Legends of the Dark Knight

In Memoriam
1955 – 2022

I happen to have grown up exactly in the sort of generation where, if you were a Batman fan as I was and still am, your first exposure to the character was almost certainly Batman: The Animated Series – which shares with myself the distinction of having turned 30 this year – the groundbreaking animated television series that kickstarted an animated universe developed by creators Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski and Paul Dini, renewed interest in the artistic medium’s potential for mature storytelling, idiosyncratic processes, and translating comic book visuals. They lifted from art deco shapes and expressionist lines (so basically just an animated noir!), they drew backgrounds on black paper, and they provided some of the most nuanced and well-dimensioned villains in all of superhero pop culture to the point of even re-wiring the source material. It in effect amplified the way that Tim Burton’s 1989 smash-hit feature film made the character one of the most recognizable in all of pop culture.

And yet, even with all the various forms in which one has to have been exposed to Batman through television, movies, comic books, video games and such… when I think of the character, the very first image that pops into my head is the square-jawed black cowl against grey cartoon that Timm designed off of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s original caped crusader. And the man who gave that version its voice was Kevin Conroy, who is sadly no longer with us as of this past weekend. So basically the affinity I’m voicing for Conroy’s work as the voice of my quintessential concept of Batman is shared with an entire age group of fans and likely beyond.

If I were had more time and energy than I have now, this event would likely be the springboard for a painstaking retrospective of at least the 85 episodes that make up the core of Conroy’s Batman series (if not the entire DCAU in which Conroy had portrayed Batman throughout). But unfortunately I do not: I do however have time to try for TWO separate posts. One of those will be a review of what was once my favorite superhero movie growing up, the other shall be a moment to at least recognize 10 of my favorite episodes regarding a television series that was so quintessential to my enjoyment of animation, storytelling, and art in general that even its weakest episodes have something I admire about it.

10. “Heart of Ice” (1.14 – Directed by Bruce Timm, Written by Paul Dini)

I confess, while I do appreciate how it essentially transformed Mr. Freeze into a character full of pathos (credit to Michael Ansara’s unexpectedly soulful monotone), I do feel this episode is just a tiny bit overrated. I was wondering how contrarian I could go while knowing in my heart… this was still going to make the Top Ten. Among my favorite things I’ve learned a Batman story can do is introduce cold atmosphere in visual ways (fun fact: my very first Batman comic I recall reading had in its first few panels Robin seeing his breath and the visual of that has never left my brain) and this episode’s continuous usage of blues just tapped into that pleasure in my brain, along with the hot reds and Freeze’s goggles making an excellent punctuation for the more shadowy images. And also the point of view spiral shot of his freeze gun in action is as action-packed as a single shot can be.

9. “Harley and Ivy” (1.56 – Directed by Boyd Kirkland, Written by Paul Dini)

Not nearly as gay as one would expect an episode with this premise to have – not even much subtext – and I confess to this feeling like the least exploratory visuals of the episodes directed by the late Boyd Kirkland, whom I’ve come to recognize as an unsung MVP in pushing the envelope on conventional Batman iconography. Nevertheless, it’s a breezy caper of a sort buoyed by the impressive chemistry Arleen Sorkin and Diane Pershing have as voice actors and there’s no way your fanfic would exist without this episode planting the seed.

8. “The Laughing Fish” (1.34 – Directed by Bruce Timm, Directed by Paul Dini)

For my money, this is the most threatening Joker (Mark Hamill’s triumph as a voice actor, possibly as an actor period) ever came as a character on the show. Largely on the nightmarish imagery of the victims of Joker’s toxin, whose eyes are wide and yellowed while their lips are violently red in a grin unlike any other iteration of his gas’ effects. There’s a late fakeout regarding Batman himself felt like a violent shake to my young self and I still don’t really find myself used to that briefly grim moment, let alone those mean looking blue-eyed sharks (even while we know better now).

7. “I Am the Night” (1.49 – Directed by Boyd Kirkland, Written by Michael Reaves)

Effectively the sequel to “Appointment in Crime Alley” (which was originally on this post before I re-edited to put this in its place, so none of y’all are crazy if you read it beforehand), this expands magnificently on the themes of what pushes Batman to embody what he is by indulging in looming iconography that plays into the fan’s familiarity with those contexts as Conroy gives one of his most engaged performances on a theoretical “what if I should stop?”. Magnificent ending sequence also.

For my money, I think trying to interact with Batman as a character through our own social issues is a fool’s game – Penguin just planted a giant bomb that will give every one feathers, just let Batman punch him – but I think this is the closest the show came to nailing the psychological and social aspects of an environment like Gotham. It’s also in turn one of the finer arenas for its It has a literal trolley problem – an excellently animated sequence – so maybe a tiny bit didactic but I think it earns its heartfelt final moments.

6. “Robin’s Reckoning” (1.32-33 – Directed by Dick Sebast, Written by Randy Rogel)

An episode that gives Loren Lester’s Robin a real chance to shine, particularly when it comes to his angriest and most vengeful moments in this two-parter, plus Thomas F. Wilson is a very well-cast voice for Zucco’s bug-eyed paranoia. Speaking of that paranoia, this feels like the closest the show came to visually resembling the sophistication of anime (the show occasionally outsourced to Japan so it’s possible this episode had exceptionally more work there): from the series-best movement lines to the big eyed expressiveness to the heavy shadows and even that Akira visual quote that’s specifically how I learned about Akira to begin with. All to make something so perfectly elegant as a delivery vehicle of Robin’s tragedy that just watching a cut rope swing into a spotlight makes one’s heart sink.

5. “Two-Face” (1.10-11 – Directed by Kevin Altieri, Written by Randy Rogel from a story by Alan Burnett)

I’ll be honest, I’m not convinced this is my favorite hour for Two-Face in and of itself compared to the more intricate crime drama of “Shadow of the Bat” (where Batgirl debuts on the series) but it’s definitely the most high impact in terms of the facial animation expressing the devastating psychological impacts of the character and our first hit of Richard Moll’s nasty snarl that he transforms out of Harvey’s earlier primness. But of course Kevin Conroy is the reason for the occasion of this list so another point of distinction: I think his delivery of the line “Harvey… no…” is the best line delivery he’s ever given on the show (only beaten by a specific line in the feature film I’ll review later this month.

4. “Almost Got ‘Im” (1.46 – Directed by Eric Radomski, Written by Paul Dini)

An amusement, but a very workable one. Extremely novel concept, a rare chance to let all of the Rogues Gallery play off of each other as vocal performances and the fluid stylizations of each villain’s tall tale allows Radomski and his animators to play around just a little with shifts in visual perspective. I do have to confess it’s regrettable this is the only episode where Adrienne Barbeau is voicing Catwoman on my list (although she does make a lower appearance as just Selina Kyle) as that entire performance throughout the series is just one of many pieces of evidence that Barbeau has one of the sexiest voices ever.

3. “The Man Who Killed Batman” (1.51 – Directed by Bruce Timm, Written by Paul Dini)

Yet another instance of Timm getting to flex his noir bonafides, but really my primary appeal of this is on the design and performance of the titular character: Sidney The Squid is probably the most cartoonish looking character ever to appear on the show, looking like he got ripped out of the newspaper funny pages instead of a Batman comic with his dot eyes, broad shape, and small stature. And that’s what to look for when trying to get immediate pathos out of a character with all of the Gotham underworld looming over him.

2. “Perchance to Dream” (1.26 – Directed by Boyd Kirkland, Written by Joe R. Lansdale from a story by Laren Bright & Michael Reaces)

Conroy’s personal favorite of the series, it’s easy to see why when it plays most deeply into the id of Bruce Wayne and Batman as characters. There’s no shortage of episodes that live within Batman’s brain, but this one feels the most… elemental of them: basically driven by what we expect of Batman’s compulsion to be Batman. And the climax on the clock tower has some of the most dynamic lighting of the series, enhancing Batman’s recognizable silhouette with every flash of the searchlight that glares at us.

  1. “Beware the Gray Ghost” (1.18 – Directed by Boyd Kirkland, Written by Garin Wolf & Tom Ruegger from a Story by Ruegger & Dennis O’Flaherty)

Even before we get to the deep pleasure of Adam West’s recognizable voice showing up to deepen this episode’s theme of one generation of heroes inspiring another, there is genuinely something radical about this episode that I don’t think it gets enough credit for: after playing into the familiar tools of old timey black-and-white serials, it smash cuts to an explosion where the sudden invocation of reds just propels us to a reality the dreamy intro was not signaling for. And for most of those present-time sequences, it adopts this monochromatic centering on brownish-red and black shadows that compliments the return to comforting black-and-white footage or flashbacks. The slipperiness of its chronological structuring – stressing the events paralleling Bruce’s childhood favorite show so that we’re in step with his logic – and the boldness of that visual strategy in the end mixes well with this episode’s sincere love for the very roots of Batman as a character and why we respond to him to make for a one-of-a-kind masterwork of television animation.

Now that that’s behind us, I am a little embarrassed to find my Top Ten is almost entirely made up of season 1 episodes (even Star Trek would eke season 2 into my top ten) so before I close this out, I’ll acknowledge some of my favorite season 2 and 3 episodes:

SEASON 2 The Adventures of Batman and Robin

  • “Trial” – The best instance outside of “Almost Got ‘Im” for the Rogues Gallery to interact with one another.
  • “Baby-Doll” – A disorienting visual quoting of the noir classic The Lady from Shanghai during the climax lends itself to maybe the most tragic feeling of all the show’s antagonists. Alison LaPlaca’s delivery of the very last line burned a hole in my 2-year-old heart when I first watched it.
  • “Riddler’s Reform” – The episode of John Glover’s run as The Riddler – a run that is only surpassed by the immaculate Frank Gorshin – where he gets to deepen the harsh existential dilemmas of a guy who “wins”.

SEASON 3 The New Batman Adventures

  • “Never Fear” – Maybe the one thing season 3 (undeniably the weakest season visually and writing-wise) had above the other seasons is casting Jeffrey Combs as Scarecrow, who fit that role like a glove.
  • “Over the Edge” – The closest we got to an Elseworlds story, I feel.
  • “Old Wounds” – Outside of Robin’s Reckoning, I think Loren Lester and Kevin Conroy’s climactic argument that leads to Robin’s resignation is the sharpest that relationship got on this show.
  • “Mad Love” – Every reason why Harley Quinn is beloved lives in this episode.

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