Dark Deco and Neo-Noir for Kids – Batman: The Animated Series

Just found out that my Comic-Con submission for the 2018 Souvenir Book wasn’t accepted. Stings a little, but onto the next … always. Meanwhile, you might get a kick out of it. They asked for articles on Batman: The Animated Series. I loved that show as a kid and I still do. Ended up writing an 1100-word love letter to the Dark Knight. Hope you enjoy it:

 

Dark Deco and Neo-Noir for Kids – Batman: The Animated Series at Twenty-Five

Lights down, TV sound up. It was four o’clock in the afternoon, and Batman: The Animated Series was on. Time stopped during those thirty minutes. After years of Hanna-Barbera animation and toy shows like G.I. Joe and the Transformers here was an honestly *good* TV show coming at us every weekday afternoon.

Batman: The Animated Series was launched in the fall of 1992 and ran until I graduated high school. Other cartoon series’ were exciting – you can’t help but celebrate the fourth-wall breaks that happened in TMNT – but B:TAS was different. It was special. I watched every one of the eighty-five episodes like my life depended on it. The Dark Knight had been rebooted in a unique way. New characters like Harley Quinn took their place among classic villains and the famous film actors who provided their voices. Neo-noir ‘dark deco’ art blended without seam with the slightly futuristic technology that Batman used in fighting crime.

It’s not surprising that we still talk about Batman: The Animated Series two-and-a-half decades later. As teens and  tweens, we not only loved the show, we crossed the threshold into a strange new world. Here was a new series to fall in love with, and we did. We quoted it to each other; we plumbed the depths of the DC comic canon to which we had been exposed. We watched afternoon programming raise its bar, as Batman: TAS redefined what a kid’s cartoon show was supposed to be.

Every episode seemed to break new ground. Shirley Walker became my first favorite female composer. Dark Deco became my new favorite visual style. The action depicted on the show left every other Batman in the dust. Gone were the campy cowboy punches and bubble-gum pratfalls. Batman: The Animated Series dared to take the material seriously, resulting in a masterpiece.

One of the coolest things about the show were the diverse group of professional actors they brought to the table. Adam West connected the Animated Series to the rest of the Batman canon by showing up one afternoon as The Grey Ghost. Mark Hammil re-invented himself and the Joker with his crazed, hysterical laugh. Adrienne Barbeau slinked across the screen as both Selina Kyle and the Catwoman. Ed Asner chewed up the scenery as Roland Daggett. Roddy McDowall strutted across the pen-and-ink stage as The Penguin. Ron Perlman menaced our ears as Clayface. Richard “Bull from ‘Night Court’” Moll grated into our hearts as Harvey Dent. Kate Mulgrew honed her Russian accent as minor antagonist ‘Red Claw. Even minor characters get the star treatment: People like Henry Rollins, Seth Green and John Vernon show up to give us their A-Game. You rarely see that level of casting talent in a full-length animated feature, yet we were treated to it every single afternoon.

The Art of the Animated Series occupies a class by itself. No one had experienced the kind of sophisticated atmosphere and modern details that Dark Deco created before. The show’s art is both iconic and innovative. It’s the only place you’ll see characters driving around in a ‘29 Cord Phaeton as they escape an explosion worthy of the last third of Akira.

Cameos and tributes abounded throughout the show. My favorite was William Sanderson, JF Sebastian in Blade Runner, as Karl Rossum, the creator of the artificial intelligence H.A.R.D.A.C. in the ‘Heart of Steel’ episode. The premiere episode of B:TAS was a riff on ‘Dr. Jeykel and Mr. Hyde.’ Then they pushed us into a re-telling of ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ in an episode titled ‘The Tyger’ from a poem by William Blake.

Batman: the Animated Series didn’t just celebrate other stories, they celebrated ideas, too. What about when Leslie Thompkins and Batman offered each other dueling Santayana quotes? Remember later in that same episode when Bruce quoted Nietzche? The Animated Series planted subversive seeds that would disrupt the simple good vs. evil narratives we had been force-fed throughout the eighties.

New characters created new relationships and dynamics. Harley and the Joker were like Bonnie and Clyde on steroids. Their hysterically dysfunctional relationship formed the basis for many misadventures. The triangle of animosity between Bullock, Batman and Chief Gordon culminated in the gut-wrenching ‘I am the night’ episode.  We never saw Jimmy ‘the Jazzman’ after that episode, but we never forgot the lessons we learned.

Yes, Batman: TAS scratched all the right itches. It was stylish and yet full of substance. It was serious while injecting howling moments of humor. Action melded with ideas. Emotion melted into the adventure. The show entertained us while teaching us a brand-new lexicon for visual storytelling.

I think the most enduring legacy of Batman: TAS comes from how the show respected its audience. It knew that kids could handle complex stories and themes, and delivered them in spades. Batman wasn’t a one-dimensional hero; he was also a man coping with survivor’s guilt and grief. He wasn’t afraid to be gentle, or supportive – remember how he told Harvey Dent he was proud that he was getting some therapy? Remember how he brought Harley’s dress back after her downtown-destroying meltdown? That always stuck with me.

Villains were three-dimensional, too. Dr. Freeze, Clayface, Harvey Dent and Harley Quinn didn’t evolve in a vacuum. In many cases, they were simply humans who had arrived at the same fork in the road as Bruce Wayne and decided to take the other path. Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski found ways to make Batman sympathetic to a villain’s emotional core even as he landed a haymaker on their jaw.

Twenty-five years later, television is not the same. Click through the stack of shows on Cartoon Network and revel in how hip, intelligent and mindful they are. That isn’t an accident. Shows like ‘Teen Titans’ owe a tremendous debt to the doors opened by B:TAS. It took Batman: TAS for pop culture and Hollywood to realize that cartoons were a serious storytelling medium. It wasn’t enough for Scooby and the Gang to rip the mask off the villain by the end of the show. Batman: TAS showed us that when you rip the cover off, there’s still a world of pain and joyful anarchy underneath.

Bio

Jackson Allen is a science fiction writer and purveyor of early-90s pop culture. He’s not saying he is Batman, he’s just saying that he and Batman have never been seen together in the same place. Jackson lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he is working on a new sci-fi series.

 

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