Batman: The Animated Series writer
Special thanks to Paul Dini for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk about his work on Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series.
Batman: The Animated Series writer// Paul Dini: Animation Writer/Producer
When Batman: The Animated Series won a Prime-Time Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Television Program in 1993, it was no surprise to fans and critics. Its ominous, sleek, and unapologetically hard-boiled visual design was a groundbreaker, bringing the urban nihilism of the Japanese adult-cartoon classic Akira to the mostly bland, toothless, and schlocky wasteland of American kiddie TV. But what may have earned this cult favorite its Emmy - and many adult fans - was its writing, with its sophistication, its emphasis on mature character development, and its brand of delightfully unhinged yet all-too-human, and in some cases, sympathetic, villains. Veteran cartoon scribe Paul Dini worked as a writer, story editor, and producer for the noir-ish series, and brought a psychological, introspective edge to several of the show's scripts, including the Emmy-winning "Heart of Ice."
After a long production hiatus, Dini and co-producers Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett are working on new episodes for a revamped incarnation of Batman: The Animated Series, which is simply entitled Batman and will switch networks next fall, swinging from Fox's weekday afternoon schedule to the WB Network. Dini and his cohorts at the acclaimed Warner Bros. Television Animation studio also produce the current Superman cartoon, a less somber and moody but still-entertaining series that premiered on the WB last Sept. to rave reviews. On Feb. 28, Dini made an appearance at UC Santa Cruz's Oakes College, speaking at the History of American Caricatures and Cartoons class (which is taught by his sister, Jane Dini). Recently, I chatted with Paul Dini about writing and producing the animated adventures of America's two most-loved men-in-tights (and I do not mean Siegfried and Roy):
JA: What did you do before working for Warner Bros. Animation?
I was a taxidermist. No, I'm kidding. I've always been writing cartoons. I was writing them in college 15 years ago. When I went to Emerson College, it's how I put myself through school basically. The first couple of years, I was just a student, and then I got this nod to show some of my cartoons for the school newspaper to a producer who ran Filmation Studios. In '79 or '80, I began writing professionally for the studio. In '82, I moved out to California full-time and I jobbed around LA writing for various animation studios, just trying to get my feet wet; I was writing just anything I could. So I wrote a lot of really forgettable, awful cartoons. I loved cartoons and I loved working with artists and a few classic directors here and there that I got to meet. In '84, I got the opportunity to work for George Lucas up in San Francisco on some Star Wars-based shows that he was developing. I worked for him on the Ewoks/Droids show, which was kind of an interesting experience because a lot of the guys who were connected with the movies, like Ben Burtt [the Star Wars films' sound effects designer] and Nilo Rodis-Jamero [the films' art designer], were writing or designing vehicles for the series. So that was kind of fun. I looked upon working at [Skywalker Ranch, the Lucasfilm headquarters in San Rafael] as being sort of my film grad school. It was a very fun environment to be a part of for awhile.
After that - this was '88 or '89 - I came back to LA because an old friend of mine, Tom Ruegger, was starting up Warner Bros. Television Animation, and he asked me to be a part of Tiny Toons. So I worked for a season or two on Tiny Toons and got that show off the ground, and Jean MacCurdy [the president of Warner Bros. Animation] was assembling a team for Batman. The Batman movie had come out, and Warners was very interested in following it up with an animated series that would capitalize on the popularity of the Batman character and the movie. To spearhead the creative team, [MacCurdy] hired Bruce Timm, who was doing storyboards on Tiny Toons, and Eric Radomski, who was doing a lot of the background stylings [on the same show].
They had never really worked together that closely, [but] they had known each other on Tiny Toons and basically liked each other. It turned out they made a very good pair together because they're both very knowledgeable and very opinionated on what works, and in this case, they were completely simpatico.
Bruce wanted to do a very dark-looking, edgy show, where he was going to take and refine the look of the characters down to their bare minimum, and Eric wanted to do something that was set in a nightmarish, dark cartoon world - very stylish, very retro, and very Deco-looking. They blended perfectly early on. Jean knew that I loved the classic superheroes, and I really wanted to do a very dark and funny take on Batman. I thought that any other time Batman had been animated before, the elements were just dismal.
I always wanted to see Batman done as a Fleischer cartoon. It was always like a dream of mine. I would look at the old Fleischer Superman cartoons and I'd say, "The big sin is [the Fleischer brothers' studio] never did Batman. That would have been so perfect for them - just a couple of Batman shorts." So when Jean asked me if I was interested in working with Bruce and Eric, I said, "Man, are you kidding? Yes." Finally, here [was] a chance [for us] to do something in that style, and not just rip off what Fleischer was doing, but expand on that a little bit. [We'd] basically set the show in a very "Dark Deco" type world, but take it far beyond six minutes with what you could do with the Batman character, the villains, and the great supporting cast.
I [worked] on an early development of the [writers'] bible that Bruce had a lot of input in. Bruce has a screenwriter friend named Mitch Bryan, and he also contributed early on to the writing process and wrote a couple of early scripts. Warners TV Animation, at the time, was kind of exploding, because Tiny Toons had been this hit, and it really surprised us at how successful it was for its time. I remember being called back on a couple of Tiny Toons projects around that time, and I didn't want to give up on Batman, but everybody was yelling for me to work on different projects at once. So I took some time off from Batman, from the development stage, and Tom Ruegger and Alan Burnett stepped in to guide it through the development process. The show really caught fire once Alan came on. He was really able to do the vision of Batman that he wanted, which was very close to the one Bruce, Eric, and I wanted to do. [Alan also] gave Tom Ruegger, as a writer, a chance to stretch and write the more dark, introspective scripts he was not doing on Tiny Toons, but in some ways, he likes them even better than the funny stuff. By the time I finished my commitment to Spielberg on Tiny Toons, I was able to run right back [to] Batman around the 12th or 14th episode and write the Mr. Freeze story ["Heart of Ice"], which was the first one I wrote, and in some cases, the best.
JA: Yeah, it's my favorite [Batman episode].
Well, thank you. From there on, I just was writing scripts, one after another. I went from that one to the first Joker story I did, which was "Joker's Favor" and introduced Harley Quinn as a recurring element. Ever since I wrote ["Heart of Ice"], I'm just completely in love with the Batman characters. I [was] sitting there, [it was] late, and I was crying, when I [wrote] the first Mr. Freeze episode. I'm going, "Man, if I'm getting choked up over this, I gotta be having fun." I like writing stories that are kind of bittersweet, [though] they [might] have funny elements or action elements. But Batman's world is a world born out of sadness and trying to take power and fix that sadness. That's the theory I sort of applied not only to Batman, but to the villains as well.
JA: You also wrote "Harley and Ivy" and "The Man Who Killed Batman," and those are widely considered to be some of the series' best half-hours. Was there one special approach to your writing that you infused into those episodes?
I try and think of the characters as real. I know Batman's not really hanging from a building somewhere - well, I know Harley Quinn's real because, basically, I live in her apartment. [Laughs.] I'm renting an apartment from the woman who does Harley's voice [actress/Days of Our Lives alum Arleen Sorkin]. She's one of my best friends. It's how she actually wound up on the show. I was stuck for a character for a show, and I just called her up, and I said, "If this were 30 years ago, you would have been a villain's henchgirl on Batman. You want to do it on the show?" And she said [Mimics Sorkin's high-pitched voice], "Yeah!" I needed a girl, and I just wrote her around Arleen, whom I had actually seen play a jester in a fantasy sequence on Days of Our Lives, and she was dressed up as a little harlequin jester. So I basically just took her character and put her in [the show]. I needed somebody snappy and upbeat to be a contrast to who the Joker was.
When I look at the Batman characters, the villains in particular, they are villains simply because of whatever gimmick they've got. Before we really worked on Poison Ivy, she had plants and was kind of mean, and Freeze had his freezing gun and was in a freezing suit, but that was really all there was to them. So I tried to rethink the characters. I tried to give them something human to add to them, so Freeze became this tortured guy who was trying to save his wife and had run up against the bureaucracy. I think the villains are really consumed with personal pain, and that pain sort of stimulates a sense of the theatrical and the wicked in them. Whether it's Gotham City or whether it's just a reaction to Batman's existence or whatever, you don't just become a guy who knocks over a liquor store in Gotham City if you're angry with your life. You go out, you get a costume and a gimmick, and you live that life to the fullest. I was looking at how people would take sadness, sorrow, bitterness, or anger in their life, and how [those] would manifest [themselves] if you were going to become some exotic super-criminal. I always try and keep a little window open in the souls of these characters so they can see themselves as human at some points, which makes it a little more pointed.
You look at somebody like the Mad Hatter, who basically is an ugly guy who lives in this dream world and who fantasizes about a pretty co-worker. I based [the Mad Hatter's first episode, "Mad as a Hatter"] on a really tragic story that happened in Silicon Valley about five years ago, about this guy who was a brilliant but shy computer designer and had a fixation on a woman, and he shot everybody in the office. With the Hatter, I made somebody who is technologically brilliant, but who lives in this dream world and was probably ridiculed as a kid; everybody used to call him names because he looked geeky and looked like the Mad Hatter. He actually had a poster of the Mad Hatter up. He liked Alice in Wonderland. When he came up with a way of controlling people, suddenly, they were able to do his will, and he loved it, and he was able to bring his fantasies of Wonderland and living happily ever after to life. But the main reason he did it was he was in love with somebody, and he didn't want to use that power to control her because he knew that he'd lose her, but ultimately, he had to. That drove him over the edge and drove him crazy, so there's an element of sorrow to that character - unrequited love taken to the nth degree. That's sort of how I feel about Harley too, because she was somebody who was out to use these criminals as a way of writing a book about them to make herself famous. Then she wound up letting her guard down, and the Joker was able to manipulate her the way an abusive parent would manipulate a child - by withholding love, you can get a person to do whatever you want for them. I've seen that happen, time and time again, in relationships, where either guys are led around the nose by women whom they shouldn't be with, or guys take advantage of women. It's like a rock-star mentality. For all his villainy and his insanity, the Joker has this glamorous element to him, which is sort of attractive. I see guys in rock bands who have these gorgeous girls running around, and the guys treat them like dirt because it keeps [the girls] loyal, the girls are attracted to them and the excitement, and the guy knows that and plays them like a cheap fiddle. I think that's a very human thing, and when you put it in a cartoon, as long as you touch on it and not really harp on it, it really plays [well] with the audience.
[Emotions are] where the cartoon characters' power comes from. I used to think of things I used to read as a kid, like Peanuts. Here's this dopey kid with a talking dog, but still, Charlie Brown goes through such anguish that it would really [speak] to an audience. Same with the early Marvel Comics; that was the reason for their popularity. However caricatured it was, there was something basically human about the characters you were reading, whether it was Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, or whoever. A little bit of that done correctly and sympathetically in a cartoon goes a long way. Like the Disney characters. You all feel for them. Some of the stories are pretty overblown and kind of simplistic, but they always take pains to show a human element in there. And that's what I was mostly concerned with with Batman, not only doing that just with the villains, but with Batman himself.
I didn't intend to write a lot of stories where Batman was center stage. You mentioned "The Man Who Killed Batman," and I left him out completely. I wanted to do that just to show the idea of Batman is as strong as the character is himself. This character is feared and revered and talked about throughout the underworld, and even in that episode where he virtually didn't appear, he was the center of the episode. Well actually, the center of the episode was a little guy who takes credit for killing him, but the aura of Batman surrounds him, so either he's treated like a hero for knocking off this guy or he's now the guy all the gunslingers want to be. To me, that's interesting; that's a different way of playing Batman than just [having] the hero show up with his hands on his hips and say, "You're going to jail, Joker."
JA: Would you say Batman is the deepest and most mature cartoon you've worked on?
Absolutely. I think Superman, by contrast, is a lot of fun, and Tiny Toons and Animaniacs are much more hit-and-miss. Sometimes, you write a good one; sometimes, they're not so good. [Tiny Toons and Animaniacs] are so rooted in the contemporary sensibility that you may write something in April that you think is really funny and up-to-date, and then by the time it's on TV in November, it's like, "I don't get it - and I wrote it." [But] I think Animaniacs has elements in it that are more diverse than Tiny Toons, such as Pinky and the Brain.
Superman is more of a straight-ahead superhero show. It's a chance to do a lighter show, but not necessarily a funnier show. There are touches in Superman I just love. I think Lois Lane is a great character, and I love the way Dana Delany performs her. Even in stories where she's not doing much, we always try to keep her character constant. There was this moment in a show a few weeks ago where she's barely in the episode. She's running for the elevator, Clark says, "What's up?" and when she gets to the elevator, she's frantically pressing the buttons. She goes, "Big train wreck. About 10 miles north of here. Some guy's standing on the tracks, and right now, I wish it was the guy who built this stupid elevator!!" And then the doors close, she smiles, and she's on her way. It's like a fun thing to throw in there. It has nothing to do with the story; it's just a little way to keep an unengaging character alive.
Superman's a chance to have more fun. I wrote episodes with Lobo and Mr. Mxylptlk. Mxy was fun to write. We all sort of dreaded using Mxy on the show, and we knew we'd have to do him eventually. We didn't want him to be like the Mask, or a Robin Williams-type goofy character, so basically, I just made him a little shit. A mean little creep who just wants to screw around with Superman for the sake of screwing around with him. That episode hasn't aired yet; it will air in the fall. What became interesting about that episode is for about half [of it], Superman is on the ropes, but once he figures out how Mxy can be beaten, then it becomes Superman's turn to turn it back on Mxy and just bug the crap out of him. Every time he shows up, Superman beats him, and he goes off swearing to the 5th Dimension and plots for three months about how he's going to beat him again, and he goes back, and Superman beats him again. All the frustration that Superman was going through at the top of the episode is transferred onto Mxylptlk, and I thought that was a fun way of dealing with those characters.
If I had to differentiate between [Batman and Superman], I'd say Superman is sort of about hope. You've got this guy who's an alien and not truly human, but he personifies all the best qualities of humanity. He's sort of an example of what it would be nice to be like. We would all like to be like Superman. We would all like to have power, compassion, the ability to settle problems in a good way, and maybe [be able to] wink to ourselves about how nobody else besides us knows we really have this secret power and we keep it ourselves. There's not a lot of angst with Superman. If there is, it's more like, "I wish I could tell Lois who I really was." Batman is how you'd like to be if you [could] break someone's neck: "I'm pissed off, and I want to go out and do something about it." Superman waits for trouble to happen, and then he goes off and stops the problem. Batman's looking for trouble; he doesn't really start it, but he's out there looking. And if he sees something going on, he just jumps into the middle of it.
JA: Batman's sort of a sociopath too.
He's absolutely a sociopath. He's a sociopath with a lot of money, and he's got a sense of right and wrong. I don't think he's totally bereft of some sort of compassion or feeling for some of the villains. He doesn't go after somebody like Mr. Freeze without a small bit of compassion for the man, or maybe someone like the Mad Hatter, or even Harley, whom he thinks is certainly a pain in the ass, but I think he kind of wishes she'd get her act together and wise up at some point.
But with darker characters like the Scarecrow and the Joker, he's basically out to make sure they never get out again - whatever it takes to take them down. Somebody like the Joker is probably the least human of all of Batman's Rogues Gallery. That was why I never wanted to do a story that humanizes the Joker, like we did with the Mad Hatter or Mr. Freeze, because I just don't think the character lends itself to that. He's almost supernatural in a way; he's somebody who's just thoroughly insane, who does what he wants to do, and who has a grudge against Batman. He probably likes horrifying people with his clownish appearance as much as Batman terrorizes criminals with his nightmare-like appearance. The Joker is pretty inhuman. I'd say the same thing about the Scarecrow. He is someone who really gets turned on by scaring people. He's like the anti-Batman. He's a weak, very unimposing man until he puts on the Scarecrow costume, and then goes out and gasses people with fear gas, and he watches them squirm. There's probably a big turn-on seeing people helpless in front of him screaming in fear. He's an interesting character to work with, and we're actually redoing him for the new cartoon. We're doing a bunch of new cartoons for next season. Bruce Timm's just done a tremendous redesign of the Scarecrow. He looks horrifying. So we're looking forward to doing some more stories with him.
JA: So is there a new approach to the new Batman episodes for the WB?
Yeah. The show is being redesigned a little bit. The background style is staying the same. Bruce has learned a little bit about streamlining characters now that he's done Superman, which has an even more streamlined, cartoony look than the first Batman cartoon did. So he's adapting more of that to the Batman characters. Some characters are staying pretty much the same, like Batgirl, who looks the same, except for a slight costume color change. Harley is exactly the same. Everybody's identifiable, but there have been a few tweaks and changes here and there. The Joker's been slightly redesigned to make him look a little more inhuman. [For Batman], Bruce has gone back to an old Bob Kane-style design, where he has the old pouch-like utility belt and no golden oval symbol around the bat. [Batman's costume is] just grey and black, no blue highlights on him at all.
JA: It's like Batman: Year One.
Yeah, pretty much. There's a new Robin; we're using Tim Drake from the [more recent] comics. Robin has a new look; he's also much younger. Dick Grayson has actually left Batman. They had a falling out of sorts. He travels around the world and comes back as Nightwing. Batgirl's now a regular part of the cast. She has access to the Batcave and knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Alfred is still around; Gordon and the cops are still around. The villains are still around. Even though Batgirl and Robin give the series sort of a broader look and appeal, and possibly a lighter feeling with some of the business they do, we're not using them all together. It's not like Batman is leading the Batsquad, and everybody's running into action together. It's like they'll show up from time to time, and they each have a place in his life, but if anything, Batman himself is darker and grimmer. We could do episodes that will have a big focus on Batgirl and Robin, develop them, and make them interesting, but we really insisted that if we're going to use them as recurring characters, Batman has to hold himself back. He's got to be more of a bastard than ever. He's the one element that really can't lighten up. If you lighten him up, then you've got the old '60s show -
JA: - or the Joel Schumacher movies.
I wasn't going to say that, but I'm glad you did. You saw the trailer for Batman & Robin?
JA: I saw it last night at a press screening for The Empire Strikes Back, and I was very disappointed. I was not too thrilled.
Well, Joel is a lovely man and a very good friend.
JA: And he's got a great visual sense.
That's my official quote on him. I've been over the set a bunch of times, and we've talked Batman theories, and you can't really say, "My Batman is right and yours is wrong," and back and forth, because he loves the animated show. And my God, he sure referenced it a lot in this latest movie. There are scenes right out of a couple of my Mr. Freeze episodes. In a way, that's flattering and that's fun. But is it the take I would do on Batman? Probably not. But on the other hand, it's a take that he really loves, the actors love, and the guys over at the lot just love it. I'm sure there's a big audience for it. The audience who will go to see one of those movies, sit there, cheer, and enjoy it is not necessarily the audience that will sit down and read Batman: Year One or The Dark Knight Returns. There's just a divergence of audience opinion there. But on the other hand, it does show that Batman, in many ways, is a much more accessible character to a lot more people than Superman. Everybody knows Superman, and he's certainly the classic good guy, but when you do Superman, you're sort of married to Superman, Clark Kent, The Daily Planet, Lois Lane, et cetera. With Batman,the characters' palate is so diverse that you can do The Dark Knight Returns, The Animated Series, and any number of takes on the character, and any one of them is going to be interesting.
TJA: Yeah, there's some things I like about Schumacher, and then there's things I don't [like about him].
Yeah, the movie's going to have a lot of style and action. It's going to be very gaggy. All the dialogue is pretty much one-liners. The audience goes for an amusement-park ride.
JA: Going back to the new incarnation of Batman: The Animated Series, what's the title going to be?
Batman. At one point, we were going to call it Batman: Gotham Knights, which would emphasize the fact that Batgirl, Robin, and Nightwing are now part of the ongoing action. But the show itself is going to be called The New Batman/Superman Adventures, because it's going to run six days a week, and it's going to alternate between a new Batman episode and a new Superman episode. It'll run in the afternoon, and then on Saturday morning, it'll be an [hourlong] show. We're doing 65 [episodes] total for both Batman and Superman. We're probably doing about 24 episodes of Batman. There are going to be more Superman episodes than Batman episodes. And then we've got a big teamup between Batman and Superman coming up. It's World's Finest, and it's going to premiere as a 90-minute TV episode in September, like The Last Son of Krypton [pilot episode for Superman]. It'll also show up on videocassette, and it'll probably be broken up and shown on the series too at some point. But we want to give it some airplay as a TV-movie and video to make it more of an event. The only way to do the classic Superman/Batman teamup is to pit them against their archenemies, so it's Batman and Superman versus Lex Luthor and the Joker.
JA: So this new incarnation of Batman isn't going to be lighter in tone, like I feared?
No. The problem Kids' WB, and to a degree, the Warner lot, has is that they're very in love with whatever comes out, movie-wise. When Tim Burton's Batman came out, that was the way to go. Now Joel Schumacher's Batman is out there, and people are flocking to the movies, so they"re saying, "Can you lighten up the show a little bit? Can you have more fun with it?" So that's what we were charged with doing, and that's what we've done: to lighten up the color palette a little bit, so that every character's not just in dark colors. Robin, for instance, is now black, red, and gold, instead of green. Nightwing is black and a light, almost iridescent, blue. We've also given it a little more of a kid-friendly look. A kid may not watch an episode like -
JA: - "I Am the Night" -
- "I Am the Night" or "It's Never Too Late," which are heavy episodes. They've got much more of a street, classic gangster, film noir feel to them. Yet they may look at an episode where it's Batgirl fighting Catwoman for 20 minutes and they're certainly going to be interested in that, or Batman and Robin tracking the Joker through an amusement park, which we have certainly done before. On the other hand, what's the tone of the writing? Is it goofy Joker, like "O-ho, Batman! I'm gonna dump you into a big vat of cotton candy"? Or is it "Hey, Batman, I'm gonna blow your head off with a gun! Ha-ha"? So if we can keep the look a little softer and more bizarre and colorful, then the action and intensity can be just as it was.
We're going for more big set pieces, more of a Dick Sprang-type look to some of the action and set pieces, by putting [the characters] in elaborate settings. The opening of Batman & Robin kicks off with this huge fight in a natural-history museum, with Mr. Freeze stealing diamonds, and there's a giant dinosaur and a Mayan temple. There's stuff in there we love putting in the cartoons. It's just a matter of "What's the tone of the action going to be?" Is this going to be played for laughs or is it with a lot of puns, or is it going to be fairly serious? As long as we keep to a serious tone in the writing, then we can put the characters in any number of places; it'll be just visually exciting and a lot better than having them fight it out in an alley or on the top of a building.
We have a new Ventriloquist story that we've just recorded, which is more like a psychological story, like Magic. The Ventriloquist has been rehabilitated and is being haunted by Scarface. Not only does he appear to see Scarface everywhere, walking around by himself, but he also gets phone calls and letters from him. It's like, "Who the hell is doing this to me and why?" He's being stalked by this dummy.
I'm doing a Joker story now that, for better or worse, is a flat-out dark comedy. It's a very weird story based on a story I read years ago and I just loved. I found it in an anthology of old Batman stories. It's from the late '40s or early '50s, which is much more the goofier Dick Sprang-type Joker, but we came up with a way to make it black-humored and give it a nasty bent and still be true to the show. It's like a Joker solo show. Instead of him going around murdering people, he actually has some good luck and inherits a lot of money, and he's living it up and he doesn't have to be a criminal anymore. He basically bribes corrupt city politicians, doctors, and lawyers to write him a free bill of health, so he's walking around free, spending a lot of money, and it gets under Batman's skin. The law has decreed that he's sane and no longer responsible for any past crimes. [Batman's attitude is like,] "He's keeping out of trouble, but I don't have to like it. I'm going to haunt him until he does something bad, and then I can bust his ass again." It's fun taking the Joker to that length and seeing how far we can stretch him. The Joker that everybody's used to over the last 20 years really started in this Denny O'Neil-Neal Adams story, which returned him back to being a homicidal killer.
JA: "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge"
- which was one of the greatest stories of my childhood. I remember reading that story when I was 12, and I picked it up and went, "God, this looks good. Man, this is great!" We've had that and The Dark Knight Returns, and I was thinking, "Could we do just for once a lighter story about him and stretch him a little bit, but still keep that edge and still have him whip out a gun and threaten to blow someone's head off? [Could we] show another element to his personality that doesn't defy what the character is?" That episode is one everybody seems to like.
We may adapt the Mad Love graphic novel Bruce and I did a few years back. One problem with that is, "Do we want to do it as a solo Harley Quinn story?" As it is now, Harley's been showing up an awful lot in these new episodes. I love her, but I don't want to overuse her. We also adapted the Holiday Special that we did a few years ago because Warners asked us to come up with a Christmas-themed episode, so we took three elements from that book and basically made three shorts that have a Christmas theme. We did the Clayface story, the Harley and Ivy story, and the Joker's New Year story. I saw part of the storyboard for that. It really translated nicely to animation.
JA: Clayface is coming back from the dead?
Well, he's in the story. Whether it's a story that happened before or after he died, I don't know, I don't care. He was in the comic book, so he's in there. That's Clayface's story. He's back for one last appearance. We may reestablish him because we like the character. We like the fact that we were able to kill him off, but we're also thinking about creating a new Clayface or some element of him survived without Matt Hagen's personality attached to it. We're still figuring out ways to go with Clayface.
JA: A Lady Clayface, maybe?
PD: We thought about that. There's one in the comics, and she's able to do everything old Matt Hagen used to do.
Mr. Freeze is back in a new shocking incarnation. There's a Mr. Freeze/Batman video coming out this summer called Sub-Zero. I've seen some of the animation on it. It's just stunning-looking. It's got really nice-looking computer effects in it. Mr. Freeze kidnaps Barbara Gordon because she's got the same blood type as his wife, and that's what he needs to revive her. That video really brings closure to the Mr. Freeze and Nora Fries story, at least for the series, so that when Mr. Freeze comes back, he's a lot darker, more driven, and a lot more inhuman.
We have a Catwoman story in the works. We have a Two-Face story which actually sets up the new Robin character. Penguin is going to be returning to the series in a big way. We are actually taking a cue from something they've done in the comics which I really liked, where Penguin is running a nightclub in the current DC Comics continuity. He runs a nightclub called the Iceberg Lounge, and he's supposedly legit now. I thought that's a really nice thing to do with him, because here's this guy who always wanted to be looked up to. He wanted to be welcomed into high society, and he always thought that was his place in life. That's why he's always worn that little ridiculous tuxedo and acted like a gentleman.
What he's done in the series is he opened this nightclub and he doesn't allow anybody in. [Because of] the fact that it's an exclusive club, you have to be famous to get in, and it's run by an ex-supercriminal, everybody in town wants to go there. That's just human nature. If OJ Simpson opened a nightclub, half of humanity would be disgusted, and the other half would want to go. It's like, "What's he got in there? Hey, I wanna go see. I wanna hang out." Penguin takes stock of all this and does it, and he's laughing his ass off, going, "I should have done this years ago. What was I thinking messing around with those birds and robbing banks? This is great." He has everybody in town just waiting outside, begging to get inside, and he's making money. He's still a criminal because out of the backroom, he's like the Kingpin in Marvel Comics or Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca. Everybody comes to him and offers him information. He still has as much criminal activity running out of the backroom [as before], but he's got this thin veneer of respectability now, so quite often, Batman will have to go and bargain with him for something that he wants, and Penguin will just make him eat it until Batman threatens to wreak the place and Penguin has to give up information. But it adds a new element of tension to their relationship because Penguin sits behind his desk with a couple of big killer birds on either side of him, and Batman has to come in and play by his rules now. Penguin just loves it, that Batman can't reach over the table and smash him in the face. Well, he can, and he frequently will, but he's just not going to go to jail. It just adds a new dynamic to their relationship. It's kind of our way to do something with a formerly ho-hum character. Now that we're able to write the character this way, all the writers have really enjoyed him a lot. I think you'll be seeing a lot more of him. [This is] sort of the way Lex Luthor pops up in Superman. Even when he's not doing anything evil, he's one of the citizens of Metropolis that you see from time to time. Now, Penguin will be seen occasionally because he has become a member of the Gotham social set, at least for the time being.
JA: Is TMS doing the animation for Sub-Zero?
PD: No, I think Coco is. They're connected with Dong Yang. I don't think TMS is doing it. TMS is doing World's Finest though.
JA: Did you write for Sub-Zero?
PD: No. If I have any sort of credit on the film, it's script consultant, which wasn't really story editor. Basically, they went back and looked at a couple of Mr. Freeze episodes I wrote and took their cue from that. I was tied up with other projects. There was some friction about that actually. I really wanted to do it. I felt if this movie was going to happen, I really wanted a part in writing it. It was one of those things where it was just a time commitment. Randy Rogel wrote it. He's written a lot of great stuff for Animaniacs and some good episodes for the show; he wrote the Two-Face stories and "Robin's Reckoning." He really delivered the goods on this one. Boyd Kirkland had a hand in the shaping of the thing. I did a few weeks' work on it, sort of like an unofficial story editor, going over the story and suggesting some changes here and there. I went to a couple of the recording sessions and added a few things here and there. But my involvement with the actual story was very slight, other than providing the original stories they took their cues from and going in and making a few suggestions.
JA: I know Fox was pretty tough on [the hard-boiled content of] Batman. Is the WB a little more permissible with certain things?
PD: For the most part, yeah. I've got nothing bad to say about the WB. This is one of the reasons animation is so crappy on television: the [other] networks can't leave anything alone. I don't see eye-to-eye with [Ren & Stimpy creator] John Kricfalusi on a lot of things, but I do agree with him wholeheartedly that animation for television has basically been raped by network executives who don't contribute anything to the process.
Do you watch The Simpsons? Did you see the episode about Poochie the Dog? There's every network executive in there. You have creative people sitting in a meeting, and then you got some network executive come in. The executive will say, "Let's have the character be a little more with-it, a little more hip, a little more today, a little more contemporary, a little like "Hey dude, hey wow!'" [These are] executives at other networks, like the Big Three networks, and to a smaller degree, Fox. This is the thing that plagued animation writing when I started, which was the early '80s. You had all this shit on TV -- it was like Smurfs, He-Man, She-Ra. I actually worked on some of those [shows], and it was just all these life-draining, soul-numbing meetings with these executives who come in, and they just say, "We want this character more fun, more appealing to girls, more this, more that." In their way of thinking, animation is supposed to be something that's not interesting or fun to look at, or God forbid, you should laugh at. They want it to be comforting for kids, so a kid will watch, smile, and stare happily like a little drone, in between Fruit Roll-Up commercials. That's basically what they look for, for shows like that.
So there was just this wasteland of crap, until the late '80s. And then things began to change just a little bit. Funny shows began to come back, and a little more creativity began getting back to the cartoons. Saturday morning itself began to change a little when stuff like Pee-Wee's Playhouse came on because kids and adults were watching it. And then Ralph Bakshi's Mighty Mouse came on; that was outrageous and over-the-top. In a much more different category, the Disney shows like DuckTales were not funny or great, by any stretch of the imagination, but they at least were sort of true to themselves. Disney didn't have anybody to listen to; they wanted to make the DuckTales show they wanted to make, or the Goofy show they wanted to make. They were appealing, and they didn't have anybody telling them to change the personalities of the characters. Any changes they made they made themselves, which I think was a positive thing, even though I'm not a tremendous fan of their shows. I do appreciate the amount of work that went into them. If anyone's going to mess with those characters, [Disney was] going to mess with them. It wasn't a network saying, "Well, let's not have Donald quack; let's have him talk like a regular person because kids will get confused."
The thing that really hurt animation is that the producers doing the stuff over the last 20 years were these stinking cowards who'd go into these meetings, suck up to the programmers, and just do whatever they want. They're people who have no love for cartoons; they don't even like cartoons. They're just in the business of making them. It's like, "You want red sprinkles on your donuts instead of green sprinkles? Fine, we can do that. You want Archie to be six years old instead of a teenager? Fine, we can do that!" These are people who don't really value whatever character they're working on, whatever was appealing about their character. When Bakshi did Mighty Mouse, Mighty Mouse was not a great character, but Bakshi and Kricfalusi were thinking, "Let's go and have as much fun as we can with it." That's what they said on Tiny Toons: "We know this is basically a retread of Warner Bros. cartoons. We want younger versions of similar animals, but see if you can have fun with it." So we went in and it's like 50/50; 50 percent of the shows are kind of dismal, but 50 percent are kind of good. And they were fun. At least we could experiment a little bit, and nobody was telling us no on it, except for people like Steven [Spielberg]. Fox had very minimal input in it because we were dealing with Spielberg, who told us what he liked and what he didn't like, and left it to us to figure it out. Then you got Animaniacs, which I think, overall, is a better show, and Pinky and the Brain, which no one really monkeys with.
With Batman, we got notes from Fox on it, about the content of the show, and sometimes, we would have big fights over bits of action. Sometimes, an executive would call us and say, "Explain this scene to me," and I'd say, "Look, if I have to explain it to you, you don't get it." I was never able to mouth off like that on CBS, when I was working with the know-nothing producers who would be like, "Oh, they want this character to be a cowboy and not a pirate. Change everything." It's like, "What difference does it make? Stick up for your show. It's your show. Don't you like cartoons?"
That's the thing about Warner Bros.: everybody is pretty passionate about cartoons on some level. The people at Pinky and the Brain really know how to make a good Pinky and the Brain cartoon. At Batman, we know how to make great Batman cartoons. We just stick to our guns. The best thing about Warner Bros. and the WB is they allow us to do that. Sure, [WB executive] Jamie Kellner may have suggestions; he wants to see more of Batgirl or Robin on the show. On the other hand, there's nobody really reading the scripts at the WB saying, "Hey, Robin wasn't in the show this week. Rewrite that episode. Stick him back in." We have to police ourselves to make sure we do that. We'll sit down and say, "Well, we've had two shows where there's been very light participation from Barbara Gordon. We need to get her back in action as Batgirl, so let's get a good Batgirl story." So that's the way we think of the stories. We break the stories the way they sort of do on a sitcom, with all the writers sitting around and spitballing ideas. We think about the characters in their off-hours. The artists have a lot to say about the show, like Bruce Timm, who is very vocal with what he thinks about the scripts. We'll have sessions with him, where he wants stuff rewritten or redone. Glen Murakami, an art designer, has also got his input. The storyboard guys will get together and talk. If there's something that's bothering them, they'll come to me or to Alan, and we'll sit and discuss it.
We want the show to be good, so we really can't afford individual ego on it. I mean I have next to no ego when I write the show because I know it's got to be drawn, what I've got in there has to translate, and I want the artists' input on what I've got there. If they have a problem where they want to completely throw out a sequence that I really like and think is crucial to the story, I'm obviously going to fight them on it. I'll just fight it when I see something weak in the storyboard that I don't like, or if I hear a bad voice performance that I want to recast. But at least the door is open so the people making the decisions on the show are the people responsible for the show. It's the writers, producers, designers, board artists, and directors, which is the way to do it.
It's not like Jean MacCurdy dictates policy over individual episodes or the network punishes us with weeklong rewrites of episodes they don't think are funny. If anything, we have to be even more conscientious than ever to make sure the shows are that involving, are that good, and they are that funny when we need an element of humor in them. Otherwise, you'll wind up with some network moron going, "Can Batman sort of make a little joke about this?" Batman doesn't make little jokes about anything. If he does, it's like mordant black humor.
In one script we did recently, the Joker is in this crashing vehicle, and he can't get out in time. He's trapped, the vehicle's going to blow, and he's screaming. He starts laughing insanely, and the vehicle blows up. You see Batman grab Harley and pull her outside. She looks back at the smoking wreckage and she screams out, "Puddin'!" Batman just grins and says, "At this point, he probably is." That's as funny as he gets. It's a grim but funny line, and that's as close as he comes to cracking a joke.
JA: What makes [your] Superman different from previous adaptations?
PD: We didn't want to be boring with Superman and just give you plain old Superman. We wanted to give the guy a little bit more depth. We wanted to get into his head just a little bit more, and at the same time, we wanted a show with something that made the character purely heroic.
Superman is Clark Kent; that's who he is. He's a very human guy, and that extends to every element of him, as Superman and in his off-hours. We never liked playing him stiff. We like showing moments where he can be hurt emotionally, as well as physically. We don't like playing him like a square-jawed monk who just sits around and spouts rhetoric about how people should behave themselves.
(Hmm...is this a dig at the Christopher Reeve version of Superman? -- Webkeeper)
In one episode we did for next season, we have him rescuing a little kid. He stands there with his hands on his hips, and he says, "You know, it's alright to play around with your friends, but you shouldn't do things on a dare because that will only lead to trouble. Goodbye, kids." He flies off, and one of the kids goes, "What a dork!" [Laughs.]