Happy September, Friends! This month marks the 30th Anniversary for the groundbreaking show ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ as it made its debut on September 5th, 1992 on Fox Kids. In total, it ran for 85 episodes between 1992 and 1995 before continuing on in 1997 as ‘The New Batman Adventures’ on Kids’ WB for 24 episodes. To this day, the series is celebrated as being one of the best comic book shows ever made and certainly one of the very best adaptations of Batman outside of the actual comic books themselves. ‘BTAS’, as it is commonly referred to, also racked up four Emmy Awards among a slew of nominations and had an impressive pedigree of talent behind the microphones. Well-known actors such as Richard Moll (‘Night Court‘), Adrienne Barbeau (‘Escape From New York‘), Ed Asner (‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘) and John Glover (‘Gremlins 2‘) all voiced some of the memorable villains from Batman’s endless rogues’ gallery. The stylistic designs of Bruce Timm and the writing by a host of talent headed by Paul Dini brought about a revolution in the way cartoon shows were viewed. It is, of course, impossible in the span of a single article to go into all of the names of those who contributed their time and energy to making this show the amazing success that it was and the benchmark against which even current cartoon iterations of The Dark Knight Detective are judged. But, what I will do is break down my Top 10 Favorite Episodes from the first offering of 85 (no easy task, I assure you) as I celebrate this absolutely amazing series. Let’s get to it, shall we?
Number 10: Joker’s Favor
Not the first episode in its run, either by air-date or by episode listing, that featured Joker, but certainly one of the better from a story-telling perspective, in my opinion. After being cut off in traffic, random Gotham citizen Charlie Collins curses out the driver who just so happens to be The Clown Prince of Crime himself! Joker then follows Charlie, corners and intimidates him but agrees not to kill him instead saying that, at some future date, Charlie will owe Joker “a favor”. A few years pass before Joker calls the favor in by asking Charlie to hold open a door for Harley Quinn (making her debut in this episode) so that she can wheel in a cake filled with explosives to a party being held for Commissioner Gordon. Charlie thinks he’s getting off easy… at first. I love this episode for the fact that it displays the randomness of Joker but also how it tells the story from the standpoint of an average, everyday resident of Gotham. This was one of the many episodes written by the aforementioned Paul Dini and really represents the essence of what makes this entire series such a wonderful show.
Number 9: Birds Of A Feather
One of the things that BTAS did well was humanizing the villains like no other series or story before ever had. (Trust me, we’ll revisit this theme upon subsequent entries on my list.) In this episode, socialite Veronica Vreeland (voiced by veteran actor Marilu Henner) is looking to really make headlines with her upcoming party. All she needs is something to make it really stand out. Enter the recently released from prison Oswald Cobblepot – AKA: The Penguin. Vreeland begins cozying up to Penguin and convinces him that she is romantically interested in him in order to have him be the guest of honor at her party and garner her soiree the attention & publicity that she desires. But when Penguin actually falls for her only to find out that she was playing him the entire time, he decides to take revenge and is only stopped by the intervention of Batman. One can’t help but feel sorry for Oswald after seeing his heartbreak upon realizing that he was being used. Yet another masterstroke of writing from Chuck Menville & Brynne Stephens as well as showcasing the acting chops of the multi-talented Paul Williams who gave voice to the Penguin throughout the entirety of this series.
Number 8: Night Of The Ninja
Not every episode, just like not every issue of a comic book, has to have a major super villain to make for a compelling story. Case-in-point, the episode ‘Night of The Ninja’ which features Batman investigating a series of break-ins and robberies at various Wayne Enterprise facilities. It turns out that this ninja is also Batman’s equal in fighting skill and prowess. This leads Batman to determine that his identity is none other than Kyodai Ken, a pupil of one of Bruce Wayne’s martial arts mentors. Bruce caught Kyodai attempting to rob their dojo and subsequently had him thrown out by their sensei. Now, Kyodai is seeking revenge against Bruce Wayne by robbing his various businesses hoping to also get the chance to fight and beat Batman thus humiliating both his enemy and his alter ego as well. A strong, character driven narrative from writer Steve Perry (who also wrote the follow-up episode ‘Day Of The Samurai’ as well as 5 other episodes of the series) gives us a glimpse into Bruce Wayne’s past and some wonderful voice acting from both Kevin Conroy as Bruce/Batman and Robert Ito (Star Trek: TNG, X-Files) as Kyodai make this episode one of my very favorites.
Number 7: Pretty Poison
One of the many things that BTAS did incredibly well was tell the origin stories of the various villains. While none of the “main” antagonists (I.E. Joker, Penguin & Catwoman) got a story digging into their conception, we did get a slew of episodes detailing how many of Batman’s other enemies came about. One of these was ‘Pretty Poison’ that gave the audience their introduction to Dr. Pamela Isley / Poison Ivy. Not only does the episode do a marvelous job of telling a solid Batman story, it also lays some more groundwork for the character of Harvey Dent as both the Gotham City’s D.A. and good friend of Bruce Wayne while presenting Poison Ivy as an extremely formidable adversary for the Caped Crusader going forward in the show. The story is the brain child of Paul Dini & Michael Reaves with a teleplay by Tom Ruegger who is one of the creative forces behind such hit series as ‘Tiny Toon Adventures‘ and ‘Animaniacs‘, just to name a few.
Number 6: Almost Got ‘Im
A fun and slightly offbeat episode that brings together 5 different Batman villains over a card game as they each recount the time that they came the closest to killing The Dark Knight. As they sit around the table, Joker, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, Penguin and Two-Face each take turns detailing their brush with success. Another writing high mark for Paul Dini featuring a host of talent with Mark Hamill, Aron Kincaid, Diane Pershing, Paul Williams and Richard Moll as the assembled villains, the concept is loosely based on a four-part story from Batman#291 – #294 where Joker, Riddler, Catwoman and Lex Luthor detail the time they “killed” Batman. This episode combines action and whimsey as we get to see the narrative from the villains’ point of view. There is also a subplot of Harley Quinn attempting to kill Catwoman as Batman intervenes. A lot happens in this one and the payoff at the end makes this episode quite memorable and deliciously fun!
Number 5: A Bullet For Bullock
While some of the episodes were brand new stories, many were based off of the actual comic books. One such adaptation that remains one of my favorites of the series is ‘A Bullet For Bullock’ which I distinctly remember from Detective #651 (I religiously collected and devoured all things Batman in the late 80’s and early 90’s after seeing ‘Batman’ on the big screen in 1989 and Chuck Dixon‘s run on Detective Comics is some of the very best storytelling out there to this day!). This is another episode which does not feature any of Batman’s various costumed adversaries, just a tale of him working with the misanthropic Bullock who, due to being unliked by the majority of the other cops on the force, has no one else to whom he can turn to for help other than Batman. As the two investigate a series of threats that Bullock (voiced by the incomparable Robert Costanzo) has been receiving as well as a several near-miss attempts on his life, they soon realize that the person responsible for putting out the hit on Bullock is a lot closer to home than either man ever realized. As I mentioned before about how BTAS did a great job of humanizing the super villains, it also did a great job of highlighting the everyday humanity among the supporting cast of the show such as Gordon, Alfred and, yes, even Sgt. Bullock. FUN FACT: This particular episode also won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Music Direction and Composition!
Number 4: Perchance To Dream
A beautifully told, heart-breaking story by Laren Bright & Michael Reaves (teleplay by Joe R. Lansdale) in which Bruce Wayne wakes up to find that there is no Batcave and even more shocking – both his parents are still alive. Alfred quizzically fills in some of the details and also informs Bruce that he is engaged to Selina Kyle. Slowly, Bruce starts to accept his new life, until catches a glimpse of Batman overhead in Gotham. Wondering how there could be a Batman and how it isn’t him, Bruce starts to investigate and begins finding a few other things that don’t make sense all leading to a climax revealing that Bruce’s new idyllic life is nothing but a dream induced by one of his enemies designed to take Batman off the board. All-in-all, I think this is one of Kevin Conroy’s greatest performances as you can hear the both heartbreak and barely restrained fury in his voice when he realizes that he has lost his parents all over again as he confronts his tormentor. A mystery worthy of Bruce’s detective skills that you as an audience member almost wishes he didn’t solve…
Number 3: Harley and Ivy
If BTAS is responsible for creating the phenomenon of Harley Quinn, then this episode is the one that helped cement her in the minds of people everywhere and established her iconic relationship with Poison Ivy, the reverberations of which are felt in the current ‘Harley Quinn‘ animated series on HBO Max. After Joker fires Harley in one of his many fits of rage with her, she ends up partnering with Poison Ivy and the two go on a crime spree throughout Gotham City, attracting the attention of not only Batman, but the Joker as well. Lots of great comedic moments in this one and it also presents what would go on to be one of the most iconic teams in the DC Universe since Batman first recruited Robin! What I wouldn’t give to have been a fly on the wall during the recording session to see the interplay between Arleen Sorkin (the voice of Harley) and Diane Pershing (the voice of Ivy). This is yet another tale from the brilliant mind of Paul Dini and directed by Boyd Kirkland who directed a stunning 21 episodes out of the 85 in the run!
Number 2: Mudslide
While not an origin story for Clayface, this follow-up appearance by Batman’s shapeshifting foe is more steeped in that tragic element that, as I mentioned earlier, helps show that spark of humanity in some of these larger-than-life villains. After the events of his first appearance in the episodes ‘Feat Of Clay’ Parts I & II (from writer Michael Reaves and “New Teen Titans” co-creator Marv Wolfman) comes this tale written by series producer Alan Burnett with a teleplay by Steve Perry in which Matt Hagen finds that his clay-like body is deteriorating and he is no longer able to hold his form together. He reaches out to a scientist who he knew from his acting days who is working on a highly experimental process that may cure Matt’s condition, but her experiments cost a great deal of money which forces Clayface to commit robberies which, in turn attract the attention of Batman. The final procedure appears to have been successful, but that doesn’t mean that Matt Hagen gets his happily ever after. One of this things this series does brilliantly and consistently is showing us the humanity in super villains who, up until this point, were largely just 2 dimensional criminals out for money and power. I credit this particular episode with raising Clayface up as one of my very favorite Batman villains of them all due, in no small part, to the superb voice work by the great Ron Perlman which sublimely communicates the frustration and subsequent rage that his character suffers through as he fights tooth and nail just to get back some semblance of a normal life for himself.
Number 1: Heart Of Ice
With all my talk of tragic characters and the humanizing of various super villains throughout this article, I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you, Dear Reader, that the origin story of Mr. Freeze comes in at #1 on my list. No doubt, this episode tops many fans’ lists of “best episodes” as it also garnered BTAS with its very first Daytime Emmy Award win for Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program! While this was certainly a well-deserved win for the main two people credited with creating the entire series (‘Heart Of Ice’ was written by Paul Dini and directed by Bruce Timm) most of the people I’ve spoken with from voice director Andrea Romano to producer Alan Burnett to actor Kevin Conroy all credit the absolute masterful performance of Michael Ansara, who voiced Mr. Freeze, with the success of this episode. Not unlike Clayface, a tragic accident turned cryogenic scientist Victor Fries into the cold super villain that the world has come to know today. Now, he seeks to build a weapon capable of allowing him to take his full revenge against GothCorp and its CEO Ferris Boyle whom Fries not only blames for the accident which turned him into Mr. Freeze but also for the apparent death of his wife, Nora, for whom Victor was frantically searching for a cure to save her from a debilitating disease. This episode, perhaps more than any other, represents exactly what this series’ take on Batman and his world is while redefining super hero story telling for decades to come.
So, what do you think? Do YOU have an episode that you think was more outstanding that the 10 on my list? If so, leave a comment below letting me know which episode and why you think it’s the best! And be sure to tune into my weekly LIVE radio show each Sunday in September (10pm ET / 7pm PT) as we talk with many of the creatives who helped bring this series to life and propel it into the pop culture zeitgeist as the definitive Batman show to ever exist!!!