Before the 90’s, superhero animation on the small-screen was an artistic void; defined by cheap animation and absurd scripts, the shows were at best campy bits of mindless fluff, and at worst, opportunistic trash which recycled the same three or four sequences ad nauseum. To be fair, super-heroes weren’t taken all that seriously outside of comics, and since kids would swallow anything, anything was what they got.
The arrival of 1988’s big screen Batman changed all of this, bringing to the long-languishing genre new box office clout and artistry. The time was perfect for a new super-hero cartoon, focused on the Dark Knight, and producers/animators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski were ready. Both men took the startlingly dark design of Burton’s film and translated it to the television set, while making a few changes of their own, including a timeless Art Deco feel and a new focus on character. Back was Batman the detective with the tragic past, a past whose presence, while never obtrusive, continues to define the nobility of the man who was Wayne .
This box set collects all of the first season of the series, and not all of it’s perfect; the animation ranges in quality, and too often the writers fall back on vague, uninteresting villains like the Bossman in “The Forgotten” and the Oliver! reject from “The Underdwellers". However, even the less memorable stories are entertaining, due in no small part to the excellent voice work. For many of us who grew up with the show, Kevin Conroy simply is the Batman, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.’s Alfred brings a bit of warmth to the Batcave. In the classic Rogue's Gallery, Mark Hamill finally does the Joker right, Adrienne Barbeau brings her silky sexuality to Catwoman, Roddy McDowall is a pathetically tragic Mad Hatter, and, perhaps most surprisingly, Richard Moll is tormented and terrifying as Two-Face.
It’s all good, really. Stand-out episodes include “Be a Clown”, “Poison Ivy”, “Two-Face”, “Beware the Grey Ghost”, “Feat of Clay”, and the Emmy-winning “Heart of Ice”.
It looks as good as can be expected - the pilot probably has the worst quality presentation, but it’s still watchable. Be warned, this is a very dark show; the backgrounds are all done on black paper, and it’s advisable to close the curtains when watching.
A bit light here, which is a disappointment.
The first disc has the short pilot promo Timm and Radomski put together to get the job. Introduced with a few interviews, the piece itself is impressive, and speaks volumes; much of it, in a more polished form, ended up in the opening sequence of the show. There’s also an excellent commentary track by Timm and Radomski over the first episode, “On Leather Wings”. Both men obviously cared a great deal about the project and the character, and both have fun telling the story of how the show came to be, as well as enjoying the animation and pointing out the occasional flaws.
Disc Two has an 18 minute long featurette on the series and its impact on comics, with interviews with Mark Waid, Paul Dini, Geoff Johns, Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and a number of others. A nice piece of work, it does a decent job of explaining how important the show was in the context of its release, and how passionate all the people involved were about Batman and his world. There’s also a commentary track on “Heart of Ice” with the producers, and the episode’s writer Paul Dini. Another fun track, Dini and Rodamski explain their intention to make some of Batman’s lamer foes (like Mr. Freeze) more of a threat; as is pointed out, Freeze’s tragic origin here was used as a template for later shows.
Disc Three has a tour of the Batcave. Cute, but non-essential.
Disc Four has trailers for Challenge of the Superfriends, Justice League: Starcrossed, and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman. Interesting if only because it shows how far we’ve come.
I would’ve liked more commentaries, myself, but all in all, a solid package reasonably priced. Now when can we expect volume 2?
Zack Handlen, aka Marlowe , 8/4/2004