Now, everything we love about the DCAU began with Batman: The Animated Series, that much is sure. The serious storylines, the dark animation style, the voice talent… It all began there. And, with the end of BTAS style, something of DCAU died, as well. The Art Deco Gotham city, something in the designs, will never be the same. Despite BTAS being the clearly superior cartoon to Superman: The Animated Series, the sleeker art designs of Superman actually won out. This was, no doubt, in no small part linked to the production costs, which must have been monumental for BTAS – after all, colorists had to wear gas masks to use aerosol paint to do the art for most of the original series. So there is a part of me that wishes Batman could forever be the same as in those first 85 episodes. That being said, storywise, The New Batman Adventures contained some of the most exciting Batman stories, at least for me personally – enough to make the claim that some of the legend of the greatness of BTAS owes a debt to the fantastic stories of The New Batman Adventures.
To realize how wonderfully deep the show was willing to go, one needs look no further than Growing Pains (written by Paul Dini and Robert Goodman), where Robin tries to take care of a little girl Annie, who has amnesia and is being stalked by a terrifying presence. Robin is now Tim Drake, replacing Dick Grayson who has become Nightwing in the gap between shows. While the wonderful Sins of the Father (Rich Fogel) set up Tim Drake’s motivation very confidently in its own right, I did not truly connect with the character until this episode, where his friendship with Annie takes him on a path to confronting Clayface, and a tragic realization about his friend. The twist towards the end, which I won’t spoil here, was a complete gut-punch to me, in that incredible way the DCAU seemingly specialized in.
You Scratch My Back (Hilary J. Bader) was not the first episode to introduce the older Dick Grayson, but it did feature Nightwing for the first time. Motivated by striking out on his own, being his own man, Dick Grayson establishes himself as a solo hero – and teams up with Catwoman. The pair bonds over Batman’s strictness, and Nightwing is established as a fun, capable hero. The sexual tension with Catwoman is fantastic, as is the dynamic between Dick and the rest of the bat-family. In the end, it’s revealed the schism between him and his mentor isn’t as deep as they’d put on, and while the twist isn’t as radically unexpected as Growing Pains, it’s just good-clean-superhero fun.
Legends of the Dark Knight (Robert Goodman and Bruce Timm) is told from the perspective of three children discussing Batman, and their different encounters with him or stories they’ve heard. The episode becomes an excuse to go through many of the most famous portrayals of Batman in the media, as well as the different ways he is perceived by the public. It ranges from him being a metahuman, a light version that is a nod to 40s and 50s version of the character, and Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” take. There is even a nod to the Schumacher Batman! In the end, after all the children have told of their version of Batman, they actually witness the true Batman in action – and once again, go away believing the same “truths” about the Caped Crusader they started with.
I would be remiss to not mention Mad Love (Paul Dini and Bruce Timm), the famous story that reveals the origin of Harley Quinn. I definitely like the episode, and it is a great characterization of both her and the Joker, but the Batman-light episode was not actually my favorite. That being said, its contribution of an important story, later adapted to the main Batman mythos is beyond question. I also really enjoyed Beware the Creeper (Steve Garber), a genuinely odd story with a very strange superhero. His origin mirrors that of the Joker, except this time the Clown Prince of Crime himself is responsible for the transformation – it should be no surprise, then, that the Creeper is both driven mad, and placed on a path of vengeance against the Joker. He makes another appearance in the Justice League cartoon, however, indicating that as teased at the end of the episode, his career as a superhero went beyond mere revenge.
Finally, my absolute favorite episode of the series (and one of my favorite Batman stories ever) is Over the Edge (Paul Dini). Throwing us into the action with Gordon and the police attacking the Bat-Cave and later flashing back to explain how we got there, it places the Commissioner on a war path against the Dark Knight. The story of the two friends turned against one another by a tragic death is awesomely believable and heart-wrenching. Typically, I would not be for a story that turns out to not be in-continuity, especially the way that is explained here… Except that here, it works completely. The trick allows the show’s creators to do something that so often provides the best superhero stories, but is generally not allowed due to their serialized nature – the end story. Or at least one possible end. One walks away from the episode realizing that this is entirely one that Batman’s story could end, that a single tragic move could put the entire Bat-family on an irreversible path. And that is not even the end of the episode, which ends with a fantastic character moment for both Jim and Barbara Gordon. It’s truly great superhero storytelling – and absolutely remarkably told in only 22 minutes. Anyone remotely interested in storytelling should study this episode simply for a lesson in economy.
Finally, of course, there are the character designs. The Batsuits on the right show the general progression of the costumes throughout the DCAU, and the TNBA version is the one labelled 1997-1998. While I love the the original version, I ultimately have to concede that the pure-black symbol and the darker grey suit works well, and I like the pouches better than the older style belt. The eyes on the costume were so very expressive in the original version, though… I would definitely say that aspect, at least, was and remains my favorite in the original version. I recognize why the white eyes cannot truly work in live-action, mostly because of the way they move, on the mask, in a way that is only available in cartoons, to match emotion in a completely unrealistic way… But I can’t help but be bummed they couldn’t figure out a way to do it in the new suit. Speaking of which… see the first color picture of the new cowl below!