Batman Cartoons Had A Rough Start Before The Animated Series

"Batman: The Animated Series" is one of the crowning achievements of American animation. To this day, it's remembered for its atmospheric art design (homaging Fleischer Studios' Superman cartoons) and mature storytelling — even if it never forgot its young target audience along the way. The series' star, the late, legendary Kevin Conroy, is the definitive voice of the Dark Knight for a generation, while Harley Quinn, who was created for the series, has become the most successful DC Comics character who didn't originate in the comics.

The series' success meant its creative team shaped Batman in animation for the next decade. In 1993, the series led to the theatrical film, "Mask of the Phantasm," which took everything great about the series and pushed it further. While "Batman: The Animated Series" ended in 1995, it became only the first installment in the DC Animated Universe, which culminated wiith "Justice League Unlimited," which ran from 2004 to 2006.

"Batman: The Animated Series" becoming the watermark for Batman in animation was all the easier because of the Batman cartoons that came before it. Long story short, their production didn't have the same care or passion that "Batman: The Animated Series" had.

The early animated adventures of Batman

The 1966 live-action "Batman" TV series turned the titular hero into a cultural icon and made a Saturday morning cartoon inevitable — the first iteration came in 1968. This was "The Adventures of Batman," featuring Olan Soule as Batman, Casey Kasem as Robin, and Jane Webb as Batgirl. Running for 34 six-minute shorts, the series was packaged together with "The New Adventures of Superman" and "The Adventures of Superboy" for "The Batman/Superman Hour."

This series was the work of Filmation, a long-defunct company now best remembered for the low-budget 1980s cartoon "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe." The same penny-pinching was already there when they made "The Adventures of Batman." In "Batman: The Complete History" by Les Daniels, he writes: "You could almost see the accountants grinning when Robin shouted, 'I can't move! I'm paralyzed!'"

Filmation returned to Gotham City in 1977 with a new series titled — appropriately enough — "The New Adventures of Batman." This time, Adam West and Burt Ward returned as the Dynamic Duo. The series also took a surreal turn by including Bat-Mite, a fifth-dimensional Imp who is the Caped Crusader's biggest fan.

Hanna-Barbera enters the scene

After "Scooby-Doo: Where Are You?" ended in 1970, animation studio Hanna-Barbera kept their hit series alive with "The New Scooby-Doo Movies" in 1972. Each one boasted 40-minute episodes featuring a famous guest star, ranging from real people (Davy Jones of the Monkees, the Harlem Globetrotters, etc.) to fictional groups (Josie and the Pussycats, the Addams Family, etc.).

The Filmation iteration of Batman and Robin, the Joker, and the Penguin appeared in two episodes: "The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair" and "The Caped Crusader Caper." The Dynamic Duo and the Mystery Incorporated gang are both detectives who run afoul of masked villains, so pairing them up made sense. Plus, Casey Kasem was part of both series' casts as Shaggy and Robin.

The next year, Hanna-Barbera took a permanent role in producing Batman cartoons with the launch of "Super Friends." It was a Justice League cartoon in all but name, and Batman and Robin were two of the stars. Soule and Kasem reprised their roles, though the former would be replaced by Adam West in the last two seasons.

In "Batman: The Complete History," Daniels writes that Hanna-Barbera "had made cost-cutting cartoons a science, if not exactly an art." Anyone who's seen scenes of characters in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon running against a repeating background can tell you that.  During its over-a-decade run, "Super Friends" gradually became closer to the comics — Darkseid and the forces of Apokolips were the final season's villains — but the production values stayed low.

The final iteration of "Super Friends" was "The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians," which aired for only eight episodes in 1985. This series was the first sign of a darker Batman in animation.

The shape of things to come

That sign came in episode 4, "The Fear." After foiling the Scarecrow's latest bank robbery, Batman chases the fleeing villain through Gotham. That's when he winds up in the alley where his parents were murdered and freeze. From there, Batman must confront his past and foil the Scarecrow's attempt to use his fear against him.

Nowadays there are jokes about how often we've seen Thomas and Martha Wayne die, but "The Fear" was the first time Batman's origin appeared on television. The gunshot is portrayed offscreen (and the sound is concealed with a lightning strike), but the intent is obvious. The episode even plays the origin as a twist, with the other heroes trying to get Batman to open up about what's troubling him. 

As the Scarecrow runs off, it starts to rain and you can't tell if the water falling from Batman's eyes are raindrops or tears. Before now, Batman on TV had always been a paper-thin, justice-loving hero, but this moment gave him emotional depth and vulnerability. Adam West had always played Batman with sincerity — he was the straight man opposite the zany criminals of Gotham. However, when he plays Bruce recounting his childhood and origin story, there's something new: conviction.

Revolutionizing Batman onscreen

Who wrote "The Fear?" None other than Alan Burnett, the future producer of "Batman: The Animated Series." He carried his vision of a darker Batman from that episode. From the opening title sequence, it's clear that "Batman: The Animated Series" was a new kind of beast. With no dialogue or narration, the opening focuses on introducing the show's mood and trusts its young audience to pick up on the story with visuals and orchestral music.

The Scarecrow's debut episode on "Batman: The Animated Series" even plays out in similarly broad strokes to "The Fear." Batman spends the episode dosed with the Scarecrow's fear toxin and haunted by an apparition of his disapproving father. Bruce finally shakes off the hallucination and conquers his fear with the line that defined Kevin Conroy's Batman: "I am vengeance! I am the night! I am Batman!" 

Alan Burnett spoke to the blog Comic Lounge about how he started work on "Batman: The Animated Series." He said:

"The great attraction for me was that it was Batman, maybe my favorite hero as a kid, and that the show would be broadcast in the afternoon, which meant I could get more adult with it than on Saturday morning. We could actually use guns and have impactful fights. After ten years of restraining myself at [Hanna-Barbera], I was like a spring unbound."

Burnett's comments explain why "Batman: The Animated Series" was darker and made with greater artistry. Its production team — Burnett, co-creators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, and writer/producer Paul Dini — were childhood fans of Batman who held the character with more reverence than those at Filmation or Hanna-Barbera had. The episode "Beware The Gray Ghost," guest-starring Adam West as Bruce Wayne's childhood film serial hero, was the creators drawing on their own childhood affections for past Batman series.

Batman cartoons since

The next Batman cartoon, 2004's "The Batman," followed the more serious tone of "The Animated Series." However, it also had a sleek, modern sheen (courtesy of art direction by Jeff Matsuda), quite different from the gothic "dark deco" of the previous series. Despite the differences, it's a good show in its own right: I'm especially fond of the reinvented Riddler, voiced by Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund.

"Batman: The Brave and the Bold," on the other hand, took a lighter and more comedic approach. Batman was voiced by Diedrich Bader (channeling Adam West) and the series is filled with visual cues from the 1966 "Batman" series. However, it wasn't shoddily produced like earlier Batman cartoons. Instead, it blended self-aware humor with a sincere love for even the wackiest parts of the DC universe.

In "The Brave and the Bold" episode "Legends of the Dark-Mite," Bat-Mite visits a fourth-walling breaking convention of Batman fans. He declares to dissatisfied fans clamoring for something similar to "The Animated Series" that: "Batman's rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but it's certainly no less valid and true to the character's roots than the tortured avenger crying out for mommy and daddy."

The lesson of "Batman: The Animated Series" isn't that Batman cartoons need to be dark to be good. What they really need is artists who care about what they're making.