When it comes to classic cartoon shows, Tom Ruegger has worked on a who’s who of the industry – from Scooby-Doo, to Yogi Bear, to Taz, to Tiny Toons, to Animaniacs, to Pinky and the Brain, and so many more. On Batman: The Animated Series, Tom was on board as a writer, producer, and as one of the creative forces behind this juggernaut of a show, and so, with BTAS now having had a swanky new Blu-ray release, we caught up with this fascinating fella to talk the Caped Crusader and a whole host of other fun topics.
STARBURST: With Batman: The Animated Series, is a fair to say that you were involved with the concept right from the very, very start?
Tom Ruegger: I came in at Warner Brothers just about when the Tim Burton Batman movie was making its way through the production process. At that point, I was making Tiny Toon Adventures at Warner Brothers, with Steven [Spielberg] and Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski and Paul Dini – they all worked on Tiny Toons. With the success of the Batman movie, suddenly Warner Brothers were just rolling in cash. So, they could afford to make Tiny Toons with a full orchestra for every episode, and they could afford to pay Steven and make a pretty heavy budget production. Warner Brothers looked at their assets and thought, “Well, Batman is huge for us. Maybe we need to make an animated series.” At that moment, people on our crew were very excited. We were doing the comedy with Tiny Toons, but now here was an opportunity to create a real iconic show that built on the visual concept that the Fleischer Studios contributed to animation back in the ‘40s with the Superman animated theatrical series. That was the inspiration for the new Batman TV show. Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski separately came to Jean McCurdy and me and said, “Hey, here’s some designs for the Batman character.” That was Bruce Timm, and then Eric Radomski said, “Here’s the design concept for the backgrounds.” And that was unique, because the backgrounds were all painted on black paper. Normally people are starting with a white canvas and adding colour and shadow to it. Eric started with the black canvas and then built colours out of it – which is what I think gives the series its film noir quality that very few animated series have ever achieved. There’s a book – A History of Television – that says Batman: The Animated Series was created by Tim Burton, and that is not the case. Certainly, Tim Burton’s movie was an inspiration for Warners to pursue it, but it was definitely created in-house at Warner Brothers TV Animation.
Do you feel that BTAS couldn’t have been done in the style and tone that we ultimately saw if it wasn’t for that 1989 Batman movie?
I suspect the tendency would’ve been to go with a lighter quality if the Tim Burton movie hadn’t existed. Especially for TV animation, Batman: The Animated Series was unique. It wasn’t really aimed at a very young kid audience. Clearly, not every little kid should’ve been watching it, because it was a little bit rough or a little bit more violent. The music was by Tim Burton’s orchestrator, Shirley Walker. Danny Elfman had done the music for the feature film, and Shirley Walker had been Danny’s orchestrator. That’s one of the odd little moments with the series, because Shirley wrote the theme music for Batman: The Animated Series, and Danny Elfman was very unhappy that Shirley had gone off to do this. What happened with the theme tune is that Danny insisted that it be slightly rewritten so his name could be credited. That was between Danny and Shirley, but it worked out and Shirley did all of Batman: The Animated Series; she did all of the composing and she was just fabulously brilliant.
And as well as the music, there was obviously the vocal talent on show. To this day, so many of us hear those voices when reading that Bat-books of today.
Isn’t Kevin Conroy perfect? Mark Hamill, I think The Joker was maybe his first voiceover work. He embraced it and became The Joker and, as you know, is world renowned for being one of the best Jokers ever – the definitive one.
Can anyone truly voice Bruce/Batman who isn’t named Kevin Conroy?
He is perfect. No false moves. I dare you to find a scene where he blows the moment.
Every time there’s an animated movie or show that doesn’t feature Kevin Conroy’s voice as Batman, it always takes a little bit of getting used to.
Why are they imitating Kevin Conroy?! He’s available. When I was a kid, like you, Batman had a role in my life. In this case, I’m talking about the Adam West and Burt Ward series from the ‘60s. When I was a kid, that was the definitive Batman. When I was writing an episode called Beware the Gray Ghost…
An episode that many view as one of the greatest episodes in the history of animated television, might we add…
Well, I had to drop that in [laughs]. As I was writing it, I definitely was hearing Adam West as the voice of the Gray Ghost. Bruce Timm and I had shared stories about our earlier life, and our favourite show was Batman with Adam West. So, in coming up with Bruce Wayne’s iconic hero as a child – the Gray Ghost – we thought, “We have to get Adam West to play this role.” I also insisted, with great resistance from Bruce, that he play the villain in this episode so that they [Kevin Conroy and Adam West] would have some screen time together.
Why do you think that Batman: The Animated Series is still seen as so special to this very day?
The character of Batman himself, he’s iconic. There have been lots and lots of comic book looks for each generation to enjoy, but really, the comic books were never really animated; they had never really been done in the way that they appear in the comics. I mean, Batman was this crimefighting superhero, and the only real animated versions of him were, first, a campy version in the ‘60s, then later really low-quality Super Friends episodes where he’s sitting around doing whatever, just kinda waiting for the call to go out, almost like a cop. So, it had never really been done properly. I think the series itself was really an answer to many fans’ request to do it right. I remember Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, it premiered here on Christmas Day. I know that a lot of people go to the movies on Christmas Day, but this was a $3 million animated movie, so that’s not really theatrical release quality. But Warner Brothers decided to put it out on Christmas Day. My kids were young at that point, so we all got in the car, we all went to the local movie theatre to see Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Every kid in my kids’ school was there, each with a father. It made me realise that Batman really speaks to generations of children, whether they’re children right now enjoying the fantasy of superheroes, or they were Batman fans from childhood and they want to relive that. That was one of my favourite moviegoing experiences – Christmas Day, with neighbours and friends, watching this TV cartoon on the big screen. It was a lot of fun.
That must have been a tad surreal for you. And did the people there know that you were involved in the making of this movie?
There were people calling out to me during it. They’d punch me in the back of the head, “Hey, great line!” Of course, it was written by Alan Burnett. Certainly not everybody though, and the kids couldn’t care less – they just loved the movie.
As a viewer, as a fan, and as a kid at the time, as soon as you see that opening title sequence for the first time, you instantly realise that this is something truly special. Being involved in the show, when did it hit home for you that this was going to be really, really good?
That is a perfect question, because that opening animated title is really where it began. That title, that is the refined beautiful version of that title. But the first proof of concept piece of animation that was made was a very rough version of that sequence. It was much more violent and there was a lot of gunfire in it, but it was basically the same sequence and it was Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski’s first piece of film that they ever produced professionally. It was Eric’s backgrounds, Bruce’s characters, and some really fun animation. This was reduced to a minute and ten seconds, and it was brought to the executives at Warner Brothers. They were always scared. When they have a hit like [Tim Burton’s] Batman, the last thing they want to do is diminish it in any way. So they were not chomping at the bit to make an animated series, because they didn’t want to spoil their golden goose. But when they saw this, this very violent, rough rooftop battle sequence with Batman, and they saw it was truly art – it was mood, it was film noir, it was splashes of red, it was this sinister character with his eyes narrowing – they said, “Oh, okay. Let’s make a series.” When the show first came on here, the first episode we aired was On Leather Wings. The animation performance in that, I felt if you’re going to start to make a good performance, that’s a great choice. It was beautifully animated, and it was very serious and dark, too. There was nothing kid-friendly about it.
Was there much pushback from the Warner Bros. higher-ups in regard to BTAS being slightly more violent and serious than the other cartoons of the day?
There are a few moments that are sort of humourous in BTAS, but for the most part it doesn’t really seek out to make audiences laugh. It seeks to thrill and, I think, maybe overwhelm your eyeballs. It really seeks to tell a big dramatic story with consequences. That’s something that just isn’t that common in children’s TV animation.
One of the best elements of BTAS is how you brought in lesser-known characters and made them feel important. A prime example is what you did with Mr. Freeze and how you gave audiences a piece of true TV gold in the A Heart of Ice episode. What was the motivation to use characters that people may not necessarily be too familiar with, and was it a case of believing in these characters or more the challenge of making them seem relevant?
On Heart of Ice, we had a staff of really talented writers and we had Alan Burnett and Paul Dini leading the charge. Both Alan and Paul, as kids, were big Batman fans. They were beyond aficionados; they were walking, talking Batman encyclopaedias. And Bruce Timm, certainly. Only those sorts of people can give these lesser characters the weight that they need to carry a story. Paul Dini is the kind of guy that can look at the Batman universe and realise The Joker needs a female assistant that is going to actually carry some weight. Another person walking in the door saying, “I wanna come up with a character named Harley Quinn…” They’re just not going to do it because they’re going to be too worried about getting The Joker right. But after our team had gotten a bunch of great Batman episodes under their belt, then they could start crafting brand new ideas and characters. And that’s where Harley Quinn comes in – she’s now one of the major characters in Warner Brothers’ vault. She’s super popular at all the Comic Cons. Everyone wants to be Harley Quinn, often in various stages of dripping make-up. Sometimes she looks great, sometimes not. There’s Harley at 10am, Harley at 10pm, and Harley at 3am.
How was it for those involved in the show when Harley Quinn became canon and appeared in the comic books for the first time?
She’s been a gamechanger really, because how many great, great women villains have been produced in the DC Comics universe. There are a few, but Harley’s taken her place at the top of the list now. They’ve teamed her up with Poison Ivy, and they’ve had all kinds of great stuff. I know that Bruce Timm drew the original Harley, and Paul Dini came up with the original material and concept of Harley, so I know those two guys are highly gratified that she’s become so iconic.
One new creation for Batman: The Animated Series that often gets overlooked is Renee Montoya…
Thank you. For the design of Bullock, he was a villain in the first animated sequence Bruce and Eric made. Bullock was the major tough guy Batman was beating up on the rooftop. He was such a great design that Bruce and the team didn’t want to waste him on a little promo piece, so he was cut out of the promo piece and became the tough cop who you can’t really trust all of the time. One of our first ever story editors was Sean Derek, and she brought life to Montoya in the first few episodes. We were making this series for FOX TV, and they were delighted to see the presence of someone who was a female in the series, because I think the show itself carried a lot of male testosterone. So FOX was very pleased and encouraged us to keep Montoya very much active in the series.
For the most part, BTAS was made up of one-episode stories, but were there ever any talks back then of doing season-long narratives at all?
In Great Britain and all over the world, shows – like Doctor Who – had long arcs and multi-season arcs. I think our TV shows didn’t figure that out until a lot later; we didn’t pick up on it. I think if we were making Batman: The Animated Series brand new today, that’d probably play into it. We were just frantic to make enough to get on the air in time. It was quite a rigorous process just getting the ones made.
Were there any particular comic book arcs you looked to adapt but ultimately decided against doing so, be that in Batman: The Animated Series or The New Batman Adventures?
I’m not really answering your question, but there were a bunch of comics that we liked that were too dark for us ultimately to pursue. There was one story that I wrote that we didn’t make, and I don’t even know why because I spent a month writing this. Everyone knew I was writing it and they were all cool with it, and yet ultimately the network said, “Too dark, we can’t do it.” I’ve spoken about this a little bit before, but it was called The One and Only Gun Story. It started in a mine where different metals are being mined out of the ground, and we follow the metal to the factory where it’s melted down and turned to steel and different things. We watch this delivered to a manufacturer – and this is all before anyone speaks – but we find that where it’s been mined, there’s a Native American there saying, “This is sacred land, you shouldn’t be there.” So, the metal gets turned to a gun. The camera, which has been watching this rock taken out of the ground and turned to metal on a gun, it follows this gun, it gets put in a box, and the next thing we know the box is being opened in a gun store and someone’s buying the gun. You follow it home, it’s put into a safe, the safe is closed, then blackness. Years pass, then it turns out this is the gun that kills Bruce Wayne’s parents. We watch this gun, which gets flipped into the river and fished out by a kid. Ultimately, Bruce Wayne gets hold of this gun and, at the end of the episode, melts it down and turns it into a plaque for the grave of his parents. That’s The One and Only Gun Story that the network said, “No, we’re not making that!” This is self-serving, I guess, but it was a very good script. It was dramatic. Obviously, they had never aired anything like it. They were just scared. They thought, “Oh, this is going to get us a lot of attention, and it’s about guns, so we’re not going to do it.”
You used a whole lot of different characters throughout the series, but were there any ones out there that you were pushing for but couldn’t use?
No. I came from the whole Adam West era, so I was satisfied with what we had. I thought we had a better Joker, a really good Penguin, The Riddler worked, and I felt that Ra’s al Ghul was an improvement over King Tut [laughs].
Due to your depiction of Dick Grayson in Batman: The Animated Series, many naysayers began to take Robin seriously and realise what a fantastic character he is.
You clearly have the Robin thing figured out. For some people, he’s the Scrappy-Doo of the Batman world. And poor Scrappy gets no love anymore. I think Robin worked out in our series pretty well, the Dick Grayson Robin. I think it was smart that we didn’t start with him, because I think immediately it looks almost like a spin-off.
It’s just a shame that Batman Forever and particularly Batman & Robin again soured some audiences on Robin.
No, I don’t think it did help.
So you didn’t ever think of incorporating nipples into your Batsuits, then?[Laughs] George Clooney would shake his head ever so slightly in every scene so that his ears would wiggle. That’s not helpful either! Michael Keaton would always just stay very still.
Personally, Michael Keaton is always my Batman when it comes to live-action.
The thing about Keaton, I was shocked. I thought, “I don’t even wanna go and see this. Michael Keaton as Batman?!” But he was great. At the time, I didn’t know he could play serious. He’s constantly holding back information. I don’t know if it was the director or Michael, but the voice – the low voice – every line was very effective.
We’ve touched upon Heart of Ice, Beware the Gray Ghost, and Mask of the Phantasm. To you, what would you say would be your finest moment from your time involved in the world of Batman: The Animated Series?
It’s probably a dramatic scene between us and the network. I’m not giving you an episode, but early on the network wanted to get rid of Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski. They said, “These guys, they’ve never made an animated series before, they don’t understand TV, they’re not making a show for kids, we need this thing to be nicer.” I remember going to Bruce and Eric and telling them this. They said, “Can we quit now?” So, we made a stand against the network and said, “Listen, they’re not going. Cancel this series, because we’re making this with Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski. They have the vision that works alongside Tim Burton’s vision. You’ve seen the little clip that they’re capable of making. Now you just have to let them do it, clear out, and let’s just continue – or skip it!” We did get to that moment, and normally I think the network gets its way. At that point, we had had experience with the network in making the Steven Spielberg show [Tiny Toon Adventures]. On that production, they’d say, “Oh, we don’t like this, we don’t like that, we want that changed.” We’d go back with, “Well, Steven likes this, and we don’t want to change it.”
Let’s face it, Steven Spielberg is quite the name to have as back-up.
We knew that they had a breaking point. Tim Burton really wasn’t involved, but we knew that Eric and Bruce had a visual vision that would make this show unique and special. The network may have wanted it to be a better flavour of vanilla, but we did fight them on that. So, not an answer to your question. That was an episode, but there’s so many episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. I wrote the first Poison Ivy episode, and I realised that I loved the show and I loved the process when I was writing the first scene for that script. I realised, “Oh my gosh, this is like we’re making movies here. We’re actually making 22-minute feature films.” They were very dramatic. The first scene I had was Harvey Dent at dinner with the character who would become Poison Ivy. I believe he’s lamenting that Bruce Wayne couldn’t make it, “Where’s Bruce? He was supposed to come to dinner. But you know Bruce, he’s always a lowkey, loner of a guy who stays to himself and doesn’t like to go out much.” We’re intercutting everything Harvey Dent says with contradictory footage of Bruce as Batman beating the living crap out of a villain. I realised, “This is so much fun to write!” For me, that was like a turning point in that, “Oh, I don’t just have to write little shenanigans with Buster and Babs. I can write these really dramatic scenes and I have the freedom to let it go wherever it goes.” It was just a wonderful creative writing experience that I think was the turning point for me. This was the episode prior to Harvey turning into Two-Face.
The great thing about Harvey becoming Two-Face is that you had already began to drop in elements of the Two-Face personality such as the short temper, the dual identity element of Big Bad Harv…
That’s Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski having the vision, and ultimately Paul Dini and Alan Burnett as story editors. Early on, Bruce and Eric knew where these characters were heading. Many series would’ve started with Harvey as Two-Face, and maybe in the midst of that story tell a backstory about what happened. But here’s a series that’s not worried about how it re-runs, what order the episodes are going. We were going to show Harvey Dent before he became Two-Face.
Decisions such as giving Harvey Dent a dual identity before he became Two-Face, and creating a female sidekick for The Joker, they’re bold choices that the fanbase could’ve easily rejected. If you were making this show today, in the midst of social media, do you think such bold calls and changes to established canon would go down well with fans?
I think it always has to do with the creative people that are closest to the material, that really have been hired to pursue it, to make it, and who really have the chops to do a great job. When those people are allowed to have the freedom to do it, I think they almost always turn out a great product. It’s when executives and the front office – and I’m not talking about the animation department, necessarily – the people who should allow the creative people to pursue it but instead get their fingers involved in it and start micromanaging it, that’s when it all goes to hell. The beauty of making this in the ‘90s is that we had a president of the division in Jean McCurdy who was not there to tell us how to make it, she was there to protect us from people. She picked the people that she thought could make the show well, then her job became keeping other people out of the kitchen until we were ready to show the pies that we’d made.
Were you ever in the frame to return for The New Batman Adventures or Batman Beyond?
I wrote the story for Big Time used in Batman Beyond.
Having worked on shows like Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, and Taz-Mania, how much fun was it to go with a more serious narrative for Batman: The Animated Series?
Definitely a different muscle. I would occasionally like to add jokes to my Batman work. In Never Too Late, I had Batman meet with a priest inside a church. In my initial draft, Batman spoke with the priest inside the confessional. As Batman leaves, two altar boys notice the Dark Knight leaving the confessional. One altar boy says to the other, "Funny, I always thought he was Episcopalian.” I fought to retain this scene, but the network insisted it be cut.
Is it really true that Yakko, Wakko, and Dot of Animaniacs fame were based on your own kids?
Yes. My three sons Nate, Luke and Cody served as the personality inspirations, while the character designs were based on a trio of characters I created for my college animated film, The Premiere of Platypus Duck. By putting red noses and ears that stick up on these characters, the platypus trio became the Warners.
How do you feel about the change to more CGI-driven animation these days, and do you think that takes away from some of what makes animation truly great?
There is a human quality to hand-drawn 2D animation that is eliminated by the plastic-looking models found in many CGI shows. Realism is more achievable in CGI, but movement and wild takes seem limited in CGI.
You’ve worked with so many great characters over the years, but is there any one animated character you’d love to work on but haven’t had the chance to?
I'd like to work on a feature with Bugs, Daffy and Elmer.
What can you tell us about what you’re currently working on or have in the pipeline?
Developing a few new animated series – two comedies and one drama. One with Paul Dini, another with a Hollywood icon. I'm developing all three with my son Luke Ruegger, who is an incredible artist, designer and animator, and who, as a kid, voiced The Flame on Animaniacs as well as Big Fat Baby and Billy the Kid on Histeria.
Batman: The Complete Animated Series is out now on Blu-ray, and you can keep up to date with Tom’s work by following him on Twitter.