Friday, November 11, 2022

Kevin Conroy Merges With The Infinite

Here at The Signal Watch, we're absolutely heartbroken to hear that actor Kevin Conroy has passed.  

Conroy voiced Bruce Wayne/ Batman across innumerable cartoons, video games and other projects.  For generations of Bat-fans was the definitive portrayal of the character.  

In 1992, when Batman: The Animated Series hit the air, I was a Senior in high school, and - I don't think unreasonably - skeptical of any new Batman cartoons that might appear, believing that they'd be of about GI Joe or Transformer levels in quality of story and art, the same voice actors working from show to show.  I don't think it was snobbery.  I was just now older and stuff aimed at 8 year olds was not in my wheelhouse anymore.

You don't often remember the first time you saw a cartoon, but... boy, do I remember that one.  It was the pilot Man-Bat episode that was an absolute showcase for what they were doing stylistically and technically.  I had not heard of Bruce Timm at the time, but I knew someone had read and understood the comics.  And, look, I am a fan of the Michael Keaton/ Tim Burton Bat-films, but they're their own thing.  They bear almost zero relation to Batman of the comics.  This was the storytelling of the comics, but with a look and feel that borrowed one part from the Anton Furst designs and one part from Dick Tracy and one part from the Fleischer cartoons.  Absolutely gorgeous stuff no one had seen on TV before.

The point is, I don't know what I expected a Batman cartoon to be in 1992, but I remember Batman opening his mouth and a baritone, gravelly voice came out that was somehow exactly how Batman should sound.  Even more incredible, when he removed the cowl and spoke as Bruce Wayne - he had an actual alter-ego.  

And then my girlfriend at the time called and I remember "uh-huh"ing my way through the conversation as I watched this incredible show unspool in front of me.  And given the way shows worked back then, I lost my mind knowing this would be on five days per week.  How?  I do recall trying to explain what was happening on TV to my ladyfriend, and her saying "Ok, cool.  Anyway..."  You will note, that romance was not to last.

This was 1992, so social media didn't exist.  If BBS's covered it, I didn't know because my family hadn't had a computer since the Apple IIe was boosted in the infamous break-in in Spring of 1991.  

So, by myself I watched this show somewhat religiously. I didn't have friends into this stuff, so it took a visit by my brother from college before I could do the "LOOK.  LOOOOOOOOOK!!!" thing I wanted to do so badly.

My first year at the University of Texas, I found myself reunited with JAL (he of the podcast), a pal from my days growing up in Austin (I moved to Houston in 1990) and I think we'd been hanging out for maybe an hour when JAL said "you know the guy who plays Batman looks just like Scott Summers" (that's X-Men's Cyclops to you and me).  It was maybe 2-3 years before I saw a picture of Kevin Conroy, and, wow, was JAL right.

Kevin Conroy brought gravitas and drama to Batman.  While I understood the wild-eyed danger of Michael Keaton (who I think showed his true menace perfectly in the Spider-movies), he was not Batman as I understood him to be from multiple comics per month that I'd read for a few years now.  Nor were two 2-hour movies the same as 30 minutes, 5 days per week.  Timm's design, Dini's story aesthetic - all fantastic.  But it was in making Batman rumble through your TV's tinny speakers that Conroy brought the myth of a Batman to life.  

This was a voice that would send shivers up the spines of criminals, but Conroy also humanized it when it was right to do so.  He was genuinely acting, not reading off lines on a page.  In part, you can thank the always amazing Andrea Romano for working with the showrunners to find that sweet spot that went from that first episode of Batman to the final scenes of JLU.  And in the years to come, when Conroy would step back in front of the mic, he was both a reminder of the greatness of the era and a pointer to what WB could have done better in every project after Romano retired.  

By the early 00's, Conroy was appearing in DVD extras and then online, and at Cons.  His fans got to know who he was, and he did not disappoint.  While a mere mortal of good humor, he very much understood what it meant to be the voice of Batman to multiple generations of fans, and he never took it lightly or seemed to think it was silly or just a job.  He got what people looked for and heard in his performance.  

It was a nuanced performance over the years, including the surprisingly resonant Batman: Mask of the Phantasm to Batman sitting with Ace as she blinked out in that one episode of JLU.  No matter what the edgelords would think a *real* Batman was like - we'd know.  Conroy had brought it to life.

During the CW's daring Crisis on Infinite Earths riff, he actually did play Bruce Wayne, so the role was not limited to animation.

In those interviews, etc...  I genuinely liked the guy.  He seemed like the kind of person you'd want to include in your "you can have dinner with any six people" kind of conversation.  But, mostly, I don't think you can measure how much Conroy helped push Batman and superheroes from a novelty when it wasn't a campy disaster or mediocrity for undiscriminating kids to set the stage for everything that would come after - from video games to the MCU.  I'm not sure you get the recent Batman film without Conroy's Batman carrying Batman for decades and people growing up believing that taking Batman seriously is a normal thing to do.

I'm absolutely stunned at Conroy's passing.  He was only 66.  I'd heard nothing of illness, just what he might be up to next.  Like Chadwick Boseman passing, it's catching me totally by surprise.  

What I can say is that Bat-fans and comic folk are a bit like baseball fans.  Many consider Conroy the ideal version of Batman - myself included - and like a good baseball fan, we'll pass down the names of the greats for a hundred years.  And the good news is, there's so much of a record of that performance.  We'll be able to return to it again and again, and it will guide performers for generations.  

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