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November 17th, 2022

Representation

When I was a kid, the comic books that attracted my attention mostly had science-fiction themes or they were humor titles. But I had to be careful. My bitter Baptist grandmother threw a lot of them out when I wasn’t there to protect them from her. She would say they weren’t fit for children, but I’m pretty sure it was I thought they were fun and the son of Bill Garrett wasn’t allowed fun. I had a bunch of Scrooge McDuck comics that would be collectors items today if she hadn’t put them in the trash. But then, so I’m told, a lot of kids of my generation have similar stories. Thank you and rot in Hell Dr. Wertham.

My only interest in anything Super was the TV Superman played by George Reeves, but the Superman comics of that time were hit and miss with me. I only have a few left from those years. Oddly, so it may seem, the early Batman comics struck me has having a kind of science-fiction element to them because that character had no super powers, but he had a lot of futuristic gadgets. Back then DC would publish Annuals, which were thicker reprints of much older stories, and that’s where I came to know that golden age Batman and Robin.

I had high hopes when I saw the first TV ads for the series by William Dozer. But it almost completely ruined the character for me. I realize it’s still enjoyed by a lot of people for it’s campiness but Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey (who also did Action Philosophers) in The Comic Book History of Comics┬áreally hit it on the head in their chapter on Pop Art. In it they describe how Dozer, a TV producer was given the job of bringing the character to TV by the network. So he bought a few Batman comics and his initial conclusion after reading through them was that putting Batman on TV was nuts.

But then he had the idea of going so over the top with it, making it so square and so serious, that adults would find it amusing. And it was a hit. The network’s market research showed that it was a hit with small kids who took it seriously and loved the colorful POW ZING, and also with adults who thought it was hilarious comedy. But teenagers Hated it. Van Lente and Dunlavey suggest that it was because that age group realized their culture was being mocked by it.

That was me. But back then I stayed tuned for the gadgets and that cool Batmobile, and also watching some big name guest stars ham it up. But it quickly became tiresome and I stopped watching. Worse, by then the comics had become infected with camp too, and I stopped buying, except for my usual science-fiction titles. And Mad Magazine, which did a killer parody of the TV show. I still have that issue. Yeech!

Time passes…the universe expands…and none of the later Batman and Superman movies and cartoons did anything for me. I’m sorry, not even Chris Reeve’s Superman movies did either. I’d say he was the best of the lot, but I just could not get into the stories. And I began to realize that part of the problem with bringing those characters to life was they needed to be set in the timeframes they were created in, because they really didn’t make much sense in the here and now.

Then Batman The Animated Series came out, and I was wowed.

It was Miller’s Dark Knight (which I liked the first couple issues of and then hated the rest…don’t get me started on Frank Miller…) meets golden age Batman…and they set it in an art deco Gotham City that seemed as if it was still 1930s/40s but also today. The art direction was pitch perfect: it set the character squarely in both its time frame and ours, which I didn’t think was possible. But you can do things with animation you can’t, or can’t easily with live action. I still think that the Gotham City they created for that series was among its most stunning achievements. But the voice actors they got for it was another.

None of it would have worked without the great writing, and none of those stories would have worked without the voice artists. I had no idea that Mark Hamill was voicing the Joker, but the voice he gave that character was perfect. There’s a YouTube video of Hamill at a convention panel somewhere and he’s asked to give that Heath Ledger Joker line “Why so serious” but in His Joker voice. And he does and the audience roars with cheers and applause.

All of the voice actors who worked on that series were perfect. The characters weren’t campy clowns mocking the audience anymore, they were integral parts of the story that made the stories make sense.

And especially Kevin Conroy’s Bruce Wayne/Batman. The series rescued that character for me from Dozer and camp, and Miller and his bitter strongman fascism. He made the character larger than life, because those characters have to be that, and yet his Bruce Wayne/Batman was so very Very human. In it’s way as amazing an achievement as the art direction. It all worked, and Conroy’s voice acting was a big reason why the character worked, and why everything else worked.

And now he’s gone and I feel the loss of it, because he did so much for those of us who really wanted to like that character and his stories but just couldn’t for all the stuff the studios had done to him.

And now I understand more how Conroy could make that character come to life in a way nobody else could. This is from a Facebook gay superheroes page I follow (Gay League). Representation matters…not just to us, but to everyone. Because our stories resonate deeply in the human status. Everyone benefits by hearing our stories too.

 

I cried a little today when I heard Kevin Conroy had exited the stage for the final time. His death is the second time he’s elicited tears from me and I’m generally not much of a cryer, especially where celebrities are concerned.

A little background ( and by little, I mean a lot. Hang in there. It’s worth it):

I have to admit, I was never the biggest fan of Batman. I’d seen and loved Tim Burton’s “Batman” in 1989. But, even that was not enough to make me care for the character much.

Of course, I liked Batman as a mainstay of the Justice League. But his inclusion in their exploits (and reruns of the 60s era television series) was pretty much where my interest ended.

It was 1992 and I was visiting my aunt who had the television on for my younger cousins.

I had my head buried in a book, much like I always did, when I first heard the iconic theme song of “Batman, the Animated Series” and Kevin Conroy’s distinctive, “I am VENGEANCE! I am the NIGHT! I AM BATMAN!”

And. I. was. hooked!

Batman, the Animated Series was my new jam. I was obsessed with finding and watching every episode I could find from then on.

If I had to pick a favorite episode from the first season, undoubtedly it would be “Beware the Gray Ghost” featuring my other favorite Batman, Adam West, as the titular Gray Ghost – Gotham’s first crime fighting vigilante in the continuity of the show.

Conroy would go on to portray the DCAU Batman for over two decades in “Superman Adventures”, “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited” as well as many other projects featuring the character over the years.

I truly hate when fans claim a character in this way. But, in this case it must be said: Kevin Conroy was MY Batman. When I think of the Dark Knight Detective, I think of Conroy. Every time without fail. All other Batmen are measured by his standard.

It’s always his voice I hear in my head when I read the comics. Kevin Conroy (and Bruce Timm, natch) made me like Batman way more than I ever would have otherwise.

The stories he starred in made me actually care about this privileged orphan boy millionaire who had a fetish for dressing in a leather bat suit and beating people up accompanied by a pre-teen boy wearing little more than a domino mask and a cape, little green undies and elf shoes (okay, when they finally introduced Robin in the show, he was wearing pants and boots, but you get the idea).

When Conroy was briefly featured in the Episode 2 of the WB’s live action Arrowverse “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover event as Bruce Wayne, I cheered!
This was *the* man!

The only actor I feel who ever brought true depth to the character was reprising his role -LIVE ACTION- even if only for a single scene and I. Was. There. For. It.

I never knew until recently why he resonated so much with me, why – out of dozens of portrayals over the years, some by the biggest, most sought after actors of their time – Kevin Conroy’s Batman was the only one who ever caught my interest.

And here, those who have followed from the beginning of this screed will be happy to learn, is where my first set of Conroy inspired tears were made manifest.
Earlier this year, shortly after Kevin Conroy came out publicly as a gay man in his 60s, DC Comics published their 2022 Pride Issue which featured a number of Queer characters in their stable.

I have mixed feelings about those sort of things because on the one hand I am very wary of non-Queer people who profitize and corporatize Queerness into a commodity.

But on the other hand, I understand how vitally important representation in such things can be for young Queer people grasping for something – anything – which make them feel less an outcast, less a misfit, more accepted for who they are and more loved by those around them.

I usually hold my nose and buy the Pride issues anyway despite their exorbitant pricing and dubious quality as a “special edition” (whatever that is) because I know DC will only keep making Queer interest material so long as it sells.

This time around, the yearly Pride issue contained a story about a hero we hadn’t heard from in a completely Queer context before.

Kevin Conroy – MY Batman – had written “Finding Batman”, a biographical comic at the end of the issue exploring the trials and tribulations of coming of age during the height of the AIDS epidemic, of being a closeted actor in an environment which was completely unforgiving to gay actors, of the many times someone casually called him “faggot” as if that were acceptable.

He spoke about living a double life, being one thing in private and another in public, hiding who he truly was to protect himself while watching practically his whole generation of gay men succumb to AIDS while the world just…watched.

It was a story of growing up Roman Catholic while watching his world fall apart around him. It was a story of a young man whose parents divorced as his father succumbed to alcoholism and eventually death.

It was a story of watching helpless as his brother was taken away inch by inch by schizophrenia at the same time friends and colleagues were wasting away in hospitals dying of a disease no one wanted to talk about.

It was a story of survival and a story of triumph.

Finally, the masked cowl could come off and he could be seen as who he really was: a phenomenal actor who inspired an entire generation of comic and animation fans-who, as it happened, was also a gay man. Finally, he could openly embrace who he was, his own story fully without fear.

Suddenly, this man who had always played a role in both his personal and professional lives could take off that mask and be who he wanted and needed to be.

As the short narrative drawn by the excellent J. Bone came to a close, I shed a few bittersweet tears as I thought about my own journey, my own “secret identity”, my own experience with AIDS both as a gay man and a person living with HIV.

Suddenly, I got it. I knew why Conroy’s portrayal resonated so perfectly for me when Hollywood heartthrobs the like of George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Bruce Willis, Christian Bale and Robert Pattenson looked good in the suit but ultimately fell short.

In fact, I feel like all of them were adept at playing either Bruce Wayne or Batman consistently but couldn’t quite nail the other. But, not Kevin Conroy. He could do both flawlessly and made it seem effortless.

I know what you’re thinking, “We get it. It’s because he’s gay and you’re gay and blah blah…”

Who TF is telling this story anyhow?

Yes, acknowledging my people for their achievements is important. The fact he’s a gay man is a definite plus. But, it goes far deeper than that.

I’m a gay man, yes. But before I even knew what that meant, I was a comic book nerd and like him or not, like all comic book nerds, I KNEW Batman!
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Conroy may not have had washboard abs or bulging biceps to fill out the leather and latex outfits. But, he did have authenticity of character. He practically was Batman in a way none of the other hunky hunks who played the role could even approach in their clumsy heteronormativity.

Conroy could convincingly play a man with a double life because he had lived a double life most of his life.

He could play a man driven by tragedy and trauma because he *had* experienced loss, tragedy and trauma on an almost daily basis.

He could play a successful man who was awash with guilt and anger because he had survived while his friends and family were not so lucky.

He was believable because that imaginary mask was a reality for him.

As I write this, I’m streaming “Batman: The Animated Series” on HBO MAX and remembering all the times as a young gay man I lost myself in an episode of the series.

As a few more tears escape the near watertight edges of my eyes, I want to thank Kevin Conroy for all the times he was there for me and other kids both Queer and straight when we didn’t have anywhere else to go.

For some of us, no doubt, Batman saved us from our own traumas, our own trials and tribulations, our own masks and double lives and Kevin Conroy was the vessel through which he acted.

I can think of few stories more inspiring than knowing Kevin Conroy-the best, the ONLY Batman – got to take off his mask and be his authentic self after years of hiding his trauma from the world and living a double life for the benefit of his public life and his career. Would that we all could come to terms with ourselves so completely.

I only wish he’d been able to enjoy it longer.

Rest well, old friend.

You are missed.

But never, ever forgotten.

-F. Daniel Kent

 

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