"We are torn between nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known." -Carson McCullers, 1940
Comic books enjoyed quite the resurgence in the early 1990s with blockbuster releases like Todd McFarlane’s Spider-man (1990) and Jim Lee’s record-breaking X-Men (1991) the following year. The trend of exploring dark themes and ideas had already begun, however, a few years earlier with titles like Watchmen (1986), The Dark Knight Returns (1986), and Batman: The Killing Joke (1988). The time was now ripe for a new iteration of the Dark Knight on the small screen and Warner Bros. was ready to deliver one of the finest and most comprehensive incarnations of the character yet.
Batman: The Animated Series premiered on September 5, 1992 and was largely inspired by Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992); the latter of which premiered just a few short months earlier. However, the series managed to integrate elements of both film noir and art deco to form its own unique style, playfully referred to as Dark deco by its creators. Each episode painted a fascinating psychological portrait of its characters and villains and explored a variety of themes; from love and obsession to loneliness and abandonment.
Series co-creator, Bruce Timm, incorporated several different design theories when creating the characters’ visual style; marrying the angularity and exaggerated style of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) with the elegant simplicity of Alex Toth’s designs for numerous Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the sixties. Timm and his team pored over early stories from the comics in developing their scripts and selecting the themes they wanted to explore. They were particularly inspired by several film noir classics like The Big Sleep (1946) and The Third Man (1949), and thrillers like Vertigo (1958) and The Night of the Hunter (1955). Other inspirations ranged from Japanese animated features such as Akira (1988) and The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) to German expressionistic films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Metropolis (1927).
Perhaps no film played a bigger part in the shaping of the series than Max and Dave Fleischer’s theatrical Superman serial. Produced between 1941 and 1943, they still stand as one of the best animated super hero adventures ever made. Each seven-minute short is a masterpiece of design and animation, enhanced by heroic music scored directly to the picture. The shorts are just as timeless and innovative now as when they were first released.
It was that same feeling of timelessness that the producers wanted to create for the series. Refusing to put their hero in a completely contemporary world, they fashioned a Gotham City that was stylish but dangerous. It could be identified as 20th century America, but it was impossible to pinpoint an exact decade. Batman would often be shown working at his super-sophisticated Bat-computer, but televisions would broadcast only in black and white. Likewise, Batman might fly the futuristic Batwing, but Bruce Wayne would drive a Cord. Tommy guns, VCRs, lasers, and zeppelins all happily co-exist in Batman’s technologically unified world. The producers did not want the series to visually date itself, as many animated series do when trying too hard to ground themselves in contemporary culture. Instead, they looked back over the past sixty years, took what endured, and made it their own.
One of the most stunning aspects of the series was its unique visual style. Artist Eric Radomski was a major force in the development of the overall look and tone of the series, creating a dark film noir mood, as well as ensuring that the style would easily survive translation into overseas production paintings. He emulated the Burton films’ sense of “otherworldly timelessness” by incorporating several period features like title cards, police airships, and a vintage color scheme with film noir flourishes.
Radomski experimented with a new technique to add an extra element of darkness to Gotham City. He utilized a black illustration board and only suggested the foreground details in lighter highlights. This seemed liked the natural way to go for the look of Batman’s nightmarish hometown. “You’d let your imagination fill in the blanks,” Radomski says of his coloring style, “which always struck me as a cool technique, not just for animation but as perception of the night. You can create a lot more illusion and depth and detail by showing less.” This also gave the architecture of Gotham City the impression of emerging out of the shadows.
Background design supervisor, Ted Blackman, brought just the right combination of elegance, atmosphere, and fun to this vision of Gotham City. Drawing inspiration from the moody architectural illustrations of Hugh Ferriss and the stark simplicity and exaggerated scale of Paul Rivoche and Seth’s Mister X comics, Blackman created a world that felt at once familiar and yet fresh and exciting. Many structures such as the Majestic Hotel featured to the right held a striking silhouette and evoked a sense of grandeur. In many of his illustrations, Ferriss was keen on ensuring that the tiny trees, cars, and people in the foreground were clearly visible for scale. The lighting of the building itself would often highlight the foundation and the apex in order to give the illusion that the building was even taller than it actually was. This type of forced perspective was later utilized in many architectural displays.
On the acoustic side, Shirley Walker and her team of composers managed to consistently deliver lush, emotionally resonant, and feature-film quality musical scores on a tight TV budget and schedule. Likewise, with extensive use of sound effects, background ambience, and voice filtering, the sound design crew helped make Batman’s world a stylized, yet convincingly believable place. With over 16 hours of music, the soundtrack added a new level of depth and realism to the noir-inspired melodramas.
The imaginatively rendered title cards were a high point of each Batman episode. While some like “Harley’s Holiday” and “Time out of Joint” were character portraits, most often the cards depicted an emotional impression of the given episode’s theme. According to Erick Radomski, who designed many of the cards, “Going with the overall retro-forties feel we were giving the show, we wanted to treat the episodes as mini-movies. The title cards allowed us to create great drama in a very subtle fashion. It was a process of trying to capture what the overall episode was, and not just show a scene or moment from it.” You can check out all 109 title cards below!
Figure 9 The imaginatively rendered title cards were a high point of each Batman episode.
When Radomski did select an actual shot from an episode, such as the image of Batman in a straitjacket from “Dreams in Darkness,” he stripped it down even more, casting the figure in silhouette, picking up little highlights on his costume and lighting him from above with vertical shadows cast by the cell bars. The audience would immediately see that Batman had apparently gone off the rails and was in an insane asylum.
One of the series' most fortuitous inventions was the Joker's assistant, Harley Quinn, who became so popular among fans that DC Comics later added her to the mainline comic book continuity. New life was also given to lesser-known characters of the series such as the Clock King. In addition, several dramatic changes were made to other villains like Clayface and Mr. Freeze. The latter in particular was transformed from a silly mad scientist to a tragic figure whose "frigid exterior [hid] a doomed love and vindictive fury."
The series is also notable for its impressive supporting cast. Numerous known actors provided voices for a variety of recognizable villains, most notably Mark Hamill, who was at that point solely known for his portrayal of Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films. He eventually found great success in voice acting thanks to his "cheerfully deranged" portrayal of the Joker. The role was originally given to Tim Curry, but he developed bronchitis during the initial recording sessions and the rest was history. Other famous actors included Ron Perlman as Clayface, David Warner as Ra’s al Ghul, Roddy McDowall as the Mad Hatter, Michael York as Count Vertigo, George Murdock as Boss Biggis, Kate Mulgrew as Red Claw, and George Dzundza as the Ventriloquist. The recording sessions, under the supervision of famed voice director Andrea Romano, were recorded with all of the actors together in one studio rather than taking separate recordings, as was typical. This novel method would later be used for many of the subsequent series in the DC animated universe.
The first season ran for 65 episodes, followed by a second season of 20 episodes in 1995, which was rebranded as The Adventures of Batman & Robin. The series eventually spawned a third and fourth season (1997-1999), consisting of 13 episodes each, in the form of The New Batman Adventures, for a total of 109 episodes.
Over the past quarter century, the series has continued to be a marvel in animation and remains one of the most influential animated series in history. Its success led to a slew of animated projects from Superman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond to Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Many of the voice cast from the series returned to the world of Gotham City a decade later in the Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) video game along with its sequels Batman: Arkham City (2013) and Batman: Arkham Knight (2015); Paul Dini even co-wrote the first two installments!
The show has also been subject to many critical analyses and retrospectives over the years. One in particular that stands out is an audio podcast called “The Arkham Sessions.” Hosted by clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Letamendi and comics guru Brian Ward, the show’s premise revolves around breaking down each episode’s characters and villains in the hopes of understanding their motivations and tapping into some of their twisted psyche. If you haven't come across it yet, perhaps there is no better time than now as Warner Bros. recently released all 109 episodes of the series on Blu-ray along with remastered editions of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) and Batman & Mr. Freeze: Sub-Zero (1998).
The stylized art and dramatic writing of the series separates it from many other traditional comic book-based adaptations. Because of this, the show's popularity continues to endure among older and younger audiences alike. The stories are interesting, the visuals are captivating, and the themes remain universal.
Dini, Paul and Kidd, Chip. Batman: Animated. It Books, 1998.
Mohammad Osman is an Artist, Writer, & Cultural Historian.