Editor’s Note: This year, the iconic Batman: The Animated Series turns 30 years old. “Return to Gotham” is a monthly column looking back at the cartoon that remains a touchstone of the superhero genre and one of the most iconic portrayals of The Dark Knight.
Batman is a timeless character for a lot of reasons. We will always be afraid of things like violence, crime, or the ill intentions of villainous people. Rightly or not, we dream of a hero who turns that fear on those who scare us. We’re fascinated by Batman’s duality, and we’ve come to idealize the hero as someone who, while he’s mortal, is something more than a man: More intelligent, more driven. These core aspects of the character made sense in the 1940s, told in the mode of old radio serials, made sense in the pages of 80 years of comics and on the silver screen in about a dozen feature films. And they made sense in a ‘90s cartoon that redefined the character in the wake of the Tim Burton films.
Writing about Batman: The Animated Series this past year for “Return to Gotham” has been about holding up the individual facets of a cartoon gem and trying to find the specific performances and motivations that have led it to remain treasured by generations of Bat-fans. Ultimately, a lot of it boils down to creators who understood the character, and understood what it is about him that makes him unique and compelling. A great deal of that understanding was rooted in the influences that shaped the character of Batman to begin with, connections which the various creators of the Dark Knight have acknowledged for decades. Batman’s origin story has been retconned to include the detail that the movie he went to see on the night his parents died was The Mark of Zorro, a clear reference to a character that’s been a clear influence on Batman. In the comic Batman: Year One in particular, there are clear parallels between Bruce Wayne’s crusade against corruption in Gotham and the one Zorro embarks upon in his first tale, The Count of Capistrano.
The pain of Batman’s mission and how it conflicts with Bruce Wayne’s reputation is explored in perhaps the best scene in Christopher Nolan’s entire trilogy, a deliciously layered performance from Christian Bale in Batman Begins wherein he plays drunk and goes on a self-destructive tear that is simultaneously motivated by keeping his guests safe and also completely sincere in his contempt for them.
Batman: The Animated Series delved into those aspects of the character, but it also took more than opportunity to ask an important question: Why is he an important hero to Gotham (and by extension, an important character to us)?
In one episode in particular, the series answered that question by harkening back to the kind of storytelling that gave birth to Batman as a character. And it tagged in another Batman to help voice actor Kevin Conroy do so.
“Beware the Gray Ghost” opens with two parallel stories: Buildings in Gotham exploding and bathing a concerned Batman in a hellish red glow as he contemplates the mad bomber’s ransom notes, and a rousing black and white adventure serial wherein a pulp hero called The Gray Ghost hunts a criminal with seemingly the same M.O. Bruce Wayne wakes up in a cold sweat over the connection, but realizes that he fell asleep and got carried away to bed by his bemused father before the ending.
With more buildings getting blown up and all the police’s efforts to stop the bomber from delivering his payloads failing, Bruce decides the only way he can figure out what’s going on is to hunt down the original episode (this being before YouTube uploads). The studio burned down and the original prints are lost, but the Gray Ghost’s original actor, Simon Trent, is still alive and living in Gotham.
The episode cuts to Trent, who seems to live a washed-up existence: Late on his rent, pleading with his agent to try to find any gig when everyone still associates him with his earlier role. The gimmick is that if you’re familiar with Batman’s history on TV, you’ll recognize Trent’s voice right away. He’s played by Adam West, the Batman of the ‘60s show. The thing that makes the episode one of the all-time greats is that West is playing this completely straight. The show is clearly winking and nudging you right in the ribs, but the producers’ clear delight doesn’t overshadow anything about West’s earnest, committed performance. He expresses hopelessness, desperation, joy and even, in one scene, a mounting panic as he realizes that the clues all seem to point to him being the mad bomber.
He is, of course, trying to convince Batman of this, who has tracked Trent down and enlisted his aid in pursuing the mad bomber. The bombs are being deployed via remote control toy cars—Batman stops one from blowing up the Gotham Library by busting out the front door of the place and hitting it with a flamethrower (all libraries, I’m convinced, should come standard with their own flamethrower-wielding superhero). It’s an episode of the show that perfectly balanced campy superhero serial action with the show’s signature mature performances. It’s a part of Batman history in the best way.
Speaking in a panel about working alongside the earlier Batman, Kevin Conroy said West was cool and professional, coming to the mic with his parts memorized and prepared to deliver a great performance. By the ‘90s and especially in the wake of Burton’s films, West’s portrayal of Batman was going through a period in which it was somewhat discredited.
And yet, the late Conroy himself explained, West was his Batman growing up, and some of that reverence comes through as the two men act off of one another. West’s portrayal has risen in people’s estimation in recent years as many have rediscovered it and come to appreciate the campy humor. West even returned to portray the character again in two animated films before his death in 2017. It was clear that people still cared about and fondly remembered his portrayal, even as the character continues to return in progressively more grim iterations.
“Beware the Gray Ghost” is about the feeling of excitement you get from sitting once more with the stories of your youth, the heroes that defined your childhood, and it’s about what value there still remains in them. Batman tells Trent repeatedly that the Gray Ghost was his hero, and that he admired what the character stood for—even The Bat Cave, Trent remarks, seems modeled on the Gray Ghost’s old lair. In a darkly hilarious turn, the villain of the episode is revealed to be an obsessive collector of Gray Ghost memorabilia, so involved in his fandom that he’s inspired by it to commit terrorism. (He is voiced, with evident relish, by series co-creator Bruce Timm.)
That the Gray Ghost is consciously modeled after old adventure serials (particularly his costume, which is a dead ringer for The Shadow, another rich playboy who moonlights as a superhero) is a nod to the stories the creators of B:TAS used to model this show, present in a million little ways in the show’s “Dark Deco” art style and in some of its most thrilling and chilling episodes.
West and Conroy have both passed away now, and “Beware the Gray Ghost” has become an artifact of their influence on an immortal character. The lineage continues, of course: Diedrich Bader first portrayed Batman in Batman: The Brave and the Bold and now does so on the now-very-much-best-Batman show Harley Quinn. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this role has more than once had him acting opposite Conroy.
In looking back on Batman: The Animated Series as it turned 30 this year, the episode where the elder actor passed the torch to the younger now seems like the most natural place to conclude. Even without the giddy cameo, it’s a beautifully animated, earnestly performed and even unforgettably scored entry, and you can take your pick of which greatest-of-all-time Batman you like better in it. It ends with Bruce Wayne coyly repeating the same words to Simon Trent that he told him when he was in his Batman costume: The Gray Ghost was his hero as a boy, and he still is.
It sounds as true 30 years later as the day it first aired.
Kenneth Lowe carries the torch of justice! Those with evil hearts beware, for out of the darkness comes… The Gray Ghost! You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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