Bruce Timm Interview: Justice League, Batman, Harley Quinn, & More

Den of Geek had a chance to chat with Bruce Timm about Justice League: Gods and Monsters and much more!

When I was a boy, there were two constants in my life: video games and Batman: The Animated Series.

Quickly, I sat on the couch, cross-legged, as the show’s ominous theme began. The first shot of Gotham City made way for a surreal red night sky, dark shades of blue and gray, and the harsh yello lights of GCPD airships. All is quiet for a moment…

Like the opening montage, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series made kids’ heads explode. Countless hours I spent writing Batman: TAS fan fiction — my first true creative venture. The non-stop action, powerful stories, and incredible in-jokes made way for something unexpected in a kids show: a cartoon that was relatable to both children and adults. I remember fondly putting on my VHS recording of “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement” as a wee one. A few days before this interview, I rewatched “Heart of Ice,” and I needed a few minutes to recover.

So you can image my excitement to talk to Timm, the man who designed the art style for most of the 90s and 00s DC animated universe, a combination of well-defined shapes and bright colors that stands as DC’s best work. Besides Batman: TAS, Timm also helmed Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, and Batman Beyond. He was also the head of the DC animation division until 2013.

Of course, he’s a still a vital part of the DC animated universe. He returns this week with the predominantly more adult Justice League: Gods and Monsters, which you can watch on Machinima starting today. The first episode is below:

I had the privilege of chatting with Timm about the new show, Harley Quinn, an unproduced episode of Batman: TAS, his live action film dreams, and his favorite career moments, all while trying not to sound too dweeby (I failed). Also, I didn’t get the chance to tak to Timm about my favorite episode of Batman: TAS — “Fire from Olympus” — so if you’re reading this, Bruce, let’s have another chat!

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Here’s the interview:

In the first episode of Justice Leage: Gods and Monsters, we see a bit of Harley Quinn, and since you created her with Paul Dini, I’d like to know your thoughts on her growing popularity in today’s DC films and comics. 

Obviously, it’s really cool. It’s always gratifying when something you’ve done gets that much traction. Sometimes it kind of surprises me. I always thought the character was cool and appealing, but to have the kind of popularity that she has constantly surprises me. Like when I go to conventions and see the amount of girls sometimes guys dressed up as Harley.

When we first created her she was meant to be a one-off character, and then she got so popular. And still rising.

What do you think it is about Harley Quinn that has made her such a lasting presence?

I wish I had the answer to that, because if I knew how to create an instantly popular character like that, I would do more of them.

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It’s weird to me because, on one hand, she’s appealing, but you look at her and she’s not exactly a good role model for girls. And in the past, we have definitely explored some of the darker edges of her story. She was kind of in an on-going abusive relationship with the Joker. So it is weird but maybe a lot of her appeal, at least recently, is because they have separated her from the Joker in comics. She’s become her own standalone character and definitely not in an abusive relationship with the Joker anymore. I guess that is somewhat empowering and people can relate to it.

But truthfully, she was a really, really popular character even before all this. I think part of it is probably, to pat my own back, design. She was a really simple basic character in red and black, cute face, cute figure, one and done. So that definitely has to be a part of it.

So you are making alternate versions of the world’s greatest heroes in Gods and Monsters. Kurt Langstrom is, to me, one of the most tragic characters of Batman: The Animated Series, even though he doesn’t appear that often. Why did you decide to make him Batman?

It was kind of a happy accident. When I first started envisioning this series, I came up with a Superman character pretty easily. In fact, that’s how this whole thing started. The thought of reimagining Superman, basically rebooting Superman from the moment of his origin. The minute I thought, “Oh, he’s the son of Zod instead of the son of Jor-El,” I realized that was such a huge game changer. It resets the entire board.

So what do I do with Batman? I knew right out of the gate I didn’t want him to be Bruce Wayne. As far as I’m concerned, Bruce Wayne’s parents stayed home that night, they watched TV, they didn’t go to the movies, they didn’t get gunned down in crime alley. So he didn’t become Batman. He didn’t have a reason to become Batman. Whatever became of him, I don’t know. Presumably, he exists in this universe but who and what he is, I don’t know. All I know is that he is not Batman.

So we need a Batman and something that has been bouncing around in the back of my head, for decades probably, is a quote from Bob Kane. I remember reading where he said Batman is half Dracula and half Zorro, and that’s part of the appeal of Batman. That he’s dark and spooky-looking, and he’s got that badass costume and the bat imagery. So I always wanted to go all the way with it and actually make him a vampire. One episode of Batman: The Animated Series, back in the day twenty years ago, we actually wanted to turn Batman temporarily into a vampire but [Fox Kids] wasn’t having any of that.

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Was there a script and a design and all that?

We never went as far as a design for him. But there was a character in the comics named Nocturna who is not really a vampire but she was vampiric. So I did do a design of her, but that was as far as we got. We had the idea, but Fox Kids said, “No way, don’t go there.”

Nocturna would have turned Batman into a vampire?!

Yeah, that was the idea. So anyhow, I never let go of any idea. I always keep things in my back pocket. It was the perfect time to turn Batman into a vampire, and Kirk Langstrom just popped into my head. I have always been a fan of the character, and he is one of the characters that, weirdly enough, hasn’t been overused by us in animation. He has only appeared in a handful of episodes in total. So I thought Kirk Langstrom, instead of turning him into Man-Bat, I’ll go sideways with it and turn him into vampire Batman.

Did you take a look at any Elseworlds stories when creating Gods and Monsters?

No. I am very familiar with the entire Elseworlds genre. Some of them are great. Gotham by Gaslight, great idea, great comic. Red Son, great comic. Unfortunately, and even the editor who edited all those comics for all those years, Mike Carlin, admits to this day that frankly most of the Elseworlds comics were not good.

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There are some good ones. But there are some really bad ones. The minute they actually made it an on-going monthly series…Pretty soon it was, “Oh, Batman’s a pirate” or “Oh, Wonder Woman is a revolutionary war character.” Gets pretty silly pretty quick, right?

So I didn’t have to. I was familiar enough with the genre to know there were certain things I didn’t want to do. One of the things that always happened in an Elseworlds comic –seriously, for a while therem it happened in every single Elseworlds comic — one of the main characters was going to get killed. Because it was out of continuity, so you can do it. So therefore they did it every single time. I really wanted to avoid that trope.

Not only that, once we created these characters and started spending some time with them, I liked them enough and started to think these are bound to be successful enough that we can bring them back and do a sequel either as a movie or some other venue. Suddenly, we’ve got this ten-episode web series that will start next year.

You mentioned Bruce Wayne in your universe and whether he exists or not. Are we going to see alternate versions of some of the supporting characters? Jim Gordon, Harvey Bullock, Bruce Wayne himself?

We don’t really know yet. The movie is packed with existing DC characters. If we have a scientist, instead of creating a scientist, we’ll say, “Oh, what if that was Ray Palmer?” Or if we have a news reporter, why not make it Lois Lane? Why not? It kind of doubles the fun of the what if by saying, “We’ve got an all new Superman, we have pretty much the same Lois Lane. Would she like this Superman? Maybe she thinks this Superman’s a dick?” That changes their relationship right out of the gate.

So there are a lot of supporting characters from the DC universe being given the weird Gods and Monsters makeover.

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You have done TV shows, and you’re doing these animated films. Have you ever thought about doing a DC live action film?

Well, first they would have to offer it to me. That has never happened.

I find that hard to believe.

I have never once gotten a call that said we would like you to make a live action whatever. If they did, I would definitely think about it. I have never pursued it. Maybe if I had been a little more ambitious and a little less lazy, I would have hired an agent and actively explored that option, but I am kind of lazy and I like doing what I’m doing.

And if there was a live action project, would it be Batman?

[Laughs] Sure. Why not? On the one hand, that’s enormously intimidating because there are some really big shoes to fill there, but the great thing about Batman is that there have been a lot of really crappy Batman movies as well. So my theoretical Batman movie might fall somewhere in between there. Better than Batman and Robin and maybe not as good as The Dark Knight.

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Well, I’ll look forward to it if it ever happens.

You and me both.

You did really wonderful work with some of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World concepts in Superman: The Animated Series. I was wondering if you ever had any plans, either in the past or something you might want to do in the future, with any of those Fourth World characters?

Sure. It has come up in discussion several times. The big problem with the Fourth World characters, just from a marketing standpoint, is that no one outside of comics knows who they are, so it would be very difficult sell anybody on a Fourth World animated series. Or a Fourth World animated movie that wasn’t also a Batman or Superman movie. It just wouldn’t happen. Not the way things are now. But sure, I love those characters. I love all of it. It’s some of my favorite Kirby stuff.

Terry McGinnis recently joined the official DC continuity in the comic books in New 52: Futures End, and by the end of the series, Tim Drake replaces him as Batman Beyond. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, it’s unfortunately news to me. I haven’t really kept up with the Batman Beyond comics they’ve been doing in the last few years. Not that I don’t want to. I’m just really busy and don’t have a lot of time to read comics.

I also kind of just don’t want to know. I am thrilled that those characters lived on past the animated series, but at the same time, it’s like whatever they do with those characters, it’s not what I would have done with them for good or bad or anywhere in between. So I just don’t want to know.

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I have read a few of the Batman Beyond comics, and I’ve gone, “Oh, that’s okay, but it’s not what I would have done with them.” And again, it’s not a value judgment. It just doesn’t interest me since I am part of those characters, integral to that team that created that world. I just have to think of it as not canon.

To me, the Batman Beyond comics are not my Batman Beyond. It’s gone beyond that. If its officially part of the DC universe continuity, great. More power to them, but it’s not my Batman Beyond.

Do you have a favorite piece of work that you’ve done?

The short answer to that is: I love all the series I’ve done pretty much equally.I haven’t done a single series that I have been embarrassed by. Some of the movies are better than others.

My absolute favorite show I worked on, just because of how much fun it was to go to work every day, wass Justice League Unlimited. It’s the one that I actually go back and watch. I can actually go back and binge watch the entire Justice League Unlimited in a week.

We were a well-oiled machine at that point. And the crew that we had was really stellar. Dwayne McDuffie, I miss him every single day of my life. [McDuffie passed away in 2011.] I was so in sync with Duane. He understood me in a way that no other writer I’ve worked with has ever understood me. And it wasn’t just Duane. Sitting in the writers’ room with Duane, Stan Berkowitz, Matt Wayne, and James Tucker. It was just the most fun I have had in this business. Normally, I kind of hate sitting in the story room breaking episodes, but that was a blast. Every episode was a joy to work on with that crew.

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And it was a wonderful show. Thank you so much, Bruce. It was a pleasure talking to you.

John Saavedra is an assistant editor at Den of Geek US. Chat with him on Twitter! Or check out all his work at his website.