Saturday, 12 April 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - The Bruce Timm Rises

It was like Bat-Christmas this week (Bat-mas?), when a brand new Bruce Timm-directed Batman short was aired on Cartoon Network called 'Strange Days'. Released in celebration of 75 Years Of Batman, this 3-minute cartoon from the co-creator of the retro-styled Batman: The Animated Series, throws it back even further with 1940's inspired action featuring one of Batman's oldest villains, Dr. Hugo Strange.

'Strange Days' is a Bat-geek's Bat-dream. For one thing, it features a brief return of a fan-favourite, which we'll get into below. Secondly, nobody directs Batman like Bruce Timm. Stylish, funny, frightening, true-to-form - his work on the Caped Crusader crushes the competition, including every live-action incarnation ever made. It's because he maintains the spirit of the comic book throughout while keeping it current. Some of the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series are his, including 'The Laughing Fish', 'The Dark Knight's First Night' and 'Heart Of Ice'. He's also illustrated brilliant Batman one-offs and comic books like the excellent "Mad Love"

But let's go back to this new extremely short short for a second...

'Strange Days' is actually based on a comic book back-story from the very first issue of Batman, in which Dr. Hugo Strange made his second appearance. (his first being in Detective Comics)  In "The Giants Of Dr. Hugo Strange", asylum patients are kidnapped and turned into monsters who attack Gotham City. Batman is of course forced to take action and try to stop them. 

As you can see, the monster from the first comic book panel looks strikingly familiar to the one seen in 'Strange Days'

In the comic, Batman is captured and creates a serum to help cure the monsters. (even though he ends up murdering many of them)  In Bruce Timm's short, there is less time for exposition, and Batman just combats the monsters with good ol' fashioned ass-kickery and heavy artillery.

The heavy artillery is a throwback to the comic story, which also showcases Batman's piloting skills. In the comic, he uses real bullets. In the cartoon, he shoots tear gas. (presumably for the safety of the femme fatale) 

Later in the comic version of the story, Batman uses his Bat-Jet for far less heroic means than in the cartoon, including a good ol' fashioned hangin'. (!)

When it comes to the defeat of Dr. Hugo Strange, he meets a watery demise in both versions. In the comic, he's put through a window and disposed of pretty early in the story. 

In the cartoon, his death is more accidental.

This isn't the first time Bruce Timm has incorporated Hugo Strange into his cartoons. In Batman: The Animated Series, Hugo was featured in Season 1's 'The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne'. 

He also made a brief cameo in an episode of Justice League Unlimited called 'The Doomsday Sanction'. 

But this is the first time Hugo's been featured in his more natural, 1940's environment. Even Batman has been redesigned ever-so-slightly to resemble more of the original creation.

"I wanted to make the whole cartoon look as if it was like the cartoon itself was made in 1939," Timm said in an interview with Comics Alliance. "Got stuck in a vault somewhere, and nobody has seen it until now. Not that I thought we were going to pull that kind of hoax, but that was the feel I wanted. I wanted it to be so authentically old school. I went back and looked at those early Bob Kane comics and even though they're really super crude, there's something really cool about the way Batman looks in those comics. He's got the really long ears, they kind of stick out in an inverted "A" shape, or in a "V" shape, on the top of his head because they kind of stick out on an angle. They're really tall. He's got tiny eyes, his trunks are long, his boots are long, he has short little gloves. I tried to incorporate as much of that in there as possible."

Timm also revealed why his new (and preferred) treatment of the character could have affected the film's running time.

"I have this idea in my head that it would be kind of neat to play Batman not so much as a human being, but almost as a force of nature," he said. "Like, he's so focused on his mission that he doesn't make chit chat. He's not friendly. He doesn't make jokes. He only talks when he absolutely has to do so to further his war on crime.

"Obviously you couldn't do that as a series. It's really hard to empathize with a character who is that remote. But I thought I could do it as a short, and fortunately for me, Cartoon Network was doing these DC Nation shorts. My good buddy Peter Girardi is in charge of development for the DC Nation shorts, and I pitched the idea to him and he said, "that sounds great". We were off to the races." 

In many ways, this could be Bruce Timm's purest form of Batman ever produced, if the origins are any indication.

"I was at the premiere of The Dark Knight Returns: Part 2 at the Paley Center," he recalls. "One of the reports there asked me, of all the different versions of Batman that I've worked on, through all the DVDs and the series and stuff, which one was my favourite. I said of course, it's the original Batman: The Animated Series, because that's the closest to my own personal vision of Batman. Then I got to thinking, well, you know, even Batman: The Animated Series was not 100% exactly what I would do with Batman if I was "boss of the world" and didn't have to take into account economics or TV executives.

"For example, the look of the show is famously very retro. But if I had my way, I would have made the show a real period piece. I would have set it absolutely in 1939. With 1939 technology, clothes and everything. Not just somewhat retro-styled. That made me think, hey, if I was going to do it in 1939, then that means it would be in black-and-white." 

When asked about voice actors, Timm gave hope that this wouldn't be the last we'd see of Batman, as he sees it. 

Comics Alliance: "Is Kevin Conroy the voice of Batman in this short?"

Bruce: "Yes. He is. It's funny - he's got one line of dialogue."

Comics Alliance: "Wow." 

Bruce: "It's 2 words. He got a very good payday that day for word-to-dollar ratio!"

Comics Alliance: "Did he know that going in? Did he just show up and say, "I've got 2 words?'"

Bruce: "Honestly, we took advantage of Screen Actor Guild rules and recorded another short with him on the same day."

Comics Alliance: "Does that mean there's more coming from you and/or Kevin?" 

Bruce: "Ummmmm...can't say."

HA! Unlike Batman, Bruce Timm has said too much! And I couldn't be happier to hear it! 

PS: Bat-thanks to Jesse Haller for the comic book scans I stole.

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