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"Modern Masters: Bruce Timm" Is Masterful Portrait of Animation Great

Arriving just in time for the premiere of Justice League Unlimited on Cartoon Network, Modern Masters Volume Three: Bruce Timm hits bookstores with what will surely be the definitive portrait of the artist and producer behind the shows that revolutionized superhero animation: Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and Justice League. Although the book is not pitched as a companion or sequel to Batman: Animated, admirers of that book could not do better than to pick up this new volume.

It is a book-length interview with Timm, in which the producer talks both broadly and deeply about the artists that influenced him, the history of his career, the shows he produced, and the philosophy that goes into his art and storytelling. It’s not a biographical book—only about ten pages or so are given over to his early days, and we learn virtually nothing about his private life. But there’s nothing wrong with that. However interesting Timm is as a person—and the evidence from this book is that he is a smart, sharp, funny, restless, and self-deprecating guy—most of us want to know about his art. The proper comparison to this TwoMorrows publication is (if you’ll pardon me for getting highfalutin’ for a moment) Hitchcock/Truffaut, the book-length interview in which the master of suspense told his best stories and laid bare his art. Timm is candid and remarkably giving in this interview, and the overall portrait is of a guy who is as surprised as anyone else that he’s the subject of this kind of book and doesn’t mind jawing about how he got into such a position.

The “modern master” of the title notwithstanding, Timm is at pains not to paint himself as some kind of genius or savant. “To this day, I am relatively unambitious and lazy,” he asserts early in the book, and looking at his early work for Filmation he marvels, “In retrospect, I’m stunned they actually hired me!” He calls his early decision not to attend art school “really stupid” and admits that “to this day I still don’t know how to do—like perspective—basic, rudimentary things like that. I can fake my way, but I literally still don’t know a lot of really basic things.” Instead, he served a long apprenticeship at Filmation and spent a few years working under Don Bluth and John Kricfalusi, both of whom he praises for their passion and commitment to the animated form. But this is also the spot where the book has one weak spot: Though it is possible to see continuities between his pre-BTAS and post-BTAS work, in the interview it is never really explained how Timm changed from a guy who copied the work of other, better animators and illustrators to the creator of a distinctive and massively influential style of his own. That he accomplished this shift is obvious; that it was gradual and unobserved even by himself is highly likely. Still, it would have been nice to hear Timm analyze it after the fact.

Without dwelling on the fact, Timm’s recital of his early career makes it clear that it was a thankless and meandering affair full of pitfalls and potential dead-ends: it was no charmed career, and he presents his being given the animated Batman franchise as a bolt from the blue. After showing Warner Bros. Animation president Jean MacCurdy his sketches for the proposed show, he says, he hoped only that he would “get to be the main model designer on the show.” Given his portrait of the way the business works, one can’t call it inevitable that a self-described fan of “comics and monsters” would be matched up with the Dark Knight. Well, shiit happens, but serendipity does too. Fortunately for us.

For all the influence of that show, the book doesn’t dwell overly on Batman: The Animated Series; Timm’s work there has been amply described elsewhere, and so the interview wisely concentrates on areas that have not been deeply explored, such as the episodes Timm directed or had a strong hand in: “Heart of Ice,” “Day of the Samurai,” “The Laughing Fish,” “The Man Who Killed Batman,” “Trial” and “Showdown.” Timm also touches (too briefly, perhaps) on stories that weren’t. A “Nocturna” episode was scotched after Fox censors ruled out the appearance of any vampires; Catwoman and Robin spinoffs were shelved after some desultory development. The interview also avoids some high-profile villains who have been talked to death (such as the Joker and Mr. Freeze) and instead looks at some interesting characters, like the Creeper, Baby Doll and Jonah Hex, who have not received much attention.

In its discussion of the post-BTAS series the book really comes into its own as a companion to Batman Animated. Timm talks a lot about Superman and the difficulties he and his crew had in adapting that character, trying to avoid the “cornball” aspects of the character while also doing something that was not simply a reprise of the old Fleischer shorts. (As interesting as the discussion is, the highlight of the section has to be the reproduction of the fake comics page used in “Mxyzpxylated.”) Timm describes the genesis of Batman Beyond in WB president Jamie Kellner’s desire for a “Buffy-ized Batman” and how it was Glen Murakami’s enthusiasm for the idea that turned around the other producers. And he describes in depth all the miscommunication between his crew and the home video executives that led to the infamous Return of the Joker fiasco. On the latter, he is either very diplomatic or very candid in telling a story that has no obvious heroes or villains.

An entire chapter of the book is given over to Justice League, and again Timm is candid about the hardships of creating a show that required so many characters and so much action. Many decisions about that show were (and remain) controversial. Timm defends some of those decisions (such as the inclusion of Hawkgirl); on others (such as the “blandness” of the first season) he joins in the criticisms. There are no revelations about the revamped series (given the long lead time necessary for this book, that is no surprise), but for those who need more than JLU for their Timm-fix, there is a long concluding chapter on his modern comic book work.

The book is lavishly, though not overwhelmingly, supported by illustrations, model sheets, storyboards, sketches, early artwork and a twenty-one-page gallery (with eight full color illustrations). The layout is clean and pleasing (in contrast to the sometimes over-produced feeling of Chip Kidd’s Batman: Animated), and there are very few typos. My biggest complaint: the book should have included a bibliography giving information on Timm’s scattered comic book work. Some of us want it all!

Editor/interviewer Eric Nolen-Weathington clearly did an enormous amount of research and, although Timm does not seem to be a reluctant interview subject, has done a masterful job himself in drawing Timm out and organizing his recollections. This is no fly-by-night “fanzine” profile, but a professional and excellent survey. It is a necessary addition to the library of any comic book and animation fan.

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