Friday, July 13, 2012

Tooniversary: Batman: The Animated Series (1992)

It's hard to believe it's been 20 years since Warner Bros. unveiled the crown jewel of its animation revival with Batman: The Animated Series, coming as it did on the heels of "Batman Returns" earlier in the summer of 1992. With the conclusion of Christopher Nolan's Bat-trilogy, "The Dark Knight Rises", opening next week, I thought we'd take a look back at the series that also revived the toon noir animation style that was originally created by the Fleischer brothers for their Superman shorts some 51 years earlier.

Fox's strategy was to debut the series on a Saturday morning, but otherwise air it after school on weekdays. There were some primetime airings, too, on a few Sundays early in the run, but it didn't matter. Batman launched what is known as the DC Animated Universe (DCAU), which of course differs from the DCU in the comics.

Job 1, obviously, was finding an actor who could create the appropriate mood for the Batman. Imitating Michael Keaton, who'd essayed the role in Tim Burton's two Bat-flicks, wasn't needed. Kevin Conroy (ex-Tour of Duty) landed the primo gig, and the resulting icon status that went with it. By comparison, that seemed easy. As for the rest, they actually went through two actors apiece for the Joker and Alfred, Batman's faithful butler. Graham Revill was originally cast as Alfred, but before the first season was over, 60's icon Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (ex-The F. B. I, Zorro) took over for Revill. Meanwhile, Tim Curry, still best remembered for "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", was the first Joker, but he too was cast aside in favor of Mark Hamill ("Star Wars"), marking his return to cartoons after nearly 20 years away (Jeannie). Working on the show reunited Hamill with one of his Jeannie castmates, Bob Hastings (General Hospital), who was also returning to toons, having last worked for Hanna-Barbera in the late 70's (he was heard in a few Super Friends shorts) before signing on as Port Charles Police Captain (later Commissioner) Bert Ramsey. Coincidentally, that experience prepared Hastings to play Commissioner James Gordon.

The rest of the star studded cast included singer-songwriter Paul Williams as Penguin, Melissa Gilbert (ex-Little House on the Prarie) as Batgirl, Adrienne Barbeau ("Swamp Thing", ex-Maude) as Catwoman, and, in a nod to the live-action Batman of the 60's, Roddy McDowell as the Mad Hatter (who certainly got more mileage than he did in the 60's), and Adam West himself, playing a newly created character, the Gray Ghost. It was this gig that started West on his current voice-over career (currently on Family Guy), leading to his recent stint of commercials for Hebrew National hot dogs.

Around the time of the controversial "Knightfall" story arc in the comics, the series was rebooted as The Adventures of Batman & Robin, which stayed on Fox for another couple of seasons before moving to the WB network in 1997 to join Superman. The series would continue for another couple of years under this format before it was finally laid to rest.

Right now, here's the open everyone knows:

Between now & next Friday, I'll see if I can find some Catwoman-centric material to put up, and there's plenty to be had. One of the cool things that came out of this show was the decision to give Joker a girlfriend, in the form of Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin, Days of Our Lives), in answer to the hot & cold relationship between Batman & Catwoman. In one of the most boneheaded moves of all time, Cartoon Network let the series get away, and rights have changed hands twice in the last few years, going first to DisneyXD (when it was still Toon Disney), then to its current home, The Hub, where it airs weekdays. Expect Hub to do a marathon in time for "Dark Knight Rises"' opening next week.

Rating: A++.


Unknown said...

One of the greatest cartoon series of all time. I remember I was going out and the first episode was starting its premiere so I said "Meh, let's give it two good can it be?". That was "On Leather Wings". I sat down after those two minutes and went "Holy crap, this is gonna change things in cartoons." Luckily it was a hit and brought us the whole Timmaverse. Great, great stuff. They may never put Timm up there with Clampett, Jones and Freleng but he deserves an earned spot in cartoon creator history.

hobbyfan said...

"On Leather Wings" may have been the first episode you saw, Unknown, but the first that aired was the 2-part "Cat & the Claw".

Still, I agree with you that it did change the face of animation. We'll soon see what happens with the next Bat-series, "Beware the Batman", due next year and previewing at Comic-Con this weekend.

magicdog said...

I'll always appreciate BTAS for two things:

1) For returning Batman to his darker, more serious roots.

2) For being the first American produced cartoon that I know of which brought about the end to the the violence restrictions which had been in place for over 20 years.

It was great seeing heroes being able to hit the bad guy again!

Plus, the voicework was top notch (for many people, Kevin Conroy became THE Batman VA) and we also got great recharacterization of villians like Catwoman, Mr. Freeze and the Joker.

Did I mention the beautiful Art Deco stylings of this universe? It perfectly matched the mood of the series.

hobbyfan said...

Given that, any future Bat-toon, including the forthcoming "Beware the Batman", has a lot to live up to, especially if Dark Knight Rises lives up to expectations (and will).

It's just too bad they had to change gears the way they did, changing the character designs when it was not needed (switching Catwoman to an all black ensemble and a different cowl, for one thing).

Considering what has been done to other villains (Mr. Freeze as a disembodied head on a robot, a reggae Joker in The Batman, etc.) over the years, that is just minor.

Unknown said...

I fear the new CGI Batman show. Alfred dual weilding guns? For shame.

hobbyfan said...

Batman and/or Alfred toting guns is not my idea of fun, but let's remember that Batman did pack firearms in some of his earliest Golden Age appearances, so maybe they're using that as a point of reference and getting away from the hatred of guns established in later years.