Bruce Timm’s Batman is a critical marker for modern Western civilization, reminding us that the war is always worth waging, even in the twilight…
Twenty-five years ago, on September 5, 1992, a very young Bruce Timm aired the first episode of a self-contained but what would become an expansive universe, now known simply as the DCAU, the Detective Comics Animated Universe.
The story that appeared on that first day, “On Leather Wings,” was written by Mitch Brian, who, amazingly enough, graduated six years ahead of me from the same high school in central Kansas and had already become a legend because of his writing skills. Given the relatively young age of all involved in its production and the fact that television animation was regarded—properly so—as third-rate muck, written to sell toys to bored middle-class kids, Batman: The Animated Series is nothing less than a profound statement of art and intensity over crassness and commercialism.
With the success of the first two Tim Burton live-action Batman movies, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), Warner Brothers wanted to capitalize on the property. Would it be possible to introduce Batman to a whole new generation of fans? Mr. Timm, a self-taught cartoonist and animator who had paid his dues on other kid shows while in his twenties—some good, some not—agreed to do it, but only if he could do it well. He liked the Burton movies, but he did not want to copy them, and he did not want his cartoon to be as gritty—as dark, sure, but not as gritty. He also wanted to get back to Batman’s pulp origins, as a masked detective and vigilante, a master crime-solver and quasi-anarchist.
Mr. Timm assembled a powerful team—not just Mitch Brian (who wrote four episodes total), but other excellent writers such as Paul Dini and Alan Burnett. Others, such as Denny O’Neil, Gerry Conway, Michael Reaves, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Michael Barr, and Elliot Maggin also wrote for the series.
Mr. Timm also wisely and critically chose Eric Radomski as production designer and co-producer. Wanting to design a Gotham that was dark and sleek rather than dark and gritty, they did something revolutionary; they painted their stories on black paper. No one had done this before, as animation was expected to be bright and buoyant. The backgrounds, in fact, were so black that Mr. Timm and Mr. Radomski feared they would not pass Federal Communications Commission guidelines, and they also worried that the technology of the average home television set at the time might not reveal all they wanted to express with the setting. They also took from the real-life art deco architectural designs of men such as Hugh Ferriss from the 1920s, and they relied fundamentally on light—when it rarely appeared—to set mood and tone.
With the Batman stories mostly set during twilight, evening, and night, the incorporation of real art deco architecture, and the use of black paper resulted in some of the most stunning art—“dark deco” as it’s now known—to appear on television. The one downside to all this—which the Timm team still regrets—is that dust of any kind shows like snow on the black paper copies, thus making them difficult to transfer to blu-ray. Frankly, from a viewer’s standpoint, this “dust-snow” doesn’t bother me at all—there’s a quality to it akin to the scratch and pop of the needle on vinyl. It’s comforting, not off-putting. The few flaws only make the greater art even greater.
Given the “dark deco” of the series, it’s never clear exactly when “Batman: The Animated Series” takes place. Measured by the buildings and the cars, it’s sometime in the 1940s. Yet, several phones and computers suggest the 1990s. Clothing styles are generally late 1940s. The timelessness of the time of the series only adds to the noir mystique of the show.
Two other elements make the show timeless. First, Warner Brothers allowed Mr. Timm and Mr. Radomski to hire the voice talent necessary to make a great show. To this day, many Batman fans instantly recognize Kevin Conroy as The Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker. Other great actors from the time—Efrem Zimbalist, Bob Hastings, Roddy McDowell, Michael Ansara, David Warner, Ron Perlman, Adrienne Barbeau, Ed Asner, Kate Mulgrew, Michael York, Paul Williams, Loren Lester, Robert Costanzo, Melissa Gilbert, Brock Peters, Diana Muldaur, and Julie Brown formed quite an impressive list, all assembled by Andrea Romano, under Mr. Timm’s and Mr. Radomski’s oversight.
Second, Warner Brothers allowed Mr. Timm and Mr. Radomski to hire Shirley Walker and her full orchestra to write all original symphonic music for each individual episode. The music was so popular at the time—some of the best classical being written in the early 1990s—that one can still purchase compilations of the music in a variety of volumes and from at least two different companies, competing with one another.
It’s well worth remembering that Bruce Timm and co. were revolutionizing animation for television in the way that Disney was, at the same time, on the big screen. Much of what Mr. Timm introduced in 1992, we now take for granted. But, when he and his team did it in 1992, a quarter of a century ago, it seemed wildly eccentric to the industry. Pixar didn’t exist yet, and television was still limited to just a few channels, making competition for airtime extremely precious. Mr. Timm and Mr. Radomski refused to compromise their vision, and a far-sighted studio exec let them get away with it. Looking back on how fierce he had to be with shoddy writers and shoddy art work, he’s now embarrassed by how nasty he could be (or had to be), but, frankly, it was worth it. Mr. Timm’s integrity really shows, even twenty-five years later.
And, of course, all the production values in the world mean nothing if the stories don’t amount to much. Thankfully, Mr. Timm’s and Mr. Radomski’s vision included some of the best stories ever written for television. While every American knows the story of Bruce Wayne and Batman, Mr. Timm and Mr. Radomski made his story fresh, focusing on his detective skills but also on his double life—as billionaire businessman and as vigilante. The pain of sleepless nights and constant brawls wears on Wayne, and Robin (now in college) and Alfred the Butler must manage Wayne’s moods and darker impulses. In short, they have to temper him, preventing him from becoming the very thing he abhors. Indeed, the show loved to play with the ideas of duality and the darkness of staring too long in the abyss.
The sixth episode, “It’s Never Too Late,” for example, explores both major themes as two brothers near the end of their respective lives. Best friends as children, they had gone radically different ways, with one becoming a Catholic priest and the other a crime boss. Rather than confront the crime boss directly, Batman allows the priest brother to remind him of good, evil, and choice. If there’s the possibility of redemption for a mobster, there’s such for anyone.
Eighty-five episodes made up the original series, with it also becoming several movies as well as variations and television spinoffs between 1992 and 2006: Superman; Batman Beyond; Justice League; Zeta Project; and Static Shock. Characters now considered “mainstream” in the D.C. universe, such as Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya, were created for Mr. Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series.
Of the movies that came out of Batman: The Animated Series, the best, by far, is The Mask of the Phantasm. Originally meant to be a direct-to-video release, the studio was so impressed that it allowed it an opening in movie theaters, nationwide, back in 1993. Shocked by the change of mind by the studio, Mr. Timm and Mr. Radomski had to revise the movie—especially its format—very quickly. The result, however, is stunning. Not only is it a great Batman movie—certainly the greatest made up through 1993—but, it is a great movie about free will’s complications and progress’s deceptions. Just this year, Warner Brothers released a cleaned-up and remastered version of the movie on blu-ray. The story was already stunning, but now that stunning story is adorned with clarity of visuals and audio.
If you’ve made it this far in the essay, you are probably wondering one of two things. First, you’re a Batman fan, and this is all old news to you. You’re reading this because it’s a comfort to be reminded of such joys and pleasures in the world.
Second, if you’re not a fan, you’re probably wondering, what is Birzer thinking, dragging me through hundreds of words for a pop-culture manifestation? After all, this is The Imaginative Conservative, not The Imaginative Popster.
Yet, whether you’re a fan or not, Batman is a critical marker for modern Western civilization. Batman is our urban American mythological symbol, equivalent to the frontier literary characters of Natty Bumppo and Huck Finn. When culture mocks Batman, such as the leftists of the 1960s did with the character in the horrible campy sitcom of that decade, or Tim Burton did in a bizarre carnival-esque way with his Batman and Batman Returns during the Reagan-Bush years, it is a strong indication that we have fundamentally lost our way as a people.
As a western hero—in the line of Aeneas—Batman must seek order in a world of chaos. He must trust to natural law when positive law has gone astray. He must, no matter the cost, protect the innocent from those who would manipulate the things (and persons) of this world for their own gain.
Most importantly, as Mr. Timm and Mr. Radomski so successfully demonstrated in their magisterial run of Batman and his allies, virtue matters more than anything else in this fallen world, whether it’s in creating a work of art or using that work of art to tell a story. While shows such as “Friends”—which aired at roughly the same time at Batman: The Animated Series—mocked and undermined everything under the sun, Mr. Timm’s Batman reminded us that the war is always worth waging, even in the twilight.
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