Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoons, our new weekly column where we continue the animated boob tube ritual of yesteryear. Our lives may no longer be scheduled around small screen programming, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the necessary sanctuary of Saturday ‘toons.
People have strong opinions regarding Batman. Have you noticed it? Woe to anyone who should dare Tweet a positive or negative response regarding Batfleck or the Snyder Cut. Once “Send” is pressed, prepare your notifications for war.
Bill Finger and Bob Kane created the character to live in the shadows alongside the popular pulp avengers of the 1930s. A few years later, artist Dick Sprang slapped a smile on the caped crusader’s face, allowing Bruce Wayne tremendous pleasure in the brutal delivery of justice. Since then, Batman has consistently teetered between the Dark Knight and the Bright Knight, and as a result, fans of the character have forever squabbled over the right and wrong versions.
The right Batman for you is probably the iteration you first encountered and subsequently swooned over. If you fell hard for Adam West and his colorful rogue punsters of the 1960s, then Frank Miller’s Death Wish view in 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns undoubtedly gave you the vapors. If Miller’s grumpy old vigilante is your Bat, then Val Kilmer’s lusciously-lipped dreamboat won’t do. You gotta pick a side.
For a very long time, my one-true Batman was the animated series created by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski in an effort by Warner Bros. to continue the Bat-blockbuster party initiated by Tim Burton‘s 1989 film. Beyond Danny Elfman‘s similarily constructed theme, there is very little in common between the animated adventures and Burton’s gothic camp. Timm and Radomski returned the character to the era of his birth by embracing a film noir and Art Deco aesthetic, and they pumped even the most ridiculous bad guys from Batman’s past with purpose and pathos.
Batman: The Animated Series pulled Mr. Freeze, Clayface, and the Clock King out of obscurity and gave them the same level of respect and admiration previously only given to creeps like Two-Face and the Joker. Timm was a kid who adored the weirdos on display in the ’66 television series, and he knew that multiple seasons would require meaningful appearances of Ra’s Al Ghul as much as the seemingly more popular Clown Prince of Crime. In applying such passion and reverence to the world of Gotham, Timm offered validation to many comic book kids who championed obscure creations in playgrounds populated by Star Wars fanatics.
Since Timm provided thoughtful veneration, all I could do was supply the same in return. The ramifications of which were anytime anyone asked “Who’s the best Batman?” I would reply proudly, maybe even a little obnoxiously, “Kevin Conroy!” The questions of “Who? Wha?” were always returned with a vicious diatribe on the merits of Batman: The Animated Series as the be-all and end-all of Dark Knight business.
Conroy was not only the voice of Bruce Wayne, but he was also the voice of Batman, and he could jump back and forth without the crutch of a growl. Before answering the call of the Dark Knight, Conroy was a Julliard-trained actor and one-time roommate to Robin Williams. In the years following graduation, he toured with his teacher John Houseman’s theater troupe, inhabiting various roles and their rich psychologies. He applied the gravitas of the stage to his Batman, and the theatrical command isolates Conroy’s Gotham avenger from the rest of the actors who wore the cowl.
In the late 90s, they retooled the animated series into The New Batman Adventures, which lasted for a few years and led into the exceptional near-future spin of Batman Beyond, as well as the Justice League and Superman adventures under Timm’s direction. In the early aughts, The Batman shed the Timm noir trappings in favor of a more manga/anime-inspired vibe. The series has its charms and a vibrant base of defenders, but not enough to challenge Timm’s crown as the Bat-guru of all things animated.
For years, I dismissed not only the Bat-toons that attempted to follow in Timm’s wake but also nearly every Batman comic book. If I did bother to read a Bat-comic, I did so with Timm’s version rooted firmly as a comparison. Such fandom was impossible to dent, and I barely noticed that the staunch judgment mutated me into a bit of a grump, and maybe even an asshole. Ok, definitely an asshole.
Grant Morrison made me a better person. The Scottish scribe who revitalized the Blue Boy Scout along with artist Frank Quitely in All–Star Superman took over the Batman comic book in 2006. His mission on the series was to incorporate every nook and cranny of Batman continuity, no matter how silly, dumb, or incomprehensible. Remember that time Bruce Wayne teleported to the planet of Zur-En-Arrh (Batman #113, 1958) and fought an invading army of robots? No? Well, Grant does, and he reaffirmed its place in the canon.
Morrison, like Timm, loves all aspects of Batman. He was not concerned about cool; his mind focused on the weird. Batman, above all things, is damn weird. Morrison unshackled me from my staunch opinions on what should and should not be the character, and suddenly, I was able to enjoy a countless array of stories I had once ignored. No person is one thing, and no character is either.
Once I unburdened myself of critical definition, I discovered the single best Batman animated series…well, okay, let’s not use “best,” let’s go with “inclusive.” I’m still trying to keep off that high horse. It’s difficult.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold contains multitudes. Airing between 2008 – 2011 on Cartoon Network, and overseen by producers Michael Jelenic and James Tucker, the series delighted in a lighter tone unlike any other adaptation with the exception of Batman ’66. Like Morrison’s comics, the stories reached back into the wild Silver Age era (1956 – 1970) of the character, and if you thought you were the only person on the planet who treasured B’wana Beast, The Brave and the Bold proved you gloriously wrong.
Instead of pairing our hero with the usual batch of Robins or Batgirl, The Brave and the Bold teamed Batman with an extremely diverse cross-section of costumed crime-fighters. As Timm gave cred to Mr. Freeze and Clayface, Jelenic and Tucker did so for the Blue Beetle, Deadman, and The Phantom Stranger. No character was too stupid or obscure – in fact, the stupider and more obscure they were, the more fascinating and engaging the show became.
Diedrich Bader‘s interpretation of Batman is somewhere between the Dark and Bright Knight. He’s not afraid to toss in a “chum” every once in a while, but that doesn’t negate his ability to lend hurt, anger, or frustration when the scenarios call for such emotions. Bader’s Batman is a square-jawed do-gooder, less concerned with the alleyway violence that birthed his twisted persona. He, and the show, don’t deal in gray morality.
Does the good vs. bad staging make Batman: The Brave and the Bold to be more kiddie fare than Batman: The Animated Series? Maybe, but that’s not a question worth asking. Playing to the younger crowd is a-ok, and it’s an audience that the comics once exclusively catered. More storytellers should apply the Pixar strategy of all-ages entertainment.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold is a celebration of all things Batman, including whatever one you are determined to admire above all others. If you’re looking for Bruce Timm, you’ll find him within. The fingerprints of Tim Burton, Adam West, Grant Morrison, Joel Schumacher, and even – gasp – Frank Miller are present. In its 65 episodes, Batman: The Brave and the Bold delivered one hug after another to each and every kind of Bat-fan.
You love is valid, let it free you, not crush you.