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Animating Batman, Part III: Everything Old Is New Again

Previously, in COMICS 101: We’ve been taking a look at the first-rate Batman animated projects from Warner Brothers as produced in the mid-1990s. In our earlier installments, we explored the origins of the series and examined how the series handled Batman’s Rogues’ Gallery. As we begin this week, the completed series receives an unexpected shot in the arm:

As of 1996, BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES had been out of production for two years, but still remained extremely popular in reruns. However, a variety of factors combined to encourage Warner Brothers to order a new series of episodes produced. First, the series, which had originally aired on FOX, was moving to the WB, and the network wanted new episodes to freshen up the rotation. Secondly, already in production was the new SUPERMAN animated series for the WB, and a combined SUPERMAN/BATMAN hour was thought to be a boon to the health of the new series (let’s face it, Batman’s always going to be more popular). Finally, the newest Batman feature film, the previously discussed and much despised BATMAN & ROBIN was due to be released in the summer of 1997, and Warner Brothers wanted episodes of the animated series that would feature the film’s newest star Batgirl in a more prominent role.

Rather than simply go right back to the formula and crank out new episodes in the same style as before, the producers took this opportunity to rethink the series from the bottom up, throwing out what hadn’t worked in the past, introducing new characters and relationships, and re-designing practically the entire show. The biggest change was that, apparently, the WB Network didn’t share FOX’s reticence in putting a child in danger, so Dick Grayson was immediately changed to Nightwing, while a new, much younger Robin was introduced in Tim Drake. With both the new Robin and Batgirl (now privy to Batman’s secrets and a full-time member of his team) appearing in almost every episode, and the distant, alienated Nightwing making occasional appearances, Batman’s days as a loner were over. This didn’t mean that Batman lost any of his grim, scary appeal — just the opposite: even with Robin and Batgirl around, it seemed that Batman talked even less than he did in the first series, and was darker and scarier than ever.

The new series, eventually named THE NEW BATMAN ADVENTURES, was set three years after the events of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, during which time Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson had had a falling out, and Grayson left Gotham to travel the globe, eventually returning to Gotham to embark on a solo crime-fighting career as Nightwing (with former “Robin” actor Lorin Lester making a surprisingly smooth transition to the more mature Nightwing character). In Grayson’s absence, Barbara Gordon, whose identity as Batgirl had long been deduced by Batman, was entrusted with Bruce Wayne’s secrets and replaced Grayson as Batman’s partner. All of this backstory, by the way, was merely implied when the series first began to air, and was finally dramatized a year later on screen in the episode “Old Wounds.”

As for the new Robin, 13-year-old Tim Drake worked as a character in a way that the college-age Dick Grayson never quite did in BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, providing a spark of humor and vitality to the show (aided by the charming voice work of Matt Valencia), as well as humanizing Batman just enough, through his protectiveness and concern for the boy. Rather than use any of the convoluted comic-book origins for the Tim Drake character, the producers came up with their own, in which Tim finds himself orphaned after his father, a former henchman for Two-Face, is murdered and Tim is drawn into Two-Face’s quest to regain what Tim’s father was hiding from him. Along the way, Tim helps save Batman’s life and discovers his secret identity. At adventure’s end, Tim, with nowhere else to go, is taken in by Bruce Wayne and reluctantly trained to replace Dick Grayson as Robin.

The series’ new take on Batgirl was also a great improvement, spotlighting her as a fully competent and formidable counterpart to Batman, who never needed “rescuing” and was fully capable of kicking ass alongside the Caped Crusader, and was having a lot more fun doing it (with Batgirl’s kickier, more spunky voice provided by veteran voice artist Tara Strong).

Some episodes alluded to a soured relationship between Batgirl and Nightwing, but wisely never pigeonholed her in the category of “Nightwing’s girlfriend.” Batgirl was just as strong and integral a part of the team as anyone, and because of that, her character was always a welcome presence for the viewer.

Just as the characters and relationships were being remodeled, so too were the character designs. While developing the SUPERMAN animated series, Bruce Timm had refined his style, making his characters sleeker, more streamlined, and a touch more angular. Wanting to carry over this new design theory to the Batman universe, Timm and art director Glen Murakami gave all the BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES characters the new treatment, some more drastically than others.

For Batman, Timm removed all the color from the costume save the yellow utility belt (which now featured the “Year-One” style pouches), and clad Batman strictly in black and gray. In addition, the familiar yellow oval was removed from the chest emblem, harkening back to the character’s very first costume back in 1939.

Bruce Wayne was also streamlined and smoothed over, with the best change being the replacement of his horrible (and enormous) brown and tan business suit with a sleek black three-piece. (Also, his already-square jaw was now rendered so sharp you could slice cheese off of it…)

Batgirl received minimal changes; her gloves and boots were restored to the comic-book’s original yellow color, and she, like all the series’ female characters, was made slightly smaller and more slender. As for Barbara Gordon, she also received a wardrobe makeover, now sporting a more youthful, sexier miniskirt.

Dick Grayson, in switching from Robin to Nightwing, received the most drastic change, sporting a longer, more rebellious hairstyle to go with his brand-new uniform, a very minimalist version of the comics’ costume, with only a simple facemask and the blue Nightwing symbol on a field of basic black.

The new Robin’s design would be a throwback to the original Robin costume from the ’40s, but with a darker spin — the green short-shorts and booties and yellow cape were out, replaced with an all-red and black design that still retained the flavor of the original. As for Robin himself, the decision to make him only 13 allowed for a much smaller character, which looked much cooler next to the looming, menacing Batman.

Some of the villains, like Harley Quinn and Two-Face, didn’t get much of a re-design at all, just made slightly more sleek and angular thanks to the new house style. Others would receive minor tweaks, like the Joker.

The TNBA Joker would lose his orange vest, his red lips, and strangely, his pupils, with his new eyes rendered as twin pinpoints in a field of black. While this attempt to make the Joker scarier was certainly creepy, it was also a little too off-putting, making him look somewhat inhuman, and later Joker appearances in subsequent animated series would return to a more natural pair of eyes to the design.

The recipient of the best TNBA makeover was the Penguin. No longer saddled with the DeVito-style concept, Timm and Murakami gave us a Penguin that was the spitting image of the original Bob Kane character.

The Penguin also received a new role in the series, as proprietor of the Iceberg Lounge, Gotham’s hottest nightclub, while still working behind the scenes on various dirty deals in a “Kingpin”-type role.

The Scarecrow also finally received an image worthy of the name, with a truly creepy new design concept. No longer the spindly dweeb with a canvas sack on his head, the new Scarecrow, eliciting the image of a hanged corpse, is at last someone to be frightened of. Along with the scary new look came a scary new voice, provided by RE-ANIMATOR star Jeffrey Combs.

The Mad Hatter’s new look was somewhat less effective. There was a clear attempt here to go closer to the original Hatter drawings by ALICE IN WONDERLAND illustrator John Tenniel, but it ultimately just makes Jervis Tetch look scarier and less human, and considering that a big part of the character’s appeal was his somewhat sympathetic origin, making him look less human ultimately is a detriment.

Also, the BTAS Hatter design was slightly goofy and comedic, which made his rants and vicious attacks seem more threatening in contrast. A disappointment, but nothing to cry about, since the Hatter barely appeared in the second series.

A much more successful redesign was Poison Ivy, who, besides being made much smaller and sleeker, was now given chalk-white skin to contrast with her dark green outfit and red hair. Similarly, Catwoman was given a smaller and more streamlined design as well as an all-black outfit and more catlike mask. And like the Penguin, having been freed from the constraints of BATMAN RETURNS, Selina Kyle was no longer a Michelle Pfeiffer-esque blonde, but returned to her comic-book roots as a brunette.

While not everyone loved the new design scheme for THE NEW BATMAN ADVENTURES, (although personally, I found it to be quite successful, with the hits far outnumbering the misses), no one could argue that the production was in high gear. Having built on the experience from the first series, the animation was tighter and more lavish than ever (especially for network television), and the scripts were outstanding, with not a stinker in the series’ 27-episode run.

THE NEW BATMAN ADVENTURES made its debut on the WB Network on September 13, 1997, with the episode “Holiday Knights” (written by Paul Dini, directed by Dan Riba), a nearly note-perfect translation of the BATMAN ADVENTURES HOLIDAY SPECIAL comic book produced in 1995 by Paul Dini, Bruce Timm and several of their BTAS cohorts. Other than the Mr. Freeze story, which was eliminated due to the producers’ new, more drastic plans for the character, the episode marvelously adapted the comic to animation, with the Harley & Ivy story, in which the girls use Ivy’s mind-control lipstick to force billionaire bachelor Bruce Wayne to take them shopping, a particular highlight.

Show me another animated action series with the intestinal fortitude to devote three minutes of time to their arch-villainesses’ shopping-spree fashion show. Smart, wickedly funny stuff.

The second season featured some strong appearances by returning villains, such as “Cold Comfort” (written by the departed and much missed Hilary J. Bader, directed by Dan Riba), which offered a shocking new twist on the Mr. Freeze character. Despite the miraculous recovery of his wife Nora in the direct-to-video film SUB-ZERO, Mr. Freeze had not given up his criminal life, and was now destroying the life’s work and accomplishments of his fellow Gothamites, so that, like him, they would lose that which they’d treasured most.

Things came to a head when Freeze attacked Wayne Manor, looking to destroy the surrogate family (namely Alfred and Tim) that Wayne had created for himself after the deaths of his parents. When the reason for Freeze’s new, more vicious change of heart is made clear, it’s one of the most shocking moments in the series.

The Joker made his most strictly comedic appearance in either series in the episode “Joker’s Millions” (written by Paul Dini, directed by Dan Riba), in which the Joker, in a rut and flat broke, inherits a fortune from a rival crime boss and bribes his way into legitimacy (with the help of a very familiar-sounding lawyer…), only to discover that the bulk of the estate is bogus — however, the IRS doesn’t know that, and in order to pay off his massive inheritance tax bill, the Joker is forced to carry out distinctly un-Jokerlike robberies just to stay out of federal prison.

The episode is full of laugh-out-loud moments, such as the Joker’s conversation with the IRS agent (“IRS? … Oh, yes, I believe I’ve heard of you guys…”), and his open auditions for a replacement Harley, whom he threw to the wolves in his earlier escape from Batman. Despite its uncharacteristically comic nature, the episode works so well, I was very surprised to later learn that it’s actually an adaptation of a Silver Age Batman story, “The Joker’s Millions!” from DETECTIVE COMICS #180.

The second series also featured a few brand-new villains, probably the weirdest of which was Farmer Brown, a down-home countrified genetic engineer who unleashes mutated farm animals on Gotham City.

While at first glance the episode (“Critters,” written by Steve Gerber and Joe R. Lansdale, directed by Dan Riba) looks like a goofy monster-movie satire, and it works on that level just fine, there’s also something distinctly unsettling about it, such as when Brown’s genetically altered billy goat strolls into Police Headquarters with a ransom demand and a threat to Batman … which the goat speaks out loud.

Another second-series villain highlight was Roxy Rocket, who debuted in “The Ultimate Thrill” (written by Hilary J. Bader, directed by Dan Riba). Roxy, a former Hollywood stuntwoman turned high-speed thief, races Batman through the concrete towers of Gotham on her one-woman rocket cycle in a flirtatious pursuit.

When Batman and Roxy, for whom danger is the ultimate aphrodisiac, finally play their game of chicken up close and personal — well, Roxy’s reaction is something else you never expected to see on Saturday morning.

New guest stars were also on the menu for THE NEW BATMAN ADVENTURES, starting first with the introduction of Jack Kirby’s character the Demon Etrigan in the episode “The Demon Within” (written by Stan Berkowitz, directed by Atsuko Tanaka).

With allusions to Batman’s past encounters with Etrigan’s human alter ego Jason Blood, the episode gave us our first real look at Batman fighting sorcerous foes as he struggles to free the Demon from the control of Klarion the Witch Boy, and gave us an amusing look at Batman’s pragmatic distaste for doing so. Billy Zane provides the Demon’s voice, by the way.

The other guest star introduced in the second series was a Steve Ditko creation, the Creeper, in “Beware the Creeper” (written by Steve Gerber, directed by Dan Riba). While the Creeper’s basic design and M.O. remained true to his comic-book beginnings, the producers did some serious revising to his origin to fit him into the Batman animated universe.

Here, TV newsman Jack Ryder (who’d been seen in the background throughout the second series), while doing a live special on the anniversary of the accident that created the Joker, is treated to a similar chemical bath by the Joker himself, as well as a healthy dose of Joker venom, and is soon transformed into the yellow-skinned, super-strong and completely insane Creeper, who’s distracted from his initial plan for revenge by an all-consuming crush on Harley Quinn, who naturally has no interest in anyone but her “puddin’,” the Joker.

“Beware the Creeper” veers from its tense opening segment to all-out comedy in its conclusion, as the whacked-out Creeper (played to hilarious effect by Jeff Glen Bennett) bounds and bounces all over Gotham in pursuit of Harley. Even the editing of the episode delivers the laughs, with a hilarious moment in which the Creeper is blindly punching out member after member of the Joker’s gang, and unexpectedly sucker-punches the Batman as well.

If I had to name a single episode as the best in either series, well, I’d be hard-pressed to do so. But I have managed to narrow it down to two. And remember, opinions are like bellybuttons — everybody’s got one. If you disagree with my choices, well, then, get your own column.

First up in our “Best Ever” category is “Mad Love,” written by Paul Dini and directed by Butch Lukic. Another excellent adaptation of a comic, this time Dini and Timm’s Eisner-winning 1994 graphic novel THE BATMAN ADVENTURES: MAD LOVE, the episode gives us for the first time a look behind the mask of Harley Quinn, as we learn about her beginnings and watch her attempt to eliminate Batman once and for all, and in doing so gain the full attentions of the Joker. Via flashback, we watch as neophyte psychologist Dr. Harleen Quinzell attempts to make a name for herself by analyzing the Joker, and is slowly drawn into his insanity as he manipulates her into loving him.

The scenes in Arkham Asylum show a strong SILENCE OF THE LAMBS influence, and carry off the mood nicely, while Arleen Sorkin gives her best performance to date as a calm, measured, sane Harleen slipping into a desperate, deranged love for the Joker. It’s the little touches that make this episode great, like the Joker whistling Shirley Walker’s “Joker theme” from BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES when Harley first lays eyes on him, or Arleen Sorkin’s reading on the line “the poor thing was on the run, alone and frightened,” while the newspaper she’s absently holding reads “JOKER ON THE LOOSE — BODY COUNT RISES.”

Let’s not overlook Kevin Conroy’s performance either. As Harley’s plan succeeds and Batman is chained upside down over a tank of piranha, his only way out is to manipulate her into calling the Joker, and Conroy conveys perfectly Batman’s confidence and ability to bend Harley to his will by playing on her insecurities. When Harley tells Batman that she and Joker will be settling down, Batman laughs loud and long, in one of a very few times Batman laughs in either series (although cleverly, the viewer never sees it, instead seeing Harley’s unsettled reaction). Just as the enraged Harley is about to drop him, Batman plays his final card: “Except he’ll never believe you did it — true, you’ve got my belt, but that’s not the same as a body. He’ll never buy it.” When the Joker arrives, Harley finds that he’s less than receptive to the whole enterprise, and in a sequence that I never expected to get past the WB standards and practices people, brutally backhands her, and then knocks her out a five-story window with a mounted swordfish.

Batman, of course, escapes, and adds insult to injury when he encounters the Joker: “She almost had me, you know. I had no way out other than convincing her to call you. Though I have to admit she came a lot closer than you ever did…’puddin”.”

The episode ends with a broken and battered Harley being wheeled back to Arkham, determined that her foolish fixation with the Joker is at an end, until she sees a single rose from the Joker already waiting for her in her cell, and with just the slightest encouragement is madly in love again.

“Mad Love” is funny, exciting, brutal and tragic, everything that the animated series was at its best.

Our other example of “Best in Show” is the dark tragedy “Over the Edge,” written by Paul Dini and directed by Yuichiro Yano. “Over the Edge” clearly wins the award for best opening moments of an episode, as we’re dropped right in the middle of the action with Batman and Robin dodging police gunfire down the steps of the Batcave, while Commissioner Gordon screams “Bruce Wayne, you’re under arrest!” Wow. Where do you go from there? After a tight escape from the Batcave, thanks to an assist from Alfred, Nightwing, and even the big penny from the Trophy Room, Batman, Robin and Nightwing regroup and remember what brought them to this low end.

In flashback, we see Batman, Robin and Batgirl fighting the Scarecrow and his thugs in the penthouse level of a Gotham high-rise. When Scarecrow attempts to escape, Batgirl follows outside, and in a moment of distraction is caught off-guard by the Scarecrow, who swings at her full strength with his staff, knocking her off the ledge.

Below, Commissioner Gordon and Sgt. Bullock are just arriving on the scene, and in an unprecedented shock, Batgirl smashes into the windshield of their squad car. Gordon tends to the young hero, and is mortified to discover his own daughter beneath the mask. Barbara tries to speak, but it’s too late. Batman arrives, and tries to say something, anything to his friend, but Gordon is inconsolable: “How could you? I worked with you, trusted you.”

The sound of the hammer being pulled back on a pistol is heard, and the cameras pans back to Bullock, who’s holding Batman at gunpoint. “That’s as far as you go, murderer.” Cut to commercial. All this before even the first commercial break.

Batman of course, escapes, but nor for long, as Gordon soon accesses Barbara’s computer and learns everything, resulting in the raid on Wayne Manor seen earlier. In a poignant phone conversation just before the raid, Wayne tries to explain to Gordon his motivations; “You know how I lost my parents. The only way to hang on to my sanity was to take matters into my own hands.”

Replies Gordon as the caravan of assault vehicles pulls up to the manor, “That makes us even.” The resulting battle between Batman and Gordon involves more losses and betrayals, as well as an unexpected alliance, as Gordon recruits an old enemy of Batman’s to help him get his revenge. In the end, of course, the entire story is revealed to be a hallucination of Barbara Gordon’s induced by the Scarecrow, bringing to life her greatest fear, of something happening to her without ever coming clean with her father about her double life. However, even this necessary cheat of an ending doesn’t detract from probably the darkest episode ever put forth by the Batman producers, giving us an unexpected glance into a possible finale to the Batman universe they so brilliantly created. Appropriately enough for a Batman story, there was no happy ending.

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