On Sept. 28, 1985 the world got a glimpse of what could have been a very different Batman animated series. The fourth episode of that year’s incarnation of Hanna-Barbera’s long running Super Friends animated series (Super Powers: Galactic Guardians) is “The Fear.” Unlike previous episodes, it wasn’t focused on the Justice League and their ongoing battle against cosmic forces of evil, but instead was firmly grounded in Gotham City and a battle between Batman and the Scarecrow.
Galactic Guardians was the eighth and final season of Hanna-Barbera’s beloved Super Friends franchise, and it was a notable departure from what came before. Galactic Guardians stories were more in keeping with DC Comics of the day, the animation style drew heavily on the work of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, the artist behind the DC Comics Style Guide of the era, and for the second season in a row, the show leaned on Jack Kirby’s Fourth World mythology for its conflicts, thanks to the presence of villains like Darkseid, Desaad, and Kalibak.
Among the animation luminaries behind the scenes on Galactic Guardians was one Alan Burnett, who would go on to occupy a special place in fan’s hearts for his work as writer, story editor, and producer on Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and many other DC animated projects.
What eventually became “The Fear” began life as a pitch for a Saturday morning Batman cartoon for ABC. When that didn’t work out, it became a Galactic Guardians episode.
“I can’t say that it really came close,” Burnett recalled when I spoke to him at New York Comic Con in 2019. “We sort of foisted the idea…let’s at least do a pilot script and see how it feels. [The network] appreciated it and they let us do a version of that story in Galactic Guardians…but it was just too dark for them.”
And dark it was, at least by the Saturday morning cartoon standards of the day. Right out of the gate, “The Fear” is a more moody affair than traditional Super Friends episodes, with much of the action taking place on a rainy Gotham City night, and a Batman whose rain-streaked face gives way to tears as he remembers his past. And while other heroes do appear, it’s firmly a Batman and Robin story as they take on the Scarecrow and his “straw men” henchmen in Gotham City. But perhaps most importantly, “The Fear” features the first onscreen depiction of Batman’s origin, including the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne.
Of course, this being the 1980s, where Broadcast Standards and Practices divisions ruled over Saturday morning cartoons with an iron fist, there was only so much they could show. For one thing, Scarecrow doesn’t use his trademark “fear gas” to induce traumatic hallucinations, and instead uses “fear transmitters” shaped like skulls that emit a hypnotic signal. It’s through those “fear transmitters” that we learn that Batman is terrified of a specific alley in Gotham City, and it’s here we see, in flashback, the Wayne murders…albeit in a fashion appropriate for children’s programming of the era.
The Origin of Batman
It’s the familiar story: Thomas, Martha, and Bruce Wayne are leaving a showing of a Robin Hood film (not The Mark of Zorro or some variation as has become canon in the decades since) when they take an ill-advised shortcut down a dark alley, despite young Bruce’s protests. There they encounter a mugger and…well…you know the rest.
But since this is a piece of children’s programming from the 1980s, the gun is never shown, nor is the word “gun” even spoken. Instead, a terrified Bruce cries “Look out! He’s got a…” before the sky is split by thunder and lightning. The next shot is of Bruce and Alfred standing at his parents’ graves. We’re even treated to a montage of Bruce’s training that looks very much like the “Who He Is and How He Came to Be” story that appeared in 1939’s Detective Comics #33 (reprinted the following year in Batman #1), the first time Batman’s origin was ever told in the comics.
This may seem tame by today’s standards, but in an era where Batman wasn’t the pop culture fixture he is now, and when the average person didn’t even know how he came to wage his war on crime, it was a pretty big deal.
“It was the first time that the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents was shown, and it was being shown on Saturday morning,” Burnett says. “So we did tricks with lightning bolts and stuff like that, cutaways, but the people who knew Batman, they got the idea.”
The Mood and the Supporting Cast
But even when you set aside the novelty of seeing Batman’s origin portrayed on screen for the first time, “The Fear” still plays like the pilot it was intended as. In general, it was pretty rare for characters to appear in their secret identities on Super Friends cartoons, but Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson get considerable screen time. Similarly, the supporting casts of JLA members almost never got screen time on these shows, but here we get Alfred Pennyworth and a very comics-accurate Commissioner Gordon.
There’s a scene where Bruce is hosting a policeman’s charity ball at Wayne Manor where he interacts with both Gordon and Jonathan Crane (who is early enough in his career as Scarecrow that nobody has caught on to him), and this scene, its nighttime setting, and the accompanying dialogue wouldn’t be entirely out of place in an episode of Batman: The Animated Series a decade later.
Of course, this is still a Super Friends show, so other heroes do eventually appear. Wonder Woman shows up, although she spends most of her screen time in her Diana Prince identity. Interestingly, she seems to be the first person Batman has ever confided his origin story to, including Robin!
As a further relic of the show’s roots as a Batman pilot, Burnett told Back Issue magazine in 2017 that Diana’s parts were originally written for Vicki Vale. By episode’s end, Superman, Green Lantern, and Samurai also lend a hand in the fight against Scarecrow, but none are active enough participants to steal Batman’s spotlight.
Adam West Returns as Batman
As he did throughout Super Powers: Galactic Guardians, legendary TV Batman Adam West voices Batman and Bruce Wayne. While West had voiced Batman in animation several times before (notably on Filmation’s The New Adventures of Batman and two episodes of The New Scooby-Doo Movies), this was his first stint with the Super Friends (longtime Batman voice Olan Soule notably did the honors for most previous seasons). Longtime Robin voice Casey Kasem paired up with West. But if a new Batman series would have taken off at the time, that might not have been the case for the show.
“I think we would’ve gotten a whole new Batman. That’s my feeling,” Burnett says. “I loved Adam West and when I did the Super Friends, I wanted him to be that Batman and he was, it was great.”
Was There More?
Unfortunately, we may never know that else was in store for this 1980s Batman animated series, but Burnett does say that planning got as far as a full series bible. “There was a Bible written and where it is, I don’t know,” he recalled.
Still, “The Fear” is a fascinating look at what might have been, and an essential part of Batman history. Far moodier than its contemporaries, you can see the seeds of what was to come in Batman: The Animated Series, albeit in a far more “traditional” DC Comics animated style. It’s currently available to watch on DC Universe, and any serious Batfan should give it a look.