By: Daniel Reynolds
With the nature of TV nowadays, driven by an increasing number of streaming and on-demand services, the institution of the Saturday morning cartoon feels like something of a relic. (Or maybe it’s still a thing and I’m just 32.) Regardless of the era though, it does feel like something hard-coded into childhood memory; every kid has a story. After five days of getting up early for school, Saturday morning — a time when adults could not be bothered — was a special time. The house often quiet, the demands of the day (such as they were) far away. Go figure the best TV shows around made sure to air in those golden hours.
Earlier this week, Batman: The Animated Series celebrated its 24th anniversary. Admittedly, this is not a special number. But after the recent jammed FanExpo in Toronto, and a rather desultory summer season of movies (one in which Batman was featured twice), what’s wrong with a little nostalgia? Some things are worth being preserved and remembered.
First airing on September 5, 1992, Batman: The Animated Series should have been just another Saturday morning cartoon. For the most part, animated shows were all fairly interchangeable and disposable then (and now, really). Fox Kids, the Saturday morning programming block, made time for a host of different shows in that era. In ’92 that meant such luminaries as Eek! the Cat and Tiny Toon Adventures. Marvel’s X-Men got its start here. And later, in 1994, there was Spider-Man, The Tick, and Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? I have a powerful memory of a show called Red Planet too, but this, as with most of the rest, is lost to time now. Still, Batman: The Animated Series, along with the allure of quiet Saturday morning viewings, endures.
The force of this particular version of Batman begins immediately, with the foreboding Gotham skyline and intense score. (Batman remains the only cartoon show to have what could actually be called a “score.”) Far from the usual high-energy pizzazz of most cartoon shows, the famous intro loomed, announcing something different. How so? Even before considering the definitive voice-acting from Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (Joker), run through a list of the show’s greatest episodes and marvel at the emotional and structural complexity. There’s the re-invigoration of a cheesy characters like Mr. Freeze (“Heart of Ice”) and Clayface (“Feat of Clay”), there’s the formal brilliance of “Almost Got ‘Im,” or the episodes featuring original creation Harley Quinn and her bizarre relationship with Joker (e.g. “Mad Love”). I was always a sucker for the Riddler-centric plots, too — particularly “What is Reality?”, originally airing in November 1992 (!), in which Batman must rescue Commissioner Gordon from a VR-world of Riddler’s design. The bounty here is endless. And unlike most other shows of the era, the timeless art-style and economic storytelling hold up.
The other bright lights from Saturday morning had limitations. X-Men felt overly beholden to the wild and sloppy period of 90s X-books, some good and some bad (and enough with the Phoenix already; we get it). Spider-Man‘s style does not date well — particularly the tossed in CGI-backgrounds. The Tick makes the grade because of its humour, which was somehow directed at children of the 90s and yet translates to the modern day quite well. (There’s another live action adaptation on the way.) Carmen Sandiego, meanwhile, died with shareware and children’s game shows. Some of this is better than I remember perhaps, but I suspect most of it is worse. As for the rest, maybe this list of Fox Kids 90s cartoon shows will spark a memory or maybe it won’t. I contend most of these shows would be forgotten by noon, let alone two decades later. In this, DC Comics’ creation stands alone.
All of this makes DC’s recent public flailing all the more remarkable. Just consider all of the in-house storytelling skills the company has within reach. For years, built on the early work done by Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski, Paul Dini and more, DC has released a string of animated shows and feature-length films to varying acclaim. When a big moment in the DC Universe happens — say the death of Superman, or a retelling of Batman’s origin — there is a movie for it. What’s the big deal with Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman? You can watch it. Want to learn about the Silver Age of DC? Check out The New Frontier. Don’t have time to muscle through all of The Dark Knight Returns? DC has you covered with a powerful two-parter. Or you could just watch the pinnacle of Batman films, Mask of the Phantasm, a film that will actually having you wondering why there aren’t more like this anymore. That one came out in 1993, if you can believe it, and remains as a proud testament to what Batman (and cartoons) can do.
It’s not too early to declare a winner in the great Comicbook Media War of the ’10s. With its comprehensive Netflix strategy, its effortless media crossovers, and its seemingly endless streak of hit movies (where even the “bad” ones are not bad so much as uninspired), Marvel has won. This isn’t to say DC has failed entirely — they’ve found success with the Flash and Green Arrow, and are building something around Supergirl (with an incoming Superman). I suppose there are people out there who watch Gotham. But their movie strategy is a mess, and the overall TV plan (airing on The CW rather than ABC or Netflix) feels like a rung or two down the prestige ladder. And yet, there was a time…
I know this is all bathed in the glow of the ol’rose-coloured glasses. Batman: The Animated Series was not perfect, some episodes were clunkers, and like most shows (cartoon or otherwise) the quality gradually dips as the series goes along. But it understood its fundamental appeal in ways few shows ever do. The Batman found here was haunted but good; he moved mostly in the dark, a deep matte-black heretofore unseen on bright Saturday mornings; his world was both retro and of the future. You could be a kid in 1992, sprawled out on the carpet in front of a TV, and be blown away. You could reflect on in 2016 and still be dazzled by its power. For 22 minutes at a time, free from anything else, you could soar.