The Joker’s Midwife
A farewell to Andrea Romano after a sad year for the voiceover businessPhoto of Andrea Romano by Gage Skidmore Movies Features Andrea Romano
— Mark Hamill (@HamillHimself) August 1, 2017
If any part of your childhood occurred in the last 30 years, ask yourself what your favorite cartoon was. Go look it up on IMDB.com, and scroll down to the crew. Who’s listed as “Voice Director?”
Getting her start in voice direction with Disney series like Rescue Rangers and Duck Tales in 1989, Andrea Romano has drawn unforgettable performances out of voiceover actors ever since. It almost seems easier to list the iconic series she hasn’t cast and directed in the three decades since: Her credits include Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Freakazoid!, Tiny Toon Adventures, Avatar: The Last Airbender and its butt-kicking follow-up The Legend of Korra, ReBoot, The Boondocks, the new Voltron series on Netflix, and even for some dialogue in video games like Overwatch and Diablo III.
And, yes, that one. When asked about highlights of her decades-long career in a December 2016 interview with The Dot and Line, Romano said she still harkens back to the day in 1991 when she cast Kevin Conroy as the voice that would growl from beneath the mask of the Batman for the next quarter century.
We’ve learned this week that Romano, who had already planned a retirement in about three years, will be retiring from her role as voice director this week in light of medical concerns. Though she has reportedly said she plans to remain active in the entertainment industry, it’s sad news for anybody who appreciates a good voice performance, especially after the past year has seen the loss of June Foray and Gordon Hunt. Here’s a look back at the career of a voice director who always demanded more of her actors, and how she influenced some of the last century’s most memorable characters.
Trained by the Best
Just last month, fans of cartoons mourned the death of June Foray, about whom Chuck Jones is said to have remarked: “June Foray wasn’t the female Mel Blanc. Mel Blanc was the male June Foray.” Romano is, in one sense, a sort of bridge between today’s voiceover world of time-traveling samurai and gender-fluid sentient alien jewelry warriors and that of yesteryear’s, with its sneaky talking animal mascots and classic skits.
Romano got her start as a casting director on Hanna-Barbera cartoons, including work on The Smurfs starting in 1984, where she would’ve worked with Foray, a series regular. And both worked under voice director Gordon Hunt, another outsized talent from a different time. Hunt was Hanna-Barbera’s voice director during its utter domination of animated television, casting the perfect voices and coaching actors through the scripts for classic shows like The Jetsons, The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo.
Hunt succumbed to complications of Parkinson’s last year, leaving behind a legacy as a voice director who worked behind the scenes to little fanfare, yet developed a reputation within the industry as a guy who could always find the perfect voice for a role.
A lot has changed in the voiceover world, and in animation in general. Today’s cartoons are, simply put, absurdly good. Had some of today’s less essential shows debuted back when Romano had begun her career, they would now be considered the high point of drama for the time. It will probably irk a lot of ’80s fans for me to say this, but Romano’s career has probably benefited from—and measurably contributed to—the fact that the overall quality of toons in the ’90s and beyond took a big step forward.
Queen of the DC Canon
While her career has seen her casting everything from The Smurfs to Ben 10, it seems likely the most remarkable part of Romano’s legacy will be her contribution to the portrayal of superheroes in the cartoon world. Her breakthrough into becoming someone who “probably know[s] more about superheroes than any 60-year-old woman in the world,” as she once put it, started when she began voice directing for Warner Bros. Her expertise with shows like Tiny Toon Adventures got her selected for the “Diniverse,” the critically adored slate of animated shows starring DC comics superheroes that began in 1992 with Batman: The Animated Series and continued with shows about Superman, an original vision of a successor to Batman in Batman Beyond, spin-off series like Static Shock and the short-lived Zeta, and two series based on the exploits of the Justice League that brought in seemingly the entire DC catalog of heroes and villains. It all ended with Superman punching Darkseid harder than sound.
The first show touched a nerve in a way few portrayals of Batman ever have before or since.
“We didn’t want cartoony acting,” Romano said in an interview last year. “We wanted what people would call stage acting or on-camera acting, real, genuine. It wasn’t about how many voices you could do.”
Throughout the entirety of this meaty canon, which spanned from 1992 to 2006 with the end of Justice League Unlimited, most of the voices of the principal characters remained the same, and a clear, consistent continuity emerged. Characters from one show would appear in another, making reference to adventures that had occurred. Villains from Batman’s rogue’s gallery would show up to bedevil Superman, or return 50 years in the future to menace Bruce Wayne’s young protégé, Terry McGinnis.
Romano insisted on having all the actors reading in the room at the same time, likening it to old radio dramas. The acting and the reacting, she has said, made the critical difference.
Whatever she did, it marked the characters in the decades to come. Conroy still voices Batman and will continue to do so in upcoming features. Mark Hamill, known to the world as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, has attained, if it could ever be possible, even loftier status as the voice of the Joker. Both have portrayed the characters far more than any other actors by a wide margin, in any way you could ever measure such a thing. And yet, in one very real way, Romano’s got them beat: She’s directed a mind-boggling number of comic book character adaptations, including vast catalogs of shows about the same characters without either actor’s involvement. Her Batman-related credits alone make for a daunting IMDB entry.
She has been doing this so long, she’s quite literally watched audiences’ and creators’ desires of the character shift back from the grim-and-gritty trend she helped turn mainstream and back toward a more cartoonish and lighthearted interpretation.
“My first introduction to Batman was the Adam West series, so my first impression was more of a comedy twist. Then we went to Batman: The Animated Series, which was a very dark series,” Romano said in an interview at a special event for Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the proudly campy Batman series for which Romano also does voice direction. “It was with Brave and the Bold that I got to sort of come back to the comic Batman, and that, for me, was fun. It’s not Spongebob; it’s Batman, but with a comic twist.”
A Face to the Voice
“When we were kids we didn’t get to meet our heroes,” Romano said in an interview with CBR.com last year. “We didn’t get to meet Daws Butler and Mel Blanc, and Don Messick and all of those wonderful people … Now, people get to meet them and that’s a really wonderful thing.”
Romano has remarked that her own public profile is much more prominent than the voiceover wizards of yesteryear. Years of DVD specials and comic-cons have gradually given fans more and more opportunity to learn her name and approach her personally, she said, and, in some cases, thank her for raising their kids. It hasn’t hurt, in Romano’s specific case, that she’s never been shy about interviews. Her opinions, anecdotes, fond remembrances, and insight into the characters and stories she’s brought to life have all been memorialized in a vast network of on-camera interviews, podcasts, and special features on your favorite shows. Nor does the talent she’s directed have an unkind word to say about her, if the selfies and Twitter plaudits are any indication.
But for the casual viewer who doesn’t pause the credits on the DVDs (because they are always too fast), Romano has been behind the scenes, in a booth, making a bunch of lines coming out of the mouths of colorful and silly characters into something worthy of the obsession of masses of fans. In a behind-the-scenes featurette about the voiceover talent in Avatar: The Last Airbender, the actors are filmed in the sound booth delivering lines. Romano doesn’t officially appear in the featurette, but she does make an appearance: In one scene, you can see her reflection in the photo booth glass, and it couldn’t be anybody but her: a fiftysomething-at-the-time lady with gray hair in a short style that seems unchanged for at least the last fifteen years of DVD extras. She’s there, standing out of the spotlight, making a show about reincarnated monks stressing about fuzzy feelings for girls and the logistics of throwing kung fu fireballs into can’t-miss television.
It’s my favorite portrait of her.
Kenneth Lowe is a media relations coordinator for state government in Illinois. His work has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues magazine, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.