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.
I chose this life. I used the night. I became the night. Sooner or later I’ll go down. It might be the Joker, or Two-Face, or just some punk who gets lucky. My decision. No regrets. But I can’t let anyone else pay for my mistakes.
In plotting out a year’s worth of columns on a 30-year-old cartoon show, I considered a wide variety of ways to organize the project. I decided that holding up 12 individual episodes wasn’t broad enough, that going episode-by-episode was too exhaustive. I settled on themes, and have tried to strike a balance between delving into topics that are essential to understanding the show while also trying to avoid stuff that’s obvious and been well-trod by writers in the three decades since the show debuted. So, the reason I didn’t plan a column specifically about Kevin Conroy, the voice of the show’s principal character, was pretty simple: Nobody needs to be told, for the millionth time, that he was the voice of Batman for a generation.
But now he’s gone: Dead at 66 after a struggle with cancer, survived by his husband. Real life has again intruded on this retrospective, and it would be impossible to write about literally anything else this month.
I had to spill ink over how good the voice performances are in this show, a topic I’ve covered before when voice director Andrea Romano announced her retirement a few years ago. It’s crucial to understanding why people still remember the show with such admiration: The voices signaled to kids who tuned in after school pretty much immediately that this was something more serious and more carefully crafted than most of the Reagan-era schlock we’d grown up on.
Accordingly, the voice cast was not the typical rogues gallery you found on shows. As Romano has said in interviews, they weren’t really looking for people who could do a bunch of different voices or put on an obvious, over-the-top affect. Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s Alfred or Bob Hastings’ Commissioner Gordon sound like father figures. Batman once tangled with villains voiced by Ed Asner and Ron Perlman in the same episode.
The show’s Batman had to anchor all of that. Romano and the show’s creators reportedly went through hundreds of auditions trying to find the perfect guy. He came to them after the word got out that they weren’t looking for the normal stable of cartoon voiceover folks.
Conroy, trained at Juilliard, and with precisely zero animation voiceover credits to his name, was brought in. Relating the experience to an interviewer, he said he told the creative leads that he only knew the character from the ‘60s Adam West TV series—series co-creator Bruce Timm was apparently the first to tell Conroy about the character’s tragic backstory and conflicted duality. Conroy, who had never voiced a cartoon character or known all that much about Batman’s roots, got in the booth and landed the part pretty much immediately.
It’s probably overstating it to say the show wouldn’t have succeeded without him; the show is all-around wonderful. But Conroy’s voice became Batman’s voice far beyond the show, in dozens of videogames and decades of spin-off shows and other DC projects where he reprised the role, in continuity and beyond it. The actors who have portrayed the character in film since his debut all took a different approach to the duality of Bruce Wayne and Batman, one of the themes central and integral to the character. Conroy is probably the only person who has ever portrayed the character who has been able to sell the complete, almost dissociative disconnect between the characters. When he delivers lines where Batman refers to Bruce Wayne or Bruce Wayne refers to Batman, it’s with conviction and understanding.
There are any number of episodes you might point to as a showcase for the man’s talents, as the “Here it is!” that proves to the uninitiated why his performance has dominated every discussion of the character, why, when somebody puts up a poll about who the best Batman film actor is, somebody always intrudes by putting his name in the hat (since he did, after all, portray Batman on the big screen, too). Trying to pick one out of the more than 100 episodes just in the original Batman: The Animated Series run is pretty much impossible, if a Conroy showcase is your goal. But there’s a common thread in the episodes of the show’s first season: Conroy often delivers his most understated emotional performances in the episodes where Batman is not fighting the Joker or another of his more colorful villains, but when he’s down in the grit of Gotham mixing it up with petty crooks and mobsters.
“I Am The Night” opens with Batman in a slump. He is doubtful that his actions result in any good. The war against crime is endless, and has made him weary. On his annual pilgrimage to the spot in Crime Alley that began his journey, he runs afoul of a crime in progress: A young hustler (Seth Green) is about to get kneecapped by a pair of enforcers. He thrashes them and gets Green sent off to social services, but in the process is late for a police raid. Commissioner Gordon takes a bullet and lies incapacitated in a hospital.
Batman doesn’t take it well.
The episode is about Batman grappling with whether he does any good, whether his life matters, whether there’s any hope. It would be maudlin and silly if any of the show’s cylinders didn’t fire perfectly in time, and Conroy’s performance is chief among the elements that needed to work. He needed to be a dynamic character, to come to a revelation about his worth to Gotham by the end, and it had to feel real. And so, in addition to collaring the crook who is trying to finish the job on Gordon, Batman also takes a moment to check in on Green’s wayward youth by the end of the episode. Who, it turns out, has had his life turned around by his encounter with the Batman.
Romano said in more than one interview that a sea change in the voiceover industry had occurred while she rose up in it. The culture of conventions and proliferation of behind-the-scenes videos had made it so that many fans now could meet their heroes, and she often felt overwhelmed at how many fans specifically took time to praise her efforts in directing the cast of B:TAS. Conroy, who was aware he’d stumbled into a phenomenon, was also aware of and constantly appreciative of his fans’ adulation.
Another detail about Conroy that no assessment of his legacy can ignore is that he was a gay man, something that wasn’t exactly a secret over the years but only recently has really become prominently publicly discussed. Earlier this year, Conroy wrote a comic for DC’s annual DC Pride Anthology, “Finding Batman,” currently free-to-read on DC’s site. It’s about his life experiences, about coming to the role of Batman, and about how growing up closeted in the 1950s in a Catholic family and rising up in an industry that discriminated against gay actors gave him more insight than people may have realized about what it meant to wear a mask and hide part of himself. Conroy’s family wasn’t accepting. His sexuality lost him roles. The AIDS epidemic struck down his friends.
That’s the place he was in, he writes, when he got the call to voice a character with a dual identity, driven by pain. And so with no traditional background in voiceover and no long years of comic book fandom, he became the night.
Conroy never claimed to have gone boldly forward blazing a path of representation in cartoon voiceover. But this detail about his identity is itself an important part of comics history. Batman comics were Exhibit A in a relentless hate campaign in the 1950s by Fred Wertham, a psychiatrist who made it his mission to shutter superhero and horror comics, claiming they corrupted youth and pushed homosexuality.
I grew up hearing homophobic throwaway jokes about Batman and Robin, the detritus left behind by that witch hunt. The fact that a significant portion of Batman fans now regard a gay man’s interpretation as the definitive portrayal of the character, and that Conroy was out and proud and widely celebrated, free to be open about his past while also collecting fat royalty checks from three decades of TV, movies, and videogames, is the defeat of that intolerance. It is undeniable that in the comics and superhero fandom environment there is still putrid, hateful rhetoric out there that still harms people, still forces them into the closet Conroy lived too much of his life inside. Kevin Conroy’s legacy will be that he overcame it, to the joy of generations of fans who will never forget him.
It’s comforting to know that he knew right from the start that he’d chanced onto something huge. In a behind-the-scenes featurette on the show’s voice work, Conroy recalled the first time that he actually saw the show’s finished animation. He and Mark Hamill were doing post-production dubbing some six or nine months after starting on the show in 1991, he said, and were sitting in a sound booth waiting for their cues as the show’s opening burst onto the screen. They were struck dumb, he said. He asked Hamill if he’d had any idea this is what the two had been working on the whole time.
“It was breathtaking, it was so beautiful,” Conroy said. “It’s a cultural icon. And to be a part of that… it’s an honor!”
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste TV. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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