The Batman: The Animated Series Writer’s Guide is Totally Awesome
Last week, we here at ComicsAlliance directed our readers to one of the latest unearthed gems of the Internet: Paul Dini, Bruce Timm and Mitch Brian's writer's bible for "Batman: The Animated Series," quite possibly the best non-comics portrayal of Batman ever. It makes a fascinating read for fans of Batman (and, we suppose, for fans of style guides), but for those of you who might not have the time to read a 153-page PDF, we've turned once again to semi-professional Batmanologist and CA contributor Chris Sims to hit the highlights!
Thanks to the success of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman movie, the crew behind "Batman: The Animated Series" was essentially given the chance to start over with Batman, and one of the most interesting things about the writer's guide is seeing Dini, Timm and Brian actually going through 50 years of the character's history and deciding what worked for them and what didn't. It's the sort of thing that comes through in the series itself, and while every writer that's worked on the character has their idea of What Batman Should Be, this is one of the first opportunities we've had as readers to actually see people starting over and deciding how it is from now on.
And the first example of How It's Going To Be comes right on the first page of guidelines in bold capital letters:
"NO STORIES ABOUT BATMAN'S ORIGIN."
We love this about the writer's guide. With those five words, the producers set an important rule of the series, in that Batman's attitudes and motivations aren't going to be told to the audience, they're going to be shown. There's no need to do a show about, for example, Batman's first meeting with Commissioner Gordon to set up how the characters feel about each other; the relationship is simply presented to the viewer as part of a different story so that the whole thing builds organically.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Among others, both the Zatanna episode and "Night of the Ninja"/"Day of the Samurai" had elements of Bruce Wayne's pre-Batman past, and there were bits in the first Scarecrow episode and "The Forgotten" that directly reference his parents getting killed in Crime Alley. But these are done in other stories, and don't get bogged down in detail.
Instead, they just hit the necessary high points, functioning more like the eight-word origin that Grant Morrison would give to Superman thirteen years later:
...or the even shorter one that Marvel editor Nathan Cosby wrote for Spider-Man:
The only time that the rule was really broken was in the feature-length Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, in which the writing team of Alan Burnett, Martin Pasko, Paul Dini, and Michael Reeves dabble in an origin inspired by Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One," and then tumble right down the slippery slope of giving an origin for the Joker in what (in our opinion, at least) is one of the biggest missteps in an otherwise highly enjoyable film.
Aside from defining what Batman is, there are also clear guidelines in the series bible to define what he isn't, which comes through as a concerted effort to distance the Batman of the Animated Series from what had until very recently been the dominant image of the character in pop culture: The 1966 Batman television show.
Aside from the up-front assertion that the Batman of the Animated Series is about "a grim being cloaked as much in mystery as he is in shadows," the first real example of this comes in the section on humor, which explicitly states that the series should never be campy:
It also comes through in the "Batman: TAS" producers' treatment of Robin...
...who is himself another example of how much they wanted things to differ from the past. Even though the original Animated Series conception of Robin as only an occasional ally didn't last through the whole run of the series (especially once it moved to Kids' WB and underwent a redesign that included a new Robin and Batgirl as permanent cast members), there's an important difference that comes through with the fact that he's college-aged rather than a kid sidekick. Namely, the idea that when the series starts, they've gone past being hero and sidekick and become partners.
In another interesting change, it's set down that Robin looks at Alfred as a surrogate father figure. This is a relationship that's rarely been explored in the comics, as Batman fills the father figure role for a younger Robin, but by shifting that relationship to someone else, it frees Batman and Robin to function more like the cops in a buddy movie: The grim, by-the-book tough guy and his wisecracking daredevil partner.
The other characters in the show have interesting tidbits that never made it to the show as well, including a detailed backstory for why Commissioner Gordon is so highly regarded in a city known for its corruption and detailed motivation for Summer Gleeson, a nifty viewpoint character that somehow never made it to the comics. What caught our eye, though, was a backstory for Renee Montoya --who did make it to the comics as one of DC's most prominent lesbian characters -- that revealed she was originally intended to be a young widow whose husband was killed in the line of duty!
There's plenty of other incredible stuff in there, including Timm's designs for characters and cityscapes and--our favorite--a guide to the three-act structure that stresses the importance of "wild, dark and sinister" set pieces for the big action scenes. It's a guideline that the show's writers really took to heart, and it led to us seeing stuff like Batman fighting bad guys on an out-of-control planetarium of death and--a personal favorite--karate fighting a ninja on an exploding volcano:
And it all started here. Is it any wonder this is the document that re-defined DC's animation through the next two decades?