Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by e-mailing email@example.com.
Geek Obsession: The DC Animated Universe
Why It’s Daunting: You mean DC Comics has another universe? Yes, it’s true: In spite of the ever-changing and incredibly convoluted multiple universes and alternate realities already cluttering the continuity of DC Comics, the company decided in 1992 to create an animated series with its own timeline, taking place in its own separate fictional reality. The DC Animated Universe (also known as the “Diniverse,” for head writer Paul Dini, or the “Timmverse,” for producer Bruce Timm) brought an adult sensibility and a shadowy urban design style to the previously kid-focused world of cartoon superheroes.
The first series, Batman: The Animated Series, proved so successful that it spawned sequel series (Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Static Shock, Justice League/Justice League Unlimited, and others), webtoons, movies, videogames, and, to make things even more complicated, a series of comic books that were set in the DCAU continuity. Of course, that wasn’t a big enough headache for fans, so the editors at DC actually began to import characters who originally appeared in the animated universe—Harley Quinn, Renee Montoya, and Mercy Graves, among others—into mainstream DC Comics continuity, and borrowed elements from DCAU stories and applied them to existing comic book characters.
The DC Animated Universe did what it set out to do: It introduced a new generation to Batman, Superman, and the Justice League; it targeted a demographic new to superhero cartoons and introduced a dynamic and recognizable visual style to DC properties; and provided a fertile new field of play for new characters, concepts, and ideas. But what started as one series quickly grew into an entire franchise, with series of wildly varying quality; it’s important to know where to begin, but it’s also important to know what to leave out.
Possible Gateway: Batman: The Animated Series, seasons 1 and 2.
Why: In this instance, it’s best to begin at the beginning. There is no better and more consistent portrayal of Batman in the ’90s, in or out of comics, than the first three DVD collections of Batman: The Animated Series (which aired as both Batman: The Animated Series and The Adventures Of Batman & Robin, in keeping with the frustrating, complex history of DCAU shows jumping networks and changing titles). These were the episodes that set the tone for future series, deepened the character of Bruce Wayne, updated Robin in ways that would spill over into the comics, and had the most profound effect on viewers, creating the audience for future spin-offs.
These seasons featured an effective mix of original stories and adaptations of classic Batman stories from the comics, and in addition to Dini’s excellent work, also boasted scripts by comics pros like Marty Pasko, Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, Elliot Maggin, Len Wein, Mike W. Barr, and Denny O’Neil. The DVDs contain some of the series’ best episodes: “Nothing To Fear,” “P.O.V.,” “Two-Face,” “Heart Of Ice (which won an Emmy for the show), “The Laughing Fish,” “Robin’s Reckoning,” and “A Bullet For Bullock” are all fine examples of the show’s appeal. They also set the standard for the DCAU’s characteristically high-quality voice acting: In addition to Kevin Conroy’s consistently fine work in the title role, Bob Hastings’ Jim Gordon, Paul Williams’ Penguin, Ron Perlman’s Clayface, and, of course, Mark Hamill’s famed turn as the Joker are all excellent. By the time the show entered its third year (now called The New Batman Adventures and shown alongside episodes of Superman: The Animated Series, and sold on DVD as Batman: The Animated Series Volume Four), it was beginning to run out of steam, and while there are still some fine episodes scattered throughout that period, the first two seasons are the source from which the DCAU’s reputation for excellence springs.
Next Steps: Beginning in 2001 and running until 2006, the Justice League series of DC’s Animated Universe—called, in typically confusing fashion, Justice League in its first three-year run and Justice League Unlimited from then on—is the best, most consistent show of the franchise. It opens up the universe in every way: broadening the scope, making it more colorful, expanding the huge cast, and creating distinctive new stories as well as skillfully adapting tales from the comic books. In addition to its many other virtues, it introduced sweeping, epic story arcs; a deft mixture of action, drama, and comedy; some of the DCAU’s most inspired voice casting; great scripts by the likes of Dwayne McDuffie, Gail Simone, Stan Berkowitz, and J.M. DeMatteis; and memorable characters like the Question, the Ultra-Humanite, and Green Arrow. Well worth watching on its own merits, it also rewarded longtime comics fans with enjoyable episodes featuring DC’s Old West characters, mystical superheroes, Golden Age creations, and obscure second-stringers. The Justice League series also provided extended character arcs with rich, rewarding payoffs, and remains the most adult superhero series to hit the airwaves.
Superman: The Animated Series has its moments and a few episodes that are essential viewing, but overall was much less consistent than Batman: TAS and not as sophisticated as Justice League. It shouldn’t be overlooked, but can safely wait until finishing those series. All three of the Batman: TAS full-length animated films—1993’s Mask Of The Phantasm, 1998’s Mr. Freeze: SubZero and 2003’s Mystery Of The Batwoman—are likewise worth seeing, but should also be placed on the back burner until finishing the original series. Batman Beyond, which ran from 1999 to 2001, features a futuristic Batman and a dark setting, and in many ways, it’s the most original of all the DCAU series; but inconsistent writing and a vastly different visual style makes it something to work up to, not a place to start.
Where Not To Start: The comics adaptations of the DC Animated Universe range in quality from awful to fairly decent, but none of them are essential, and even the best of them can’t stand up to the energy and appeal of the original television series. Static Shock, which ran from 2000 to 2004, was a surprising and sometimes rewarding success, and brought an admirable multicultural appeal to the DCAU; however, it’s also the most kid-oriented of all the franchise’s shows, and is much more appealing to a younger audience than Batman, Superman, or Justice League. The only DCAU series that can be safely written off altogether is The Zeta Project, an ill-conceived and poorly executed spin-off of Batman Beyond that ran for two seasons starting in 2001; its clumsy conception, poor scripts, unlikable characters, and lack of connection to the rest of the DC Animated Universe make it easy to ignore.