25 years ago today I sat in front of the television screen in my room in my house in Detroit at 10:30 in the morning, eagerly awaiting a brand new Saturday morning cartoon, completely unaware that what I was about to see would be without question the greatest cartoon that I would ever see in the history of mankind.
That cartoon was Batman: The Animated Series, and at age nine…I shouldn’t have been watching it.
Well, to be completely fair none of us at a young age should have been watching but in 1992 there was a ton of children’s programming that was completely geared to our age group that would be grounds for calling child services on you should you show it to your kids today. This show was definitely on that list and that is just one of the reasons it is an absolute classic.
I remember the first episode they hooked us with was “The Cat and the Claw,” a two-parter that they made us wait a whole week to finish the following Saturday right out of the gate. It’s a Catwoman episode where Selina Kyle first crosses paths with the Dark Knight himself while getting mixed up in a plot involving a terrorist organization led by Red Claw to poison Gotham with a viral plague stolen from the military. Yep, that’s the plot of the first aired episode of a Saturday morning children’s cartoon in 1992. It’s completely unthinkable by today’s standards.
It’s a fantastic episode that set the tone for the rest of the show, introducing us to the Batman voiced by Kevin Conroy that was rough, tough and wholly intimidating even in animated form. Seriously, he’s drawn like an abstract terror and it made full use of the now heralded Dark Deco art style that became famous with that show. We were shown a world that was completely out of time in the sense that the cars, architecture and even the clothing of the citizens of Gotham had a real old-world 1930’s and 40’s style to it, but high-tech computers and technology that even rivals things being made today in the twenty-first century are a part of everyday life. The Batcave itself is a remarkable haven of technology and Batman’s gadgets are top notch all the way through.
This timelessness is a big reason why the show had so much freedom to tell whatever stories they wanted using whatever characters they wanted, and they pretty much ran through the bulk of Batman’s rogues gallery and associates for 85 episodes. Red Claw, voiced by Kate Mulgrew two years before her first appearance as Captain Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager was just a warm-up act, but a damn good one nonetheless. It wasn’t long before we were introduced to Diane Pershing’s Poison Ivy, Paul Williams’ Penguin, John Glover’s Riddler, Roddy McDowall’s Mad Hatter, and of course Mark Hamill as the Clown Prince of Crime himself, The Joker.
To add some backstory to this, I had been first introduced to both Star Wars and Star Trek just a year earlier at age eight. Do you know how much my mind was blown when I discovered that Luke Skywalker was the voice of The Joker? I remember how I found out, too. I had recorded an episode on WKBD Channel 50 in Detroit one day that happened to be a Joker episode, and I included the credits. When I paused the tape to read them, I saw his name and at first thought it was actually a different Mark Hamill, only to discover not too long after that it was in fact the same actor. It’s still unbelievable to think about to this day.
Batman: The Animated Series was and still is an absolute masterclass of Batman storytelling for the screen. What that show was able to accomplish in terms of character depth, plot development, pacing and emotional beats was nothing short of remarkable for a children’s cartoon. Everyone still talks about the powerful emotions in “Heart of Ice,” the tragic origin story of Mr. Freeze voiced expertly by another Star Trek veteran, the late Michael Ansara, but for me one of the best villain stories in the entire show is “Two-Face,” a two-parter that put a dark psychological twist on the transformation of District Attorney Harvey Dent into the horribly disfigured gangster. I was fan of the TV show Night Court too so yes, I was blown away again to learn that Harvey Dent was Richard Moll AKA Bull from that show.
Aside from the great artwork and the well-crafted storytelling the show delivered, probably the biggest asset was the voice cast itself with Conroy leading the way as Bruce Wayne/Batman. His performance along with Hamill’s Joker are both legendary and all of the other voice actors I’ve mentioned are just outstanding along with Loren Lester as Robin, Efrem Zimbalist as Alfred, Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon, Ed Asner as evil businessman Roland Daggett, John Vernon as mobster Rupert Thorne, Ron Perlman as Clayface in another fantastic two-part origin story, David Warner as Ra’s al Ghul and just so many others, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fantastic Arleen Sorkin who first gave birth to a brand new character in that show that has now become an absolute fan favorite, Harley Quinn. In giving The Joker a recurring gun moll that actually gave the show an ever darker edge by now portraying an abusive relationship in a cartoon, Batman the Animated Series made history by creating a character that was so beloved and popular that she jumped off the screen and straight into the DC Comics lineup as a regular, so popular to the point that she is now not only fully ingrained in DC Comics lore but is now also a part of the DC Extended Universe, played by Margot Robbie in last year’s Oscar-winning Suicide Squad.
I’m waxing nostalgic here, so it’s time for a list of my favorite things about Batman: The Animated Series:
- There are at least eight voice actors that appeared on the show (Michael Ansara, Diana Muldaur, David Warner, Kate Mulgrew, Levar Burton, George Murdock and Rene Auberjonois and Brock Peters) that made multiple appearances or played multiple characters in Star Trek.
- The episode “Beware the Gray Ghost,” which told the story of Bruce’s childhood TV hero by the same name featured the late Adam West as Simon Trent, the actor that played the character in the show.
- My favorite episodes of the series are as follows:
- The Cat and the Claw
- Almost Got ‘Im
- Feat of Clay
- Joker’s Favor
- Perchance to Dream
- If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?
- What Is Reality?
- Make ‘Em Laugh
- The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy
I really can’t think of an episode I don’t like from this show, so I narrowed that list down to ten to save time.
To say that Batman: The Animated Series had a profound effect on me, as a Batman fan would be an understatement. At the time, I was still stuck in my Jack’s Joker-phobia from Batman ’89 but was starting to get out of it with Batman Returns giving me a movie to watch without fear, and then the animated series came along and gave me even more to chew on as a fan of the Dark Knight. It became my afterschool obsession for a number of years and I watched every episode dozens of times. I still consider it to be the greatest on screen representation of Batman that has ever been done, and there really isn’t one that I don’t like, except perhaps George Clooney.
As with many things celebrating an anniversary, it’s difficult to believe that Batman: The Animated Series is 25 years old now because it really doesn’t seem that long since I first saw it on that Saturday morning at our old house in Detroit on WKBD 50. It has certainly made a lasting impression on the DC landscape and I hope that with any luck all episodes will be a part of DC’s new streaming service next year because it just ought to be.
Here’s to the greatest cartoon ever to grace mankind with its presence.