The following blog is written in association with Red Ribbon Reviewers and their chosen charity of 2022, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids. If you are able to, please consider donating to this cause that provides useful social service to those afflicted with HIV/AIDS by visiting their website https://broadwaycares.org/
When I learned that this year’s Red Ribbon Reviewers charity was Broadway Cares, it helped further cement my idea for what topic to cover. I needed to pay tribute to a fallen legend: a man who got his start in the theater, became a gay icon, and played a crucial role in so many of our childhoods. You’ve probably guessed that I’m referring to the sadly late Kevin Conroy.
For so many Millennials, Kevin Conroy IS the definitive Batman. He was able to capture every facet of the Dark Knight’s personality with only his voice: intimidation, drive, self-doubt, some occasional snark, and more importantly, compassion, both as the Bat and as Bruce Wayne. There’s a fascinating irony that Conroy had never intended to audition for the role (he originally tried out for Harvey Bullock), yet thanks to guidance from Andrea Romano and other show runners, he helped mold this incarnation of Batman into one of the most recognizable figures in pop culture, reprising the role in various media over the course of 30 years. He is, no hyperbole, a true legend. To honor his legacy, I want to look at an episode of the Batman animated series that I felt best showcased his work – I Am The Night, written by Michael Reaves and directed by Boyd Kirkland. This episode doesn’t have Batman dealing with any of his more colorful rogues like Joker, Scarecrow, or Two-Face, but it shows how even the fight against common criminals takes its toll on the Caped Crusader.
From the start we see that Batman is suffering from a deep malaise, with Alfred (voiced by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) noting that he hasn’t eaten or slept in what seems like days. “A weary body can be dealt with, but a weary spirit – that’s something else,” Bruce contemplates with a distressed tone. Reading the paper and learning that Penguin recently had a conviction overturned only worsens his mood. He asks if he’s really accomplished any good in Gotham, and while Alfred tries to reassure him by mentioning the lives he’s saved and the criminals he’s caught, it does nothing. “I’ve put out a few fires, yes. Won a few battles. But the war goes on, Alfred.” It’s soon revealed that another reason for his low spirit is the day: the anniversary of when his parents were murdered, and he must pay his respects to Thomas and Martha Wayne. While this is happening, a low-level pickpocket named Wizard (voiced by Seth Green) is looking for marks on the evening streets, and the GCPD are pulling a sting operation to bring down mob boss/drug smuggler Jimmy “Jazzman” Peake, with Commissioner Jim Gordon and Detective Bullock (voiced by Bob Hastings and Robert Costanzo, respectively) waiting for Batman to bring the evidence needed to secure a conviction
In Crime Alley, Bruce meets with Dr. Leslie Thompkins (voiced by Diana Muldaur) who notices how much quieter he is than normal. He asks if this is the last year he should come to pay tribute and try to move on, prompting the following exchange:
Dr. Thompkins: “Santayana says that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Batman: “He also says a fanatic is someone who redoubles his efforts while losing sight of his goal.”
Their waxing philosophical is interrupted when Wizard, who happened to be in the area, is accosted by two other thugs angry that he hasn’t been paying them a cut of his “earnings.” Before they can pulverize the petty crook, Batman steps in and deals with the brutes, though one of them crushes the roses that Bruce had left for his parents, and the anguish on his face is short but powerfully animated. Rather than being grateful, Wizard tells the Dark Knight that he didn’t need help from a “jerk in long underwear,” to which Batman grabs him and asks Leslie if she can try to set him straight at her mission center
Back at the warehouse, Bullock tells Gordon that they have to get the drop on the Jazzman now. Gordon reluctantly agrees, launching the sting while being met with a hail of gunfire from the gangsters inside. Jazzman (voiced by Brian George) knew they were coming, and he was prepared to fight back, grabbing his own gun from a violin case and ready to join in the firefight. Batman thankfully arrives on the scene, using stealth and gas pellets to incapacitate some of the gangsters and prevent their leader from escaping. Before anyone can spend time celebrating Jazzman’s arrest, Bullock discovers that Gordon was shot and is lying motionless on the sidewalk, horrifying both him and Batman.
Gordon is rushed to ICU, it being revealed that he was shot by Jazzman in the scuffle. Batman sneaks in through the hospital window to check on his friend, apologizing for being late and not being able to prevent the shooting. Gordon’s daughter Barbara (voiced by Melissa Gilbert) arrives to reassure him that it wasn’t his fault, but Bullock is more than happy to take out his anger on the vigilante. “You shoulda been there, pointy-ears,” he utters with scorn, “then maybe Peake mighta shot the right guy.” Batman leaves as the slovenly detective continues to berate him and hold him responsible for Gordon’s injury. Returning to the Bat-Cave, Bruce is at one of his lowest points, smashing equipment in a blind rage and howling at the heavens. With no coherent words, Conroy perfectly encapsulates the anguish Batman feels over his failure.
Jazzman is sent to Stonegate Prison awaiting trial, where another inmate tells him that he knows someone who can get him out of jail and out of Gotham. But Peake refuses to leave yet. He’s still holding a grudge from when Gordon arrested him six years ago and ruined what could have been his greatest score. Now that the Commissioner is infirim, he wants to finish the job and “make sure he’s got a one-way ticket to Harpland” as he puts it. (I forgot to mention earlier that Jazzman peppers all of his sentences with musical puns and references. It’s Gotham City – even the relatively normal criminals need a gimmick.)
As Batman continues to wallow in self-defeat, Alfred calls Dick Grayson (voiced by Loren Lester) to the manor to console his guardian. Dick finds Bruce in the Batcave, still in costume, still wracked with guilt that he wasn’t there to help Gordon. Bruce lets it slip that Jim is the same age his own father would be if he hadn’t been murdered, a fact that’s clearly amplifying his distress. Dick tries to tell Bruce that he’s only one man, he can only do so much. Bruce, however, remains defeated.
Batman: “I chose this life. I use the night; I became the night. Sooner or later I’ll go down. It might be the Joker, or Two-Face, or just some punk who gets lucky. My decision; no regrets. But I can’t let anyone else pay for my mistakes… When all is said and done, how much good have I accomplished? They sell t-shirts of me. I’ve become a cliché; more good for the tourist trade than the streets.”
This line highlights an aspect of Batman that too much current media seems to forget. He can be obsessive with his war on crime, but he won’t willfully or callously endanger others to pursue his goals. Batman does what he can to reduce collateral damage, and when that fails, the guilt eats away at him. Fearing that he’s stared too far into the abyss, or that someone else close to him might get hurt, Bruce declares that it’s time for Batman to fade back into the shadows, tossing away his cowl into one of the Bat-Cave’s deepest crevices.
Batman’s sudden retirement couldn’t have come at a worse time as Jazzman managed to escape from Stonegate. Dick tries to persuade Bruce to go back on the hunt before Peake can finish Gordon off, but his mentor refuses. Frustrated, Dick declares he’ll go after the Jazzman himself. “You taught me everything I know about crimefighting, Bruce, but the most important lesson was to never give up!” Suiting up as Robin he’s ready to hit the streets, but before he can leave he’s stopped by a firm hand on his shoulder. Bruce is back in costume, declaring that bringing down Jazzman is his job. Dick’s words finally managed to reach him, along with an unspoken implication that Bruce didn’t want his ward to be hurt or possibly killed because of his mistake. Bruce grapples with guilt and regret, but in the end it drives him to fight harder so that no one else will suffer.
Jazzman manages to reach the hospital, making his way into Gordon’s room after minor scuffle with Batman. Barbara tries to shield her father as Peake draws his gun, but just as he begins to pull the trigger, Batman launches a Batarang into the barrel, causing it to backfire. Bullock bursts into the room and hold Peake at gunpoint, while Gordon wakes up, greeted by his overjoyed daughter. Batman reassures Jim that the bust was a success, smiling for the first time in the episode.
Gordon: “Gotta keep fighting. Never stop. What I try to live by. Maybe if I’d been younger, could’ve been like you… always wanted to be a hero.”
Batman: “You are a hero, Jim.”
After being reassured that his friend is safe, Batman returns to his nightly patrol where he spots Wizard at a bus station. Thinking that he’s looking for another mark the Dark Knight accosts the crook, but Wizard shocks him by declaring he’s done nothing wrong. Spending time in the mission center convinced him that he needed to get his life back on track, so he’s returning home to pursue an honest living, and he owes it to Batman. “You probably saved my life,” he admits before departing. As the bus leaves Batman returns to the rooftops with a renewed confidence. For all the evils he encounters, he can be reassured that he is still doing some good in Gotham.
This episode is an absolute classic. It perfectly explores Batman from the human level, showing that for all his wealth, intelligence, and determination, he is still a flawed human. But his inner strength to work to overcome those flaws is one of the traits that makes him most admirable. It makes Batman far more relatable than depictions where he’s a grim avenger of the shadows or a master tactician three steps ahead of everyone else, as entertaining as those renditions might be. Some might argue this episode relies too heavily on angst and melodrama to drive the plot, but heavy drama is a staple of Batman stories, and I can’t really fault that tone when it serves the narrative well. Rewatch this episode if you want a reminder of just how great Batman can be, and think of Kevin Conroy when you do, for without him, I doubt it would have been so memorable.
Rest in peace, Kevin.