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Up to Bat with Alan Burnett
The Emmy winner talks cartoons, comics, and how he just can't quit Batman
Brandon Keaton sat down with Alan Burnett—writer & producer on Batman: The Animated Series and Mask of the Phantasm. What follows is their conversation in its entirety from October 13, 2023.
Breaking the ice.
Alan, this is a real treat for me because your work has been such a big part of my life. You must get that kind of praise from a lot of folks.
It happens at the conventions. People are very nice. You put these shows out there and you wonder if they’re having any effect at all. Then, when you hear from adults how they used to run home from school to catch them it’s very gratifying.
It occurs to me that someone with an imagination like yours must've had a wonderful childhood. Can you tell me a little bit about your youth?
Yeah, sure. It started off normally. I grew up in a middle-class, suburban neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, with lots of playmates on the street. This was in the 1950’s, when you could leave the house in the morning and have the run of the neighborhood parent-free until dinner. However, when I was twelve years old, my father, who had fallen in love with the state of Florida, decided to move us down there and buy a motel. That motel became a family business. Suddenly I went from sweet suburbia to life on a four-lane highway.
Oh man, that would’ve been almost like culture shock.
It was, because up until I went to college my bedroom was a motel room… which goes a long way to explaining my love for television [laughter].
So, you were more of a television kid than you were a comic book kid?
Well I was both, although television edged out comics as I got older. But I was a manic comic book reader until around age fourteen when Ian Fleming and other influences took over. Even so I consider those years of comic reading probably more important to my career than my college degrees [laughter].
I find almost everyone can pluck something from pop culture that affected them so deeply that it follows them from their youth to adulthood. For me it came in 1989 when Batman hit theatres, and my love for Batman has never relented. Did you have an experience like that?
Absolutely. Batman comics were the first superhero comics I ever read and that was a big deal. I was probably around nine at the time, and suddenly here was this dangerous, adult world that I could completely understand. I was instantly hooked. No more “Little Lulu” or “Mickey Mouse” funny books. It was superheroes all the way [laughter].
Was there a movie which kind of made you feel the same way?
I was fourteen when I went to see Goldfinger. That was another eye-opener. I went to see it with a group of friends, and had no idea what I was in for. If you remember, the opening has Bond kissing a woman who has just gotten out of a bath. The towel drops, showing the top of her derrière.
You were officially a teenager, hormones and all.
That’s when D.C. and Marvel started taking a backseat [laughter].
Ah, boyhood [laughter]. Did you start writing your own stories around that time, or was that something that happened much later?
Later. After college. But I would think up stories as a kid and imagine them playing out in comic book panels… but there was no prose, no scripts.
I’m somewhat familiar with your animation background, and I see a thread throughout your work… a sense of humour that reminds me of Walt Kelly’s POGO.
You know what, I never read Pogo, and that’s too bad because I might have enjoyed it had I gotten into it. The first spec scripts I ever wrote were for sitcoms. I thought that’s where my career would be going, before it took its turns. I think humor is an important element in superhero stories. It helps to center the world, and what I mean by that is that humor reminds you that superheroes are essentially a juvenile fantasy. They wear masks and capes and tights, and jump and swing and fly around with abandon.
Just another beautiful form of make-believe, eh?
They’re an adolescent romance at heart, and if you get too serious with them, too grim and bloody and psychotic, you’ll come to a dead end. On the other hand, if you go the other direction and treat them like a joke, they become camp, and that too is a dead end. But somewhere in the wide middle you can tell a great variety of serious stories if you know how to be at least a little tongue-in-cheek about it.
Getting a foot in the door.
How did you end up getting your first break into “the business”?
I had a master’s degree in film production that no one in “the business” cared about [laughter]. But what it did do was get me into the page program at NBC. You had to have a college degree to become a page because pages were expected to move onto other jobs within the network. They’re given a year-and-a-half to do that.
Sounds like you were a production runner.
Yeah, about a year into it, I got an internship into Children’s Programming, and that was the big break. I got a chance to see the kid’s business from the inside, and I felt very much at home there. On top of all that, my two bosses at NBC, Margaret Loesch and Jean MacCurdy, would go on to become my bosses again when they respectively headed up Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros. Animation. So that internship was a real gift of fate.
So many kids, myself included, grew up watching the shows you worked on. Your résumé is insane… Scooby Doo, Snorks, Super Friends… I can’t even name them all. But it’s The Smurfs that you're first credited on. Can you tell me how you landed that gig?
I had been at Hanna-Barbera for a couple of years as a staff writer, and had already cut my teeth as a story editor on the last two years of “Super Friends” which was called “The Super Powers Show.” When I wasn’t working on that, I wrote a couple of Smurf shows, which were well-received, and suddenly I found myself as a story editor on the Smurfs.
You wrote over fifty episodes from that 1980s run. That’s no small thing.
You might not think it, but The Smurfs was the toughest, most time-consuming series I ever worked on. It was an hour-and-a-half show at the time with thirty-nine new stories needed every season. The show had been on for four seasons already, so coming up with new ideas for stories was no walk in the park.
The Smurfs were and still are a huge franchise. Were you given a lot of leeway on it, or was it pretty tight ship?
The network, NBC, was very hands-on about the Smurfs. It was their tentpole show. It was so popular it was referred to as “The Big Blue Wall.”
Why’d they call it that?
Because the other networks’ ratings could never beat The Smurfs [laughter]. Peyo, the creator, who lived in Belgium, was even more particular. Easily half the stories we faxed him got rejected, and lots of times for reasons that would have us scratching our heads.
Can you give an example?
We had a story in which the Smurfs got into a mud fight, and he insisted his little Smurfs would never get muddy. We were so desperate for stories, I came up with one in which we shrank the Smurfs, and they were already small!
I always liked the one with the heart tattoo on his arm… I think that was Hefty. Do you recall any specific Smurfs that you helped to create?
We created a few new ones in the two years I was on the show, but I can’t remember one I directly created. We actually were going through the business section of phone books to come up with new occupations for the Smurfs [laughter].
Ah yes, the old Yellow Pages. Did you ever get to meet Peyo?
Yes, the story editors and the network were flown to Belgium on several occasions to develop stories and directions for the show. Peyo was a soft-spoken, grandfatherly type with a moustache and glasses. He didn’t speak English, though his grown children did, and sometimes they’d act as interpreters. We never knew what he would object to. Our sensibilities were a little more… liberal than his.
The Reagan Era.
The Eighties were a special time. The Nineties, too. Sometimes I wish we could all go back there for just a little while.
I remember during the Reagan administration, Nancy Reagan had a huge anti-drug campaign called, “Just Say No.” Do you remember that, maybe?
Absolutely. All the kids at school were wearing the t-shirts. It looked a bit like Green Lantern’s logo.
That’s it! Well on the Smurfs we were always trying to find stories with pro-social themes, so I wrote one about a magical orb that became an addiction for the Smurfs. Peyo was late in objecting to it, so it ended up getting made, and the episode got awards and a lot of notice… and even a letter of appreciation from the First Lady.
I wonder why Peyo had a problem with that? The idea sounds Smurfy enough.
Even so, Peyo still wrote to Nancy, stating how the show was done without his approval. I doubt if the letter ever got to her desk… but yes, he was very protective of his little Smurfs.
Did that sort of zealous caution hinder the show, you think?
At the end of the Smurfs, Hanna-Barbera had a syndication package of ten years worth of shows… an enormous amount of content. But they never really sold it here in the United States, and I think the reason is that the animation was so limited that it looked and felt cheap. A lot of ‘80’s product suffers from that.
My siblings and I are all over the age of forty now and we can still recite the theme song to Gummi Bears and DuckTales. Don’t worry, I promise I’m not going to sing them [laughter].
Among the most satisfying scripts I’ve ever written were the ones for DuckTales, which was as close to a sitcom in kids’ animation as you could get. On the other hand, I only wrote a couple of episodes and don’t have any particular attachment to Gummi Bears. It was just a job, but I will tell you it was the Gummi Bears that got me to quit Hanna-Barbera and come over to Disney. The TV animation was so much fuller at Disney.
I've had jobs in the past where the only takeaway after the fact was to say to myself, okay, I never wanna do that again. It sounds like you were getting creatively frustrated by that point.
Yes. I didn’t want to write for ages two to eleven anymore, and I didn’t want the network notes. At Disney, I also felt I’d be stuck with feathers and fur for a long time. For those reasons, I ended up with Batman at Warner Brothers.
Batman: The Animated Series
Well let’s talk about Batman. Not only was the animated series so damn good, but it wasn’t really “Saturday morning fare.” Do you feel the 1989 Batman film helped pave the way a little bit for the show’s dark tone?
Absolutely. Tim Burton was even asked if he wanted to be the producer of “Batman: The Animated Series” like Steven Spielberg was for “Tiny Toons.” The studio heads thought it would be a good idea to attach a name, but it didn’t interest him.
Did you and the creative team ever get any pushback on what you could and couldn't do with the Batman characters?
Not really. BTAS may have been overseen by FOX Kids, the children’s programming department, but you’re right, it was not a Saturday morning show. In America, it was an afternoon show broadcast at 3:30 PM, Monday through Friday. So that time slot really allowed us to be able to cater an older audience.
Some of the episodes gave me the heebie-jeebies… the one where Batman’s stuck in a dream and it’s almost like the Twilight Zone. That’s as unnerving as anything I’ve seen in a Batman movie.
That’s because the Broadcast Standards person in charge of the show, or the censor, understood very well what we were doing. Her name was Avery Cobern, and she was a great help. It was rare when she and I were at odds on anything. But if we were venturing in a sensitive story area, like let’s say child endangerment, she would help us find ways to tell the story within network parameters. I think we only had two stories that got totally shot down.
What were those about?
One involved the gun that was used to murder Bruce’s parents, and the other was about Nocturna, who would bite Batman and turn him into a vampire. Fox was nervous about blood-sucking [laughter].
Kirk Langstrom sticks in my mind as being kind of vampiric. Another thing that stuck with me was how great the voice actors were on the show. Was it tough to secure that level of talent?
Our voice director, the legendary Andrea Romano, is responsible for that success. She would go after anyone. She said that “Batman” was kind of a magical word with actors, especially ones with children. And actors got a kick out of being in something that their children would find cool.
Batman lovers will surely recognize your name along with Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. Was the working environment with them a well-oiled machine, or was there some head-butting to get your ideas across?
Sure, there was some head-butting, but we were all pretty much on the same page with Batman. It was a fairly congenial crew all the way around.
The Joker’s moll.
Harley Quinn is one of those characters that feels like she’s always been around. Was there a specific need when you guys created her, and did anyone expect that she’d become as popular as she has?
There was no real need. Paul Dini came into my office one day and said he wanted to give Joker a girlfriend, and that he had Arleen (Sorkin) in mind. I said fine. I was fine with any idea Paul had, and he had a certain genius for writing naughty girls [laughter]. Harley was introduced in one episode without the costume, as Harleen Quinzel. It was the next Joker episode in which she appeared in the jester’s outfit. Suddenly she took off, and now happens to be the fourth most popular character in DC’s line-up, right behind Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Who could’ve predicted it?
We lost Arleen Sorkin recently, may she rest in peace. When I think of Harley, it’s Arleen’s voice that I hear in my head. Do you have any special thoughts about her that you wish to share?
I hadn’t seen Arleen in many years, though I’d hear about her through Paul Dini. She’s had health issues that kept her homebound off and on, which is the reason why other actresses started playing Harley. But back in the day she was a lovely, quirky person.
Is it true that Paul got his inspiration for Harley from her? I mean even their names are alike [H]arleen and Arleen.
She and Paul graduated from Emerson College, and they briefly dated. She had a comedic role on a soap called Days of our Lives, which called for her to wear a jester’s outfit in one episode. Paul saw it, and that was the start of Harley Quinn. I remember that Arleen always wanted to play Miss Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls” and she would have been perfect.
Any fond memories of Kevin Conroy?
I can’t say enough. All the accolades are true. He really was a heroic figure in life. I saw him ten years before he did Batman in a stage production of “Deathtrap” with Brian Bedford. Kevin was a trained stage actor with a glorious, booming voice. He studied at Julliard. Two of his co-students were Christopher Reeve and Robin Williams. Robin was in the next dorm room and Kevin used to hear him having conversations with himself in different voices [laughter]. It’s kind of amazing to think of future versions of Superman, Batman, and Popeye all cloistered together like that.
I never got to meet him, but he seemed like the loveliest man. I’ve never heard anything negative about him.
He loved the fans and they loved him. I don’t think Kevin knew much of anything about Batman before he started, but by the end I’m told he dedicated an entire room in his New York apartment to the Dark Knight.
He was an empathetic Batman. I think another reason why BTAS works so well is because you empathize with the villains too. But on the flipside, if you take a character like Lex Luthor or General Zod, you just sort of accept them for being the pricks they are. Why do you think that is?
We always strove to give a reason for why villains became the way they were. It deepens them as characters, and makes them far more interesting. The only villain we didn’t explain was the Joker. We left him as evil incarnate, because that past is best left a mystery. Any explanation in full would only diminish him.
Tim Curry was originally cast as the Joker on the show, and he undoubtedly would’ve been wonderful, but he had to bow out after a few episodes. Were you surprised to find Luke Skywalker himself would end up giving such a great performance?
It was not an easy decision to replace Tim, and yes, it was a surprise when we heard Mark Hamill’s audition. Who knew that this soft-spoken guy with the surfer-boy looks was deep down an extraordinary character actor?
There’s more than one reference in BTAS that points to the Joker being Jack Napier. Do you personally have an idea of who he really is, or do you just prefer that his backstory should remain unknown?
In Mask of the Phantasm we actually showed who he was before he became the Joker. But I think it’s probably best to leave the rest of it as a mystery.
Harvey Dent’s always been a personal favourite. He’s Bruce Wayne gone wrong. What's interesting about your version is that he had a dual personality before the accident which turned him into Two-Face.
It never quite made sense that the acid that destroyed his face would also give Harvey Dent a split personality. I always thought he already had a second personality, and that his disfigurement only served to allow his evil side to emerge more easily. I thought this was an original notion, and then a couple years later I read a Two-Face comic book story by Andy Helfer that actually preceded BTAS, which had the same idea.
“Heart of Ice” literally gives me chills, no pun intended. It’s one of those episodes that I think everyone loves, and I’m not entirely sure that Mr. Freeze had been done justice prior to that.
When I first got on staff, Paul (Dini) for various reasons had one foot out the door at Warner Brothers. I implored him to at least write something for Batman before he made a final decision to leave. He said okay, and that he had an idea he’d been playing around with. The next night I had in my hands two pages, single-spaced, of the Heart of Ice story. I immediately called up the network programmer at FOX to alert him that I was about to send him something that was gold.
Michael Ansara was incredible as Victor Fries. It was really sad to watch him go from trying to save his wife and then transform into this robotic, emotionless state.
I remember Bruce Timm telling Andrea to tell him, “Less emotion,” over and over during the voice recordings. It almost got down to completely monotone, but not quite. It was interesting to see Ansara work it out.
Do you have any other standout moments from the series?
Besides “Heart of Ice,” I also love another by Paul, “Almost Got ‘Im” which is about a poker game with the rogue’s gallery. There’s also “Perchance to Dream,” which you mentioned, and “Read My Lips,” the first Ventriloquist story. Both of those were written by Joe R. Lansdale. I also think the second part of “Feat of Clay,” the Clayface story, may be our best actual animation. That was done by TMS Entertainment in Japan. I loved their work.
BTAS had a whole generation hook, line, and sinker. At the time I was buying all the Kenner figures that I could get my mitts on. Did you have any input into the toys, or did you stay away from the merchandise?
Unlike Superman, let’s say, Batman invites toy lines. You have all those wonderful Bat-family figures and villain figures and bat vehicles, and gadgets. It’s endless. Occasionally we were asked to come up with stories that featured new suits, like an aquatic bat suit for underwater stealth and an all-white one to camouflage Batman in the snow, but that was a rare request, and we really didn’t have to follow through.
A lot of “franchises” put a lot of stock into how many toys they can sell. Kenner never dictated the show or anything, did they?
No. And they would make the toys they wanted to make anyway. We never created a Batman episode just to feature a piece of merchandise. With Superman: The Animated Series we had several weird toy items to explain in the show, like… a Superman rocket [laughter].
I don’t remember that [laughter]. Why would he even need a rocket?
Who knows? [laughter] I can’t even remember what excuse we used to feature it, but we did. I’ve never been a toy guy myself, unlike my co-workers. The merchandise that was sent to me eventually went to my children or their cousins.
It’s interesting that BTAS kicked off the same year that Batman Returns came out, and I remember that movie caught a bit of negative flack. Did that affect the show in any way?
It didn’t affect the show at all. We were privy to the pre-production on Batman Returns because the studio envisioned the movie and series overlapping in some way. Maybe they were hoping for that, but as I said Tim Burton was disinterested in the series, so the overlap was minimal.
The animated Penguin in particular looks quite similar to the Danny DeVito version, what with the three-fingered hands and all.
Our artists may have taken some ideas from the movie in their models, but very few as I remember. I remember being given a copy of the Batman Returns script before production. It was long… around 140 pages. It was very dense and not exactly what you would call a page-turner.
Batman Returns is pretty berserk, but I love that about it.
I remember one paragraph in the script in which each sentence had different circus performers doing crazy stunts, and I thought that that section alone would cost a half-million. I never thought Burton would shoot it all, but he did. To my memory he filmed everything in that script, including the ifs, ands, or buts. I was kind of amazed by that.
Since we’re talking about Burton’s Batman… the psychological aspects of that version are what sucked me in... this private pain which he tries to work out with his hands. But some fans put a lot of emphasis on Batman’s “no kill” rule. What’s your overall take on whether he can or shouldn’t?
He had two rules: Never use a gun, and never kill. I think those are fine rules to live by. Heaven knows he never let any other rules stand in his way.
Murdering someone could send Bruce down a different path. He could've become a villain himself. What do you think ultimately keeps him in check? His upbringing? Alfred's supervision?
I would think both. He was so horrified by his parents’ death, he never wanted anyone else to experience such torment. Our feeling on the show was the first time Bruce put on Batman’s mask was the greatest day for Gotham City and the most tragic for Bruce Wayne.
Mask of the Phantasm.
It’s hard to believe it’s been thirty years since Mask of the Phantasm was released, and you co-created the Phantasm/Andrea Beaumont character. Was she inspired by someone in your real life?
No, I have known few homicidal maniacs [laughter]. But I did name Andrea after my daughter, who’s a sweetheart.
You named Andrea after your daughter? She must love that.
My kids got a kick out of me being in animation. I've used their names many a time in scripts. One of my fondest memories is taking the whole family to New York City for the Emmys. My kids got to meet the Foo Fighters among other stars.
Oh man, what a great dad!
Yes, I was a very special father that night.
Your storytelling in the movie flirts with the idea of Bruce Wayne giving up the mantle by way of falling in love. Do you think he could ever find something or someone that might truly make him give that up? So many stories like “The Dark Knight Returns” make me think he just can't.
No, he’s stuck. He’s the worst boyfriend material imaginable [laughter]. On the occasions where he allows something to happen between him and a woman, he inevitably finds himself lost. He doesn’t know how to act. He reverts in age.
He goes back to being that traumatized kid again on some level?
He becomes awkward, like a boy on a first date. Or worse, a Boy Scout on a first date. It can never last. If you write Batman stories long enough you can’t help thinking about his sex life.
Nooooo, that’s like imagining your parents having sex, you just don’t do it [laughter].
Denny O’Neil, a smarter writer than I, made him a monk [laughter]. He said Bruce never has sex. He channels all that energy into fighting crime. Yes, he dates a lot, but it’s a different woman each time… and only to keep up his playboy image in the press.
Now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever really entertained the notion that Batman was gay… maybe the Adam West version… not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Yeah [laughter]… if all these women collectively got together and discussed their nights with Bruce, they’d probably conclude he was gay. What I’ve found is that if you decide to take your hero down lover’s lane, your viewers will go with you… but they won’t necessarily like it. This goes triple if your hero’s name is Batman.
Yeah I can see that… it’s one of those “damned if you do” scenarios.
In Batman Beyond we established that Bruce and Barbara Gordon, or Batgirl, had had a relationship years before… but when we actually explored it in a Batman home video, it was too much for the fans. They wanted to forget it ever happened. So did Batman [laughter]. So, yeah, even though I thought it was a good story, you have to be careful.
Let’s talk about Terry McGinnis a little bit and how you created that version of Batman.
Well the network brought Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and me into a room, saying they were “tired” of adult Batman. They wanted to do a young Batman series. However, if we did kid Bruce Wayne, we wouldn’t have the bat motif, or any of the rogue villains. That show would feel more like Jonny Quest. So, we went into the future to create a new Batman, which would give us the bat name, bat gear, and the possibility of bringing in villains from the past, though we rarely did that.
Did you have any input into the design of the series or did you stay out of that territory?
Only in that we discussed the powers the suit would have. The design is all Bruce Timm’s, and he came up with it pretty quickly. Maybe that same day.
I loved the cyberpunk aspect to Batman Beyond, and you snagged those well-deserved Emmy awards you mentioned for it.
Well, the irony is that the network wanted a “kid” Batman hoping to appeal to a younger audience for Saturday morning advertisers. But being the fanboys we were, we gave them a show that was still every bit as hard-hitting as the adult Batman we’d been producing. Consequently, Batman Beyond was not on the air as long as it was supposed to be.
After all this time working on Batman you must feel like him yourself in some ways. Is there a version of Batman in your mind, whether it's comics or in the shows, that is definitive for you?
I think I produced it [laughter]. But there’s many versions of Batman I’ve enjoyed. My favorite comic book run is probably by Steve Englehart from the mid-seventies. I don’t think it lasted a year, but it was primo stuff. Englehart was told to mimic Marvel and to give a soap-opera thread to the stories… and so he introduced Silver St. Cloud, maybe the most serious romance Batman ever had until Phantasm. This run also includes “The Laughing Fish” story, which we adapted for the series, another of my favorite episodes.
Who's your favourite live-action Batman actor?
I may have had trouble with some of the movies, but I’ve never disliked any of the choices for Batman… even Clooney.
For a while there were rumblings that Michael Keaton would star in a live-action Batman Beyond film. Would that have had your stamp of approval?
Sure. He was fun in The Flash movie.
I think he was having fun, too. I never thought I’d live to see Keaton come back… Batman Beyond with him would’ve been something special.
The new DC group is not looking back, from what I’ve read, nor do I think Batman Beyond is on their front burners. I actually co-wrote a screenplay for a live-action Batman Beyond with director Boaz Yakin and Paul (Dini). Boaz was the one spear-heading the script, and at the time there was talk about Clint Eastwood as old Bruce Wayne. I think he’d still be good for it.
I love popcorn movies, but part of me wants to see Hollywood go back to smaller films, the kind that studios used to take more of a chance on. Do you have any thoughts on the current state of superhero cinema?
I’m like everyone else… I kind of sense a leveling off of interest, but no notable decline. Just when you start not to care, along comes something like The Batman to get you charged up again. What I ask myself more is where is the next non-comic franchise is coming from? Where’s the next James Bond, Indiana Jones, or Harry Potter? Personally, I’d rush to the theaters for another Sam Spade.
There’s an endless supply of mind-blowing comics that Hollywood could pull stories from… like Bone or Maus, for example. Maus was the first comic that ever made me cry. It might be the only one. Are there any comics in particular that moved you?
The only comic that’s ever brought me to tears was the imaginary story “The Death of Superman” back in 1961. Lex Luthor has never been more diabolical. I was eleven at the time. I was so affected that I would re-boot that story for a “Super Powers” episode in 1985. I must confess that I’ve read so many graphic novels for work that I’ve stayed away from them in my personal reading. I’m sorry to say I’ve had Maus on my bookshelf for ten years and have yet to read it. Maybe now would be a good time considering the news.
Were there any projects that you began and didn't get to finish? Maybe something you really wanted to get off the ground, but couldn't for whatever reason?
Over nearly forty years I’ve been involved in a lot of development that went nowhere. There was a pilot I wrote for Lily Tomlin’s “Edith Ann” character. There was a 65-episode space opera I developed with Steven Spielberg, a script I wrote for an animated Lupin movie, and an R-rated Swamp Thing.
Seeing Man-Thing in Werewolf By Night showed it could be done. But yeah, it kind of has to be be R-rated to do it right, eh?
Yeah, it would’ve been a home video written by Joe Lansdale, which I would have loved to have produced.
He’s brilliant… Bubba Ho-Tep is so good. I wonder whether artists like Joe and yourself appreciate how much their work becomes part of the fabric of peoples’ lives. It’s the same way certain music creates a soundtrack to your life. I think your contribution to television and film cannot be overstated. How do you feel about that?
You’re very kind. Your question reminds me of a eulogy that Paul Levitz gave at a memorial luncheon for Bob Kane, where he praised him for creating a concept so strong in Batman that it could be handed down through generations for other creators to interpret and enhance while maintaining the core. Denny O’Neil described working on Batman as being a caretaker of sorts, keeping Batman relevant without doing damage. That’s exactly how I felt when Batman was in my care. I embellished what went before… I had my say, and I handed him off to the next creators in line. I get a lot of satisfaction having done that.
People say "never meet your heroes" and I don't think that's necessarily true. In all your time in the industry was there anybody that was a personal hero of yours who you were able to meet?
Steven Spielberg. He’s as nice and thoughtful to work with as he appears to be in any interview he’s given. He loves animation and is quite dedicated to it. I was told he was reading Animaniacs storyboards while on the set of “Saving Private Ryan.” Jonathan Winters was another.
Oh man… he was one of those guys you couldn’t even look at without having a smile on your face.
I’ve loved him since boyhood. He played Grandpa Smurf. Before the table reads, the voice director would give ten or fifteen minutes of improv time as a kind of gift for everyone, including Jonathan. But I’m appreciative of almost every celebrity I’ve met, and I’ve run the gamut, from Rodney Dangerfield to Michael Milken. So many of the actors who did voices for my shows were the faces who entertained me when I was a kid at loose ends in a motel room all those years. They’ll never know how important they were.
If someone wasn't familiar with your work at all, which I would find hard to believe at this point, what are the first few things that spring to mind that you would want them to see?
Mask of the Phantasm, The Batman-Superman Movie: World’s Finest, and Ozzy & Drix.
I think the best artists remain prolific, and I know you've said in the last few years that you’re retired, but you’re currently telling new stories in Batman: The Adventures Continue. Do you feel like you can’t quite quit Batman yet in the way that Bruce can’t quit being Batman?
Only a couple of weeks ago I gave notes on the last issue of Adventures Continue and I’ll miss it. One of the reasons I did it is that I didn’t have to follow any continuity in the comics. The whole series was based on the TV show, and it turned out be a lot of fun. It was only supposed to last a year, and went to three years. And if it came back, I’d be ready for it.
Well, I know I’m not alone in saying that I look forward to you staying out of retirement.
Thank you [laughter].
Last question real quick, a curveball… tell us something about yourself that people won’t find doing a search on the interwebs.
Well you know I'm an animation writer/producer, I'm not Warren Beatty, so there's not a heckuva lot that google is missing on me that would be headline worthy [laughter]. One time when I was asked at a con who my idols were, I said, "Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen." Of course that got a laugh, but it's true. I consider myself an ardent student of Hitchcock, and when I was young, I read Allen's book "Without Feathers" so many times I practically had it memorized. There's a third influence however, just as big, and that was the movie critic Pauline Kael.
Ah, Quentin Tarantino said the same of her as well. She was as influential to him as any director was, apparently.
Gen Z-ers probably have little idea of her influence, but in her heyday of the '60's and '70's in the "New Yorker" you didn't feel like you'd fully seen a movie until you read her review. To this day I keep Kael's collection of reviews, "5001 Nights at the Movies," next to my chair in the living room, and when movies come up on the home screen I'll flip through pages to remember what she said of them. She had this breezy yet exacting style that, for me, had the same sort of entertaining quality as the prose of Raymond Chandler, who’s maybe my favorite writer.
Alan, thank you so much. I know we’ve gone over our time already, but I really appreciate this. It’s truly been my pleasure.
Mine too, Brandon.
Grab your copy of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, now available in 4K.
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