Okay, so, like, I’m really mature and grown up and stuff and have totally read big people books and watch international films and so on but… But. But. But.
I recently invested the enormous sum of £9 Sterling on the boxset of the first Series of Batman: The Animated Series. Now, when I was young I used to love Batman anyway (because I don’t indulge in such childish things these days… *ahem*) and was an avid collector/reader of his comics, the classic Tim Burton films were apparently too “mature” for me but I still managed to see them thanks to my brother, a VHS recorder and a mate of his with Sky. Shortly after this the Animated series was created to cash in on the growing popular interest in the Caped Crusader. It had a large success in the States and was transferred to the UK where it was shown on the ITV programme ‘What’s Up Doc’ on Saturday mornings. I was a Live & Kicking kid myself (well Going Live actually but I don’t want to show my age) so it goes to show how important this cartoon was that I was willing to change channels and watch the cartoon on the other side. I loved that cartoon because it was Batman, even so far as to use up a precious 20 minutes on my own video tape but upon watching it now I am truly flabbergasted.
With each episode my respect for the creators grows. Both 28 episode series’ are a cavalcade of original and intelligent stories, with well thought out dialogue, fantastic performances, wonderful (and actually famous) guest stars, jaw dropping orchestral scores and production design so pretty I want to hang it on my wall. I will deal with each of these points in turn;
- Stories: The adherence to the source material is not merely faithful it is dogged. Being a nerd in these matters the frankly staggering unearthing and reworking of barely known villains such as the Clock King and Mirror Man is not only a delight but great fun. Each episode treds a fine line between being snappy, energetic, fun and exciting yet paradoxically uses lengthy periods of silence to build tension and normally has a good old fashion mystery behind it (the corner-stone of Detective Comics). Bruce and Batman are fleshed out with no mere broad strokes but very subtly, Robin is not as annoying and even then is dispensed with when the series feels like it. Narrative is frequently pushed well beyond the limits of your typical weekly serial and in my humble opinion would give the likes of Sopranos, Dr. Who et al a run for their money. In similar ways as Buffy the Vampire Slayer did, occasional episodes will be told from different perspectives (three children for instance), a drip-fed two-part episode revolving around a flashback, begin with no explanation (a blackmail meeting on a bridge) or with a narrative ‘twist’ (three varying explanations of the same scene by three different characters). Even the stock ‘dream’ episode is exceptional, it may even be the best one. Of course there are token crowd pleasing episodes, normally including the Joker, but even these are dealt with in an off kilter manner. A particularly memorable episode finds a Joe-Everyman in a traffic collision with the Joker who then takes his name to call in a favour at some time then flashes forward six years when he does. No two episodes are alike and no villain repeats himself. A phenomenal achievement in itself. For instance, I just watched an episode that could be seen to directly reference Terminator, Philip K. Dick’s Bicentennial Man, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner (I know ‘Androids Dream’ on which Blade Runner was based is by Dick too before anyone points that out, I mean the film). Not only that, in a sly nod to Blade Runner, William Sanderson who played JF Sebastian in the film voices roughly the same character in Batman.
- Dialogue: In cartoons this is tricky especially when dealing with exposition in a 20 minute episode as well as laughs, puns and character development but again it is managed with aplomb. There a cheesy one-liners and glib, pithy remarks, but there are startling amounts of quotes from Shakespeare, Carroll and even Kafka (I shit you not). Some jokes are genuinely witty and original, colloquialisms are adhered to and exposition is kept short and punchy. Seeing as this is the mark by which a cartoon can rise or fall due to it being the only “real” element this rises well above the rest.
- Performance: The above would be nothing without the delivery. Due to the cartoons’ setting and aesthetic (we’ll get to that) the voices must reflect that and the choice of actors is brilliant. Kevin Conroy was the first actor to perform Batman with a different voice for Bruce Wayne and Batman and does not play Bruce as a vacuous billionaire playboy as previous incarnations have. He returned for the computer game and in my opinion should dub over Christian Bale’s gravelly, monster voice in the next film. Adrienne Barbeau is the other noteworthy voice in the cast giving a wonderfully silky yet husky voice to Selina Kyle/Catwoman as a femme fatale in the 30’s style. Much was and is made of Mark Hamill as the Joker which is notable as he is in it a lot but what is more astonishing is that he voices other characters too, to an imperceptible degree. Apropos; The guest cast list is something to behold – Roddy MacDowell, Ed Asner (from ‘Up’), Ron Perlman, Jon Glover, John Rhys Davies, Academy Award Winner Paul Williams and Adam West to name but a few, all give nuanced and not overstated performances as various and nefarious villains. A favourite of mine is Michael Ansara as Dr.Fries who’s crackling radio monotone is literally chilling. Exceptional quality for something of this ilk.
- Music: Not only was the main theme composed by Danny Elfman each episode had its own score with full orchestral backing. This is one of the two most noticeable things that push this series well beyond normal quality for me. Symphonic scores are taken for granted in big films and even some major TV shows. A bad show can be made better with good music, you’ve seen it, montages at the end of episodes, ‘musical’ episodes and so on. The smallest bed of strings can drag tears from your eyes in an otherwise mediocre scene and can propel action in the coolest way. Much has been made of the scores for the recent Batman film scores and Daft Punk’s score for Tron that incorporate electronica and ‘beats’ into symphonic scoring. This is brilliant but the fact the symphony orchestra is still there to give the emotion. Batman: The Animated Series realises this and not only creates a unique ‘theme’ for each episode introduced in a 5 second overture (accomplishment in itself) but also sticks to the aesthetic provided elsewhere in the cartoon. I cannot praise the music highly enough, every cue is perfect and wouldn’t be out-of-place in a major motion picture which again lifts the cartoon well out of the ordinary.
- Production Design: This is the killer. Bob Kane and Bill Finger first introduced Batman in 1939 on DC’s ‘Action Comics’ line and this is where Warner Bros. picked up. The whole series is a minutely detailed exploration and retrospective of 30’s and 40’s Art Deco style. The architecture, iconography, typography, vehicles, design, fashion, everything is tailored to detail. Even the technology which is intermittently modern and ‘vintage’ smacks of classic serials like Buck Rogers and Dan Dare. I remember as a kid seeing anything that looked Art Deco and describing it as “Batman-style”. Naive maybe, but that kind of attenuation of an entire style/movement into bite sized chunks is not just rare in modern television it is non-existent. This kind of aesthetic, along with the period plotting and “traditional” performances didn’t just mean it was fanboys praising the original strip, it was still cool, action packed and just looked beautiful. The background plates are all airbrush paintings with stunning gouache touches to give texture to surfaces, a typically Deco art style also. The animation itself is also much more subtle. Whilst remaining simple every character has a much more unusual distinguishing feature and whilst ‘acting’ is basic the voice acting lifts it well above any other at the time or even now. The episode “Perchance to Dream” being a particular hackle-raising one at the end.
I do not write all this just because I am a nerd and I love Batman – which of course I am and do – but because it is not held today as it should be. Pixar are permanently lauded and seem to be the only animation studio in the public consciousness however people seem to forget they made the atrocious ‘Cars’ and mind numbingly dull ‘Ratatouille’ and I still don’t see what all the fuss is about the ‘Incredibles’ but whatever. Batman has been passed over in popularity and cult resurgence in favour of honest crap like the Real Ghostbusters and (let’s be honest) Thundercats, etc. Batman was innovative, un-patronising, faithful to its source and just plain good fun. If you liked the Burton Batman films I insist you invest in one of the boxsets. From what I have seen the 2nd series is the best but either series will do. I cannot praise it highly enough. Even if you don’t care for Batman, the series is a feast for the eyes, ears and honestly gives you something to chew on mentally. It is also a nice contrast to the modern ‘gritty’ incarnation.
I also reckon Christopher Nolan drew inspiration from this series and not just for the Batman films. Watch the episode “Perchance to Dream” and you’ll see what I mean…
Also, I will be attending the world premiere of Batman:Live. It could be crap but Alan Burnett wrote and directed several episodes of the Animated series so if it is anything like the series it should be good.
Over and out.