Earlier this year, I did a some retrospectives on Fox’s X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN cartoons - - the fish-hooks that lured me into my lifetime comics fanatacism. Some of you maniacs begged me to do something similar on BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES and, frankly, I was reluctant to oblige. That show’s gotten so much love, already. It might as well be the equivalent of apple pie in this particular corner of pop culture. If you don’t like apple pie, you’re a contrarian purposely disagreeing with the majority. For most everybody else, apple pie’s such a basic choice that it's rather pointless to articulate why you like it. It’s a given, just like the merits of BATMAN: TAS are basically a given.
Still, I kept getting requests for a retrospective so here we are, looking back on a show that was so good, its quality was taken for granted. Maybe it’s even a little timely to look back on this during the launch of the New 52 and its concentrated effort to make these icons accessible to new readers. Look at this show and you'll be impressed by how it was able to capture so many eras of the character simultaneously without requiring any viewers to be versed in any of the sixty-odd years of history containing those eras. X-MEN, as I said, was almost exactly like the contemporary comics and, while that quality made it the flashier alternative for a kid like me at the time, today it looks significantly dated when held next to this, which is just as timeless as ever.== TEASER ==
Oddly enough, writing for Anime Vice has given some new perspective on how unique this show was - -especially in the landscape of American TV. Adult-oriented animation is an entire, multi-faceted industry in Japan but, over here, the niche is pretty much dominated by comedies. You’ll have a hard time finding much of anything dramatic on Adult Swim or Animation Domination. While this started airing on weekday afternoons and later went to Saturday mornings, there was actually a period - - albeit a brief one - - when it aired on Sunday night prime time. It’s kind-of inconceivable to picture a superhero toon airing between, say, 60 MINUTES and CSI: MIAMI today, isn’t it? Well, there's a reason it was the exception to the rule.
It was a dark show, to be sure. Maybe not as dark SPAWN: THE ANIMATION or THE MAXX, but certainly darker than any depiction of Batman on TV before or since. As colorful and fun as the rogue’s gallery was, almost every week’s episode felt like a window into a new form of dementia. Obsession, envy, sorrow, rage and identity confusion are unusual concepts for a kid chew on because of a toon… but chew on them I did, right along with my after-school mac & cheese. Outrageous heels like Clayface, the Penguin and Mr. Freeze were all given tragic origins in one-off episodes that underscored even their most loathsome villainy with a conflicting sense of tragedy. At times, the show felt almost like an animated version of Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY; each rogue’s back-story an expressionist morality piece capturing a specific, unpleasant shade of the human condition.
If I had to hazard a guess about what one root cause made this show such a success, I’d say it was because the cast and crew took it seriously, and through angles atypical to superhero toons. There’s a memorable anecdote about how Kevin Conroy, the voice of Batman, got the gig partly because he told the crew at his audition that their description of the role sounded more like Prince Hamlet than a superhero. That more-theatrical bent extended to the production process, as the show broke the usual M.O. by having the entire cast present for the recording process, like in a radio play, instead of having them record separately. As such, there was a greater sense of realness to the acting and to the interaction between characters and, more so than even the "dark deco" aesthetic and conscious callbacks to film noir, I figure that's the reason this show made, and continues to make, such an impression.
So there you go, some brief thoughts on the series that was actually a pretty significant part of my early fandom. I know for a fact that many of you maniacs had a similar experience with the show - - how about you offer your own takes below? And if you need a little memory jog...