b The Critical Eye | Batman Animated
booksfilminterviewsmusictechnology
Batman Animated
The nuts and bolts of Batman: The Animated Series are laid bare
Batman Animated
Paul Dini and Chip Kidd
Harper Prism
144 pp.
For my money, few animated TV shows have ever been as visually satisfying as Batman: The Animated Series. When I saw my first episode of Batman in 1993 ("Heart of Ice", Mr. Freeze's first appearance), I felt like I had come home: here was the crossroads between Japanese animation, the Fleischer Superman shorts, and Art Deco which I'd always wanted. Okay, so maybe I hadn't realized I'd wanted it until that moment, but you get the idea.

Batman Animated, which could be taken as a companion to Chip Kidd's previous Batman Collected or read on its own, fills a related need. Namely, the need to examine the underpinnings of Batman: The Animated Series to see what makes it tick. After all, Batman is that rarest of creatures, a North American dramatic animated series that isn't written down to children. More to the point, it endures: Batman, in one form or another, has been airing for six years, and is still in production if you count Batman Beyond. The only other two contenders are the three-year-old Superman (equally stellar, and by the same team), and Gargoyles, which stumbled in its third season. It's not that others haven't tried, but Batman has succeeded without once wavering; that makes finding the recipe that much more important.

Written by Paul Dini and designed by Kidd, Batman Animated takes Batfans on a delightful trip through the creation and evolution of the series. Dini is an excellent guide, as he has been involved with the show almost since the beginning. His knowledge, sometimes buttressed by interviews with series co-creator Bruce Timm, is used to provide a history of the genesis of the show. It's not quite chronological, and there are occasional side trips, but it provides a great example of how animation should be made. To wit: while the initial idea for a series came from the much-maligned "suits", they mostly left the TV animation people to themselves; on those few occasions where they did interfere, the animation team rolled with it and came up with something equally exciting. Most important, it's clear that the team was comprised of talented people who took pride in what they were doing and enjoyed what they did. The result was beneficial to the suits, the artists, and to legions of viewers. Disney, Dreamworks, and the rest of you guys--are you listening?

The rest of the book is broken down by categories. The broad categories are the first series, the movies, the new series, and Batman Beyond. Within those are topics which cover a few pages each, supplemented by storyboards, concept art, model sheets, and background paintings. Personally, I found that the best images to look at were the superbly rendered storyboards, which provoked me to haul out my tapes of the "Batgirl Returns" and "Avatar" episodes for a fresh look. (If they ever make Batman Storyboarded, I'll happily devour it and ask for more.)

Storyboards aside, what really held my attention throughout Batman Animated was the examination of the creative process in a collaborative and occasionally restrictive medium. The free mixing of finished and production art, merchandise, and even sheet music provides a rich insight into the world of animation production. Seeing how certain ideas eventually jelled into the characters and stories we know reminds us of the 10% inspiration/90% perspiration rule, and the glimpses at the paths that were almost taken are also enlightening. It's also interesting to see which ideas ended up making their way into Batman's current animated incarnation.

Surprisingly, much as I enjoyed the treasure trove of information and graphics, the book does seem to have something of an identity crisis. It doesn't quite have enough text for a "making of" book, and there's not enough pictures for an "art of" book. This last claim may seem absurd, but consider that the entire run of Batman encompasses 110 half-hour episodes and two movies, almost 45 hours of total running time. There's still plenty of ground to cover, as has been amply demonstrated in other overviews of the series (most notably, a 44-page article in the February 1994 Cinefantastique). It seems to have been a bit of a juggling act: a publisher-established page count, the need to explain as much as possible, and of course the pictures everyone expects. If the hinted-at followup--the inside back cover says "To Be Continued" in bold letters--comes to pass, I'll be happy. Taken on its own, Batman Animated is a good first course but is so appetizing it leaves us starving for more.

A Critical Eye exclusive (October 25, 2000)