Dragon Con brought in some great panels on their streaming channels again this year. Over on the streaming Fan Track, starting from Thursday at 7PM EST, you can find the “Batman and X-Men: Best Superhero Cartoons Ever” panel to add to your viewing schedule. In it, moderator Joe Crowe talks with panelists Michael Bailey, Michael Williams, and Keith R.A. DeCandido (although DeCandido quickly labeled himself an honorary member of the Michael-club, as Williams joked that he prefers the safe space of being among his own people).
The group gathered to discuss the greatest comic series animated adaptations to date—Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men: The Animated Series. They started this split-panel off on the topic of X-Men, although partly due to the fact that Batman has more episodes and more content to dive into, most of the panel runtime was spent on the subject of the Batman.
To get conversation going, Bailey established that every comic book fan has had to do their “tour of duty with the X-Men.” While some folks keep it up and others will move on to the next one, Bailey entered on the “ground floor” with the TV series as he tried to catch up on the comic books. Ultimately he preferred the comic books, but determined part of the reason for that is that he was not a member of the target age-group demographic the show was written for.
Williams is a newer animated X-Men fan, (he spent most of his youthful cartoon time on the “Batman” option) but he reported that he was very impressed with the efficiency of the storytelling in the series. “This show gets in there, and it tells you an X-Men story, and it gets out. And it doesn’t drag its feet, doesn’t make you wait forever for something to happen,” said Williams. They discussed that the continuing story arc lasts across the entire first season and that a lot of stuff was crammed in, which would help with the admirable pacing.
In contrast, DeCandido had been on the way out of his X-Men-phase when the animated series came out. It didn’t fully catch his attention, and he didn’t watch it “religiously” at the time, though it would eventually draw him back. He pointed out that another reason why it wasn’t fully catching on with him or with Bailey at the time was likely also because the show was aimed towards bringing in new fans rather than necessarily appealing to established fans of the comics.
DeCandido explained, “It was adapting existing comics. You were saying that it didn’t take forever to resolve the stories. That’s because the source material did take forever to resolve a lot of it.”
“Literally forever,” Crowe quickly agreed.
“In some cases never,” said DeCandido. “Or badly. Or resolved them three writers later, in a way that it was not how it was originally.”
He went on to elaborate on his observations on adaptations of superhero comics. “The best adaptations are the ones that distill decades of history into a TV show or a movie. The worst ones are the ones that compress decades of history into a single thing. The X-Men cartoon did a good job of distilling a lot of X-Men stories into that format.”
The show had some problems for DeCandido, though, from the theme song to the animation. Nothing really overly impressed him much about it. In contrast to Williams, who really did enjoy the design of the cartoon. One working theory, proposed by Williams and his husband (also named Michael) was that “this cartoon is specifically designed to cater to non-heterosexual people.”
Bailey appreciated the show’s timeless appeal with the design and execution. “The X-Men did what Marvel comics did, which is: tell extended stories. With, uh, in this case, a large cast of characters. Right away, when you’re watching the first episode, Jubilee is our intro character, but you are dropped in with, like, everybody. And very early on, it’s apparent that if you miss an episode, you’re probably gonna be okay.”
He highlighted the difference between Marvel’s extended-stories approach and the DC approach, which was more episodic. Where X-Men would catch viewers up on important details from previous episodes, Batman episodes were stand-alone and more self-contained. That pattern started to change, Bailey said, somewhat tongue in cheek, when Marvel writers switched to DC and started writing “Marvel stories with DC characters.”
The show was a cornerstone of Marvel’s popularity. “It seemed like this was a good way to get people into it,” Bailey said. The panel highlighted the company’s interest in selling toys and the impact that specific goal had on extending the franchise’s reach over time. It was successful primarily because Marvel played to what was popular and tried to capitalize on that market reaction while it could.
The X-Men were already the most recognizable of Marvel properties and huge in the world of comics, said DeCandido. “The animated series really vaulted them into a more mainstream – ya know, sort of the next step up. Bringing kids into it, who might not have necessarily gone into comic shops.”
Another fun fact from the panel came from Crowe when he mentioned that Disney+ has announced a sequel to the X-Men animated series. Living in the future means that everyone can enjoy the original series at any time on streaming, and look forward to a modern refresh somewhere on the near horizon.
The conversation soon shifted to Batman: the Animated Series and the panel dove right into the different influences on the DC franchise over time. The animated series followed Tim Burton’s movie entries in the Batman universe, which heavily impacted the tone and visual design of Gotham City in every on-screen installment since then. “Both Burton’s movies and the animated series had the same aesthetic of this weird mix of, like, 1939 and 1992. You know. Men with hats, and cameras with bulbs that went ‘Poof!’ And yet they also still had computers,” said DeCandido.
While Batman: The Animated Series was not a movie tie-in to the Burton movies, they shared not only similar design elements but also benefited from similar theatrical music. The theme song for the series was written by Danny Elfman, just like the movie soundtracks. The animated series soundtrack incidental music was then handled by Elfman’s protege, Shirley Walker, according to DeCandido.
“I think the greatest thing about this show is that the people producing it, one: liked Batman. That’s not always essential, but it’s good. But also that they didn’t try to reinvent the wheel, and by doing that, they reinvented the wheel,” said Bailey. “This is the greatest distillation of Batman ever, in his entire world, and everything involved with him.”
Overall, everyone seemed to agree that they love everything about Batman: The Animated Series. The animation design, the noir aesthetic, and the voice cast all had the panel in almost perfect alignment when compared to their formerly divided stance on X-Men: The Animated Series just a few minutes earlier. “This is the one that, when I’m reading Batman comics, I hear these guys’ voices,” said Crowe.
Williams outlined that the story in the series is heavily noir, which can be dark and dramatic, but the writing leaned toward the elements of noir that are fun. That “fun” is a reflection of how the show writers depicted Batman, which he said intentionally placed an emphasis on the idea that “Batman is the real person, Bruce Wayne is the disguise” because it allowed Batman to enjoy being the noir hero. “It’s a very different kind of story, it suggests a very different emotional texture,” he said.
The panel also discussed that the animated series intentionally chose to use storylines from the comics that were more ridiculous or that could only be presented in an animated format. Praise for the show’s storyboard artists shifted smoothly into discussion of the voice cast, with Bailey mentioning that the drastic shift between production houses during the series’ run only bothered him with the redesign of The Riddler because he preferred the sharp look of the suit paired with the excellent voice work of John Glover. He also mentioned that Tim Curry was the original voice cast for The Joker before the series switched to Mark Hamill. Unsurprisingly, the panel seemed to quickly agree that Hamill had become the definitive Joker.
DeCandido added that, similarly, Batman: The Animated Series created the iconic characters of Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya. They became popular enough to go on to get their own story arcs and even spinoffs, such as Harley Quinn’s Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey appearances. “It isn’t often that a character from a secondary medium gets incorporated into the original,” he said.
Bailey brought to the panel’s attention that the animation team couldn’t show what they wanted to like the artists did in the comics because the TV audience was aimed younger than the comics. It couldn’t be as graphic because there were firm rules from the producers and network. And, he suggested, that while limiting, it was another strength for the show: it had to spend more time and effort on the emotional impact of the crimes or the drama, as opposed to the shock of the artwork in the comics.The example he gave was that while viewers don’t see the Graysons hit the ground in Robin’s origin story, it was so much more effective dramatically because of that limitation. The panel highlighted again that one of the ways the show did that was to rely on the skills and performance of their excellent voice cast.
The conversations closed by the panelists offering up their favorite episodes from Batman: The Animated Series. Keith DeCandido brought up the episode “P.O.V.” as his favorite, and “Harley & Ivy” as the second-favorite. For Michael Williams, his favorite episode was “Christmas with the Joker”, which he called weirdly tragic but still fun and funny. (For added context, the Joker sings the Batman-lyrics to Jingle Bells in that episode.) Michael Bailey offered up “Robin’s Reckoning” as a favorite because it looked at the emotional family relationship between the characters, and “Almost Got Him” for the fun of the 1970s flashback noir flavor.
You can find this panel in the DCTC Library here.