When it comes to directing, nobody directed more episodes of Batman: The Animated Series than Kevin Altieri. And on top of that, Kevin has written and worked on the art of BTAS and a whole host of other genre favourites, such as The Real Ghostbusters, Scooby-Doo!, Hulk Vs., The Spectacular Spider-Man, G.I. Joe: Renegades, Transformers: Rescue Bots, and Young Justice. With Batman: The Complete Animated Series now available on Blu-ray, we were lucky enough to grab some time with Kevin to discuss the Caped Crusader and a whole host more.
STARBURST: Starting right from the beginning, how did you end up involved in Batman: The Animated Series in the first place?
Kevin Altieri: If I remember correctly, I think I got a phone call from Brad Rader, who had heard that Warner Brothers. was doing a new Batman show. I just thought, “Oh great. The people who did Tiny Toons are doing another goofy Batman.” But I was very interested, and he told me that Bruce [Timm] was in charge. So, I got in touch with Bruce, and I went over and talked to him and he showed me that trailer that he and Eric [Radomski] had done. From the moment I saw that, I was, “Oh my god! Sign me up! Please!” They didn’t really have anybody hired yet, and I think I was one of the very first people that they actually hired.
At the time of its development, did the majority of people expect another show similar in tone to the ‘60s Batman?
In the public – and me at the time being the public – that was the assumption. I was surfing at the time, and one of the surfers asked me what I was working on. I told him, “It’s a new Batman cartoon and it’s going to be cool.” Then he rolled his eyes. That was the general response I got from people. The only script they had at the time when I started was On Leather Wings, and I went, “Oh my god. It’s got kind of a werewolf transformation sequence in it! I don’t care whatever anyone says, I’m drawing that myself.”
BTAS was brilliant in how it was very much adult-driven, yet still worked so well for kids. Was that always the plan?
It was what we were all aiming for. That was the idea. And when Alan Burnett came on board, same thing. It was trying to push the envelope as far as we could. That was what the consensus was amongst us. At first there were people at Warner Brothers who really wanted goofy, wacky Batman. There were a couple of story editors that wanted it that way, and they just didn’t get what we were going for. We were all Batman fans, but it was, “Yeah, we’re all fans of Adam West, but I think we’re all even bigger fans of the Neal Adams/Denny O’Neil era.”
You talk about Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil, so is that your personal favourite era of Batman?
When I was a little kid, I had this paperback book of Batman. It had all the Jerry Robinson, the Dick Sprang, and the Bill Finger/Bob Kane stuff. It was all pretty goofy, but I loved it. As a kid growing up, I loved all that stuff. And I loved the Adam West series. Suddenly, when Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil turn up, in Detective Comics he was really a detective again. It was really committed, it was almost like it was in the real world. That changed everything. That was like, “Oh my god. This is my Batman.”
One of the great things that the Adams/O’Neil run did was put Batman in a world not too dissimilar to our own, and that was similarly the case with Tim Burton’s Batman movies and BTAS. How important do you feel that 1989 Batman film was in getting BTAS off the ground?
I’m sure it was the first Tim Burton movie that gave the green light to do the cartoon series. But, to give Jean MacCurdy and Tom Ruegger complete credit, they didn’t say that we’re basing it on Tim Burton’s movie at all. They wanted to do Superman from the Fleischer brothers. The concept at the beginning was always this alternative Earth where ‘40s, ‘50s style still exists.
And with that style and tone, it helped to give each episode the feel of a mini movie.
I think at the beginning, with Paul [Dini] and those guys, it’s almost like they were writing for 1940s and ‘50s radio, where they would actually tell these dramatic stories that would be told within twenty minutes and it feels like you just went through a movie.
BTAS was never afraid to shine the spotlight on lesser known or one-off characters, be that Man-Bat or Sid the Squid. Were there ever any characters that you wanted to use but for some reason couldn’t?
I can’t believe that we got to do Jonah Hex. We went through one recording, I think the Count Vertigo one [Off Balance], and Michael York was there. We were really tickled to have Michael York. Paul, Bruce and I were just talking, and I think it was Paul who said, “Okay, what character would you want in the show, Kevin?” It was just out of nowhere. I was just, “Oh shit…” They know me, they know I’m the big fanboy, and so, “I’d like to do Sgt. Rock, but I don’t know how we can fit him in. We could have an older Sgt. Rock as the veteran?” And I love [Etrigan] the Demon. I actually got to do a comic of the Demon for Archie Goodwin and Denny O’Neil. Then I’m, “Oh, I’d love to do Jonah Hex, but I don’t know how we’d do Jonah Hex.” Then it was, “Wait, Jonah Hex vs Ra’s al Ghul?” We just went on a tangent from there. It was even before steampunk existed, and we did steampunk. On the original series, we were doing Wild Wild West but we were doing Jules Verne at the same time.
Being a fan of the comics, was there any time where you thought about trying to introduce any particular comic book story or arc?
I had a discussion with Bruce first, then Eric, then Alan Burnett. I just said, “When Ra’s al Ghul shows up, I’m doing him.” The thing is, that was a two-parter. Then you have Avatar. Ra’s al Ghul stories have continuity. All of these exist in their own world, but that was one almost a public serial kind of approach. There are things in the Ra’s al Ghul episodes, particularly Demon’s Quest Part 1, that were just so great - and I got to work with Denny O’Neil, which was fantastic.
That was your ultimate fanboy ‘get’, so how much fun was it to get to work with Denny?
It was fantastic. They had Denny O’Neil do an adaptation. As soon as I read the comic, I wanted to do a cartoon of it when I was thirteen. I was one of the original fanboys in Connecticut, what did I know? By a miracle I could’ve just done comics, but I actually wound up to actually do Ra’s al Ghul in animation. I don’t know why. And I got to do it. I got to do it, man.
Someone tied to Ra’s al Ghul is Jason Todd, who would eventually be brought back to life via a Lazarus Pit in the comics. As a fan, did you ever expect Jason to come back?
No, but I was never really a Jason Todd fan. The thing that I really loved in Batman: The Animated Series is what makes sense to me and always makes sense to me, is Batman, Robin and Alfred. Alfred’s the father figure to Bruce – he raised him – and then you have Robin. The kid shows up with amazing abilities because he was a trapeze artist. This tragedy happens to him, and Bruce Wayne saves him. Then, that’s his son. The son grows up and actually goes to college – he’s in college but he’s now a true partner in crimefighting. Bruce Wayne’s not obsessed with adopting kids. I don’t know why there has to be a new Robin.
You weren’t directly involved in The New Batman Adventures, but was that series done merely to keep things fresh, or was it purely a studio decision?
I was gone at that point. I was doing Gen 13 at the time, and I had an office over in Santa Monica when they did the whole style change. You can see the whole company style change, even on Superman, and I was just, “On Batman? Man, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” It’s not that it’s bad, but I loved The Joker the way he was, I loved Mr Freeze the way he was – that was a great design and a great character – and Batman, the original design that Bruce came up with was perfect. You don’t need to mess with these things.
You were involved in Mask of the Phantasm, which many rightly herald as a stunning piece of movie-making. When did you know that was going to be as special as it was, and was there any trepidation about making a full feature film?
We were able to take the gloves off a little bit, because it was going PG and not G. There was a lot of horror. I won’t say I lucked out, because I opened my big mouth, but I only got to do The Last Laugh, which was not my favourite script, to do The Joker. And Tim Curry, who was great, did The Joker. And then, Mark Hamill takes over and I don’t get any Joker scripts at all. For the whole season, I didn’t get another one. Then we did Mask of the Phantasm, and it’s the origin story, basically it’s Batman: Year One, better than Batman: Year One even. I like Batman: Year One, but this is better, this makes more sense. And there’s The Joker. I said, “Look, give me the Joker stuff. I’ve never even seen Mark Hamill perform. Are you crazy?” So, basically, I got to direct all of the Joker sequences and I got to draw The Joker and knock his tooth out. I got away with some stuff, but there’s pools of blood that they cut out. I wish they’d let those stay in.
You mentioned Tim Curry there. What’s the story behind him only briefly being on board to play The Joker?
Oh, Tim Curry was on board. He did a lot of voice acting and he was on board. If I remember correctly, I think he had a Broadway show that he to do and so he had to go back to New York. I think it might have been Annie. But yeah, he had a big job that he had to take.
And then in stepped a young upstart called Mark Hamill…
They had audition tapes of different guys, and Bruce said, “Hey, come here. Listen to this.” He plays this Joker, and I’m just, “Wow! That’s it! Oh my god, that’s perfect. Who the hell is that?” He says, “It’s Luke Skywalker.” None of us had any idea that Mark Hamill had that many voices inside of him.
If the series magically came back tomorrow and you were tasked with doing one last story, what would it be?
If I was going to do a Batman story, it sounds really stupid, but I’d love to do Demon’s Quest again. It’s epic. There’s just too many of them, though. I would’ve loved to have done The Killing Joke. It would’ve been done much different.
In terms of pages, The Killing Joke isn’t that big of a story. As such, for the 2016 adaptation they did, a romance angle between Batman and Batgirl was added.
What I’ll say about that is, the one thing that we really nailed on the original Batman: The Animated Series is no matter what anyone says, if this young girl that you’ve seen grow up throws themselves at you, Bruce Wayne wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t screw one of his best friends’ daughters, he just wouldn’t do it. There’s no amount of temptation. He’s Batman! The thing about the Batman: The Animated Series character is, everything about that Bruce Wayne is he’s a super boy scout, you believe that this guy would commit to doing what he does. He’s sacrificing so much to do what he does, including his own personal fortune. And the training that he goes through. That guy wouldn’t go, “Oh baby, let’s go!” No, he would not do it. He wouldn’t do it! It’s almost like it’s written by people who haven’t had sex. It doesn’t work like that. It’s not like she slipped him a drug and knocked him out or something like that, where he’s, “What? What happened?!” He doesn’t even go for Talia for a long time. Talia just says, “You’re the perfect man, you’re for me, there’s no two ways about it.” And he doesn’t try to seduce her or let her seduce him, and she’s, “Okay, I’m okay with that. Don’t worry, you’re still my beloved.” She’s there for him no matter what. He doesn’t even go for that because of his moral code.
The on-off romance between Barbara and Dick has always been a favourite of many.
And even that, Barbara and Dick, even as teenagers, when they do get involved it’s a finally thing. They hold off for a long time because they’re all so committed to what they’re doing. What they’re doing is crazy for a human being to pull off.
As someone who loves the al Ghuls, what was your thoughts when Damian Wayne was made ‘canon’ and became a part of the main Bat-books?
That’s another thing I wanted to do, just because we know that eventually Bruce admits, yeah, he’s in love with Talia. I mean, how could he not be? They are meant for each other. And they have a kid. Now, the kid becoming Robin? I don’t know if I would’ve done that, but I would’ve gone on to a more exotic storyline. It would almost be like Sherlock Holmes discovering that he has a son – what would that be like? That’s kind of where I would’ve liked to have taken it, but what they did is fine.
The thing is, what they kind of leave out is Talia is who she is because she’s Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter. She doesn’t agree with everything that he does. She agrees with his point of view, but she’s raised in this giant, vast ancient society with castles. And Damian, this guy would be raised as this spoilt, petulant brat no matter how old he gets. You can’t save him, he’s just spoilt. There would be something with Damian, I don’t think he’d be the guy that’s, “Oh, I wanna be Robin!” I think this kid showing up would be almost like Bruce Wayne discovers his son, and his son is the king, kinda like Ludwig, the mad monarch of something. He’d be royalty.
What would’ve happened, I would’ve had Ra’s al Ghul show up at the Batcave unannounced – him and Talia – and they have this teenager in town. They’d say, “This is your son. It’s time for him to learn.” The kid doesn’t want to leave all of the luxury. Living in Wayne Manor is luxurious, but it ain’t what he’s used to. I think I’d have Ra’s al Ghul would take him out of the nest and have him learn from Batman.
You other credits feature so many other fan-favourite characters, such as Scooby Doo!, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Young Justice, GI Joe, and The Real Ghostbusters. Are these characters you were already a fan of, or was it simply a case of a job is a job?
No, no, I was instrumental in selling The Real Ghostbusters. I went to see the movie, and me and Dan Riba are working there, and we’re fanboys more than most in the building. So, when Ghostbusters came out, [producer] Richard Raynis walked in and said, “Hey, how about doing a Ghostbusters series?” And I said, “GHOSTBUSTERS???!!!” It was the same thing with Spectacular Spider-Man. I wasn’t really in love with doing the musclebound lumpy guy that Marvel was doing prior to that, but the Greg Weisman version, I read those and enjoyed them. I actually did storyboards for Vic Cook and Jennifer Coyle before I directed on that series, because I loved that. It’s a job, but I put a lot more into it – like, “Oh boy, I get to do the Green Goblin’s first appearance!”
Was Spider-Man always a character that you always wanted to work on, then?
Oh yeah, of course. Not quite as much as Batman, but all the characters I love. I’d love to do Thor. I got to do Hulk, for instance – [2009’s animated] Hulk vs Wolverine. There was no script. Both me and Butch [Lukic], we were hired by Frank [Paur – director] to develop this direct-to-video thing. All we did was we sat down and started doing storyboards, because we wanted to do the Hulk vs Wolverine fight. There’s so many characters that I wanted to do, and there’s still a lot of characters that I want to do.
Is there still an ultimate dream project out there for you?
One of the superhero movies that just nails the character is Captain America. I mean, Iron Man came first, but Captain America: The First Avenger by Joe Johnston is great. I would still love to do a World War II animated Captain America story.
Do you think that’d be better suited as a feature or series?
Feature and series. The thing is, the live-action Marvel Cinematic Universe handles things so well, including Agent Carter – I loved that series. What I would do is, I’d do an animated series and basically go back to the thing that Captain America is a secret weapon that’s developed for D-day.
Considering that Captain America had spent decades as a comic book character that most people weren’t interested in by that point in time, Chris Evans’ Cap is now arguably the finest part of the MCU.
It’s so well written. I can’t complain about those [first] two [Captain America movies]. That’s a good Captain America. That’s the Steve Rogers I know. I go to the movies and go, “Why would that girl be Harley Quinn? Where’s the clown stuff?” In BTAS, we get Harley Quinn, we get why she exists, we get her relationship with The Joker – who she is, why she acts, it’s all there. I go and look at Batman v Superman and I just go, “Why would that guy even be Superman? Why would he give a shit about people? He doesn’t act like he gives a shit. And why would that guy be Batman? Mr Wisecracker?” And the Richard Donner film with Christopher Reeve, that nails it. Perfect. Clark beats the car back to the farm, and he’s sitting there on the mailbox, “Clark, how did you get here?” “Oh, I walked.” Then Pa Kent comes out, “Son, are you showing off again? You’re put here for a reason and it ain’t about this.”
In the DC Extended Universe, they finally managed to nail Superman for the final 20 minutes of Justice League. He was the symbol of hope, the ever-determined hero. That shouldn’t be that hard to get right.
It’s weird, because at DC in the animation, in my opinion, they never got Wonder Woman right. Then Gal Gadot shows up and they nailed the character. World War I’s happening, and the way that she’s raised, the way that she’s the person she is, “Why are you leaving Diana?” “Because people need me” And that’s the right way it should be. I saw the trailer for the new Aquaman, and I was just, “What’s going on with it? Look, you go down to Atlantis and they’re walking around on the floor, they’re sitting at tables. They’re underwater!” If it was a domed city, I’d understand. Aquaman swims! Atlanteans swim! Are you kidding me?
There’s definitely ways to tweak characters in order to make them work for the big screen. The prime example being Tony Stark becoming more of a wiseass, rather than the straight-faced, depressed alcoholic many of us grew up with. Similarly, changes were made to Thor in order to incorporate him into the MCU.
The thing about the Marvel feature films, though, is that I do enjoy the Thor movies – although I go, “That ain’t the Kirby Thor.” I like the characters, though, and especially Loki, and especially how they are in The Avengers. And I cannot argue with Thanos. What they’ve done bringing Thanos in, right from the beginning, and then Guardians of the Galaxy had him and a great Gamora, that’s brilliant. And that’s such a good Bucky, too. Making him Steve Rogers’ big brother, so to speak, was brilliant, as opposed to his sidekick. It ain’t Kirby, but Kirby would approve.
To bring things back full circle, then, why do you think that Batman: The Animated Series is so special and still loved by so many people to this day?
It’s beautiful. It’s 2D animation. It’s living drawings and it looks like it’s living drawings. It doesn’t try to be what a lot of movies do now – to be a different reality. I’m not comparing myself obviously, but it’s like what [Hayao] Miyazaki set out to do and what Disney and the Fleischer brothers set out to do. It is living illustration that takes on a life of its own. It’s not just by a bunch of guys doing a job. It has heart. If you weren’t totally committed and totally in to the project when you were doing it, you didn’t last on the crew very long. Mostly, it was just the amount of work you were putting in to it. The creative emotional commitment you had to have, you can see it. It’s kind of like what Doug Wildey and Alex Toth did for me as a kid with Jonny Quest. I just couldn’t get enough of it. There was a limited amount of series, but every time it came on, I’d go out of my way to watch it. I was just riveted by these beautiful drawings moving.
With BTAS, that was the first time that a lot of fans gave just as much credit and attention to the creative team as they did to the stunning voice talent involved. When you’ve had the chance to work together again over the years, is it almost like a family vibe when you get together?
It definitely was. Most of us, certainly me, you have people having reputations of being hard to get along with, but that’s not it. You could have arguments with Bruce, but they’d be arguments where we’re both trying to do the right thing. You have differences of opinion on stuff. I was with Dan Riba and Brad Rader for years before – with The Real Ghostbusters and stuff – and we ended up all together on Batman. That was not an accident. We were all passionate about it. Everyone was passionate. There are superhero shows now that are just dull as dishwater. There’s the explosions and big haymaker fights and stuff, but there’s no passion or love behind it. It’s a bunch of people doing a job, and it feels like it. For those people, it’s just as a paycheck. I can’t really function like that, I have to be invested in what I’m doing or I’m a very unhappy person.
From speaking to you for over an hour now, we certainly wouldn’t say you were hard to get along with. Why might some people think that, though?
I’m just passionate about the projects. I’m actually rather easy to get along with, but the thing is, you’ll run into it quite often, I just got through with one job. I’m assigned artists and I go, “Okay, how’s your perspective?” They look at you blank and say, “I have to draw perspective? I just thought all I had to do was draw the characters in the storyboards.” “Can you draw a building?” And it’s no, they’ve never drawn a building. Why is this person hired to do storyboards? That’s the kind of stuff I get. That’s the thing about Bruce: you’ve got to have a certain ability or else you’re not going to get along. There are a lot of people who will bring in a portfolio that looks great, but once the person starts working, you’re like, “Urgh. I really wish I had the guy who’d done that portfolio” because the portfolio is fake. But there's a lot of people who don't talk to me.
And why would anyone ever do that?
The Pearl Jam video [for Do the Evolution] is an example. Someone who was my friend had a small studio that he’s trying to keep open, and they’d come to me and go, “Look, we’ve got twelve weeks to airdate for this rock video for Pearl Jam.” I wasn’t particularly a Pearl Jam fan, but he’s, “Please, please. This would be great for my studio!” And then there was Todd McFarlane. So, Todd McFarlane calls me up and goes, “Yeah, I screwed off for a year. I’ve had this thing for a year, so please can you help me out?” I listened to the song, immediately all of these images popped into my head, and I go, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do.” We pretty much hit the ground running, grabbed a handful of artists and very good draftsman, and we got this storyboarded in a couple of weeks. It’s like looking inside my head. Every image is from inside my head. Every image looks like I drew it. The video comes out and everyone’s desperately trying to prove that I had nothing to do with it.
Batman: The Complete Animated Series is out now on Blu-ray.