Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Celebrating the legacy of Batman: The Animated Series 20 years later: The unsung heroes of Batman:TAS.

This week will be the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Batman: The Animated Series. In its weird way, the show actually had three 'premieres'. The first episode, "The Cat and the Claw part I", debuted on Saturday morning, September 5th, as a quasi-sneak preview of sorts. The next day saw the official premiere, in primetime no less (Sunday night at 7pm) where Fox debuted the official pilot episode, "On Leather Wings". Then came the first official weekday episode, Monday afternoon at 4:30pm, which was no less than "Heart of Ice", which to this day stands as not only one of the best episodes of the series run, but a shining testament to all that Batman: The Animated Series did right both in terms of the Batman mythos and the entire medium of childrens' action shows. This will be the second in what I hope are a handful of essays detailing the long-term legacy of the Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski's groundbreaking animated saga. Today we discuss the people involved in the show whose names have been somewhat forgotten in the annals of Bat-history.  In short, the show is more than just the brainchild of Bruce Time and Paul Dini alongside the vocal talents of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill.  Without lessening their accomplishments, let's take a moment to remember the others who made it the modern day treasure that it is.

Eric Radomski: I made a comment elsewhere the other day that I feared that Mr. Radomski was becoming the Bill Finger of Batman: The Animated Series.  In the earliest days of the Bat-Man comic book, Bob Kane was the artist while Bill Finger was the writer.  Yet Bob Kane ended up getting basically sole credit as 'the creator of Batman', with whatever acknowledgement was left went to Jerry Robinson for creating The Joker and naming Robin.  Well back in 1990, it wasn't just Bruce Timm with his drawing pad and a dream.  Eric Radomski was right alongside Mr. Timm as a co-creator and co-producer when the show was first picked up by Fox.  And he stayed a vital part of the team throughout the initial 85 episodes that make up Batman: The Animated Series.  Aside from actually drawing those gorgeous title cards that opened each episode, he directed a number of episodes, including the classic "Almost Got 'Im".  He also co-directed Batman: Mask of the Phantasm alongside Bruce Timm.  No one can doubt Timm's importance to the show or his impact on what became the DC Animated Universe.  But it was a two-person team right from the start.  Alan Burnett joined up early in the first season while Paul Dini started writing after the production had geared up and together they wrote an obscene number of your favorite episodes ("Heart of Ice", "Mad As A Hatter", "The Laughing Fish", "Two-Face", "Read My Lips", etc.).  Burnett was largely responsible for the show's consistently adult sensibility while Dini humanized the villains and created Harley Quinn.  But in the beginning, it was just Timm and Radomski.

Boyd Kirkland, Kevin Altieri, and Dan Riba:  They were, in short, the directors.  Of the initial 85 episodes, Alteri and Kirkland directed a combined 43 episodes.  Dan Riba came in pretty late in the process and thus was among the few to stick around during the last two-dozen episodes of The New Batman Adventures at Kids WB.  He directed 19 episodes total, including eight of the new episodes. Pick any episode of Batman: The Animated Series as your favorite and there is a good chance it was directed by one of those three, if not Frank Paur (more on him below).  So little was their respective glory that Boyd Kirkland died in January of 2011 and I didn't even read about it until I watched a season two episode of The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes which aired in May 2012 and was dedicated to his memory.

Michael Reeves and Frank Paur: They were, in short, the guys who 'kept it real'.  Frank Paur directed sixteen episodes of the original 85 and Michael Reeves wrote a number of the 'hard-boiled' film noir episodes.  He was the one who wanted to push Batman to be as tough and 'bad-ass' as he could be in the confines of childrens' animation, crafting gritty and real-world noir sagas like "I Am the Night" and"A Bullet For Bullock" (which is still the only kids show episode I've seen where we see an onscreen drug deal).  Frank Paur ended up directing a number of the more accomplished 'down-to-Earth' dramas such as "Vendetta" and "Paging the Crime Doctor".  Reaves served as a constant reminder that the show was more about crime drama than out-and-out super-heroic theatrics.  Reaves was always the sort who would have preferred an even harsher and darker template to work with, so it's little wonder he ended up involved with Disney's superb Gargoyles a few years later..

Andrea Romano: Andrea Romano is the casting director, the one who picked the voices who helped make the series so special.  She is why the vocal performances felt so real and grounded, she is why the show felt less like a 'cartoon' and more like a real dramatic feature that happened to be animated.  She pegged Kevin Conroy as the perfect Batman after countless auditions.  She was among those responsible for replacing Tim Curry with Mark Hamill for The Joker.  She, along with Bruce Timm, has been one of the few constants over the last twenty years of the DCAU, casting the voice actors and directing their sessions for pretty much every DCAU project you can think of. She has also been the casting director for pretty much every major Warner Bros animated project for the last twenty years, from Animaniacs to the various DCAU DVD movies, along with Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Oh, and she also was the vocal director for all 65 episodes of Disney's Ducktales, which my wife would care about more than me.

Shirley Walker: Shirley Walker is the woman who composed the music of the Knight.  While her working relationship with Danny Elfman (she conducted the score for the first Batman) arguably opened the door for snagging the composing gig, she quickly established her own musical stamp on the Caped Crusader.  While the opening title theme was from Elfman's Batman theme, Walker quickly established a powerful cue every bit as memorable as Elfman's classic theme while composing unique scores for each individual episode and crafting memorable music cues for each major character.  If you're reading this article you're probably humming her Batman theme right now.  Sadly Walker never got the widespread appreciation that she deserved, never quite getting that springboard into the 'big leagues' that she unquestionably deserved.  She has just ten feature scores to her name, even if that's a record for an American female composer.  She died from a stroke in 2006, two years before a glorious two-disc compilation of the first 28 episodes was released from La La Records (yes I own it).

Pretty much every voice over actor other than Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill: The most high profile voices on the show were surely the voices of Batman and The Joker, and I would never dream of denying them the full credit they deserve.  But pretty much every major voice actor on the show deserves equal credit for bring this show to life.  Roddy McDowall turned The Mad Hatter into a hopeless romantic.  Loren Lester actually made Robin (and eventually Nightwing) somewhat "cool".  Adam West turned what could have been obnoxious stunt casting as The Grey Ghost into what is arguably the best dramatic performance of his career.  John Glover gave us the first absolutely serious Riddler.  Alan Rachins turned The Clock King into a genuine bad-ass.  Richard Moll turned Harvey Dent into the coolest guy in Gotham City, which made his fate all the more heartbreaking.  David Warner introduced an entire generation of youngsters to that walking genocide machine that is Ra's Al Ghul (sorry Liam Neeson, it's no contest) and Paul Williams gave us the most elegant Penguin we had ever seen.  

But just as important were the linchpins of the series.  Bob Hastings (Commissioner Gordon), Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (Alfred Pennyworth), John Vernon (Rupert Thorne), Diana Muldaur (Leslie Thompkins), Robert Constanzo (Harvey Bullock), Brock Peters (Lucius Fox), and Ingrid Oliu (Detective Renee Montoya)... they were all around as support or opposition to our Darknight Detective, offering perfectly human-sized portrayals that made Gotham City feel like a lived-in metropolis.  They were rarely the stars and oftentimes barely appeared at all.  But they were the flesh-and-blood of the show and their vocal work was invaluable in making Batman: The Animated Series as good as it was.  They were the character actors who made us believe in this fantastical adventure and they deserve every bit as much credit for the show's success as the justly celebrated Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill.

That's it for now.  Join us next time for a (hopefully shorter) look at watching the show as a parent of a child just old enough to enjoy this modern classic.       

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