DCAU #2: On Leather Wings

IN THIS ONE... Batman first encounters Man-Bat.

CREDITS: Written by Mitch Brian (who wrote the series bible with Timm and Dini); directed by Kevin Altieri.

REVIEW: As this is the first episode of the Batman Animated Series produced (though not aired), let's talk about constants first introduced here before we talk about the story itself. First of all, that amazing, amazing, AMAZING opening sequence. From the WB logo turning into the Owl Ship--I mean, a Gotham City police blimp (police blimps? how awesome is that!?) to the fact that the series really doesn't have an on-screen title (it's Batman, folks, you know who he is, BATMAN!), it's a great achievement marrying film noir visuals and Elfman's great Batman theme. Just gorgeous. I've already praised the look of the show, and while this episode sometimes seems a bit murky, I generally enjoy the shadowy filter that makes the edges of the screen disappear, and the lighting effects are well done. When Batman fires his grappling hook, for example, there's a quick flash of light on his face. The batmobile is definitely pulled from Burton's film, perhaps even more extreme, and it looks good in animation.

The episode also introduces a few key characters and voices, none more iconic than Kevin Conroy as Batman (and pitched higher, as Bruce Wayne), the man whose voice I hear when I read Batman comics today (I hear the Super-Friends' Olan Soule when reading Silver Age stories, but that's different). Conroy has played Batman more than any other actor ever, in animation and video games, and it always takes some getting used to when someone else does it. He's great. The episode also gives voice to grouchy Commissioner Gordon, and introduces a pretty big chunk of the cast - the unflappable, snooty Alfred Pennyworth; the antagonistic Detective Bullock; and not-yet-Two-Face D.A. Harvey Dent! Mayor Hamilton Hill will also appear in a number of episodes. That's all in addition to the episode's guest stars, of course. What the episode DOESN'T do (nor does any episode aired before it) is tell Batman's origin. As with the lack of a proper title, the show starts from the premise that everyone knows who Batman is. This is clearly early in his career, since most of his villains haven't been established and the GCPD considers him a dangerous vigilante, but everything is in place and need not be retread.

On Leather Wings - and the title card is right out of silent film - shows Batman's many facets. A vigilante on the run from the law, an action hero capable of fighting normal crooks and enhanced monsters, a detective with lots of cool tech, and a millionaire playboy with lots of money, connections, and a sense of fun. All of this is efficiently told. In fact, the show is very good at drawing characters with immediate personality (pun intended). Even "day players" with few lines are differentiated. Instead of generic night watchmen, we have one with ambitions of becoming a radio personality, and another a woman who passes the time reading novels. You glimpse office romances among lab technicians, and meet policemen with opinions.

Unfortunately, the villain falls short of that standard. We're introduced to the Langstrom family, but we don't spend enough time with them to get invested. Francine's father is one of those crazy scientists who thinks his study topic is inherently superior to humanity, in this case, bats, which is tepid sort of red herring, especially for people who know Man-Bat from the comics. Francine herself is a cipher, and the terribly barrel-chested Kurt is two-dimensional in his transformative glee (though I quite like how his face is distorted by lab equipment). We don't know what drives him, and in the end, he's just a monster for Batman to defeat. And though "monsters" are definitely up Batman's alley (Killer Croc and Clayface being other prime examples), this one feels a little light to be the Bat's first antagonist. Additionally, there's just no room in the 22-minute episode for a proper resolution, and mere seconds go by between Batman knocking the creature out and his returning Kurt cured of his condition to Francine. It feels like the episode just ran out of time, which is really too bad.

IN THE COMICS: Man-Bat first appeared in Detective Comics #400 (June 1970) and was created by Frank Robbins and Neal Adams. He had a better motivation in the comics, developing a bat serum to cure his impending deafness (yes, very much the Lizard of the DC Universe), with tragic results. His wife Francine would eventually fall prey to the serum as well, though her father Dr. March is the show's invention. Bullock is credited only as "Detective Bullock", perhaps to avoid having two characters named Harvey in scenes together. He first appeared Detective Comics #441 (June 1974) as a crooked police detective under instructions from Gotham City's Mayor Hamilton Hill to sabotage Commissioner Gordon's career. The Mayor here IS Hill, but since Bullock was enventually redeemed, that may not be where they're going with it this time.

SOUNDS LIKE: Kevin Conroy's next most famous role is perhaps as the company commander on Tour of Duty. Commissioner Gordon is played by Bob Hastings of McHale's Navy fame.  Harvey Dent is Richard Moll, which you remember as Bull on Night Court, very weird casting when you think about it. Mayor Hill is Lloyd Buchner, the scheming Cecil Colby on Dynasty. Bullock is played by Robert Costanzo, a very recognizable character actor; look him up. Alfred is played by Clive Revill, but only for three episodes. Marc Singer is Kurt Langstrom/Man-Bat; genre fans will best remember him as the lead of the 80s V series, Mike Donovan. Dr. March is played by Odo himself, Rene Auberjonois; he'll return to these pages often in other guises. And Francine Langstrom is played by Meredith MacRae, Pettycoat Junction's Billie Jo.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Visually exciting and with plenty of introductions, but let's face it, Man-Bat isn't the most interesting of opponents, and the plot runs out the clock and ends abruptly.


American Hawkman said...

In fairness, Bullock was redeemed well before the CRISIS... I strongly remember him and Jason Todd as a team, and his amazing takedown of a sniper Hill sent after him.

Siskoid said...

Thanks. Tweaked it!

LiamKav said...

I've never actually read a comic where Bullock is in any way dodgy. I always thought the character was supposed to look like a lazy, shifty slob, but he's actually a good cop (who, er, is still a bit of a lazy slob.)

I thought that Gordon's partner in "The Dark Knight" was supposed to look like Bullock, but wasn't actually him because Bullock wasn't actually corrupt. I guess he could be a different character though.

The Harvey thing is interesting, as it's extremely rare for two characters to have the same first name in a fictional setting. I vaguely recall there being a TV trope about it ("No Homers", maybe).

Finally, Harvery is a bit of a cigar chain smoker in the comics. Can't have that in the cartoon, so it gets replaced him constantly chewing toothpicks. Eh, could be worse.

Regarding the title sequence, Chris Sims does an excellent breakdown of it on ComicsAlliance, calling it the best title sequence on TV and saying how it tells you everything you need to know about Batman in 30 seconds. I was always upset that the Superman Animated Series never got a similar one.


Andrew Gilbertson said...

Oh, yeah- forgot about Revill's Alfred. I'll always prefer the guy as the Emperor in ESB (and after all, who better than the man with 'Evil' in his name TWICE!)... but I'm very glad they switched to Efram Zimbalist for Alfred.

Randal said...

Pfft. What does Chris Sims know about Batman.

LiamKav said...

Now I'm imaging an alternative universe where Ian McDiarmid took over playing Alfred.

Andrew Gilbertson said...

"Now, witness the firepower of this fully armed and OPERATIONAL Batmobile! ...Sir."

American Hawkman said...

Bullock actually came a good deal closer to killing Gordon than the Joker ever has, causing him to have a massive heart attack by telling him Batman had died, as part of his campaign of harrassment. This was what caused his redemption, as he confessed what he'd been sent to do to Gordon and changed sides. I'll note that he genuinely liked Jason Todd, which is why his anti-vigilante attitude here cracks me up.

Unknown said...

In his first appearance, Bullock was drawn to look like John Belushi. Later the character was given an interest in the movies as his trait.

Talking about characters with the same name in the same piece -- check out the webcomic Melonpool, that has two sets of duplicates in the main cast.

Andrew said...

The execution may not be perfect, but I think using a character that was new to most of the kids watching was a good idea--yes, it takes certain inspiration from the Burton films, but it's going to go in its own direction and feature a lot more than just Joker, Catwoman, Penguin, and Riddler.

@LiamKav, the trope in question is "One Steve Limit." It's sad that I didn't have to look it up.

@Bradley Walker, love me some Melonpool, and I probably wouldn't have even noticed the Sam/Sammy thing if Troop didn't keep lampshading it. I've even got a fan art strip printed in one of the Ultimate collections.

LiamKav said...

Melonpool isn't quite the same thing though. At least with Ralph/Ralphie, they are good/evil clones so them having the same name is deliberate. Harveys Dent and Bullock though are too unrelated characters who have the same first name, a name which is said semi-regularly. That's extremely rare, and I dunno if it's ever come up as a plot point.

LiamKav said...

One other thing about this episode... it's the first and only time they show blood in BTAS (not sure about the "New Adventures" or Justice League). I think they were still trying to figure out what they were allowed to do. (There's a great picture in one of the making of guides showing everything they were told not to do. I wish I could find it, but I believe it involved a naked Catwomen crashing through a glass window whilst smoking a cigarette with Joker holding a gun to a kids head behind her whilst Batmas is choking someone. Strangely enough, they seemed to ignore the "breaking glass" rule fairly frequently.)

Craig Oxbrow said...

And here it is. Also featuring religion and drug use!

LiamKav said...

That's the one! So, half correct. I do remember being confused by the "nudity" thing until I realised that Catwoman was only wearing her mask and gloves. After all, the only difference between nude and clothed superheroes is usually the colour.

By "guns", I'm guessing they meant actually shooting people. I remember BTAS being extremely rare amoungst cartoons in that the guns were ordinary, realistic firearms, rather than the GI Joe lasers that everyone else had.

Still, I'm keeping my eyes out for future glass breaking.

Alain Degrace said...

How did the cops not find the tape recorder ?

'It's over... for now.' Yeah, Bats knows once on the juice, always on the juice.


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