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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Week of Review - Bat Bits

Edited by Robert Beach

Day 2 of our first Week of Review, folks, celebrate my continued dedication to a self-appointed task transcending the bounds of reasonability and self-preservation. If you missed the first installment and are thus literally adrift, here’s the deal: Week of Review is retrospective series where I spend 5-7 installments going over a bunch of entries in a given subject. This opening week’s topic is Batman on TV, building up to the Gotham season 2 premiere a week from yesterday. The first installment dealt with the massively popular Adam West Batman show from the ‘60s (the first major introduction to Batman that most people had).

Today, I’m covering the awkward 30-year gap between Batman ’66 and Batman the animated series.  There were animated Batman shows during this period, but none of them are really worth a full in-depth analysis. Additionally, I’ll be using this sequence to touch on Batman’s role in a few other DC series where he was prominently featured, yet the show wasn’t part of his mythos. Also, this article will be in list format because I refuse to limit Week of Review to a set format or structure for each installment.

In 1968, the Adam West Batman show ended its vastly popular and influential two-season run. If that sounds oddly short, know that the series wasn’t canceled over ratings, but it ended in what’s been described as an explosive conflagration of over-sized egos and rising production costs; however, this meant that popular interest in the series was still around, and DC desperately wanted to cash in on that trend. In what would become a running trend for them, DC looked to the success of Marvel for inspiration. 

In 1967, Marvel had partnered with Hannah-Barbera to produce a Fantastic Four animated series and a Spider-Man animated series, both of which were decently popular. We’ll probably cover those another day given how influential they were. DC decided that if Marvel could produce a low-action animated show from a budget TV outfit, they could do the same only even cheaper. In 1968, DC hired Filmation, the studio that would later make history with He-Man, to produce a Batman animated series. The show is not very good; the animation is choppy, and the stories never surpass that pit fall, though it is notable that Casey Kasem, the voice of Shaggy, voiced Robin.

BATGIRL (1968)
As I mentioned yesterday, Batman ’66 basically invented Batgirl as a character.  They gave her the iconic spandex costume instead of her previous weird dress and domino mask combo and fleshed out her identity as the daughter of police commissioner Gordon. She proved wildly popular at the time to the point that DC transposed the character into the comics, though that was a much more common practice at the time. 

When the show ended over DC not wanting to deal with Adam West and Burt Ward’s inflated egos and cost, they had the idea of producing a spin-off show starring the much more reasonable Yvonne Craig.  Unfortunately, the pilot never aired, though I’m not exactly sure what led to the show’s pre-cancellation other than that ABC has always been really spotty about superhero shows. You can find the pilot online if you go looking, and I actually recommend it. It’s a shame it never made it to air because I think the show could’ve been a legitimate success.

As the ‘60s faded, and the ‘70s asserted themselves as the new decade, DC was still hungry for a way to maintain their brand presence on the television landscape. They were still keen to do it by copying what worked for Marvel. So in 1973, they decided to bite the bullet and hire Hannah-Barbera to produce an animated re-imagining of their very popular Justice League comic, calling it Super Friends.  If you’ve never seen it, Super Friends is…harmless. There’s a distinct sense nowadays that kids shows need to appeal to adults as well thanks to great series like Adventure Time and Gravity Falls, and that’s really spoiled us.  Not every kids show is something adults can like, and Super Friends is something really just for children. 

The show is an interesting point of comparison because it’s basically the end result of all of Hannah-Barbera’s other superhero work as they spent basically the entire late ‘60s perfecting low-budget animated superheroes. What’s kind of bizarre about it is that even though Super Friends was a Hannah-Barbera production, it used Filmation Adventures of Batman actors to voice Batman and Robin. DC’s multimedia presence would only increase through the ‘70s, thanks in part to their merger with WB in 1969 infusing the company with more cash and legal power. All that influence eventually led to a strange moment when DC was competing with itself.

By 1977, the DC multimedia train was in full swing after the smash hits of Shazam! and Wonder Woman on TV, and the Superman movie only 1 year away. Given this, DC finally decided to pull the trigger on bringing back Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin. This time it would be in animated form. In 1977, in a completely ludicrous move, DC re-hired Filmation to produce a new Batman show that would continue the adventures of the Batman show from the ‘60s with the original dynamic duo reprising their roles. Unfortunately, the show was unable to get back any of the villain actors, mainly owing to budget issues. It’s a real shame and highlights how much the villains brought to the series in terms of talent and comedic potential. 

The show does hold the dubious honor of being the first appearance of Bat-Mite, a 5th dimensional imp with God-like powers and a fanboy crush on Batman, in a Batman adaptation. What really makes The New Adventures of Batman bizarre though is that it was produced concurrently with Super Friends. What this means is that essentially DC was running 2 different animated shows, produced by totally different animation studios that were actively in competition with each other. I’m not sure if this was a purposeful business tactic or just an agency miscommunication, but I don’t think it really did anyone any favors, certainly not The New Adventures of Batman which never managed to claw its way above passable. However, the show did bring Adam West back into the Bat-fold, which is great for our next focus.

Confession time: Legends of the Superheroes is the whole reason I chose to do the Bat Bits segment at all. Legends of the Superheroes was a 2-part variety show special that DC produced in 1979. The specials actually mark the first live-action crossover of DC heroes ever filmed and actually feature a staggering amount of DC characters. Aside from Burt Ward and Adam West reprising their roles, this marks the first live-action versions of Green Lantern, Hawkman, The Flash, Huntress, Black Canary, and The Atom along with villain appearances by Solomon Grundy, Sinestro, Giganta, Dr. Sivana, Weather Wizard, and Mordru.

The 1st special, which is essentially live-action Super Friends, is pretty fun in its earnestness and cheesiness. The low capability of visual FX at the time combined with the actor’s enthusiasm for the material makes it feel more like an above-average fan film than anything else; although, the 2nd special is the real find of the 2 as it’s basically a superhero roast of the Justice League led by Brad Sanders as Ghetto Man.  Ghetto Man’s stand-up ribbing of the JLA is one of the funniest and nerdiest comic book comedy moments you’ll ever see, and I highly recommend tracking down both specials just for that, though you can watch the full scene on Youtube. 

GOTHAM GIRLS (2000-2002)
In the early 2000s, DC was keen to continue the animation empire it had established in the ‘90s with its Batman and Superman animated show. Of all the ways they tried to keep the engine humming, Gotham Girls has easily ages the worst. Gotham Girls was designed as a spin-off of the popular Batman animated series, which had concluded its quasi-fourth season in 1999.  The show followed the ongoing adventures of Catwoman, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, and Batgirl following the very successful Superman crossover episode ‘Girls’ Night Out.’ The show was also meant as an experiment to leverage DC’s properties on the, then new, media frontier of the Internet. As such, the series was packaged a collection of short webisodes making up each “Season.” 
All of these ideas are good in theory, but in practice, it all fell completely to pieces. The big reason behind this was just technological. Simply put, there’s a very good reason video streaming didn’t become a force of awesomeness till 2007. The animation in Gotham Girls is beyond choppy to the point that it doesn’t even count as animation.  Even if you overlook the fact you’re just watching static images and narration, the actual artwork is also painfully poor (again, owing to the limited technology of the time). Thankfully, DC eventually found a much better way to preserve their animation empire through most of the 2000s. 

The Justice League animated series remains one of the most impressive works of DC animation ever achieved, especially given the intricacies and subtlety of the multi-season CADMUS arc where the heroes clashed with the government. The show’s Batman was the same version of the character from the Batman animated series played by Kevin Conroy, who I’ll be talking more in depth on tomorrow.  He had an interesting role in the show and the creators did a good job keeping the series from every just becoming “Batman and Friends” like it easily could’ve been.  They kept the emphasis on Batman as a part-time member of the group, using his aloof loner status to keep him on the outskirts of stories that needed the focus to be kept on SUPER humans. 

Still, the series never ignored Batman, even introducing a very well-done arc about his blossoming romance with Wonder Woman that came straight from the Mark Waid Justice League comics of the time. Batman’s role on the show eventually grew into a sort of ½ way point between the Question and Green Arrow; he had all of Arrow’s money and a good helping of his liberalism while he had Question’s paranoia and emphasis on intimidation. That is what made Batman such an excellent foil for Amanda Waller and her anti-superhuman initiative.  Honestly, the DC movie universe could stand to take some major cues from Justice League Unlimited on how to balance character focus and role and let Batman take a step back from being the star of everything.

YOUNG JUSTICE (2010-2013)
I haven’t watched much Young Justice, but Batman’s enough of a character on it that it kind of needs to be mentioned. If you haven’t seen the show, it’s serviceable. It was a return to serious superhero storytelling after the glory days of Batman: Brave and the Bold. I’m not a huge fan of its approach as it tends to sometimes feel a little too self-conscious about its own weirdness, a critique I’ve levied against a lot of DC’s work from the modern era. 

The best example of this I can give is in the visual design, which tends to favor a stripped down, post-post-modern hero deconstruction, especially for characters like Superboy or Red Tornado. Again, this isn’t trying to say Young Justice is a bad show, just not one I’m a huge fan of. Additionally, there’s really not much to say about Young Justice in the context of Bat-TV; Batman is on the show as a major character, but he’s basically just playing the role of grumpy grown-up. 

DC NATION SHORTS (2011-2014)
In the early 2010s, DC and the WB kid’s channel Cartoon Network seriously retooled their working relationship. The crux of this restructuring was the newly formed and short-lived DC Nation initiative. The DC Nation was meant to help DC transition over from strictly adult-oriented productions like the Nolan Bat films to a more family-friendly brand as best exemplified in the woeful mistake that was the Green Lantern movie. Most of the DC Nation program like Young Justice, Green Lantern, and Beware the Batman ended pretty quickly with Cartoon Network dropping the tag entirely in 2015, and Teen Titans Go! as the only show to continue past the initiative. 

Aside from the shows, however, DC Nation also gave rise to a number of animated shorts featuring a slew of DC characters and Batman appeared in a number of them.  The DC Nation shorts are honestly some of the most creative and hilarious things DC animation has produced in a long time, even if the Batman ones tended to be more passably entertaining than anything else. I most recommend Batman of Shanghai as a really interesting kung-fu re-imagining of Batman and his rogues gallery, though the Tales of Metropolis – Lois Lane short about her trying to interview Batman is pretty great too. 

Additionally, the short Riddle Me This, though not exactly funny, is worth checking out for Weird Al as the voice of the Riddler. The real highlight of the shorts, however, is Bruce Timm’s Batman: Strange Days. Timm was the man behind most of the DCAU and this short, created for Batman’s 75th anniversary, gave him a chance to tell a unique story drawn from the earliest Batman iconography.  The short, along with all the DC Nation stuff, can be found on Youtube, and I highly recommend checking it out.

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