This is the first in a new series of articles that I’m planning on tackling. How I’ll handle other pilots/premiere episodes will likely vary as I move on from series to series, but as for now, I hope you enjoy this look back on the B:TAS debut.
Let’s talk about Batman: TAS.
According to us, it’s the second greatest animated series of all time, and if you like to be technical and not consider something theatrical like the Looney Tunes as an animated series, than it might even be our #1 choice. It changed animation, television, Batman’s history and the comic book industry in general. The series and its interpretation of Batman were so good that Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and crew brought him and his cast back time and time again ever since the series’ original cancellation in 1995 It’s a comic book series that doesn’t talk down to anyone and continually gives us something to watch and enjoy years on.
Twenty years to exact. The show’s anniversary is in September, and while we have more to say about the show when that comes up, we do have reason to talk about it now- The Dark Knight Rises. Now there’s a lot I can say about Christopher Nolan’s film series, but this isn’t a film blog, it’s an animation blog, so let’s stick to B:TAS.
Now, if you were there back in September 1992, you would probably remember the first episode to air on Fox kids was the first part of “The Cat and the Claw”, the 2-parter which introduced Catwoman. However, in production order, which the DVD sets respect, the real first episode is “On Leather Wings”, which aired second (part 2 of “The Cat and the Claw” didn’t arrive until episode 8- don’t ask me, I didn’t run Fox Kids). While it would make sense for me to overlook Catwoman’s debut in the series along with Bane’s, I’ll just stick to “On Leather Wings” .
Honestly though, if you want a perfection introduction to this series, just watch the opening. Danny Elfman’s contributions are brilliant, as they perfectly encapsulate the animation. The tricks it uses are famous now, as well- using genius editing to turn the Warner logo into a police jet and forgoing the use of a title card using the show’s logo at the very end are great moves that never get old. All you need is a flash of lightning at the end of the opening to realize what show this is.
While there isn’t a title card in the opening, each episode of the original 85 episodes of Batman: TAS do contain their own distinctive title card to introduce their story (all but one do, that is- bonus points to whoever guesses which episode is card-less), and a little introduction to Shirley Walker’s theme for the episode. “On Leather Wings” gets black and white title card with a drawing of a bat in it, which works not only to indicate that this is the first Batman adventure we’re going to see the staff tackle and to give us an idea of today’s villain, which we’ll get to shortly.
We do get a brief shot of the villain, obscured by clouds and shadows, in the very beginning, and more shadow footage of him flying around Gotham. If you still don’t know whom this villain is that I am referring to, whatever, it’s Man-Bat. Don’t know him? Look him up.
The Man-Bat arrives into Phoenix Pharmaceuticals as we see a security guard doing his job by… practicing his radio DJ voice? Don’t we all do that in our spare time? I know I do. For his crimes against his job, the Man-Bat strikes the guard and throws him out of the building, as we still see nothing but silhouettes of him.
Now we zoom up to the mayor of Gotham City’s office, as we’re introduced to him, Commissioner Gordon, detective Bullock, and future District Attorney Harvey Dent. One of the little things that can help to make B:TAS veterans realize that this is the pilot is to consider that it seems like the staff wanted to make the mayor a bigger factor in the show’s run, but I honestly think this is the most screen time he got in the entire series.
Otherwise, it’s a solid introduction to the characters, since we get the gist of Gordon and Bullock’s methods right from the start- Bullock hates Batman and will do anything in his power to take him out, even using the power of others to assist him, while Gordon’s on the fence about the dark knight and wants to consider him more of an ally than a foe. The mayor supports Bullock’s request to hire more help to take on the Batman after the previous night’s escapade, and poor Dent only gets one line of dialogue. There is some nice, subtle foreshadowing into Mr. Dent’s future for fans of the comics, however, and fans have given the show praise for giving Harvey some screen time and development before becoming one of Gotham’s biggest double threats.
And now we arrive inside Batman’s lair. What is Kevin Conroy’s first line of the series? “Gotham police declare war on Batman?” Man, it’s like the question mark is its own sentence the way Conroy says it. The man IS Batman, there is no question.
Next up to speak is Alfred, and… the fuck? This isn’t Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. Clive Revill was originally going to be Alfred, but was replaced by Zimbalist not far into the show’s production. For some reason, a couple of the earliest episodes still have Revill’s performances, which are distinctly deeper and more deadpan than the Alfred we grew to love over the course of the show. It’s not a bad performance per say, but when you grow accustomed to one performance for such a vast majority of a run, it’s hard to imagine someone else doing it. It’s even more awkward than hearing Lacy Chabert voicing Meg Griffin in the earliest Family Guy episodes.
But now to more important questions- what kind of woman is named Bambi, and what would Bruce want to do with her? Oh well, this isn’t aimed for the right demographic to answer questions like that. Instead, we get to see the Batmobile, and boy does it kick ass here. It looks like a nice mesh between the original 40’s design and the most recent overhaul used at the time.
We get a scene of Batman in action, interrupting some hanky panky with merely the use of his shadow and his escaping Bullock’s attack team. Shortly after, we get our first glimpse of Bruce Wayne outside of his Batman suit. Man, looking at Bruce again reminds me of how blocky the character designs for the show was. All the characters have very broad shoulders, thick necks and specific body styling’s- bulky males and slim females. The designs become less haphazard by Justice League, after some strange remodelings of various characters for The New Batman Adventures and pyramid shaping in Batman Beyond. I know that Bruce Timm wanted to make his designs pop out and look unique compared to their comic book counterparts, and they succeeded in various examples, but man, some of them sure look weird.
Another little facet about the show that I love is Conroy’s voice for Bruce Wayne. It’s cooler and far less harsh than his Batman voice, but the longer this incarnation of Batman went on, the less distinction there became between Bats and Bruce’s voice, to the point where Bruce and Batman’s voices are completely one and the same in Batman Beyond, only proving how far Bruce Wayne fell into his role as the dark knight.
Anywho, Bruce meets up with a scientist who us just a little too fascinated with bats, as he hopes to have his Chiroptera “problem” in his manor solved. Suspicious? You betcha. But also keep an eye on his conversation with the professor’s daughter and her husband. It might just come back.
I’m trying to make this as spoiler-free for beginners and fans who haven’t seen the episode in ages as much as I can, so I won’t reveal who the Man-Bat is, but I will say the revealing scene is incredible, as is the flight it and Batman take on. I believe the footage of their flight was among the first bits of animation completed, and was shown to Conroy and Mark Hamill, the voice of the Joker. When they saw it for the first time, they were floored. Bruce Timm was impressed, too- enough to call this, their very first episode, his personal favorite.
I’ll end my look back at that. So, “On Leather Wings”, does it hold up now after how far the series came since its premiere? Mostly. A lot of the core elements were introduced here, it’s a solid story, and Spectrum’s animation is very bright in certain spots. There are so many high points that occur later on in the series that it’s hard to consider it one of the very best, but “On Leather Wings” is a great series premiere and contains the consistency of a single episode that many other series would kill to have.