Producer James Tucker talks about the new animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which features a Caped Crusader from the Silver Age of comics.
There's no shortage of Batmen to go around these days. At the head of the parade is Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight, with Christian Bale portraying perhaps the darkest version of the "Caped Crusader" yet. Then you've got your cartoon iterations, including 1992's classic Batman: The Animated Series (currently airing on Disney's Jetix) and 2004's The Batman, not to mention his appearances on Justice League and even the classic Saturday morning Super Friends, all of which are still floating around the Cartoon Network/Boomerang schedule.
How do you make a new Batman series stand out from the crowd? How can you possibly come up with a fresh twist on a character who has come perilously close to overexposure these past few years? James Tucker's solution: go retro and take him back to his comic book past, back to a time before Adam West even thought about donning lavender-tinted tights.
In other words: this is your father's Batman.
Back in the 1950s "Silver Age" of comics, Batman carried quite a bit of weight in DC's lineup. He starred in his own comic, was the featured hero in Detective Comics, teamed up with Superman in World's Finest Comics… and co-starred with a different DC superhero in every issue of The Brave and the Bold.
"Sam Register [the animation producer responsible for Cartoon Network hits like Teen Titans and Ben 10, and the new series' executive producer] pulled me into the project" to serve as its producer, Tucker recalls. "He came to me with the idea of doing a new Batman show. I went 'oh, hell no' because I worked with Bruce Timm for over 12 years. His reputation is built on Batman: The Animated Series, a show that stands on the mountaintop of animation greatness. It's an indelible version of the character.
"I thought, how could I do it different and yet make it good? You can't out-cool The Animated Series -- you have to find another tack and not just change his costume. It's like near-beer; if you don't commit to changing everything, it's just not as good. Sam said, 'It's The Brave and the Bold.' That's different, I thought -- it's Batman and whoever… and whoever is the key to the show. That was my hook."
The "DC Universe" provides a lot of "whoevers" to co-star with Batman. Some are as well known as Aquaman, Green Arrow and Plastic Man, while others are lower-profile heroes on the order of the Blue Beetle and Wildcat. More than a bit of thought went into which heroes would show up -- and how often.
As for which comic book version of the not-so-Dark Knight this show focuses on, Tucker reached back to the 1940s and '50s, and in particular the work of Dick Sprang, one of Batman's first artists. "We wanted to strip back the design of the characters and simplify them. We wanted more fluid animation than we usually get from overseas. To help that along, we kind of had to pull back on detail. If you look back at the earliest incarnations of the characters, they were the simplest to draw. The printing wasn't good back then so they had to keep things simple. Those designs suited my purpose better.
"Sam Register, Michael Jelenic, who's our story editor and producer, and I sat down with the DC people" to pick Batman's co-stars. "We decided which were 'gold characters,' who'd reoccur two to three times over the season; 'silver' ones, who'd only appear a couple of times; and 'platinum,' who show up just once in the season. There are some characters that only have one story you can tell with them anyway, but you can throw them in anyway because the fans love them.
"The co-star is featured more. They come in and we learn more about them. Batman's our touchstone -- we know his backstory, we know his personality. In this show Batman is basically whatever the guest star needs him to be. When he's with a young hero like the Blue Beetle, he's a mentor or a dad; when he's with Green Arrow, his attitude is a lot different -- they're like peers, or competitors. And Batman kind of has a protective feeling towards an older character like Wildcat; to him, Wildcat's like a father figure."
Diedrich Bader, Batman's voice on the new series, reveals that the Blue Beetle and Aquaman go for the gold: "We've had a number of episodes with them, but there's a huge amount of turnover, just like the comic book."
"I worked on Justice League and did the version of Green Arrow that most people are familiar with now" -- a goateed Robin Hood look-alike (and self-described "old lefty"); in The Brave and the Bold, GA returns to his square-jawed, clean-cut look. "I look at the new versions of these characters as being younger than their Justice League versions, or else they're new to the superhero game -- fresher and less jaded."
The angst is gone from Tucker's Batman, replaced by a dry sense of humor, often conveyed via voiceover from the hero himself. "In this version Batman is a crime fighter and hero first. As a result, he can be ironic -- he can show more sides of himself than if he's just brooding. He simply has to be more approachable for the premise of this show to work. Otherwise, why would anyone even bother to work with him?"
Bader describes the show's humor as "a kind of high-wire act. It has to maintain the action and suspense that Batman naturally has and inject that with a sense of humor at the same time. I just to try to steer that ship when we're all together -- I make sure I'm in all the recording sessions so the guest stars can hear what the tone of the show is; it's difficult to get just from the script."
Set to a jazzy, Jonny Quest/Lalo Schifrin-style music score, Tucker's show is an equally fast-moving affair. The show's structure is definitely unconventional. It starts with a completely standalone teaser that likely as not begins with Batman smack dab in the middle of a villain's death trap. Tucker describes it as "a mini-cartoon with Batman plus a guest star that runs three minutes tops." After the title, the main story -- which is totally different from the teaser -- teams Batman up with a different hero. "It's actually two adventures in one episode of the show. I always had a love of the old Space Ghost shows with three six-minute shorts put together -- Space Ghost, Dino Boy, Space Ghost. I wanted this show to have that feel. It's cramming a lot into a standard 22-minute cartoon, so far it's worked great."
While it might strike adults used to more linear narratives as extremely arbitrary storytelling, "in this show, arbitrary's okay. A kid will figure it out -- they make up their own connections to things. If you give them basic story points, they piece it together, or they don't care. The plot isn't something they fixate on as much as 'what's he doing now?' We kind of go at it in spirit like Teen Titans did. That show didn't weigh itself down with too much elaboration, it wasn't high drama. It's the opposite of Justice League, where everything was very labyrinthian -- you had to watch 10 years of cartoons to get what was going on."
Will the real Batman please stand up? Tucker feels it's unlikely that the plethora of Caped Crusaders will confuse audiences. For one, "the demo[graphic] we're shooting for with this version hopefully hasn't seen The Dark Knight. I would really be worried about any kid who saw that movie because it disturbed me and I'm well past that demographic.
"This Batman hopefully works for a young audience. It's hard to get kids involved in comics now; there definitely needs to be entry-level stuff for them. The markets have been divvied up and [the superhero genre] is very inbred. You go to a comic book store now and everyone's my age. That's fine, but when I started [reading comics] you could buy them in a grocery store or the 7-11. Now for the most part you can only get them in a comic book store. Other genres are sapping away entry-level kids -- video games are doing what comics used to do, and the comic book stores are pretty much geared to people who've already read a million comics. The companies are aware of this and it is a problem."
The question of whether those adult fans will object to a kid-friendly Batman series leads to a tangent on the subject of the fans themselves. "They're very spoiled. This is a great time to be a fan -- superhero movies have never been more popular, they've made it into the mainstream, but the message boards are filled with people complaining.
"You can never really please these people, which isn't our objective anyway, but obviously the fans now had to have some entry point and it wasn't a hardcore film like The Dark Knight. It was probably something goofy like He-Man or Transformers -- for me it was the Adam West Batman. People complain about doing a lighter take on Batman, but things they love nostalgically were all light.
"There should be a Batman for everyone," Tucker continues. "He's part of American culture. He's Paul Bunyan or John Henry, a mythical character. Kevin Conroy [who voiced Batman for The Animated Series through Batman Beyond] equated him to Hamlet -- he's one of those characters that can withstand adaptation. He's malleable -- you can do a kinder, gentler Batman or a really hardcore, practically R-rated Batman. His origin is something you can mold. You can make it an optimistic story about a man who had a horrible childhood, but is overcoming it, or you can take it more the Dark Knight way, where it's messed him up and even though he's trying to fight the good fight, he still doesn't win.
"The Brave and the Bold is the kind of show that can introduce kids to the idea of superheroes. The minute they've saturated themselves on this show, they can go up to The Batman, Justice League or The Animated Series. But I don't think I'm doing a show that an adult of a certain age can't get something out of. Everyone knows I have a love for this stuff. I don't go into these things to be puerile or idiotic -- there's a lot of entertainment value across the board. The bottom line is it's got to appeal to a six-year-old who wants the toy. I'm thinking back to when I was kid wanting a toy that looked like the cartoon Batman and never getting it; the best we had were those little Mego dolls that had oven mitts for hands.
"I'm one of the luckiest guys in the world," Tucker concludes. "This is my dream job -- going from a four-year-old watching Batman on TV and doodling pictures of him, to actually getting to do it. I can die happy after this, because I've done what I've wanted to do."
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.