Saturday, July 14, 2012

A little Knight music: The second Batman: The Animated Series soundtrack from La-La Land is even better than the first

A good day to Die Fledermaus
As Christopher Nolan wraps up his immensely popular live-action version of Batman with next week's release of The Dark Knight Rises, La-La Land Records is revisiting the "dark swashbuckler" sound of the Nolan movies' small-screen predecessor, Batman: The Animated Series, with the label's second collection of the landmark show's score cues by the late Shirley Walker and her staff of skilled composers.

In 2008, when La-La Land released the first B:TAS soundtrack (highlights from this two-CD set can be heard during A Fistful of Soundtracks' "AFOS Prime" block), I wrote, "Though this release is loaded with over two hours of music, it's missing Walker's memorable Catwoman theme from 'The Cat and the Claw, Part I,' the first B:TAS ep that ever aired, Carl Johnson's lively score from the excellent 'Beware the Gray Ghost' ep with special guest voice Adam West, and [Michael] McCuistion's Lawrence of Arabia-style epic score from the 'Demon's Quest' two-parter, which gives me hope about a Volume 2 from La-La Land."

Volume 2 is finally here--the first few copies are being sold at La-La Land's booth at this weekend's San Diego Comic-Con before the four-CD set becomes available on Thursday--and cues from "The Cat and the Claw," "Beware the Gray Ghost" and "The Demon's Quest" are indeed on the album. After taking a look at the abbreviated Volume 2 track listing that the World's Finest fansite posted on its blog, the batch of B:TAS eps that are represented on Volume 2 is more impressive to me than the first volume's, even though one of those eps is the abysmally animated and extremely kid-friendly "I've Got Batman in My Basement," widely regarded as the series' worst ep and derided by lead B:TAS showrunner Bruce Timm, who told Cinefantastique magazine in 1994 that "I can't even watch ['I've Got Batman.'] It's the epitome of what we don't want to do with Batman."

"The Cat and the Claw," "Beware the Gray Ghost" and "The Demon's Quest" are joined on Volume 2 by series high points like the Emmy-winning Mr. Freeze revamp "Heart of Ice," "Feat of Clay," "Almost Got 'Im" and "Harley and Ivy," an ep that's even more popular than "Heart of Ice." Penned by "Heart of Ice" writer Paul Dini, the sharply written first-time pairing of Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, who are referred to in Dini and Chip Kidd's 1998 coffee table book Batman: Animated as "the Thelma & Louise of the supervillain set," was so popular it spawned a 2004 DC miniseries from the trio of Dini, Timm and their fellow New Batman Adventures and Superman: The Animated Series staffer Shane Glines and tons of steamy Harley and Ivy fan art by Glines and many others.

Glines recently posted his character designs from a Harley and Ivy animated series that failed to get off the ground in the early '00s. You'd have to be either really, really stupid or brain-dead to say no to a Harley and Ivy animated series.

'Eww, my God, Becky, look at her butt.'
Sure, she's hot as fuck, but you wouldn't want to lasciviously nibble on her green thumb. Her body's been so mutated that her hand might morph into a tentacle and suffocate you or do unspeakable stuff to your rectum.
Maybe the person who said no to the Harley and Ivy spinoff is the same network executive who rejected "Harley and Ivy" as the first ep to air during B:TAS' brief run on Fox's nighttime lineup in the middle of its first season.

"We wanted ['Harley and Ivy'] as our first prime time show, and Fox was going to run it. Then a Fox executive saw it and said, 'What the hell is this? Batman's not in this episode. He's only in it at the end? The whole episode is two girls running around in their underwear. There's no boy appeal here,'" recalled Dini to Cinefantastique in 1994. "I said, 'Well maybe not any boys you know.'"

'Lesbians! Lesbians!'--Sherman Klump's brother
Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn in a scene from B:TAS' "Harley and Ivy" episode that's too unappealing for boys (Photo source: World's Finest Online)
The largely comical and nicely crafted score for "Harley and Ivy" was provided by Walker, McCuistion, future Justice League main title theme composer Lolita Ritmanis and Peter Davison, a different Peter Davison from the British actor who starred as The Fifth Doctor on Doctor Who. The late Boyd Kirkland, who directed "Harley and Ivy" and came up with the fan-favorite scene where the duo responds to a car full of douchey catcallers in classic Gotham Girl fashion, was proud of the layout work on "Poison Oakey" and her new sidekick (and possibly lover) that was done by the Japanese studio TMS, one of many foreign studios that Timm's creative staff farmed out the animation work to.

And now, Harleen Quinzel presents 'How to Respond to Catcalling.'
(Photo source: World's Finest Online)
But sometimes, there were episodes that didn't meet the B:TAS staff's expectations like "Harley and Ivy" did. When "The Laughing Fish," which is also part of the second album, came back to Timm's crew with animation by the Korean studio Dong Yang that Timm found to be underwhelming, he turned to Walker and asked her to do with her score what Dong Yang failed to accomplish with the kind of animation Timm wanted for his more-menacing-than-usual vision of the Joker in "The Laughing Fish."

Their teeth are so yellow they spit butter.
(Photo source: World's Finest Online)
"I asked her to make ['The Laughing Fish'] sound like a horror film. Not a forties Boris Karloff film, but like Aliens or The Exorcist, with really dissonant, nonmelodic music," said Timm in the Batman: Animated book. "At the time I had just read a piece about Psycho and it never dawned on me before, but there are no woodwinds or brass in that film. The entire score is done with strings. And I started thinking that might be kind of a neat thing to do with this show, just play everything stripped down and haunting.

"There's a full symphonic orchestra in there, but a lot of the earlier cues are just moaning violas," continued Timm. "From the first moment the Joker shows up, even though he's acting funny and wacky, Shirley has the strings doing something really strange. They're not playing his silliness, they're playing the underlying threat of what he's doing. It kicks the scene up a notch in terms of tension. It's one of our most unusual scores and it works really well."

Timm's simpatico working relationship with Walker and her composing team was a reason why the music on B:TAS was so effective, even when it wasn't present in several scenes.

"In animation, it's real typical to want the music to be there to sort of cover up the holes and make you feel like there's no air and no space," said Walker to Cinefantastique in 1994. "I think part of the visceral success of the Batman show is the fact that we put you on edge by making you uncomfortable with silence occasionally. It sets the show apart from a lot of the cartoon music that's being done."

Shirley Walker (1945-2006)
Shirley Walker
Even though through my copies of Warner Bros.' B:TAS DVDs, I can easily check out the B:TAS scoring team's work on "Harley and Ivy," "The Laughing Fish" and the other Fox-era eps that are represented on the La-La Land compilations, it's much nicer to be able to hear the cues in their purest form, sans sound effects. Volume 2 also comes with eight different versions of the opening and closing title themes for B:TAS, which was the first of WB Animation's various Batman series (the next series will be the CG-animated Beware the Batman, which I, a Pinoy viewer, am especially looking forward to because the Dark Knight is being voiced by Pinoy actor Anthony Ruivivar from Third Watch). As a fan of Timm's "Dark Deco" take on Batman, I can't wait to get my slightly dark but not-quite-Deco mitts on Volume 2, another musical memento of a classic show that raised the bar for both small-screen American animation and small-screen animation scoring.


  1. Jimmy, Beware the Gray Ghost was a great retro track.

  2. Yeah, the guy who scored that standout episode went on to compose the music on Gargoyles.