1992. The DC Comics brand is in an identity crisis. The summer cast a shadow with the release of Batman Returns, a movie that remains divisive among fans to this day, and the death of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster at the age of 78. Knightfall is still a year away and Image Comics was making both DC and Marvel seem dated. I am only one-year-old, but little did I know that the most influential piece of my comic book background was also in its infancy.
This is the year that Batman: The Animated Series first shown its spotlight into the living rooms of fans. On September 6th, On Leather Wings, the pilot episode of the series was debuted (although, it was not the first episode to be aired. That distinction goes to The Cat and The Claw). This was the beginning of a change in superhero animation, which up until this point, was defined by Superfriends. But the creators of Batman looked deeper in the catalogue for influence.
Bruce Timm, the show’s primary artist, looked to Max Fleischer’s Superman technicolor cartoon from 1941. Although Superman is mostly remembered for giving the Man of Steel his power of flight (because Fleischer thought it too awkward to see Superman bouncing around too much), it was its unique style, created by the art of rotoscope animation, that caught Timm’s eye. It provided a unique look. For Batman’s unique look, Timm would draw Batman on black paper.
This creative decision provided a heaviness, and that heaviness is on display early in On Leather Wings. This episode tells the story of mad scientist who has turned into the villain known as Man-Bat. Man-Bat is committing crime across Gotham City, and the police force, of course, mistakes these crimes as being the product of Batman. Batman finds himself in a race with the police to catch Man-Bat, and, hopefully cure him, but with Detective Harvey Bullock leading a task force to capture him, Batman finds himself as both hunter and hunted.
Simply put, On Leather Wings is not the strongest episode of the series. But it has the elements of what will become arguably the greatest non-comic book version of the Dark Knight. The strengths of this episode shine brightly on the dark paper. The animation is beautiful, with the lighting and shadows creating a sense of dread, and at times, horror, at the 1950s style monster movie theme takes over the episode. This tone is intensified with our first taste of Shirley Walker’s complete orchestral score. Kevin Conroy’s first outing as Batman is also solid, providing some memorable moments, and is complemented by the unsung performance of the series, the late-great Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon. Where this episode fails is in the lackluster supporting cast of characters, with some hammy performances and uncharacteristic moments in the script, such as Man-Bat having a clichéd villain monologue before Batman (obviously) saves the day.
Even though this episode does not quite hit the ground running, the promise of what is to come is there. It will take a few more episodes, but this series will soon become the cornerstone to the DC Animated Universe that will carry through nearly the next two decades, introducing a generation of fans to the characters from the world of Batman and DC Comics. I am excited to start this ride over from the beginning, and am looking forward to continuing it with all of you.