It’s been 21 years since “Batman: The Animated Series” premiered in 1992, and at Comic-Con International in San Diego the four principal producers responsible for the show — Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski and Alan Burnett — reminisced about the ground-breaking cartoon show. To break the ice, panel moderator Gary Miereanu gave to one lucky audience member an out of print copy of the limited edition DVD boxset of “Batman: The Complete Animated Series,” signed by all four producers. He then asked the panelists if they had any idea if their initial vision for the series would actually work.
Timm answered by talking about when they were first trying out different animation studios, and the test footage received from Korea came back looking like any other cartoon at the time. “We thought, ‘Oh, crap. This is not gonna work.’ We were on pins and needles up until we got the initial footage of ‘On Leather Wings,'” Timm said, mimicking a sigh of relief.
Radomski noted that once you send a project overseas for production, you have less control over its development. “The best thing you can do is create a solid blueprint and ensure your studio is up to speed — design the show to make sure it is translatable in both content and design.”
He also added there was a lot of skepticism from their higher-ups, and part of the challenge was to try to get the suits at Warner Brothers to get on their side. Timm brought up that although he and Radomski were still young, they did have a clear vision for the series and felt very grateful for Jean MacCurdy being a boss that had their back every step of the way. “To this day, I wonder, ‘What was she doing putting these two really green guys in charge of this show?'” Timm said.
Timm and Radomski admitted they never saw eye-to-eye with their original story editor, and eventually MacCurdy began to talk with Alan Burnett about taking over the position. Although Burnett had loved the pilot film, it still took some sweet-talking before he finally agreed to come aboard. “We did a show for 9-14 year olds instead of 6-11 year olds,” he said, adding that he repeatedly asked MacCurdy, “Can I have fist-fights and guns? Because if I can’t have fist-fights and guns, it’s not Batman.” Much to his surprise, MacCurdy’s answer was always “yes.”
Regarding circumventing broadcast standards, Radomski said, “Whenever we were posed with a challenge depicting violence, we came up with a clever solution. It helped make the show stronger.”
“A classic example is the Robin origin episode,” Timm added.
However, when asked if they had any story ideas left unexplored, Timm mentioned an episode involving the vampire-like DC Comics character Nocturna. “We were going to do a story where she bites Batman,” Timm said. “The next morning he wakes up and Alfred comes in, pulls the blinds, and under the sunlight Batman’s skin starts bubbling and burning.” Despite a little hemming and hawing by the producers, the Fox Kids Network put their foot down about not having any vampires in the show.
Dini, who was brought onto the series soon after Burnett, talked about their desire for an entire Christmas-themed episode without dialogue. “It was going to be a rip-off of the ‘Silent Night of the Batman’ story by Neal Adams in the ’70s, but we couldn’t figure out a way to translate it for a whole episode.”
Timm admitted to not having watched an episode in 10 years, adding, “Even at that time, all I could see were the flaws and the things we should have done better. But I could definitely appreciate it for what it was.”
Dini mentioned being at a grocery store with his wife recently and spotting a DVD copy of “Mask of the Phantasm” for sale. Since his wife had never seen the movie, they purchased and watched it. “We got into it and she loved it,” Dini said.
“You bought a Batman DVD?” Miereanu deadpanned, as the crowd laughed.
Seeing as how “Mask of the Phantasm” was originally meant to be a direct to video release that turned into a feature length theatrical release, Radomski said, “We were terrified because we didn’t build it to be a big screen piece. I wish we had another opportunity to do a Batman animated feature the way that it should be done. Maybe some day.”
Timm and Radomski expressed their fondness for their very first episode, “On Leather Wings.” “It may not have been the best episode of the series, but it was the first time where we looked at the animation and went, ‘Okay, this totally works,'” Timm said, also speaking glowingly of when he and Radomski attended the first session in which composer Shirley Walker recorded the score with a live orchestra.
Radomski continued on about “On Leather Wings,” saying, “It was the culmination of what we were working for and embodied what we wanted the series to be. As it evolved, the shows got better and different. Yet, ‘On Leather Wings’ really felt like that was exactly the show we wanted to do.”
“Robin’s Reckoning Part 1,” which garnered the series an Emmy Award, also holds a special significance for Radomski, “because of the level of storytelling and dramatic impact we were able to convey.”
For Burnett, the introduction of Ventriloquist was a highlight, as was “Clayface Part 2.” However, his favorite episode might very well be “Perchance to Dream,” a story in which Bruce Wayne is in a dream state controlled by the Mad Hatter — the way Bruce is able to wake up from the fugue state is to jump off a tower. “The network was on board with it, until they saw the storyboard, so we had to walk them through it,” Burnett explained. Timm added that suicide was only implied.
As far as a favorite character other than Batman, Dini was fond of writing The Joker and finding new ways for him to go crazy. Radomski added that he loved Joker most when Timm and Dini paired him with Harley Quinn. Alfred was Burnett’s favorite and Timm seconded him, citing the great work of voice actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. “He was like your favorite uncle,” Timm said. “Every time he showed up at the studio, he was such a delight to be with.”
Miereanu asked the panelists which voice actor was the biggest surprise in how they handled their role.
“Kevin Conroy,” Radomski answered. “By the time Kevin came in we were bored, having auditioned all these Batman voices. When Kevin read, Batman just came to life.”
Timm talked about how the role of The Joker was initially taken by actor Tim Curry. Mark Hamill was originally brought in to voice a small part in a Mr. Freeze episode and inquired about wanting to voice a major villain, but all had already been cast. After the producers decided to recast The Joker, they auditioned several actors and “a lot of them were awful,” Timm said. He then recalled voice director Andrea Romano’s suggestion of calling up Hamill. “Mark came in for an audition and he blew us away,” Timm said. “I was so not expecting him to be that guy. He was just amazing.”
Timm said that initially the plan was to omit Robin from the series entirely, and it wasn’t until the network’s insistence that they decided to bring the character aboard. “We made him older, already in college. So that gave us the bonus that sometimes he would be away at college and sometimes he would be back helping Bruce in Gotham City.”
As soon as Timm and Dini praised voice actor Loren Lester for his work voicing both Dick Grayson as Robin and later as Nightwing, Miereanu surprised everyone — including the panelists — by bringing Lester himself on stage.
Lester, who had been sitting amongst the crowd, reflected, “Having come from working on other children’s cartoon shows, this was not a cartoon show. It was serious in the way that movies were being made. From the first day, it was totally clear ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ was something different. I remember in those days 20-30 year olds were into the show.”
Addressing questions from the crowd, Timm mentioned he wished the character Roxie Rocket had gone on to become more popular, like Harley Quinn who made her debut in the series. “This is totally mercenary on our part — Paul and I don’t get a dime for Harley Quinn,” Timm said. He elaborated on the legal paper-trail, saying that since the character was first created for the cartoon show, DC Comics owns Harley outright. However, if the duo had first created her in a DC Comics book, Harley would have fallen under the company’s equity program and the creators would thus be entitled to royalties. “So we specifically created Roxie in the comics first, hoping she’d be our second Harley. It did not happen,” Timm said with a sigh — and a smile.
The panelists noted that upon seeing footage of the series for the first time, the executives at Fox Kids were surprised to discover the show was not in the same vein as the Adam West ’60s television show, and that at one point Dini had thought about doing an episode pairing the Dark Knight with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
Timm mentioned throughout Comic-Con International, fans approached him and told him they grew up loving the show. “Some of these people are like 40 years old, so it makes me feel old,” he said. “But it’s really nice knowing that for this whole generation of people, this show was their gateway drug into comics.”