It’s a shame for a self-professed comic book superhero fan to confess it, but I’ve never watched Batman: The Animated Series. I think I saw at least part of one episode during the show’s original run, but it likely was not “On Leather Wings.”
When the animated Batman series debuted 30 years ago, I was starting my junior year in college. One afternoon, one of my roommates tuned our room’s TV set to a local station. “I don’t usually watch afternoon cartoons,” he said—a little sheepishly, as I recall. “But this Batman show isn’t like Super Friends or something. It’s more like classic animation. Old mystery movies. That kind of thing. It’s cool.”
He didn’t need to justify his actions to me. If he said Batman was worth his time, that was good enough for me. But I was busy with school work and a campus job and a girlfriend (to whom I still count myself fortunate to be married), so I didn’t carve out time to watch Batman on a regular basis. Or even an irregular one. I felt I was doing well to keep up with Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Fast forward 30 years, and pop culture is celebrating the show’s pearl anniversary. Over the decades, I’d heard how good the show is, and I’d always wanted to make time to watch it. I even bought the whole series on Blu-ray disc at its silver anniversary! So it seemed like the right time to enjoy my investment.
Man-Bat Makes His First Appearance Outside Comic Books
“On Leather Wings,” the first episode of Batman: The Animated Series, brings to the small screen a Batman villain I’ve long thought belongs on the big one: Dr. Kirk Langstrom, whose mad scientist experiments with bats turn him into the fearsome Man-Bat.
This episode marks the character’s first appearance in a medium other than comic books. Man-Bat first appeared in Detective Comics #400 (June 1970). In the story “Challenge of the Man-Bat,” Langstrom is trying to develop a serum that will give him a bat’s “sonar-detection”—“a natural ability even the great Batman doesn’t possess.” But his scientific hubris leads to his transformation into a literal “man-bat.”
As I wrote for The Sci-Fi Christian 11 years ago (yikes, does tempus ever fugit):
The concept sounds ridiculous, but the striking and dramatic art of Neal Adams, one of the medium’s true masters, makes it a truly horrifying prospect, one no reader would wish to share. Readers share Batman’s shocked fascination when the two come face-to-face on the story’s final page, and are left wondering what will become of this self-made monster.
“On Leather Wings” doesn’t preserve much of the pathos found in “Challenge of the Man-Bat.” What motivates Langstrom to pursue his experiments remains vague—probably because the episode features his father-in-law, one Dr. March (voiced by none other than the late René Auberjonois), much more prominently.
Dr. March is a much more intriguing character—and not just thanks to Auberjonois’s unmistakable and inimitable voice. He’s “obsessed with bat evolution,” as Kirk Langstrom says, and is openly admiring of chiroptera. “I think he likes bats better than people,” says Kirk. And he’s correct. March himself says, “We won’t survive the next evolutionary cataclysm, but bats will! They’re survivors . . . not pests!”
I suspect the episode spends so much time with March so unsuspecting viewers might find the revelation of Man-Bat’s identity a surprise. (I also wonder whether Dr. March, whom I don’t believe is a comic book character—he’s not in Detective Comics #400, at any rate—was named in tribute to Frederic March, who famously transformed from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde in the 1931 film version of that story.)
Art Deco Atmosphere for the Dark Knight Detective
But, no. As in the comics, Kirk Langstrom is Man-Bat, testing his father-in-law’s serum on himself, something March can’t bring himself to do. His metamorphosis is one of the most visually impressive moments in an episode full of them.
At one point, we see Langstrom through one of his beakers. The glass distorts his face into a grotesque parody of itself. The moment passes quickly—but only moments later, we see Langstrom become Man-Bat, growing in height and unfurling those leather wings of the episode’s title. As we look up at this magnificent winged monstrosity, lit as he is from beneath, we can’t help but reminded of the iconic demon from the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Disney’s Fantasia. Shirley Walker’s score at the beginning of the actual change even seems to pay homage to Mussorgsky’s classic music.
I personally wish “On Leather Wings” had been a more straightforward adaptation of “Challenge of the Man-Bat.” But I know the story and script aren’t the real stars here.
The real star of Batman: The Animated Series is, naturally, the animation. As my college roommate told me three decades ago, it’s cool.
It’s cool to see a Gotham City police dirigible floating through a dense layer of fog on a moonlit night, the white vapor pouring off its curves as it ascends.
It’s cool to see the Batmobile as a sleek, wildly elongated, bullet-like car roaring down the road from Wayne Manor to the city—a silhouetted cluster of Art Deco skyscrapers silhouetted against a large moon.
It’s cool to see Batman caught in criss-crossing police spotlights as he does honest-to-goodness detective work at the Phoenix Chemical lab. That shot is my favorite from the whole episode. It simultaneously evokes and subverts the iconic pose of Superman in his 1940s Fleischer cartoons. The Man of Steel stands akimbo, his cape flowing behind him, proudly showing himself to the world, but this version of the Dark Knight stands crouched for action, his cape flowing around and concealing him, looking for his chance to escape from an establishment that—at least in the person of Detective Harvey Bullock—doesn’t trust him.
I found “On Leather Wings” a little short on characterization—again, excepting Dr. March and Detective Bullock, whose animosity toward Batman is palpable—but full of fast-paced action and engrossing atmosphere.
I can see why it made such an impression on Batman fans and TV viewers in general thirty years ago, and I look forward to finally carving out time to catch up with this series.