Looking Back On ‘Batman: The Brave And The Bold’ With James Tucker, Michael Jelenic And Ben Jones
If you’ve been flipping through new comics this month, you’ve probably seen the ads announcing that Batman: The Brave and the Bold is being released on BluRay soon. With that being the case, now seems like a good time to look back on what might just end up being my favorite take on the DC Universe of all time, full of team-ups, ruthless villains, and, perhaps most importantly, Batman’s laser sword.
I talked to producers James Tucker and Michael Jelenic and director Ben Jones to get their thoughts looking back on the show, what they felt they’d accomplished, and how well it holds up.
ComicsAlliance: Let’s start with the most important question. Whose idea was it to give Batman a laser sword?
James Tucker: That was my decision. There was no logic to it. He needed a weapon that we hadn’t seen before, and it was the kind of show where a laser weapon would work. He had a Batmobile that transformed into a plane and a boat. I knew he was going to have all this other stuff that was going to be teched out more than he’d ever had before in any other cartoon, and also, he was called The Dark Knight, so I thought he should have a laser sword.
Michael Jelenic: I will say that the laser sword kind of surprised me in the beginning, because you don’t expect Batman to have a laser sword. But I was surprised, first of all, that fans didn’t seem to mind.
JT: They took to it pretty fast.
MJ: But I will say, you moved away from the laser sword pretty fast as the show went on, and more embraced the Silver Agey aspects.
JT: The laser sword actually is from a Silver Age aspect, he just didn’t have a laser sword in the Silver Age because they didn’t know what lasers were back then. No one thought of it. He’s called the Dark Knight, let’s be a little literal with it. I don’t know if it came up because of the particular teaser we had it appear in. Was that your first show?
Ben Jones: Yeah.
JT: I think we just needed him to have something like that, and it was like “oh, why doesn’t he just pull out a sword?”
MJ: Toy companies also love swords. They were pushing to have swords, because swords are big sellers.
JT: We were pandering to the toy company.
BJ: Their toy sword looked nothing like your toy sword.
JT: It never does. That’s another thing. The only reason this show existed was to be a toyetic show, so all the other Batman shows I’ve worked on, Batman and Justice League, were rooted in a more realistic interpretation. We were always frustrating the toy company because we’d never give Batman the kind of thing they’d ask for, like a sword or a car that talked or whatever. I said, “If there’s one show that I’m going to produce that’ll have those things, or could have those things, it’ll be this one.” That’s how it came about, but I’m glad we did it even regardless of the toy connection. I thought it was a fun thing that looked really cool when he did not. Now, it feels like a no-brainer that he’d have a sword.
CA: That’s something that comes up in the series finale too, that gets parodied with the Neon Talking Super-Street Bat-Luge.
JT: Our love-hate relationship with the toy company.
MJ: That’s an actual thing that was pitched by the toy company that our executive producer, Sam Register, drew the line on. We’ll accomodate the toy company, but the Neon Super-Street Bat-Luge was too far. It seemed fun to actually get that into an episode.
CA: It’s interesting to think about it as a toyetic show. It definitely is, just by the nature of having so many characters like Blue Beetle, who lend themselves so well to action figures. But watching it back, it never really feels like that’s the driving force.
JT: For one thing, we didn’t take toy designs and stick them in the show. The toy company would say “it’d be nice if we had this…”
BJ: Like with Plastic Man, when we did Rubberneck.
JT: Rubberneck came about because they asked us to come up with a villain for Plastic Man, so I go through Wikipedia and I can’t find anything. He really has no cool villains that would make the kind of toy they wanted. Then I saw this character’s name, Rubberneck, and I couldn’t even find a picture of him, so we just said “let’s make up one.” That’s where Rubberneck came from. Also, in the Kamandi episode with Gorilla Grodd. Did you direct that one?
BJ: I think I did. Yeah. Oh, right, the plane rotates.
JT: The plane has wings that rotate. We did that because they asked if Batman could have a plane with wings that rotate, and I thought “well that’s kind of silly.” Then I thought “wait, I’m on The Brave and the Bold.” So we put it in the show and it was a really cool set piece, and then they didn’t make the toy.
MJ: Proto, the giant robot voiced by Adam West, was a toy they wanted us to put in. Although, they probably wanted it to be a super-badass toy, and somehow we made it a bumbling robot.
JT: He doesn’t become a super-badass toy until the end of the show, but it was worth it to meet Adam West, finally.
CA: As far as going back to look at those villains, what was it like when you were gearing up to make the show? Was everyone on the table? Was there a certain list that DC wanted you to use? Even by the end of the first season, you’re doing Kamandi and OMAC, characters that are beloved by very small groups of people.
JT: Old groups of people, at this point. We had a list, and I also think they wanted us to tell them who we were going to use at the beginning of the season. We had to tell them every character that we were going to use that season, which, the way we work, there’s no way to do that. We kind of guessed, and sometimes we’d stick in some characters on the side. The only two we definitely knew we couldn’t use were Superman and Wonder Woman, until we got special dispensation in the third season. But yeah, we had to know ahead of time, and it was kind of difficult. But we made it work.
CA: Was there anyone you wanted to use that got rejected?
MJ: I think that the only ones we couldn’t get were just Superman villains. We wanted to use Toyman, and he became Funhouse. Really, we got to use pretty much everybody. Ben, I think the only character you wanted to use was, like, Ambush Bug, right?
BJ: Ambush Bug, yes. But we didn’t get him until the very end.
MJ: If we didn’t use someone, it was probably just because we didn’t get around to it ourselves. We weren’t told not to use anyone.
CA: Good, because I’ve prepared a list of characters that I wanted to see and didn’t, and that I’m very upset about.
JT: [Laughs] They probably suck really bad.
MJ: No! We used the worst purposefully.
BT: They’re probably pretty cool characters.
MJ: There is such a thing as too cool. Like, Azrael wouldn’t have worked on our show. First name on your list, isn’t he?
CA: [Laughs] I was kidding, but now I really want to see a Brave and the Bold version of Azrael, just to see how you arrived at that.
MJ: He wouldn’t have been the Azrael you know and love.
JT: We would’ve made him silly.
CA: I don’t know if anyone has an Azrael they know and love.
BJ: Just Chuck Dixon, I think.
CA: I’m actually the opposite. I was thrilled with the character choices and the directions you took characters in, especially because you use so many at once. There’s an episode from the first season where you’ve got Batman, the Demon and Sherlock Holmes all teaming up to fight Gentleman Ghost, who is Jack the Ripper, and the Devil.
JT: We got to hang Gentleman Ghost in that one, offscreen. People think we’re soft.
MJ: We racked up a body count with that episode.
JT: The only reason I wanted to do that was because I really wanted to do the Gotham By Gaslight costume, somehow. I mean, I like the Demon, too, and it was a cool story, but I just wanted to do Gotham By Gaslight.
CA: It’s an episode with a lot going on.
JT: All the episodes have a lot going on.
CA: It’s true. Batman goes to space and teams up with the entire Green Lantern Corps, or there’s the “Death Race to Oblivion” episode, one of my favorites, that has a huge cast. Was there anything that you tried that was just too big and didn’t work?
JT: I think in some ways, the Starro thing was probably really ambitious for us. I have to watch it again, but I think it succeeds on most levels. I don’t know if Part 2 is quite as good as Part 1, although it has a lot of heart and we kill off B’wana Beast, so it has a great ending. I don’t know if our arcs are as strong, because it wasn’t really built to be a show with arcs. But we made it work. I’m pretty happy with most of them, overall. In fact, I really like most of the episodes in general, and there’s not a series that I’ve worked on that I can say that.
MJ: The standalone episodes are definitely stronger than the arc ones, but we have some pretty ambitious standalones. Ben directed the musical episode, and if there was one that should’ve been too ambitious, it was that one.
JT: When we pulled that off, I think it really liberated us to do whatever we wanted. It seems like we went totally off the rails and went crazy after that. Once we figured out “oh, we can do a Batman musical and nobody’ll kill us? Well, it’s open season now.” It really freed the show up.
MJ: What was your hardest episode, Ben? Because we gave most of the most ambitious episodes to Ben.
JT: I’m sure the other directors would dispute that.
BJ: All the Bat-Mite episodes.
JT: “Batman’s Strangest Cases.”
BJ: But that was just fun. The hardest one for me was “Four-Star Spectacular.” The Adam Strange part and the Creature Commandos part were both very long, and I had to cut. There was probably as much stuff boarded for each of those as there was in the final version that ended up getting cut.
JT: Two whole episodes’ worth of stuff was cut out from that.
BJ: When you make an episode with four teasers, they all come up long.
JT: that was the case of an ambitious episode that almost got away from us. It turned out okay, but it was a headache. It was one of those things. From Day One, we decided we were going to do teasers that were standalone, and not connected to the main episode. I really wanted to do an episode that was just four Teasers, and when we finally got to do it, it came at a time when the schedule was really cramped, and no one really had enough time to really think it out. Plus, it was so radically different from what we’d been doing, structurally, that it was a really huge challenge. In the end, I think we did a really good job. Well, Ben did.
CA: I just watched the musical again yesterday, and that’s one where, again, you have four guest stars, four villains and then a main villain and musical numbers. Through it all Batman’s the straight man, the one that everyone else revolves around, and there are a couple of other episodes like that. Was that ever a big challenge, to keep the other characters from overshadowing Batman, or making sure he didn’t take too much focus?
JT: I think the whole idea going in was always that he’d be the straight man in this world of Silver Age stuff. Early on, we had a learning curve to get to where he didn’t acknowledge any of the weird stuff going on around him. He just took it as face value as the world he lived in, and I think that’s why the show worked. Batman’s the touchstone, he’s the only normal guy in this world of crazy, superpowered, wacky characters. If he hadn’t been the straight guy, I don’t think the show would’ve worked as well. It’s kind of the Adam West thing. When you realize that he’s in on the joke, it made the show a little less good, but that first season of Batman ’66, when he plays it so straight, is perfect. That’s where we wanted to have Batman in our show. He’s the everyman, but nothing phases him. If he can accept a guy in a Blue Beetle suit, or a stretchy guy, or a talking ape, then the audience can too. We don’t have to do a lot of explaining. We don’t have to justify these characters, because Batman already knew them in the show. That helped us.
CA: Along those lines, the Adam West show is obviously a really huge influence on the show, right down to the color schemes of the Batmobile and those little cameos from Bookworm and King Tut in the background.
JT: I say this all the time: We wanted to make it the show we watched when we were kids. Brave and the Bold is the show I thought I was watching as a kid. I didn’t get all the jokes, so everything was deadly serious.
MJ: I think it took us a while to admit that was where we were going. At least in the first six episodes, I was struggling with what the tone was, how to play Batman, and I’d keep saying “it’s sort of like Adam West,” and people would say “no, not Adam West!” At that time, it was a little bit of a dirty word. This was when the first Christopher Nolan movie was coming out, and Batman was definitely a certain way now, and the Adam West stuff was a long time ago. They kept telling me no, but everything they demonstrated, action-wise, was definitely Adam West. When we silently accepted that, the show got easy.
JT: The thing with the Adam West show is that it basically took a Silver Age comic and literally adapted it for the screen. All the dialogue had exclamation points, there’s a lot of alliteration. They were just translating from the comic book source, it’s just that the source was from the ’50s and ’60s. To me, that show has a lot of integrity, because it was adapting the source material. Maybe not in the same tone that the source material thought it was in, but when you go back and read those Silver Age comics, it pretty much is the Adam West show. We kind of skipped over the show and went to the source, those Silver Age comics, and adapted those. It just so happens that they have the same vibe, and then we dipped into the Adam West show for cameos, and the color scheme was an intentional homage to the Barris Batmobile. Another thing is that I wanted it to be an homage to all versions of Batman that are out there. To me, they’re all the same guy, no matter who’s writing or drawing him, he’s still the same guy. I wanted to include all those different interpretations in the show, so that’s why you get the cameos of different Batmen. We pick and choose from different eras, so when we do “Chill of the Night,” that’s a Batman: The Animated Series homage. We weren’t ever dissing the other versions, we were trying to be inclusive of all of it and celebrate Batman as a pop icon. Some fans got that.
CA: Were there any other specific influences? There’s a lot of Bob Haney/Jim Aparo Brave and the Bold in there, and there’s a really strong Jack Kirby influence.
JT: Jack Kirby meets Dick Sprang. That was the initial visual inspiration, and then we just kind of went from there.
BJ: Each episode, the different characters bring their own influence along with them. When Booster Gold shows up, all the sudden it’s Giffen/DeMatteis dialogue.
JT: Right, and the OMAC episode was definitely trying to mimic Kirby. Plastic Man was designed after Jack Cole. We tried to adapt the show to whatever character we had guest-starring, and show a little love to that character’s history, too.
CA: Looking back, do you have a particular favorite episode?
JT: That’s hard for me. I love it all. It’s the only show I’ve worked on that I still watch after two years out from working on it. It’s got a lot of humor in it, and humor plays better in re-runs than straight action does.
MJ: My favorite is probably the finale.
BJ: That’s my favorite!
MJ: Sorry, Ben, you can’t have the same answer. You have to like a different one. There’s just so much absurdity, and we were trying to put in our personal history of the show and our experiences working on it, stuff that we’d encountered. There’s a lot of personal stuff, and even just putting Ted McGinley in it was fun for me. It’s ridiculous, and still, there are these poignant moments at the end. It sums up the show, it’s silly, it’s ridiculous, it’s fun, but it has some heart always going through it. That represented the show for me the best.
CA: Did you know that you were going to make me literally have to choke back tears in public with it?
JT: I wish we could’ve shown it at Comic-Con.
MJ: Yeah, that would’ve been a good one. I’ll say, Diedrich Bader, who played Batman, he took the character as seriously as Batman took things in every episode. It wasn’t an ironic character for him. A lot of other actors may have taken that character and played him more ironic, but there were at least two occasions where Diedrich was reading lines for the show and he himself teared up.
JT: In “Chill of the Night.”
MJ: And he has that speech at the end of the Bat-Mite episode where he got a little choked up.
JT: The story is that his kids came to that recording. He has a son who’s really a comic book geek, Sebastian, and every time they bring Sebastian in, he’d sit and draw with me while I’d supervise the voice direction with Andrea Romano. They wrapped the last line, and as it’s recorded, this kid looks up and says “you did a great job” and hugs him. That was like… I could have cried then, but I had too many hands to shake. I literally misted up really bad. It was poignant, and the fact that it was a kid telling us we did a good job was all the validation that we needed. That’s really what it was for. A new generation of Batman fans, just coming in, and hopefully our show will expose them to all these other versions of Batman as they get older. It was just a really cool thing to be a part of. That’s my favorite episode as well.
BJ: I guess my second-favorite would be the first Bat-Mite episode, but “Mitefall” is still my favorite. The thing about the show is that it’s like what you were saying with Diedrich. A lot of people sort of dismiss it as camp, but to me, it’s a sincere take on what a Batman show could be all the way through. The humor is there, the gags are there, but the show’s a lot more sincere than people give it credit for.
JT: Camp by its nature is messing with you a little bit, and not sincere usually. I don’t think we were that. If we poked fun at the genre, it’s because we knew the genre well enough to make fun of it. We knew the jokes to tell to the audience that would get the joke. Most of them were inside jokes geared towards fans who’d been reading the comics anyway, so it wasn’t like we were meanspirited, or made Batman seem stupid or clueless. He’s so earnest, and that’s what we liked about it. He’s an earnest guy who’s just trying to do his job and encountering all these strange heroes and villains, and he’s keeping his sanity about it. He’s not moping and navel-gazing because his parents got shot, he’s doing a job. That’s how he keeps sane. I don’t mind camp, but I don’t think we were nearly as campy as people try to label us. It depends on how they mean it. Sometimes they’ll say “it’s cheesy,” but to a kid, it’s not cheesy. The first time you see something in our show, I don’t think a kid would say it’s cheesy. I think they look at it the same way we looked at Adam West. You just buy into it. It’s like cocaine or something.
JT: You’re instantly hooked! That was the point of my comparison.
BJ: Like chocolate.
JT: There you go. Chocolate with cocaine on top.
MJ: Camp is just another word for fun. Fun has been removed so much from superheroes that they don’t have a word for our show. Superheroes are serious!