrea Beaumont/The Phantasm. A tragic character, and one I personally identify with. Phantasm, I think, is more like us. Batman is the best of us, and acts as we wish we always could, always making the hero's choice. Phantasm I think is more like we are - she is imperfect. She wants catharsis, she wants to be better, but she can't get out of her own way ,and she knows it.
Allred: Sorry, but I’m a gigantic Batman fan. Numero uno! And that’s saying a lot. One of the best lineup of supporting cast and villains ever.
Nrama: Favorite episode?
Orlando: “Beware the Gray Ghost!” I love, love the Shadow, and pulp characters, especially in their meta-relationship as the fathers of Batman. To see Bruce working with someone who was his hero when he was young is truly special. The Gray Ghost is the hero to everyone else's hero. And it's humanizing to know that even Batman can look up to an idolize someone.
Allred: “On Leather Wings.” First one I saw lit me up for all that was to follow. First impressions, y’know?
Shalvey: “Almost Got ‘Im.” Seeing those stories from the villains’ point of view said a lot about the character, and to do something very different from the usual story format, it really left an impact on me. It does to show that you can tell stories about a character, without really even having the character appear.
“Heart Of Ice” is right up there as well, such a wonderfully executed emotional story. There's a poignancy to it that frankly, I think most would think kids are too dumb to respond to. Say what you want about that show, I don't think it ever dumbed things down for its young audience.
Palmiotti: I cannot play that game with any show I love. I just like them all… and the stand-outs are many.
Nrama: What do you think people could learn from going back and re-watching the series?
Allred: Again, solid storytelling with a wonderfully unique style that has become the standard ever since.
Palmiotti: They will learn that you can tell a complete story in a short time if your writing is smart and focused, and that animation can stand out when you have a distinctive style guide that understands the character. They will also learn what they have been missing, and will appreciate the evolution of the character over the years.
Orlando: Honestly? There is something to learn in every episode. The biggest takeaway is the presentation, building a world that is rich, deep, effortless and endlessly entrancing. Batman: The Animated Series was a world you couldn't look away from. It was welcoming, it was attention-grabbing because of its elegance not just in visual, its instant-classic style, but its timeless storytelling. Writing and creating for a timeless moment is what I'd hope to learn.
Nrama: What do you think was the biggest long-term influence of the series? This can be in broad terms, ranging from characters introduced to its effect on comics/cartoons/other media storytelling, to yourself as a writer and a person.
Orlando: I think it's the hybrid style, both in tone and visuals. It was modernized classic, the type of hyper-real you expect from a World's Fair. Gotham and Batman were living in the future - or the today - we wanted back when we were mid-century optimistic. A timeless look. And tone-wise, this was a show that covered adult themes, and made them understandable to a younger audience. It was confident, complex, and self-assured without the vulgarity of the “adult” or “mature” label.
Allred: Most importantly, it opened the door for more quality animation with unique visions. Great art and sharp storytelling.
Palmiotti: Well, obviously, Harley Quinn came from the series, and Dini and Timm created a monster that 25 years later is stronger than ever. As well, it gave a simple definition to guys like me of who the rogue’s gallery were and a better understanding of the tone of what Batman should be about.
It did it better than the films and better than most of the comics, and it still holds up because it is classic storytelling that will always stand the test of time. Nothing feels dated on that show. For me, it showed that you can tell a complicated story with a ton of character development in less than 30 minutes, and this influenced the Jonah Hex series I worked on with Justin Gray big time.
Shalvey: I think more than anything, Batman: The Animated Series treated Batman as an icon, it treated Gotham as its own entity, and it told emotionally resonant stories. It cut the Batman mythos down to its core and as a result, showed us the purest form of the character. Yes, it’s not the comic, but the best Batman seen was in that show.
Brubaker: I know that cartoon was a big reason I wanted to write Batman. When I got the gig doing that, I was actually trying to get hired to write the Batman Adventures book, which already had a writer.
I was very disappointed.