Jim Lee's first memory involving the Dark Knight is of a model kit.
The DC Comics co-publisher, along with Batman voice actor Kevin Conroy and "Batman 66 Meets the Green Hornet" co-writer Ralph Garman, spoke with CBR News prior to the Batman 75th Anniversary panel at WonderCon, and the panelists happily opened up about their favorite memories of the iconic hero. As Lee explained, he was big fan of Aurora model kits, and one day, the boy who would one day become one of comics biggest artistic superstars, received Aurora's Batman kit.
"He had this big Neal Adams type cape, and I just remember taking the blue paint and pouring it on the cape and letting it roll down," Lee recalled. Saying he was an impatient child, Lee said the model featured lots of fingerprints, as he couldn't wait for the paint or glue to dry before playing with it.
"[Former DC Publisher and President] Paul Levitz game me a spare he had. I don't know how he got it, but it's mint in a box," Lee said. "So, someday, when I retire, I will build that Batman again."
Conroy's earliest memory of the Caped Crusader leads back to the '60s ABC television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. "I think my favorite memory was the villains on it," he said. With a rotating cast of rogues including Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, Cesar Romero as the Joker, Julie Newmar (and later Eartha Kitt) as Catwoman and Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, the program cemented the top tier of Batman foes in Conroy's young mind. "The actors they got on that show! You think about who those actors were. It was incredible to be exposed to that as a child. It was very fertile imagination territory for me as a kid."
Garman's fondest Batman memory is an intimate one. "I had a very doting mother," he said. "While she spent long hours watching me watch 'Batman,' she was taking notes and making sketches and sewed me my own Batman costume." The project became a Christmas present. "[It was] a replica of the Adam West Batman costume, with long underwear that she had dyed. She made the best cowl that she could. I remember Christmas morning, opening up that box and shaking with excitement. I put on the utility belt and everything, and I got to be Batman." He still looks back on it as one of his fondest memories of childhood and hopes everyone gets that level of wish fulfillment when they read the comics or experience Batman in other media.
"I got the crappy Batman fake costume that came in purple, orange and yellow," Lee said. "I googled it and found out that's a knock-off. I always knew it felt a little funny, even as a little kid."
Garman also remembered the off-brand Halloween outfit. "All they had then was that rubber band half-mask and that bad sort of jumpsuit." The quality of what was commercially available inspired his mother to go the extra mile.
Garman's special interest in the '60s Batman is one the things which led to the forthcoming "Batman 66 Meets the Green Hornet," for which he is sharing writing duties with Kevin Smith. He is happy to see that version of Batman embraced after years of being shunned in the wake of the less colorful Dark Knight Detective spearheaded by Denny O'Neil in the '70s and the gritty Frank Miller reinvention of the 1980s. "DC had to fight so hard to get that image of Batman out of people's heads," he explained. "I don't blame them. It must've been frustrating to do something fresh and new with this character, but [the Adam West Batman] had such a huge impact on pop culture that you're fighting it the whole time." Now, forty-six years after the series, audiences are familiar with numerous versions of Batman thanks to Christopher Nolan's more realistic Dark Knight, Conroy's near-definitive voice from "Batman: The Animated Series" and the varied paths of the comic book character over the last few decades.
With so many successful interpretations of the character, Garman said it makes sense that people can now view that campier Batman with fondness. "I think we feel comfortable to look back and say, that was so much fun, that series and they did a great job for what they were doing. I think a lot of people, with hindsight, are sort of recognizing it for the sort of love letter it was to the character,."
It should come as no surprise that Garman's favorite Batman film is the 1966 feature starring West opposite the TV sereis' usual cast of villains, with Lee Meriwether taking on the role of Catwoman. "Seeing those villains come to life on the screen and team up together made an indelible impact on me as a kid," he recalled. "It blew my socks off, with the colors and action and the Penguin submarine. All that stuff was so much fun."
Lee's favorite film is Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," which he calls his "favorite superhero movie in general." Pointing to the cocktail party scene and the final verbal confrontation between Batman and the Joker, Lee said, "It really got to the core of [their] relationship." Lee also noted that the film would work, even if the Batman and Joker iconography was removed. "It's just a sound movie. Down to the soundtrack, to the pacing, the visuals, it's just an amazing movie and it works so much on a psychological level. It's mesmerizing. "
"It was so true to the Dark Knight, " Conroy said, adding that his second-favorite Batman film is one he worked on: "Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm." The film, engineered by the creative team behind "Batman: The Animated Series," was released in theaters Christmas Day of 1993 and revealed an unseen chapter in the life of Bruce Wayne as he struggled with the potential for life-long happiness and the vow he made to his parents to fight crime. "I love how that got into the backstory of Bruce Wayne and Batman," the actor said. "It's a great script." Conroy, who recently returned the role for the upcoming DC Universe Animated movie "Batman: Assault on Arkham," said he is always willing to be Batman.
"Those are better films than my choice," added Garman. "But for sheer impact [on me], it's the 1966 'Batman.'"
He highlighted one sequence that has gained notoriety in the internet age: Batman, carrying a cartoonish bomb over his head and trying to dispose of it in the middle of a busy waterfront. "He can't get rid of it because there's some ducklings swimming by, two young lovers are in a boat over here and the salvation army's coming this way." Exasperated, Batman finally says, "Some days, you just can't get rid of a bomb." Though the scene is played for laughs, Garman said it speaks to one of the core aspects of the character over his seventy-five year history.
"In every incarnation of this character, he respects life and wants to protect the weak," Garman said. "Whether it's for humorous effect or dramatic effect, it is always a constant."