Remembering Batman: The Animated Series and Kevin Conroy

By anyone’s standards, 2022 has been just brutal in terms of comic creator deaths — Tom Veitch, Garry Leach, Tom Palmer, Carlos Pacheco, Kevin O’Neill. And for whatever reason, a disproportionate number were absolute Batman legends. Tim “The Long Halloween” Sale. Brian “Gotham by Gaslight” Augustyn. Alan “Top 10 Batman Writer of All Time” Grant. George “New Teen Titans and Nightwing co-creator” Perez. Neal “Best Batman Artist… Ever?” Adams. Tremendous losses, one and all.

And yet… and yet… none of those deaths hit me as hard as that of Kevin Conroy, a man who wrote one comic story in his entire life and illustrated zero. Because to a generation of people, Kevin Conroy was Batman. Full stop.

Yes, there were others — West and Keaton and Kilmer and Clooney and Bale and Affleck. But the thing about Batman is, he’s too much for the real world to contain. There’ve been good “realistic” Batman movies, and even great ones. Yet no matter how much CGI and special effects advance, no live-action version will ever fully capture what makes Batman so great, because the character exceeds the boundaries of a flesh-and-blood medium. To truly do justice to Batman, you need comics.

Or… animation.

It’s been said that the real Golden Age of comics is about twelve. Possibly there’s something to that, because Batman: The Animated Series launched a couple weeks after I turned twelve, and it blew. My. Mind. It blew everyone’s minds! To kids raised on Hanna-Barbara cartoons with endlessly recycled footage and Transformers and He-Man, B:TAS might as well have been a comic come to life.

The characters are fluid —Batman arcs gracefully as he swings from his grapple gun, Catwoman flips and cartwheels like a larcenous Simone Biles. Yes, with the benefit of computers, today’s animation has far surpassed B:TAS; such is the nature of technology. And not every episode was equal… with an adult’s eye, you can tell which ones were farmed out to the cheaper animation studios. But let me tell you, I’ll put Robin’s Reckoning or Mask of the Phantasm (yes, I know it’s a movie, but still) up against any hand-drawn animation you care to bring to the table.

Of course, as your ex kept reminding you, it’s not enough just to look good; there has to be some there there. And Batman: The Animated Series had there in spades. Viewed in hindsight, we can acknowledge there were some stinkers — I’ve Got Batman in My Basement, The Underdwellers, basically any Penguin episode in that first season.

But you don’t remember those, do you? You remember Beware the Gray Ghost and Two-Face and Heart of Ice and Almost Got ‘Im and Over the Edge. The writing and plotlines on B:TAS were so great, they started to overwrite the very comics they were based on. Mr. Freeze, a completely generic cold gun villain, simply became his animated version eventually. Poison Ivy transformed from a shallow epicurean who hates jungles to a lethal eco-terrorist to match her cartoon counterpart. The Riddler became… slightly cool? Killer Croc turned stupid. (Okay, not all the changes were good.)

But as terrific as the writing was, the show still wouldn’t’ve been successful without merely one of the best vocal casts ever assembled. Conroy gets (and deserves) the lion’s share of the credit, as a theatre and soap opera actor who’d never done any voice work before. So many Batman actors just default to graveling up their voices and growling. And sure, we all enjoy looking our children square in the eyes and bellowing “SWEAR TO ME!” (They love that.)

But Conroy understood intrinsically that the key to an unnerving Batman doesn’t lie in barking guttural threats; rather, it’s found in a deep, resonant quiet voice with a constant undercurrent of menace. If Bale seems constantly on the verge of losing it and punching your lights out, Conroy instead sounds like he’s spent quite a long time pondering exactly how many bones he can break before you start talking, and it’s probably less than a dozen, but hey, maybe you’ll surprise him!

That said, just as Batman is nothing without his rogues, so do the other voice actors deserve massive amounts of credit. Yes, Mark Hamill is a revelation, literally the only Joker many of us can imagine. (Tim Curry is an acting treasure, but listening to his recorded lines makes it clear how much we lucked out when the role was recast.) Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s dry, sardonic affect is perfect as Batman’s gentleman’s gentleman, and possibly the only voice that could do justice to lines like, “Why, you’re the very model of sanity! Oh, by the way, I pressed your tights and put away your exploding gas balls.”

And in possibly the cartoon’s greatest coup, Harley Quinn — star of multiple video games and animated shows, scene-stealer in two Suicide Squad movies, LGBTQ+ icon — would today be remembered as “oh yeah, the Joker’s nutty helper from a couple early B:TAS episodes” if not for the incomparable Arleen Sorkin. The nasally Brooklyn accent, the syrupy sweetness cranked up to eleven, the clipped “puddin’”… *chef’s kiss*. That is how you transform a throwaway one-off character into the Joker’s #1 henchwench and a genuine multimedia star.

I could go on forever about this show, and given the opportunity, probably would. (Heck, we haven’t even talked about B:TAS spinning off successful Superman, Justice League, and Future Batman series, in a manner the Marvel Cinematic Universe would use to great effect a decade later. And Jonah Hex! Those mad bastards just turned the show into Jonah Hex: The Animated Series for an episode!)

But every minute you spend reading my drivel is a minute you’re not rewatching The Laughing Fish or If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?, and I can’t have that on my conscience. Go, honor Kevin’s memory by revisiting your favorite few episodes. Replay Arkham Asylum. Watch YouTube clips of that musical number where he sang “Am I Blue?” And never forget that he is vengeance. He is the night. And he is — and will always be —

Batman.

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