Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Dark Knight Returns: A Second Look at Batman: The Animated Series

For those who remember the Batman cartoon from the 1990s as an entertaining childhood diversion, it is time to look again. Batman: The Animated Series airs nightly on ToonDisney (at 7:30 PM, check your local listings) and I can promise if you have any affection at all for the character or for good television you won't be disappointed.

I've caught around 30 episodes the past couple weeks and would classify just two of the bunch as "bad" or not worth watching. The rest vary from diverting (as in the jaunty "Prophecy of Doom" about a phony baloney prophet who cons Bruce Wayne's rich friends) to poetic ("Appointment in Crime Alley" about Batman's annual remembrance of his fallen parents) to the flat-out brilliant ("The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy," a beautiful little thriller about a criminal trying to steal Batman's cape and cowl, has a devilishly clever denouement). Nearly all the episodes I've watched — even some of the more uneven ones — are way better than the vast majority of Batman comics I've ever read (excluding a couple of classics, like these). I think that's reflected in the fact that in the wake of the show's critical, commercial, and artistic success the DC comics were reshaped to reflect the reality of the series (such as adding characters like Harley Quinn, the Joker's deranged girlfriend and sidekick, who was invented specifically for television and then transplated in nearly-identical form to the printed page).

There's a lot of cultural origins to this work, and the stuff that comes from comic books often seems more indebted more to EC horror than the Dark Knight; like "The Clock King" which transforms the origin of a silly old villain whose gimmick stems from his love of time pieces (on the other Batman TV show, Walter Slezak played him with much personal panache but little menace) into a miniature morality tale. Temple Fugate (approximately the Latin phrase 'time flies') is a efficient businessman obsessed with punctuality, convinced by a stranger he meets on a train to relax a little bit. So Fugate does, and promptly muffs a court case and loses everything. A few years later, he swears revenge on the stranger who he blames for all his troubles; in the interim the man's become the mayor of Gotham City and Fugate uses his knowledge of schedules to sabotage his reelection campaign.

Batman: The Animated Series is well-respected for its strikingly atmospheric visuals and gritty action sequences, both unique to an animated cartoon supposedly geared toward children. And though the series operates from a uniform style, it's easy to spot flourishes and personal touches from the Batman's signature directors, particularly in wide variety of representations of old Bats himself. Frank Paur's Batman, with his even-squarer-than-usual jaw and a flurry of low angles, looks like something dreamed up by Alex Toth. Kevin Altieri's looks more like a ninja; he wears his cape as a cloak draped over his shoulders, helping him to blend in with the shadows of the city. Some of the directors even have clear thematic specialties: Boyd Kirkland's episodes almost always involve some sort of obsession with the past, from "Beware the Gray Ghost" about a team-up between Batman and Bruce Wayne's childhood idol to "It's Never Too Late" about a crime boss wracked by the guilt of a bad decision from decades before, to "Nothing to Fear," which introduces the Scarecrow to the show and gives us Batman confronting his greatest fear, disappointing his dead father. Even better Batman responds to his vengeful dad's accusations by howling "No! I am vengeance! I am the night! I...AM...BATMAN!" Hell yeah you are dude.

My one gripe: freaking Toon Disney stopped airing episodes in order after the three dozen shows I saw and went back and started showing the same ones over again, even there's some sixty episodes left in the full run. Guess I'd better turn to Netflix, or set my DVR for Superman: The Animates Series, also airing nightly on ToonDisney and from many of the same very talented creators.

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