This article originally ran in 2017. We are republishing following the death of Kevin Conroy, the voice of animated Batman, on November 11, 2022.
As the 1990s dawned, television audiences weren’t used to a dark version of the Dark Knight. America had briefly gone crazy for the 1960s series Batman, starring the late Adam West and an array of over-the-top character actors, but that had been camp at its most frivolous. Oddly enough, it took a kids’ cartoon to show TV-watchers the emotional and visual weight of the Caped Crusader. Debuting on Fox Kids as an after-school show in 1992, the Warner Bros.-produced Batman: The Animated Series changed the titular character’s mainstream profile forever. It consisted of 110 episodes (the latter 25 of them billed as The New Batman Adventures), spun off into a theatrically released film called Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and is now regarded as one of the greatest collection of superhero stories ever told. Here, 25 years after it debuted, is the history of the show in the words of its creators and stars.
1. Reinventing the Caped Crusader
The show began development in 1990, largely with staff who had been working on the Steven Spielberg-produced Fox Kids cartoon Tiny Toon Adventures.
Bruce Timm (character designer, director, and show co-creator): It was a fluke. I didn’t have any ambitions to become a director or a producer, and Batman just kind of landed in my lap. I had just gotten done working on the first season of Tiny Toon Adventures when the president of Warner Bros. Animation, Jean MacCurdy, assembled a big meeting. She mentioned some of the properties they were looking at, and one of the ones was Batman. The first Tim Burton movie had come out and it was a big hit. And the minute I heard that, it was like, Pow! That’s what I want to do. So I went back to my desk after the meeting, put all my Tiny Toon stuff to the side, and just started drawing Batman. Within a couple hours, I had this vision of Batman down on paper. It was a new take. Ever since I was a little kid, Batman was always one of my favorite things to draw, but I’d never quite managed to come up with a version of Batman that was completely pleasing to me. Every Batman I had drawn prior to that was always based on somebody else’s Batman. This was the first time I’d ever had a concrete, Bruce Timm–style Batman in my head. It was almost like he was just waiting there to be drawn. So the next time Jean had one of those meetings, I brought my drawings to her and I said, “I was thinking this might be a cool way to go with it.” And she said, “That’s … that’s perfect!”
Eric Radomski (background painter and show co-creator): I had painted for two years on the Tiny Toons crew when things opened up for development. Batman happened to be one of the titles they were interested in and kicking around to see what we could do with, so I just threw my hat in the ring. I did some background styling, different takes for what I thought was appropriate for the way I felt they could interpret into animation, and Batman just happened to be one of the four, five samples that I threw out there.
BT: Jean talked to me and Eric Radomski, who had also done some background styling for Batman, and he had almost exactly the same idea as I had after that meeting. He had done some atmospheric background pieces that he had also shown to Jean. She put Eric and I in charge of making a short Batman film, like a little pilot film, just a few minutes long. Mostly silent, no dialogue or anything, to kind of show Fox what we were planning on doing if the show got sold. He was a background painter and I was a storyboard guy, so we weren’t really thrown together a whole bunch before that. But once we were on this Batman project, we really hit it off. So, it was a really good marriage at that point. Eric and I sat down and brainstormed this little film together.
ER: The conversations [for the pilot film] were more about what we liked about the Tim Burton movie and what we felt we needed to make unique for the animation and what we could actually pull off. We didn’t know how this was gonna work under the camera in terms of, Is the black in the character going to be too dark? What is this gonna look like? We were more figuring out the guts of the actual technical production of it as opposed to what would it be as a series.
BT: We scored it with some of the Danny Elfman score from the first Batman movie and did some sound effects on it.
ER: We never imagined they would hand over the show to us and let us make it. We thought, at a minimum, we might be art directors on it, to have some influence on what it might look like. But I don’t think either of us conceived that they would just hand the keys to the castle to us. But that first minute-and-a-half piece ended up being the confidence that Jean needed to hand the keys off to us and say, “You guys know how to make this, so go off and make 65 of them.” We were both stunned. We were like, “How the fuck are we gonna do this?”
BT: Neither of us had ever produced a series before, so that was a big gamble on her part. There was a period in the early couple months of production where, literally, Eric and I didn’t know if we were gonna show up and find the locks changed on our offices. I mean, this had never really been done before for TV. What we wanted to do was quite a bit more adult than, say, shows like G.I. Joe or Transformers or He-Man. Those shows were deliberately designed for young kids, and nobody else. If you were 13, that was pretty much the cutoff point for a show like He-Man or G.I. Joe. But we wanted to do a show that would appeal to kids and also to adults, as well. Basically, we were making the show for ourselves.
A team formed, including Alan Burnett, an animation veteran who had once worked on the lighthearted superhero show Super Friends; and Paul Dini, a writer at Tiny Toons.
Alan Burnett (writer and producer): At the time that Jean was asking me to come over to do the Batman animated series, I was trying to get out of animation altogether, because it was frustrating to write for children’s programs. There was just too much S&P [standards and practices] for me. What sold me was the trailer that Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski had done for the show. I’d said to her, “Listen, if you’re gonna do Batman, you’re gonna have to have guns and fistfights.” And that’s when she showed me the trailer. I really didn’t believe that I would be allowed to have guns and fistfights. But she insisted that I would have the freedom, and so I came on over. And she was right!
Paul Dini (writer): Bruce had come in with the character designs, and he said, “You wanna work on Batman with us?” They were taking some wrong turns here and there with the development and the vision of the show, and some other writers had come in, and Batman was a little too Saturday-morning. It was not really the vision that Bruce had for the show, because he wanted it to be dark and cinematic, unlike what was on TV at that time at all. So when I saw where Alan was going with it, I started writing more toward that sensibility, looking at a lot of Hitchcock and film noir, and ways to play it like little mini-movies.
Dini, Timm, and writer Mitch Brian collaborated to write a massive “show bible” that laid out guidelines for the narrative and visual approach. “One thing and one alone keeps Gotham from drowning in a sea of corruption and despair,” read the introduction. “It is a grim being cloaked as much in mystery as he is in shadows. Like a bat he dives out of the night to feed on Gotham’s evil. To some, he is merely a legend. To others, he is a dedicated, driven avenger. And to criminals, he is their worst nightmare. He is … BATMAN.”
PD: I wrote [my part of the show bible] with an eye toward, “What if I’m borrowing from [Batman: The Dark Knight Returns writer-artist] Frank Miller? What if I’m borrowing from [Batman: The Killing Joke writer] Alan Moore?” We wanted to ask, “What is it like to hear gunshots in an alley and have a shadow fall over you?” And that’s a way around some of the restrictions, because [the network] can say, “Make sure you don’t see any violence.” And it’s like, “All I heard was gunshots in an alley, and somebody falling over.” And the executives were like, “Well, we can’t really object to it, but boy, the image that paints in your mind!” And it’s like, “Yeah, exactly! That’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to deal in that sort of imagery and that power.”
AB: We had these three rules: No aliens. No ghosts. And no Humanitas Awards — you know, no pro-social stories. We were just out to have a good time and to give the audience some fun thrills; some real Batman thrills.
ER: We all gravitated toward old New York and some of the traditional architecture, and that’s all very much Art Deco. Tim Burton’s movie was more Gothic, but we wanted it to be a little more stylish and a little classier, so we leaned away from just horror and Gothic and we leaned more into the Deco elegance in the ’40s in New York. That birthed this timeless feel, where it felt very authentic in a ’40s setting, but it was contemporary story lines that we were telling. We could see mobsters and ’40s vehicles and dirigibles — and yet Batman had technology that was way beyond that time period. So it evolved into what we were calling “Dark Deco.”
BT: Eric and I were both huge fans of what [composer] Danny Elfman had done in the first Batman movie. It had this really cool retro, but not camp, kind of sound. We knew we weren’t going to be able to get Danny, budget-wise. But the Flash show was on the air at that time, and I watched a bunch of episodes of that first season, and I noticed it sounded very much like Danny Elfman music. I made a note as I was watching it: Who did the music? It was Shirley Walker. Did some research on Shirley Walker, found out that she had actually worked with Danny on that first Batman movie, had orchestrated much of it. We contacted Shirley and she was happy to come in and do the show. Back then, it was almost unheard of to score every single episode of a show. Fortunately, we mentioned it to our boss, Jean, and she said, “Oh, yeah! We should totally have an original score for every episode!” That was a huge plus.
Andrea Romano (voice director): The backgrounds were created very differently: They were done on black paper, which gave it that very dark style. Nothing had been that dark.
ER: For animation, I don’t recall anyone ever doing that, other than maybe Mary Blair experimenting with some Disney short films. What we were doing was literally trying to interpret the night with an impressionist style. If we did it wrong, it was going to look like the black-velvet paintings that were popular in the ’60s and ’70s.
BT: I had worked on a bunch of action-adventure shows for TV before, and every single one of them, I thought, was overdesigned. They were trying to impress people with the amount of detail. On G.I. Joe, especially, it wasn’t enough just to draw a belt on a character, the belt had seams and buttons and snaps and pockets. There’s no good reason to draw every shoelace on a shoe. Just make it a simple shape. That was Eric’s and my basic idea for the entire series, to simplify everything. The characters and the vehicles and the props and the cars and everything — just boil everything down to its essential ingredient. We both were big fans of the Fleischer Studios cartoons from the 1940s. It was a combination of that and film-noir movies and things like Citizen Kane. We did get a lot of pushback from different people, even people who had seen the pilot and were impressed by that. They would say, “Oh, you’re gonna make the show look more detailed and it’ll look more like a comic book, right?” And we were like, “No, it’s gonna look like this. This works. And we know this is gonna work.”
2. Hearing Voices
AR: Just for Batman himself, I listened to 500 voices. Then we did callbacks and we auditioned 120. Bruce and I narrowed it down to about four or five actors, none of whom we were gaga for. We were like, “This guy could do it. This guy could do it. Yeah, this is okay.”
BT: We got to the point where we were so desperate that anybody who would walk through the door, even if it was for a different part, we would say, “Oh, by the way, would you be interested in playing Batman as well? Because we can’t find our Batman.”
AR: So I asked my roommate — he was a casting director — I said, “Any actors you know?” And he said, “You know, there’s this wonderful actor who has a lot of stage experience, and a lot of TV and a lot of soap-opera experience, and his name is Kevin Conroy.”
Kevin Conroy (Batman/Bruce Wayne): I learned early on after getting out of Julliard that a lot of theater actors did voice-overs to supplement their income, but I had never done animation. [My agent] just called me one day and said, “Warner Bros. is looking for voices for a new show they want to do, and they’re not looking at the traditional voice-over people. They want to look beyond that. They’re looking at theater actors and film actors, because this is gonna be very dramatic. Would you wanna go in?” I said, “Sure, sounds like fun.” So, amazingly, Batman was the first animated audition I ever had.
BT: Out of the blue, this guy whom none of us had ever heard of before walks in. All the women in the room were like, “Oh, he’s dreamy,” because he’s really good-looking. And we kind of told him what we were looking for: “Kind of like Michael Keaton, but kind of not. We want to play, definitely, a distinct difference between his Bruce Wayne voice and his Batman voice.”
KC: I had no preconceptions about the character, either. Bruce Timm said, “What do you know about Batman?” And I said, “Well, I know the Adam West show from the ’60s.” He said, “Oh, no, no, that’s not what we’re doing! Forget that!” He had to explain to me the Dark Knight legacy and how dark this character was: “He’s avenging his parents’ deaths and he’s got these dual identities.” I said, “You’re describing an archetypal hero, almost like a Hamlet character.” I was putting it in terms of stage roles that I was familiar with. I let my imagination go and I just went to [Batman voice] the darkest, most painful place in my voice [returns to normal voice] and it just came out. I saw them get very excited in the booth.
BT: We had him read both Bruce Wayne dialogue and Batman dialogue and, right out of the gate, without any extra direction from us, he just nailed it.
AR: Kevin opened his mouth and Bruce and I had such a eureka moment, where we looked at each other and went, “Oh, my lord. Not only is the voice there, but he so understands this character and the distinction between Batman and Bruce Wayne!” And we did want there to be a very clear distinction, but we wanted it to be subtle. We didn’t want it to be really overt.
KC: For me, the key for playing the character and the Batman sound is that the Batman persona is not the disguise. The disguise is Bruce Wayne.
BT: Everyone in the booth looked at each other and went, “I think this is the guy.”
KC: When I just read the script that they sent me [later], it looked to me like [supporting character] Harvey Bullock was a much more interesting character, and Commissioner Gordon, too. So I went in and I said, “Can I audition for the character roles?” And Andrea said, “Do you understand that, if you get Batman, you’ll be in every episode? Stop trying to talk us out of hiring you!”
BT: Everybody who came in to audition for the Joker was doing, basically, [Adam West–era Joker actor] Cesar Romero. They weren’t treating the character seriously. All of the actors that we tested were all doing these really silly and bizarre voices. None of it had any serious threat to it at all. Tim Curry actually came in and gave us something really close to what we wanted. It was funny and weird but also definitely had some menace to it. So we hired Tim. He did about three episodes for us. And then Alan Burnett came to me after we did the third one, and we listened to the assembled tracks, and he said, “I think we have to replace Tim.”
AR: He just couldn’t wrap his head around Tim’s performance. And the truth of it is, I never would have recast Tim.
BT: I didn’t want to do it because we had already recorded a bunch of episodes with him and I knew we would have to rerecord them in post, which I knew was going to be a nightmare. But it didn’t take much for him to convince me, because I was kind of leaning that way myself. It’s not that Tim was doing anything bad, it just wasn’t quite what we wanted.
AR: I got a phone call from Mark Hamill’s agent — which was absolutely astounding — saying, “Mark is a huge comic-book fan, a major Batman fan, and would please very much like to be a part of the Batman series.”
Mark Hamill (The Joker): I actively wanted to get on this show because I was reading about the people that they were putting together in key positions. I followed the fan press in terms of comic books. I was reading in, I think, Comics Buyer’s Guide that their goals were to make the episodes of Batman analogous to the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the ’40s. That was their benchmark of quality. I thought, Oh, my gosh, they’re really going to do this right. It’s not going to be aimed at grade-school kids, like some earlier iterations of the Batman cartoons.
AR: So I found a very nice guest role for him.
BT: Mark came in and played a corporate tycoon who was responsible for Mr. Freeze’s wife dying.
MH: I went in and I just let my geek flag fly. I was asking them all these questions: “Are you going to do Ra’s al Ghul? Are you going to do Dr. Hugo Strange?”
AR: He was very grateful, and he pulled me aside at the end of the session and said, “I had so much fun doing this, and thank you so much for bringing me in. But I really want to be a part of the series. I don’t want to just come in and do a guest-star and disappear.” And then, coincidentally, here comes the need to recast the Joker.
MH: I got a call saying, “They want you to come in and audition for the Joker.” And I said, “Oh, gosh, that’s a little too high-profile for my liking. Not only has it been done with Cesar Romero, but it’s been done by Jack Nicholson. What can I bring to the table that hasn’t been done before?” I said, “I’d rather play Two-Face or Clayface or someone who hasn’t been done.” The reason I went in was because I was absolutely certain that they would be unable to cast me as the Joker simply because, public-relations-wise, the idea of the guy who played Luke Skywalker — this icon of heroism, this virtuous character — playing this icon of villainy? Comic-book fans are notoriously demanding. They’re very opinionated and not shy about letting you know how they feel. I thought it would be a PR disaster that they would not be able to withstand. It gave me a great confidence, since I didn’t think there was any shot at all of me getting the part, so I had that performance anxiety removed.
PD: I remember listening to his audition, and when he did the laugh, I said, “That’s it. That’s just it.” The laugh was cruel, it was funny, there was an undercurrent of terrible sadness to it. It was a laugh from a destroyed soul.
MH: I had done Mozart in Amadeus in the first national tour, and then they transferred me over to Broadway, and one of the things that is relevant to my audition [for the Joker] is that Mozart had this sort of ghastly laugh that threw everybody. I played with that laugh a lot. I’d do a little Dwight Frye, I’d do a little Sydney Greenstreet. I love all those old Warner Bros. movies, so I was just slipping people in. Sometimes I’d get notes like, “It was a little too ‘Jerry Lewis at the matinee’. Reel it back.” I’m telling you this because, in retrospect, after getting the part, I asked Andrea Romano, “How did I get it? What was the process? How did you know that you wanted me?” And she said, “The laugh.” I didn’t want to get pigeonholed into a specific laugh. With the Joker, I said, This is like an artist with a very big palette. I want a range of laughs. One thing that stuck with me was, when Frank Gorshin was talking about the Riddler [whom Gorshin played in the 1960s series], I was reading about him and he said, “A lot of times, it’s not that the Riddler laughs, it’s what he laughs at.” I said, Oh, that’s interesting. If I can find places to open a little window into the psyche of this psycho, I’m going to use that.
AR: Any actor whom I hired to be the Joker replacement voice would have to match the mouth flaps established by Tim Curry’s performance. And that’s really hard to come up with while introducing a character as intense as Joker — you’re stuck with somebody else’s timing. And Mark was crazy good.
BT: It was just like, Hallelujah! Who knew that Luke Skywalker would be our perfect Joker?
KC: Luke Skywalker is the nice, young leading man, and most times in films, that’s probably the least interesting character in a film. Well, Mark Hamill could not be further from that. This madman came into the recording studio and he was totally eccentric and he goes a million miles an hour. He talks a million miles an hour. His imagination never stops jumping from topic to topic. He’s a very intellectually alive person, and if you get Mark on a topic, you can’t shut him up for an hour.
3. Telling Modern Myths
The first episode to be produced, “On Leather Wings,” aired on September 6, 1992 (it was actually the second episode to air, despite having been created first — this divide between production order and airing order was common). It featured no exposition about Batman’s origins and leapt right into a yarn about him hunting down a half-bat, half-man creature.
BT: Right out of the gate, we wanted to explore the deeper bench of Batman’s rogues gallery. Man-Bat was perfect for us because he was an iconic character from the comics. He was a monstery kind of character, so it allowed us to kind of go into the darker, horror, mystery side of the show, so it’s not just all about goofy villains and wacky crimes.
ER: The first one was a lot of wondering whether or not this was going to play the way we conceived it. It was Batman versus the Monster. It was very cool as a storyboard. But not until it was all buttoned together and we sent the first bits overseas and we got the first few scenes back did we have a sigh of relief and absolute celebration. They pulled it off so well. We were like, “Holy shit, this looks fucking great.” It’s that first time with the newborn baby and it happened to turn out really strong and set the tone that the rest of the series was going to have.
The third episode, “Nothing to Fear,” featured the most famous line of the show, regularly used in advertising: “I am vengeance, I am the night, I am Batman!”
KC: You can’t approach it as a silly line. It was Bruce Wayne talking to himself, reaffirming his own identity. It was like if I’m about to go onstage and I’m terrified and I think I’ll never remember everything and I have a panic attack. It’s Kevin Conroy saying, Goddamn it, Kevin. You are an actor. You are a good actor. You know this role. You can do this role better than anybody. Do it. That was what I was imagining the first time I did it. He’s saying it to himself rather than proclaiming it to the world. He’s psyching himself up. He’s going, [enters Batman voice] “I am vengeance. I am the night. I am” — and then the “Batman” just screams out of him. If you do it like a histrionic speech then it sounds ridiculous. But if you do it from inside, like you’re trying to convince yourself, you’re trying to find the strength within you to do the act you have to do, then it just comes out from inside of you.
The 14th episode, “Heart of Ice,” featured a totally reimagined version of longtime villain Mr. Freeze.
BT: In those early development meetings with Paul and with Mitch, I’d brought up Mr. Freeze as a character. He was just kind of a throwaway character in the comics. He wasn’t really considered one of Batman’s top villains. And I thought, Well, if we can take a character like Mr. Freeze and give him some gravitas, that’s what we should be doing with all of those secondary characters. I specifically said at the time, “What if ice isn’t just a motif, but if it’s also an emotional thing with him? For instance, if his wife had a tragic death, and then his response to it is that he’s emotionally closed off; he’s emotionally frozen.” And Mitch and Paul went [snaps fingers], “That’s something!” So we had written that down real quickly as a note.
AB: Paul was ready to leave Warner Bros. He seemed to have one foot out the door. I knew his reputation and I knew he was a great writer and I sat down to talk with him about doing something. “Don’t you have a story that you want to do?” And he says, “Well, yeah, I do have this idea for a Mr. Freeze story.” And I said, “Write up the outline, just write it up, and give it to me.” And he did, in pretty quick fashion.
PD: I came up with an image of him sitting in a cell, crying, and his tears becoming snowflakes. I thought, That’s kind of cool, kind of gets you at the heart. I thought, Let’s work backward from that. How do I get him to that point? Alan and Bruce and I talked about horror movies — we’re big fans of classic Hammer horror and Universal horror. There’s probably a little bit of Dracula in there, there’s probably a little bit of Dr. Phibes in there, there’s a little bit of Edgar Allan Poe. The lost love who’s dead but maybe not completely gone, and that mournfulness. So we wove that all together, and that became Mr. Freeze.
AB: I sat down and I’m reading this — it was a two- or three-page, single-spaced story [outline]. And I remember just being knocked out by it. And I called the network. I said, “I’ve got a great story and Dini wrote it and if this isn’t what you’re looking for, forget about it. This is what I wanna do.” I called Paul up also and I said, “You gotta run it on the show. This is a fabulous story. You’ve got to stay on it!”
BT: That’s kind of a good template on how to treat these characters. Even silly characters, like the Mad Hatter, if you add some pathos and some genuine human emotion to that character, then suddenly they’ll be quite a bit more interesting than they were previously.
The 22nd episode, “Joker’s Favor,” featured the introduction of a brand-new character who would go on to be one of the most famous in the superhero canon: Harley Quinn. She was played by Dini’s college friend Arleen Sorkin, then best-known for playing Calliope Jones on Days of Our Lives. In one episode of that show, she wore a jester costume.
PD: I had a VHS tape that Arleen had given me of her best Days clips. I remember being sick one day and I popped in the tape to alleviate the boredom. I had already decided to give the Joker a henchwoman in the script, and thought Arleen’s screwball persona would be a good contrast to the Joker’s dangerous insanity. The story is pretty dark, with Joker singling out an ordinary man and taking delight in torturing him, so I needed a few laughs in there to break the tension. I also liked the idea of putting Harley in some sort of colorful costume, harkening back to the molls of the 1960s live-action Batman series. Seeing Arleen in the jester costume around that time just helped fix that image in my brain.
BT: He wanted to call her Harley Quinn — obviously, a wrecked version of harlequin, and he did a rough design for her, which was, frankly, not very good. It was just weird. It had like a ’60s kind of vibe to it. It was just odd. Charming, but odd. I thought that we could improve on that, so I immediately started researching traditional harlequin gear, and did a simplified supervillain version of that.
Arleen Sorkin (Harley Quinn): I could give you an impressive answer about how I did the voice, but I don’t have one. I read it and I just thought that that was the best voice for her in the moment. I don’t want to pretend that I am this woman with great range, so I picked the one that I could do easily, and it worked. Paul decided to make her Jewish, so I put a little Yiddish sound in there. At least we know the Joker isn’t an anti-Semite. It’s his only good quality.
BT: It was always intended to be just a one-off. We weren’t planning on bringing her back. When we got the first episode that she appeared in, when it came back from overseas, and we saw her animated, and the combination of the visual with Arleen Sorkin’s performance, it was kind of magical. So Paul immediately started plotting her return, and he would say, “I want to bring that Harley Quinn character back in another episode.” I would be like, “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. But she was really cool and, yeah, she was cute. Okay, fine.” So Paul kept bringing her back. I didn’t put up too much of a fuss, and then one thing led to another, and she was this really popular character.
PD: She’s on Pez now! There’s a Pez dispenser of her! I’m just waiting for the Macy’s Parade balloon.
The 51st episode, “Robin’s Reckoning,” featured a recounting of the Boy Wonder’s origin: his trapeze-artist parents were killed by mobsters during a circus performance. It would go on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program.
ER: When we were looking back at Robin’s parents at the circus, when the death happened, we knew they wouldn’t let us show it. We couldn’t even show the result of it. We just had to get the emotion across that his parents definitively died. But there was no way we could avoid that, because that was what the script was.
BT: We would have problems with [the standards and practices department]. They would say, “This story line is too dark,” or “This is too violent,” and, “You can’t ever kill anybody in the show.” So it was tough to figure out how to do a show that would be acceptable to both kids and adults without talking down to kids or alienating adults because the shows were too silly or because the stakes weren’t high enough. Almost every episode, we would get a huge list of things we couldn’t do. They were constantly trying to pull back on the amount of violence, which I get. I totally understand that. But, at the same time, it was really frustrating. It wasn’t that we wanted to make a violent show. It’s just that we wanted to make it that, if Batman or some other character was in jeopardy, we didn’t want it to feel like Adam West: We didn’t want it to feel like, This is a silly death trap that you know he’s gonna get out of. We wanted to raise the stakes and keep the danger real. That’s really hard to do if you a) can’t ever kill anybody, and b) can’t even get into a serious fistfight. So every single action sequence, every single bit of quote-unquote violence was looked at with a magnifying glass. It was a constant compromise.
ER: So we came up with the idea of the trapeze ropes going through the scene with a spotlight on them, and then coming back with one sheared rope and stinging with appropriate music. Thank God for Shirley Walker. It was something you could have only dreamed of at that time in animation, to do it for television. I think we, as a team, hit a home run with “Robin’s Reckoning.” It was the height of what we could do as a dramatic animated show and still be entertaining.
KC: In animation, you can’t actually kill anybody. Standards and practices won’t allow that. So whenever Batman beats anyone up or throws them off a cliff and they hit the ground, there’s always what’s called the “stay-alive moan” after so you know the character’s not actually dead. I’d land and they’d go, “Okay: stay-alive moan!” And I’d go, Ahhhhh. It always sounded slightly sexualized. So during one episode, I was doing the stay-alive moan and I went [sexual tone] “Ahhhh … Andrea …” And the place erupted. It just sounded like the most postcoital moment between Batman and Andrea Romano. She howled and she said, “Okay, I’m taking that one home with me tonight.” It got to be a tradition: Whenever I would get in a fight, it would be, “Andrea …” It got to be kind of notorious.
AR: Every session that I’ve done with Kevin — and I believe we’re probably into the thousands of sessions I’ve done with Kevin Conroy at this point — every time he gives me a level, he ends it with, “Ahhh … Andrea.” And so people who aren’t savvy to the joke years ago, they’re scratching their heads going like, “What does that mean?” And anybody else who was there is like, “Okay, now we can start the session; it’s official. Kevin has said ‘Andrea’ in the Batman voice.”
The first season featured 65 episodes and concluded on September 16, 1993. The second season premiered on May 3, 1994, and by then, the show was a critical and ratings smash.
KC: We must have been halfway through the second season and I went to the Hollywood post office early in the morning, before the sun was even up. This homeless guy says, “Hey, buddy, you got a dollar?” I just had my mail and I said, “I’m sorry, honestly, I have nothing.” And he said, “Oh my god, you’re Kevin Conroy! You’re Batman!” I said, “How do you know that?” He said, “There’s a Circuit City on Hollywood Boulevard and they have all the monitors facing the street and I watch your show every day. Oh, please do it!” I said, “Do what?” He said, “You know what I want you to do! I am vengeance …” I said, “Okay. I am vengeance …” He said, “Oh, yeah, this is so cool! Come on, keep going, keep going! I am the night …” I said, “I am the night …” He said, “Bring it home, Batman! Bring it home!” I said, “I am Batman!” And just then someone screams out of their window, “Hey, Batman, shut the fuck up!” [Laughs.] I got home and I called Andrea and I said, “I think our show is really, really going to be successful: When the homeless people are quoting the show to me in the dark, I think we’ve got a home run here.” That was the day I realized that we maybe had a cultural phenomenon going on.
AR: I remember working with someone who left Warner Bros. and went over to Disney to make Gargoyles. He called me up one day and said, “Andrea, how do I get the performances from the actors the way you get performances for Batman?” And I said, “Well, you hire me!” [Laughs.] My point is, what we did on Batman impacted how Disney wanted to make one of their series. It was a benchmark.
4. Bat on the Big Screen
Christmas Day, 1993, saw the release of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a feature-length film set in the show’s universe. It alternates between flashbacks about Bruce Wayne’s decision to become Batman during a doomed romance and telling a story in the present about Batman’s battle with a lethal crime-fighter known as the Phantasm. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that the two narratives are closely linked.
AB: Eric was working on a computer-generated Gotham City for the opening of the show, which was something new, and new to the eye for a lot of people. We had an executive come in from the lot, and he was looking at this and said, “You know what? We should make this a feature film.”
ER: There was a desire to do longform, and it was always intended to be direct-to-video, because the direct-video market was new at the time and very lucrative. Companies were all making major dough on releasing stuff.
PD: That story was really Alan’s passion. He started to work with the idea of “I wanna write a really good Batman story, and that means a really good Bruce Wayne story, and a good detective story.” At that time, I was all for “Oh, you’ve gotta put a bunch of freaky villains in there and we can do all this weird stuff with all the characters.” Alan really did not want it to be a free-for-all. He wanted it to be a romance, and he wanted it to be a dark story. He wanted it to be built around Bruce Wayne’s heart and the choices he’s made.
ER: We divided it up amongst our directors so everybody got to work on a chunk while we were still producing our series — the next 20 episodes had started almost simultaneously.
BT: The animation production was split up between a Korean studio and a Japanese studio, so [Eric and I] went to both Korea and Japan, and I don’t remember which country we were in — I want to say we were in Japan — when we got this call overseas from back in the States.
ER: Literally the last day when I was in Asia, I got a call from our vice-president at the time, who was the money guy, and he said that Warner decided that they wanted to release this in the theater, and my jaw hit the floor — not in a good way. I was like, “What the fuck are you talking about? We designed this to be on video! That means a whole host of problems in terms of technical and quality! You guys are out of your mind!”
BT: That means we have to change the aspect ratio, because we had storyboarded the entire film for the TV aspect ratio, which back then was a square. How are we going to finish this movie on time without having to re-board every single shot? So, while we were there, Eric and I, on a piece of paper, cut out the Academy aspect ratio on a sheet of paper and laid it down on top of the storyboards, and went, “Okay, it kind of works.” Once it became a theatrical release, suddenly we had a lot more interest from people on the lot. We had to suddenly start taking notes from all these different branches of the business that we had not had to report to before. When it was just a video release, it was just kind of like, “Okay, yeah, whatever, it’s a kids’ show. Get it out there. Whatever.” But the minute it’s a theatrical release, suddenly everybody had an opinion. Somebody at the lot went, “Huh, these flashbacks are confusing! We should re-cut the whole movie so that it all plays in real time.” And, we were like, “You’ve gotta be kidding me. That’s going to kill the movie! That means Batman won’t show up until a half hour into the movie!” That was horrible. Reluctantly, we did cut the movie that way and screened it for everybody on the lot and they looked at it and went, “Yeah, this doesn’t really work.” So we were able to go back and put it back together the way it should have been. Yeah, it was tricky.
Mask of the Phantasm contains a heartbreaking flashback in which a lovesick and internally conflicted Bruce Wayne goes to his parents’ grave and tells them he’s considering giving up on his mission of vengeance because “I didn’t count on being happy.”
KC: That scene at the grave was probably one of the best. That was the time I realized fully that you can’t fake Batman. You can’t just make a deep, husky sound with your voice. You have to base it in the pain of his childhood each time or it doesn’t sound right. When I finished recording it, there was just a lot of silence in the studio.
AR: When Kevin recorded that scene, we had to take a two-minute break afterward because I was almost inconsolable. I was crying so hard. I was absolutely devastated, in a good way, by his performance there. I’ve always said that I will never ask an actor to do something I’m not willing to do myself. So actors trust me to take the ride with them and Kevin knew that he could open up during that scene and, in doing so, I was right there with him, but I literally could not speak to continue on. I just hit the talk-back and said, “I need two minutes.” And I just lost it.
KC: Andrea came into the room and she said, “That was beautiful, what you just did. That was perfect. Are you okay?” Because she could see I really, really went emotionally to the place that he goes to. Boy, I was proud of it and I loved it and I think that’s the day I realized, This is really going to be an acting experience that I’m going to be really proud of.
The film was something of a commercial flop: It cost $5.6 million to make and only earned $6 million at the box office. However, reviews were positive: According to Rotten Tomatoes, it has an 82 percent average. It has, in the decades since, been hailed as one of the best Batman movies ever made.
ER: We polished the movie as best we could, and we were never completely satisfied with the animation — no disrespect to the studio working on it. It was a last-minute effort to put it on the big screen, so there’s a lot of clumsy, ugly stuff in it, which the fans seemed to look past, which was awesome. It certainly made its money back, because we spent next to nothing on it.
PD: I’m sorry that it kind of fell through the cracks. Because at that point, the only people who really knew how to open an animated movie were Disney, and they have had 60 years of experience doing it. So, for anybody else to come out with an animated feature, the challenge is, How do you get it out there, and how do you devote enough time to selling it, and fixing it in the public’s mind that it’s not just an extension of the TV show, that it’s something unique? Even though the release was not really what we all hoped, we knew the movie would stand on its own, and that it would hopefully endure. And then about a year later, we were gratified to see Siskel and Ebert review it. They said, “Boy, this is actually pretty good!”
5. The Dark Knight Departs
The show’s Fox run ended on September 15, 1995, after 85 episodes. Much of the team transitioned to making Superman: The Animated Series for the WB. However, a visually redesigned version of Batman returned on September 13, 1997, in The New Batman Adventures, which ran alongside Superman episodes.
BT: When it came time to do Batman again, we were going to be doing them for the WB this time, not for Fox Kids. And the WB, they were interested in somehow freshening the show. They said, “What can we do with this show so it’s not just more of the same?” And to me, it was like, “Well, great! Because I don’t want to do more of the same, either. In fact, I want to try to change the look of the show a little bit to make it even better.” And so that’s when I came up with the idea of making things super-simplified — really crisp and angular. Fortunately, that’s kind of what the WB wanted, as well as bringing Batgirl and Robin and Nightwing much more into every episode. They specifically wanted to increase the kid appeal, and it was something we wanted to toy with anyway because we liked all those characters anyhow.
PD: The WB had come into existence, and that brought in a whole different group of executives with a whole different set of rules. A lot of the executives we found we were dealing with, their mind-set was completely anti-everything that we had been doing with the characters. There was a different approach to story, and to character, and to the way of looking at these shows, that we felt frankly was passé, old-fashioned. Their approach was: This is for kids, and the idea of doing a show that is a crossover for an older audience, even a college-aged audience, really does not appeal to us, and we don’t even want to think along those lines. We had brought back Batman, and Bruce had redesigned it so it was more in keeping with the Superman look. And we liked the show an awful lot. We had a really good writing staff, we had actors we liked, and we could have gone another two or three years on just Batman stories alone, because we also liked where we were taking the relationships.
All good things must come to an end. The New Batman Adventures concluded its run on January 16, 1999, and was replaced by Batman Beyond, a show about an aging Bruce Wayne mentoring a new Batman in the near future.
BT: We get a call from the head of Kids’ WB, Jamie Kellner, and he liked what we were doing with the shows, but he wanted to figure out a way to make the show even more kid-friendly. At that time, one of the big shows on the WB was Buffy, and so everything he was saying was kind of moving us in that direction.
PD: We would think of it like you’d think of a prime-time show that has ongoing relationships. And the new executives who came in, they said, “We’re not even thinking that. That is diametrically opposed to what we are thinking of. We want to show [a Batman who’s the age of] the kids that are gonna watch. We wanna show that it has a lot of boy appeal.” They said, “Put a kid in the Batman suit. Boys can’t relate to Bruce Wayne. What is he, 30? Kids can’t relate to him.” It was a real primitive mind-set.
BT: Jamie literally, at one point in a meeting, said, “What if we made Batman a teenager?” And we all freaked out. We tried to keep a straight face, because you don’t want to say to the head of the WB network, “That’s a really stupid idea!” But we were all thinking it. So it was, “Well, we’ll think about that!” Actually I, at that meeting, threw out the idea of “Well, maybe if the original Batman, Bruce Wayne, got too old to be Batman, and he had to kind of pass the Batman mantle onto a young kid and then he’s gonna be like the old samurai passing on his wisdom to a young student and everything.” And Jamie really liked that idea and then we walked out and we said, “God, what the hell are we going to do?”
PD: That was heartbreaking to us, because we really looked upon these as very multidimensional characters, and would have loved to have done at least another two or three years of the show along our lines. Especially because you can go back to the villains and develop them even further, and take them in new areas. But they weren’t having it.
BT: I mentioned the idea of, if it was a sometime-later sequel, then it would technically be in the future, and we could do a more science-fiction-y version of the show. And the more we started talking about it the more we liked it. We met with Jamie again. We pitched him our idea on the show. Then he said, “Great! You’ve got a green light. Now, go make that show.” And we said, “But what about this Batman show that we’re doing right now?” And he says, “Well, we’ll cancel that one and now you have to make Batman Beyond instead. And it’s like, “Well, okay.” [Laughs.] And fortunately, it worked out.
PD: The fact that they were willing to back off and give us a little leeway where we didn’t have to have a nine-year-old in the suit trying to drive the Batmobile — which is, I think, more what they wanted — was good.
BT: We were finishing up Batman and Superman and developing Batman Beyond all at the same time, literally doing three shows all at once with the same crew. So something had to give. And, fortunately, we all loved what we were doing on Batman Beyond and it turned out to be a big hit, so it was all good.
Conroy and Hamill continue to play Batman and the Joker in cartoons and games, and the legacy of the original animated series lives on.
AB: The young [animation] writers whom I’ve been meeting — I’m talking 30s — are thoroughly familiar with the show. They grew up on the show. I’ve just been told time and again, “I couldn’t wait to get home so I could see Batman: The Animated Series. That was must-see television for me. That was appointment television.”
KC: Periodically, some new director will come in and do a Batman project for Warner Bros. and decide that they want to do their own take on the character and hire someone else to do the voice. Ironically, they usually have that actor imitate me, and when I hear it, I always think, “Well, why didn’t they just ask me?” But I am very lucky that, after 25 years, they still come back to me as often as they do. But periodically, someone comes up with a genius idea to hire someone else and fans come up to me and they say, “Why didn’t you do such-and-such? Why didn’t you want to do it?” And I say, “What do you mean, why didn’t I want to do it? Of course I wanted to do it! They didn’t ask me!”
BT: There’s a whole generation of people who grew up with my version of Batman being their Batman. They had the same reaction to it that I had with the Adam West show. Scott Snyder, whom I met a couple years ago at a comic-book convention — he’s one of the big Batman writers now in the comics — he literally said, “Your version of Batman was what I think of when I think of Batman.” And it’s like, Wow, well, okay. That’s cool.