Sagas in Panels #6

Jeff Hargarten

Let’s talk about the DC Animated Universe. While it’s extremely clear that Marvel rules the cinema box office with mega-hits like “Iron Man,” “Captain America” and “Avengers,” D.C.’s dominant domain has long been television. While Marvel has made some inroads on network TV with “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and has a pending miniseries project with Netflix, D.C.’s offerings have traditionally been stronger.

And that doesn’t count fare like the CW’s long-running “Smallville,” which was barely based on anything from the comics. The same network’s “Arrow” is lauded across the board for its quality and status as event television, and with “The Flash,” “Gotham” and “Constantine” on the way, D.C. and Warner Bros. seem to be building an exciting small-screen universe comparable to Marvel’s big-screen successes.

But the true home for D.C.’s trove of comic heroes has been in animation since 1992, with the launch of the universally-celebrated “Batman: The Animated Series.”

The landmark series by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm not only gave us Kevin Conroy’s voice behind Batman and an iconic, game-changing Joker in Mark Hamill, it gave us characters like Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya, who have since become integral parts of D.C.’s print titles. The team’s other influences on comics include Batman and Wonder Woman’s romance, a revamp of The Question character and ongoing print titles tied into these animated adventures. Aside from its deep impact on print comics, the series’ legacy also includes the successful “Arkham Asylum” games voiced largely by the same cast, along with other video games and films.

The original Batman series lasted four seasons and was among the last of the entirely hand-drawn television cartoons before the industry gave way to computers. After some great, though criminally underseen, spin-off films like “Mask of the Phantasm,” “SubZero” and “Mystery of the Batwoman,” BATS’ legacy lumbered onward as the team of Dini/Timm brought “Superman,” “Batman Beyond,” “Static Shock,” “The Zeta Project” and later “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited” to life on the former WB and Cartoon Network.

Among the key elements that made these shows so watchable, enjoyable and successful were their darker tones (organized crime, terrorist organizations, character deaths), sophisticated themes and storylines (corporate mergers, mental illness, childhood trauma, government conspiracies, political instability) and well-developed, human characters with complex thoughts, feelings and relationships. The women were strong, the character casts were diverse and stories were all interconnected and frequently referential among themselves. These were animated shows, but certainly not exclusively aimed at children. They gave the audience credit and refused to talk down to the fans. It’s clear the creative teams behind these shows simply set out to make the best shows possible that depicted their favorite comic book characters, to create kind of TV they wanted to watch.

They were all bound together by Conroy’s Batman, who has been behind the cartoon cowl up until D.C.’s more recent animated iterations. Conroy’s presence gave these series’ a commonality, consistency and continuity relatively rare in animated network television, especially across different shows.

Unfortunately, the Diniverse/Timmverse chapter of the DCAU ended in 2006 when “Justice League Unlimited” came to an end.

Since then, Dini and Timm have been attached to other D.C. cartoon properties outside their beloved shared universe, including Dini’s unfortunately short-lived “Young Justice” and Timm’s multitude of direct-to-DVD animated films like “The Dark Knight Returns,” “Batman: Under the Red Hood,” and “Superman: Doomsday.” These films are part of the separate DC Universe Animated Original Movies project, which has produced some highly-rated, quality pieces usually based on a particular story arc or miniseries from the comics. Timm was succeeded by director Jay Oliva, and neither Timm nor Dini seem to be associated with the most recent DC animated offerings.

If you aren’t familiar with the DCAU and the more recent animated films, here’s the comprehensive list of what to watch:

DCAU TV series

Batman: The Animated Series (1992–1995, Fox)
Superman: The Animated Series (1996–2000, WB)
The New Batman Adventures (1997–1999, WB)
Batman Beyond (1999–2001, WB)
Static Shock (2000–2004, WB)
The Zeta Project (2001–2002, WB)
Justice League (2001–2004, Cartoon Network)
Justice League Unlimited (2004–2006, Cartoon Network)

DCAU Films

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
The Batman Superman Movie: World's Finest (1997)
Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998)
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)
Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (2003)

DC Universe Animated Original Movies

Superman: Doomsday (2007)
Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)
Batman: Gotham Knight (2008)
Wonder Woman (2009)
Green Lantern: First Flight (2009)
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009)
Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010)
Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010)
All-Star Superman (2011)
Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (2011)
Batman: Year One (2011)
Justice League: Doom (2012)
Superman vs. The Elite (2012)
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Part 1 (2012)
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Part 2 (2013)
Superman: Unbound (2013)
Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013)
Justice League: War (2014)

Upcoming films

Son of Batman (May 6, 2014)
Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014)