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Why Batman The Animated Series Matters

Rocksteady will soon be giving us the final installment of their Arkham trilogy. The universe has already seen numerous comic books, short film and indeed a whole game created by those not in Rocksteady;  but slowly, this brilliant studio will leave it for others to dabble in. What makes the Arkham Series so excellent is its choice of voice actors.

For example, this is the star-studded line up for the Arkham Knight.

If you know who Jonathan Banks and John Noble are then, no doubt, like me, you’re not only excited but impressed by Rocksteady’s casting. But the main voice comes at the beginning. That is Kevin Conroy. And Kevin Conroy has played Batman longer than many people have been alive. The main series he played it in remains not only one of the best TV series I’ve seen, but, for me, the greatest TV series ever made.

Inspired by the original Tim Burton films, Warner Bros. Animation took a cue of the style, theme and design of Burton’s world and improved it. Thick colour, heavy music, most character thick set or drawn with thick lines: these are the tone and style. There’s an obvious noir element, with Gotham’s skies rarely ever blue or black.

As anyone who’s even seen any screen can declare, it’s truly beautiful to look at. Bruce Timm, creator of the show, is renowned for his art style and ability. Eric Radomski, the other creator, made it official policy for artists to draw on black paper, to emphasise thickness and give weight and darkness to everything. This intro alone - that is exactly one minute and never once has words, not even Batman - remains one of the greatest works of art our species has created.

 

The fluid movement, the music, and the respect for the character are unprecedented. But it would be nothing if the performers did not match.

Kevin Conroy’s Batman voice - a mixture of comprehensible growl with a booming, god-like terror - is notable for its change when he’s Bruce Wayne. Christian Bale attempted this change to some degree of amusement (Conroy himself raised an eyebrow wondering what that funny growl was); but Conroy’s change is subtle and brilliant.

Mark Hamill as the Joker has always been one of the worst aspects to the series - how is anyone supposed to attempt to be the Joker with his performance? As he said in an interview, he felt terrified of having to follow Jack Nicholson. But I, and many others agree, Hamil’s voice - like Conroy’s for Batman - is the definitive performance of that character.

And yet in the shadow of these titans, steps Arleen Sorkin. In an interview with director Kevin Smith, he notes an important point. In an ongoing wheel, it’s very difficult to put a new spoke in. Yet, in the machine that is the Batman universe, Timm, Dini and Sorkin were able to do just that with a character called Harley Quinn.

Initially, she was supposed to be a once-off character. Dini created her after seeing his friend, Sorkin, perform as a clown in a weird dream sequence on TV. The script needed someone to emerge from a cake and it didn’t work if it was the Joker. Harley was created as a notable female henchmen and that was all. Then Arleen Sorkin performed and everyone was, apparently, “dumbstruck” (to use Bruce Timm’s phrase).

Based on Sorkin’s performance alone, the continued to bring her back and she became an inherent part of the Batman universe. Her origins as Joker’s therapist in Arkham, who fell in love and “lost her mind”, are now canon in the Bat-verse. Now, she appears in and has her own official comic series from DC itself; she appears in Rocksteady games (including as a playable character in Knight); and she’s making her feature film debut in the upcoming Suicide Squad. All of the back of Sorkin’s performance. We never would have Harley if we Sorkin had not blown everyone’s hair back. Think about what it is to be not only the inspiration, but the performer and catalyst for creating an entirely new and important character in the Batman universe. Harley, as you can tell, might be my favourite Batman character.

Richard Moll can’t be ignored and is my favourite performer on the Animated Series. Moll plays numerous characters, but mainly it’s his Two-Face performance that is remarkable. (The two-part episode origin story - because of course it’s a two parter - is some of the best TV you’ll ever watch.) I’m not sure how Moll does it, but his Two-Face growl is one of the most terrifying and amazing you’ll ever hear. Listen to his normal Harvey voice, then listen to the transition to “Big Bad” (soon to be Two Face).

The series is not only brilliantly written, beautifully drawn and wonderfully performed but it also has another quality: It’s timeless. You can watch it at any point in your life, it’s suitable for children - despite its mature themes - and it's fascinating in the stories it tells. The Arkham series draws a lot from this, aside from the voice actors. The series has a consistent quality across the years that few shows can boast - there was never a sense of “It was good until…”

I don’t like superheroes. I find much of their stories boring and cliche, problems solved with punches. But Batman: The Animated Series was first and foremost about people; Batman did punch things but often he worked as the “World’s Greatest Detective” too, using his smarts to outwit his opponents.

It’s even a show that treats women respectfully and features people of colour, a rare thing for a TV show in the 90’s. Harley Quinn’s outfit, for example, is perfect - but, as she became more popular, they felt the need to “sex” her up. They don’t even give her pants in the upcoming movie. Regardless, the show itself has better designs than most of the other versions of Batman.

The Animated Series is one of the hallmarks of creativity: a lucky confluence of events we won’t have ever again - of the right people, the right performers, the right artists. That Conroy, Hamill and Sorkin all were in the same studio recording lines? We’ll never have that again. But, the series remains. And, at least, we have that. And in the Arkham games, we have something coming very, very close indeed.

Batman: Arkham Knight releases on June 23 for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Tauriq: Twitter | about.me / MWEB GameZone: Twitter | Facebook

Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not MWEB Connect (Pty) Ltd

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