Recently, I’ve been enjoying a reunion with 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series on DVD.
Coming as it did after Tim Burton’s successful two film adaptations, it continued and refined the art deco-meets-high tech world of the big screen world, and combined them with a drawing style which owed a lot to the 1940s Superman cartoons.
Watching the first few episodes back, it really does seem as if the animation was drawn fifty years ago. It’s crude in the extreme – outlines seem to change width whenever a character moves, and there seems to be no attempt to make mouth movements coincide with the actors’ dialogue. But right from the word go, there is clearly something very, very right. It’s quite clear why it made such an impact at the time, as it really looks unlike anything else that was on screen.
The backgrounds, often painted onto black paper, help contribute to the dark, moody atmosphere. Whereas other animations start off bright and get darker with the application of paint, with Batman, the world is in shadow by default. There aren’t many series where such a technique could work, but it’s perfect for the world of the Dark Knight.
The quality of the drawing improves markedly as the first season progresses – although Batman himself works best as just a silhouette and chiseled jawline. Kevin Conroy’s voice work, bringing distinctive qualities to Batman and his “real world” persona of Bruce Wayne, is much better than Christian Bale’s (frankly ridiculous) attempts to do the same. Indeed, the dialogue fizzes throughout — something due not only to the script quality, but the method of recording each script with all the actors together, as if performing a radio play. And with guest stars including Ed Asner, Tim Curry, Mark Hamill and Diana Muldaur, the characterisation could hardly be better.
Talking of characters, the series created two characters who would go on to take on pivotal roles within the “real” DC Universe of the comic book continuity. Police officer Renée Montoya would go on to become a detective, her ex-girlfriend Kate Kane would assume the mantle of Batwoman, while she herself would don the featureless mask and become The Question.
And on the supervillain side, the delightful Harley Quinn is introduced here as a kooky sidekick to The Joker, but has such a sparky personality that she would go on to be a delightful presence in comics in her own right.
Oh, and the other good thing about this series of Batman? The opening titles. Which aren’t really anything of the sort: there is no title – the name “Batman” does not appear once. All that is needed is the silhouette, white eyes burning out from beneath the black cowl and cape. It’s just brilliant:
Oh, and Robin’s only in two episodes. Another tick in the plus column, then.
Batman: The Animated Series, Season 1