Exclusive Interview: Bruce Timm On His Return to Batman With ‘Strange Days’ [Video]
The co-creator of the enduringly popular and influential Batman: The Animated Series, Bruce Timm is an award-winning artist, writer and director whose vision is as closely associated with DC Comics’ Dark Knight as any other comic book creator or filmmaker you could think of — but very arguably more so. Working with talents including but certainly not limited to Eric Radomski, Paul Dini, Alan Burnett, Shirley Walker, Andrea Romano and of course voice actor Kevin Conroy, Timm and his collaborators’ clever synthesis of the best dimensions of Batman from throughout the character’s history made their animated version a distinctive, iconic and all but a living character in the minds of millions who followed his adventures from B:TAS’ 1992 debut all way through the final episode of Justice League Unlimited in 2006. Perhaps more importantly, over the course of that unmatched run of creative continuity, Timm and co. provided their audience with an aesthetic education, inviting future artists, writers, animators (and bloggers) to share their fascinations with period design, film noir, fashion and art.
And then he was gone. The Batman — the face, the voice, the style — so many considered to be the Batman was effectively retired as Timm stepped into a new, more supervisory role, working with other filmmakers on Warner Bros. Animation’s DC Universe line of home video features based on storylines from comic books. Batman of course has been an integral part of that line, but the Timm Batman and all his beloved stylistic tics remained dormant.
Broadcasting Wednesday at 6:30pm (5:30pm CST) on Cartoon Network, Batman: Strange Days is the first all-new Dark Knight project authored principally by Bruce Timm in years and years. The latest of the DC Nation Shorts, the piece was conceived, written, storyboarded, designed and directed by Timm himself as a tribute to the original Batman comics by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson on the occasion of the character’s 75th anniversary. And as Timm told ComicsAlliance in this exclusive interview, Strange Days is the Batman story that he would create if he was “boss of the world.”
ComicsAlliance: You were heavily involved in the Gotham Knight anthology project, working with anime creators on different visions of Batman, but Strange Days is the first time we’ve seen Batman — your Batman, who we recognize from his distinctive features and your style trademarks — in about a decade. Did you always want to do more with Batman and were simply too busy with Green Lantern: The Animated Series and the DC Universe projects? Or were you just done but missed him and had to come back?
Bruce Timm: Oh, I’m never going to be done with Batman. No, basically what happened was it all came about as a fluke. I was at the premiere of The Dark Knight Returns: Part 2 at the Paley Center. One of the reporters there asked me, of all the different versions of Batman that I’ve worked on, through all the DVDs and the series and stuff, which one was my favorite. I said of course it’s the original, Batman: The Animated Series, because that’s the closest to my own personal vision of Batman. Then I got to thinking, well, you know, even B:TAS was not 100% exactly what I would do with Batman if I was boss of the world and didn’t have to take into account economics or TV executives. If I was the boss of the world, how exactly would I do Batman and some of the things they tried to incorporate into B:TAS but had to change a little for various reasons.
CA: What kind of things?
BT: For example, the look of the show is famously very retro. But if I had my way, I would have made the show a real period piece. I would have set it absolutely in 1939. With 1939 technology, clothes and everything. Not just somewhat retro styled. That made me think, hey, if I was going to do it in 1939, then that means it would be in black and white.
Also, just personality-wise with Batman, I have this idea in my head that it would be kind of neat to play Batman not so much as a human being but almost as a force of nature. Like he’s so focused on his mission that he doesn’t make chit chat. He’s not friendly. He doesn’t make jokes. He only talks when he absolutely has to do so to further his war on crime. Even when he’s with Alfred. Alfred is basically just a tool in his arsenal. He’s not Batman’s best buddy. Same with Commissioner Gordon. No sidekicks. No nothing. He’s just this lone, grim avenger.
Obviously you couldn’t do that as a series. It’s really hard to empathize with a character who is that remote. But I thought I could do it as a short, and fortunately for me Cartoon Network was doing these DC Nation shorts. My good buddy Peter Girardi is in charge of development for the DC Nation shorts, and I pitched the idea to him and he said that sounds great. We were off to the races.
CA: We know this is set in the past, but is that a kind of amorphous past or is this meant to serve as a “lost” story from your old Batman show? Is it inspired by particular comic book stories?
BT: It’s 1939, the year Batman is created. That’s not really super important — it’s not much of a story. It’s two minutes long. It’s barely an anecdote. It’s a very basic situation and there’s a lot of action and mood. There’s not a whole lot of time for character development or plot twists.
CA: The overall tone, the backgrounds and figures are reminiscent of a much more specific aesthetic than the last time you told a Batman story in Justice League.
BT: It’s in black and white. It definitely has old school technology and an old school feel to it. I went back and re-read the whole first year of Batman’s comics, the early Bob Kane comics. One of the first villains Batman faced in the comics was Hugo Strange and fortunately he’s a villain that hasn’t been used a whole lot either in the cartoons or even the comics, recently. And he has this really cool old school mad scientist quality to him, so that gave me the idea of what to do with the story. He’s the main villain. In one of those very first Hugo Strange stories, he has these three monster henchmen, these giant-size Frankenstein characters. I always like those characters so I put one of those in the short for Batman to fight.
CA: You’ve redesigned the Batman figure every time you’ve used him: B:TAS, then the next Batman show, then Batman Beyond, and then Justice League. I remember reading that you thought at the time that your Justice League Batman was your favorite version. I know that the animation technology influences some of the design decisions as well, in terms of how easy it is to make this figures move around and so forth. Can you talk about this new Strange Days design and what informed the decision making? When do you know you’ve got it?
BT: Well, this one was tough because again, knowing that I wanted to go back to Batman’s roots, I wanted to make the whole cartoon look as if it was like the cartoon itself was made in 1939, got stuck in a vault somewhere, and nobody has seen it until now. Not that I thought we were going to pull that kind of hoax, but that was the feel I wanted. I wanted it to be so authentically old school. I went back and looked at those early Bob Kane comics and even though they’re really super crude, there’s something really cool about the way Batman looks in those comics. He’s got the really long ears, they kind of stick out in an inverted “A” shape, or a “V” shape, on the top of his head because they kind of stick out on an angle; they’re really tall. He’s got tiny eyes, his trunks are long, his boots are long. He has short little gloves. I tried to incorporate as much of that in there as possible.
It was tricky because every time I’d design him, he’d still come out looking like the typical “Bruce Timm Batman.” It’s like, I never realized the classic B:TAS look Batman all the way through Justice League is actually very much based — I guess subconsciously — on the Bob Kane/Jerry Robinson DNA. So I had to work really hard to kind of get it away from my style. But one look at it, you’ll know immediately who drew it.
CA: I think that’s why, when we published the still images that Warner Bros. released, the response was enormous from your audience.
BT: Oh, cool!
CA: We haven’t seen this distinctive Batman face of yours in a new picture for ten years, maybe more.
BT: It’s been a while, yeah. That’s cool.
CA: It’s very exciting. Of course, you may not know, it was widely misreported that you had left Warner Bros. and its DC-related animation –
BT: Ohhhhh I’m very well aware of that! [laughs]
CA: We didn’t misreport it, of course. But that you were stepping away from the “DC Universe” as a line of DVD features was not understood as distinct from stepping away from DC projects completely.
BT: Yes, that’s right.
CA: So this project, Batman: Strange Days, came as even more of a surprise to people who had that mistaken impression.
BT: Well, good! A little misinformation goes a long way.
CA: Is Kevin Conroy the voice of Batman in this short?
BT: Yes. He is. It’s funny… he’s got one line of dialogue.
BT: It’s two words! He got a very good payday that day for word to dollar ratio!
CA: Did he know that going in? Did he just show up and say, “I’ve got two words?”
BT: Honestly, we took advantage of Screen Actors Guild rules and recorded another short with him on the same day.
CA: Does that mean there’s more coming from you and/or Kevin?
BT: Ummmm… can’t say.
CA: I know you’ve been asked this before, but with it having been 20 years since your animated feature, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, I wondered if you’d had a new perspective or insight on this character and why you’re so drawn to him. I’d say you’re as closely identified with Batman as any artist or filmmaker could be.
BT: Yeah, I suppose.
CA: He’s this vessel you keep using to tell the kinds of stories you want to tell. 20 years on, do you have some new thoughts on why?
BT: You know, it’s an excellent question and unfortunately I do not have an excellent answer. I’ve been asked it so many times in these past few decades, you’d think now I’d have something. I don’t, really. I just think he’s a great character. He’s always been my favorite superhero ever since I was a kid. He’s so versatile as a character. You can do so many different kinds of things with him, you can do everything from light comedy that’s kind of like the Adam West show all the way up to really serious dark and grim stuff like the Christopher Nolan movies. They’re all equally valid. You can do straight crime stories with him that are basically film noir gangsters in the city, and you can have him in science fiction kind of settings and it still works. I never get tired of him.
This short that I did, it was kind of an itch I’d been wanting to scratch for a long, long time. I thought I probably never get to do a series completely this way, but getting to do it in at least a tiny short. It’s like, OK, one off my bucket list.
CA: Will you be directing more animation yourself going forward?
BT: Oh yeah. I’ve got some things in development which unfortunately I can’t speak about yet. But, yeah I’ve got several things coming down the line.
CA: Well, that’s great news.
Batman: Strange Days will broadcast with Wednesday night’s episode of Teen Titans Go! at 6:30/5:30c on Cartoon Network.