Old Friends

30 Years Ago, One Cartoon Changed The Darkest Superhero Forever

Where were you when Batman: The Animated Series arrived?

Originally Published: 
Emma Chao/Courtesy Fox Kids; Fatherly; Getty Images

As the summer of 1992 ended, the Fall line-up for TV was massive. The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was airing its big second season. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was in its third season, and Full House — entering its sixth season — had never been fuller. Amid all that, one kid's cartoon made a splash, not only as an afterschool weekday series but instead, as a hardcore primetime TV event. Thirty years ago, on September 6, 1992, Batman: The Animated Series showed up as a Sunday evening primetime show with a haunting episode called “On Leather Wings.”

After this night, the world was never the same. Created by Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and Mitch Brian, and famously starring Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker, Batman: The Animated Series probably made a bigger impression on ‘90s kids than either of the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton movies combined.

Mostly airing on Fox networks, Batman: The Animated Series technically debuted one day before its primetime moment. On September 5, 1992, Fox Kids debuted “The Cat and the Claw Part 1,” which featured a version of Catwoman seemingly influenced by the Michelle Pfeiffer version from Batman Returns, which had only hit theaters a few months prior.

For those who grew up in the ‘90s, “The Cat and the Claw Part 1” is probably not the episode that feels like the start of the series. Many of the DVD boxed sets put “On Leather Wings” as the first episode, and even HBO Max puts it third just after both parts of “The Cat and the Claw.”

TL;DR? The production order and airdate order of Batman: The Animated Series are all over the place. If you remember episodes coming out in a different order than how they’re listed in various wikis and on HBO Max, it’s possible your hazy ‘90s kid' memory is closer to being correct than you might think.

But, for countless kids, staying up to watch “On Leather Wings” on primetime was a big deal. The overall look of the show was clearly still supposed to be for slightly older kids, but the actual tone of the show was closer to being a show for adults. If families were divided about the transgressive feeling of the Tim Burton movies, pretty much everyone was united in loving Batman: The Animated Series. The critical reviews of the time may not reflect this, but in the living rooms of 10-years-olds in 1992, the thing about this version of Batman is that it truly was loved by the whole family.

The brilliance of Batman: The Animated Series is simple. Like Star Trek: The Next Generation or other intelligent ‘90s shows, this series was great because it gave kids what they wanted and gave adults something to think about.

“On Leather Wings” is actually a perfect example of what made the show so great, because the story is deceptively simple. In it, a creepy genetic monster named “Man-Bat” terrorizes Gotham City, which in the process makes Batman look bad. Are “the Man-Bat” and Batman the same thing? Why are we okay with a guy who dresses like a bat and punches people while wearing tights, but we’re not okay with a giant, actual bat?

Batman vs. Man-Bat

Warner Bros

Batman: TAS boldly asked this question in its first episode, subverting the basic concept of Batman, while wrapping up a mystery caper in highly-stylized noir adventure — but for kids!

While Batman: TAS would eventually introduce the entire rogues gallery from the comics — including the FIRST appearance ever of Harley Quinn (really!) — that primetime episode, “On Leather Wings” remains notable because Man-Bat wasn’t a really famous Batman villain. Yes, the character originated in a 1970 comic, but it’s not like anyone was expecting the debut episode of a new Batman show to focus on a shadowy, monster version of Batman. By starting this show off with Man-Bat, the series made a statement on what the show would bet: a dark, serious one that kids could watch, but that wasn’t made for kids.

Obviously, adult animation existed before 1992 and Batman: The Animated Series didn’t create the idea of making a kids' show with more adult-oriented themes. But, because Batman is such a famous superhero icon, there’s something intrinsically even more subversive about the debut of The Animated Series than anything in the Burton films. The live-action Burton films were obviously trying to be provocative, meaning anything super-transgressive about those films was somewhat obvious, perhaps even to kids.

But Batman: The Animated Series was playing a very different game. Overall, this series has very little kitschy winking at the camera. After several funhouse mirror versions of Batman, this show was amazing because it essentially took the character seriously. What made Batman: The Animated Series a great (and dark) show for kids wasn’t that the show was dark. Instead, the show was actually focused on a believable version of Batman. It turns out when you do that, Batman is a pretty dark character.

Batman: The Animated Series streams on HBO Max.

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