The Voice Of A Generation
“It was Bruce Wayne talking to himself, reaffirming his own identity … He’s saying it to himself rather than proclaiming it to the world. He’s psyching himself up … If you do it like a histrionic speech then it sounds ridiculous. But if you do it from inside, like you’re trying to convince yourself, you’re trying to find the strength within you to do the act you have to do, then it just comes out from inside of you.”Kevin Conroy, “An Oral History of Batman: The Animated Series“
Once I’d started regularly reading comics – in the irregular way in which I did so, given my unpredictable and inconsistent access to new comics – I found that I preferred the comics versions characters over their live-action or animated counterparts.
Sure, I still faithfully got up at 6 AM on Saturday to watch the latest episode of The Super Friends, or rather, the previous week’s episode – it’s a whole thing, and it’s not important right now – and any other comics-related media I saw, but by then, even before Frank Miller came along, the grim, driven Dark Knight I saw on the page made the colorful Batman I saw on TV, in animated form, seem silly and too childish even for a child.
This preference for the printed page turned into outright hostility towards anything on-screen in many cases, especially when it came to Batman, and especially when, one day while I was staying at my grandparents I encountered the 1966 Batman for the first time.
Among the people I know, I’m an oddity – and not just because of this – given that I have ZERO affection for that depiction of the Caped Crusader. None. At all.
I don’t feel anything like the outright loathing that young Jon did at the time, but to this day I can’t even appreciate it on an ironic level.
Things didn’t improve any when 1989 rolled around, as, again, I became an outlier who appreciated very little about the Burton/Keaton take on the character.
(There’s no point in arguing with me about this; my feelings aren’t going to change, and I’m not trying to talk anyone out of liking either on-screen version, because what difference does it make?)
Still, despite my annoyance with most adaptations of comic characters, I felt it was my duty to support those adaptations whenever possible in the hopes that the continued success of those adaptations would eventually lead to someone making one that I actually liked.
But that didn’t happen in 1989, and I was, by the point, fairly certain that it never would, and when the day came that a friend of mine told me that the wave of Batmania that had washed over the country was leading to the development of a new Batman animated series I wasn’t even cautiously optimistic.
Years later, as the debut of this new series neared, I had pretty much set aside my “duty” to consume comic book adaptations, and I wasn’t sure I was even going to bother checking out this new cartoon until I read an interview with Paul Dini in Comic Buyer’s Guide that made it sound interesting. I allowed a bit of optimism to mix in with my caution.
Optimism started winning out when I saw an ad for the upcoming premiere one afternoon and I got a good look at the Fleischer Studios-inspired animation and, more importantly, I heard that voice.
That pitch-perfect, startling, voice.
The voice of Kevin Conroy.
The voice of Batman.
Any doubts I had about the show evaporated immediately. I knew that if they could get something that right they must have put serious effort into making the best show they could.
There was so much I loved about Batman: The Animated Series, and the voice acting across the board was phenomenal – I mean, hello, have you heard Mark Hamill as the Joker? – but it was Conroy’s Batman, and Conroy’s Bruce, that served as the lynchpin of the show.
That subtle yet distinct difference between the Batman voice and the Bruce voice was a straight-up feat of magic, one I’ve nevever seen anyone else pull off. I always remember how jarring it was in one episode with a scene in which Batman, in costume, inside the Batcave, answers a phone call routed down from the manor, with his Bruce voice. It was amazing and disorienting and wonderful.
(As an aside, I watched Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm last night, and I was once again amazed by the way he created a third subtly distinct voice for young Bruce.)
And, of course, it wasn’t just the timbre and tone of his voice, it was the emotion, the acting, the realness of it. Everything that Batman is could be heard in every sound he made.
Kevin Conroy was everything that an often-disappointed comics fan could ever hope for, and the fact that for more than 30 years he continued to be the definitive voice of the World’s Greatest Detective not only for me, but for countless others across so many TV shows and movies and video games is a testament to the power of a voice that has, sadly, devastatingly been silenced.
I never had the good fortune to meet him, but by all accounts, he was a gracious and grateful person who leaned into the fame his glorious voice had granted him in the best way possible. I’m sure he would have loved to have been known and beloved for something else, such as his stage work, but he had a sense of how much his work as the voice of Batman across generations meant to his fans, and it’s clear that meant a lot to him.
As a gay man who had lived through some of the worst times for the LGBTQ+ community – and lost so many loved ones who didn’t live through it – and through some of the halting, uncertain, and fragile best times, it had to have been a strange delight to be an icon to such a large cross-section of the population.
He’ll always be my Batman. His voice will always be what I hear in my head when I read a comic with Batman in it.
And I’m eternally grateful to him not only for the part he played in making something that I’ve loved so much over the decades, but for the part my love for that series played in making me at least a little more open-minded and optimistic about adaptations and how to enjoy things for what they are.
For this year’s Pride anthology from DC, Conroy wrote a beautiful heartfelt and heartbreaking story about how he found the voice of Batman and Bruce.
It’s free to read here, along with the rest of the issue, and I highly recommend it.
I just wanted to take this moment to share my grief and gratitude for the life and work of Kevin Conroy. I’ll close out with some messages from a few of the millions of others who loved him.