Monday, November 08, 2004

Whatever Happened to Batman's Adventures?

After seeing a few episodes of the new The Batman series on Cartoon Network and reading the first few issues of the new DC animated-related series, I’m beginning to wonder about the Bats.

Something amazing happened over 10 years ago when the likes of Bruce Timm and company put together the Batman: The Animated Series for Warner Brothers. They found an impossible balance between an adult treatment of the character and a kid-oriented show. What these creators did was to break the mold of animated kids’ shows and develop a new template and a new high water mark.

I remember watching the first episode available for preview at the Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention run by my friend Bruce Schwartz. Over the years, Bruce’s monthly convention has grown in stature and importance in the comic book and movie industry. He started with tables, graduated to guests, and finally to exclusive previews. The Batman episode was the first major preview I recall him showing. And what an impact it made. The artwork was beautiful. Batman was amazing. The action was incredible. The scene where Batman bludgeons Man-Bat was astonishingly violent considering what had gone before. Kevin Conroy’s Bruce Wayne voice was snickered at (a direct reason, I believe, for his modifying the voice in later episodes), but his Batman was eerie and disturbing. This was big and loud and yet very, very human.

It wasn’t the first plan for a return of Batman to the tube. After Hanna-Barbera’s contract for Justice League ended, the call went out for something different to be developed for the DC characters. Working at H-B at the time, I got the chance to see promotional scenes and storyboards for a new Justice League that used the best of the comics. The League was lean and tough, and Batman was modeled after Neil Adams’ take on the character. One particular scene was very moody and dark, showing the Dark Knight busting into a pool hall and cracking heads. Shadows were everywhere and a hanging lamp, knocked in the fracas, cast beams of spotlight-like light into the surrounding dark. Very cool looking stuff. Yet the version that surfaced turned out to be even better.

DC Comics followed quickly with a comic book tie-in that embodied not only the artistic look of the television series, but also its human sensibilities. There was pathos, human failings, and desire. We saw lust in a kids cartoon. We saw redemption for bad guys. We saw a man driven to criminal acts to preserve a loved one, and never really felt he was a criminal (compare the animated Mr. Freeze voiced incomparably by Michael Ansara to the clunky, foolish Mr. Freeze played by Ahnold – pulease!)

Each subsequent series maintained these sensibilities even as they moved forward with the characters and situations. Robin grew to Nightwing. A new Robin came onboard. Batgirl went from being a ditzy college girl to becoming an accomplished sidekick. Batman learned to rely on his “family”, in his own fashion. The stories rarely lacked cleverness and the occasional miscues in the art were easily forgiven, both in the animated series as well as in the comic book.
Batman Beyond came in and, while that used more action and destruction to power its episodes, there was still the human anchor. Bruce Wayne, old, unable to still kick it like the old days, yet still (and thankfully) voiced by Kevin Conroy, provided a necessary link to the old days. Wayne’s struggle, not so much to go on with his mission but to adapt to his changing role (something difficult for any aging patriarch), was as much a part of the show as Terry’s growth in his assuming the mantle.

With Cartoon Network’s The Batman, however, all of that is lost. The clock has been turned back. We see a young Bruce Wayne embarking on his newly established mission with all the verve and smart-alecky banter of Spider-Man. Nowhere do we see even a hint of the dark soul that started him on his original quest as a boy – the quest to become something that could end crime and, in a way, atone for his inability to save his parents.

The first episode I saw of The Batman highlighted, ironically, the story of the Man-Bat. We are treated to a mad scientist who has secretly used Wayne Foundation funds to pay for his experiments. Not experiments to help people or understand the animal kingdom (as in the original Batman Adventures), but to make the scientist, Langstrom, a powerful being that can rule the night. The beauty of the old show (and comic) was its ability to take old characters and make them fresh, to give them new origins with tragic, human elements. In this new series, the producers return to trite, old stories that leave the reader unmoved.

The comic book takes the animated episode as its cue and launches into a second Man-Bat story that simply echoes elements from the TV show. Gone is the pathos, the human elements that made Batman Adventures the best Batman stories ever produced, and some of the best comic book character stories ever told. The trend seems to be toward loud and explosive (perhaps to compete with video games?), but in the end all it will do is drive away viewers and readers. Batman Adventures is a classic and it endures. The new The Batman show and concomitant comic book is not, and quickly will be forgotten.

For more information about the monthly Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention please visit:


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