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Thank you, Batman: A Memoriam to Kevin Conroy


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Kevin Conroy (November 30, 1955 - November 10, 2022)

 

I'm not gonna lie... this is a tough one for me. Yes, I can certainly say the biggest reason I haven't gotten around to this post until today is that I'm a new dad and being a new parent is very time consuming (which it is). But that's not the only reason I'm only now getting around to this. The truth is, to some extent, I've been putting this off. I hate death and hate addressing death because, even in its noblest form, the cruelest thing about death is probably the emptiness it leaves. Even believing in a resurrected soul and the Gospel of Christ as I do, that doesn't make earthly death any less cruel, ugly, or contrary to life at its most beautiful. And yet, this is why memory and the act of remembering is so very important. It is by the act of remembering and holding onto memories that we continue to express our love or care for those no longer with us; by this, we commit a deliberate action that, though it may be painful to us, we show that we are not going to let go of what people did for us and left us with. Everyone leaves a legacy behind, but it is up to us to fully express that legacy and keep it alive. And so, tucked though it may be in a little corner of the Internet, here is my contribution to keeping that legacy alive for one Kevin Conroy. Probably the first Batman I ever knew, and the best Batman I'll ever know.

 

I don't want to make this into a Wikipedia entry or obituary, because that's not how I knew Kevin Conroy. I didn't know him personally nor did I ever have the chance to meet him; but over the first three decades of my life, I did in a sense - like millions of other children from my generation - come to "know" him in his most iconic role. I will note a few remarkable points of his life that I believe deserve mention later in this post. But my first interactions with Kevin would've been on Saturday mornings and after school... watching Batman: The Animated Series. It was one of the shows I watched most as a child, and probably played a bigger role in establishing Batman as my all time favorite superhero more than any other form of media. I've never really read many Batman comic books, and while I love several Batman live action films, I didn't really start appreciating many of those until I was a teenager and the Christopher Nolan "Dark Knight" trilogy started coming out, and I was even older when I began appreciating some of his older films. But before all of that, there was still Batman, and for me, it was especially B:TAS and JLA Batman. I certainly didn't understand that WB was putting out all of these shows in a semi-connected manner, that these shows that played out across a little over a decade of television were more or less connected in the same television universe. Hell, I didn't even watch Batman Beyond when it came out, I thought it looked weird and didn't understand the idea of alternative timelines in comic books (I only say shame on me for still not having checked it out, I certainly need to rectify that mistake at some point).

 

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As Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy began coming fully into its own, I started rediscovering my love of Batman after some quieter years of my fandom for him. But by that point, nobody was really showing reruns of B:TAS anywhere and I didn't own any collections of it yet. So I didn't even really know who Kevin Conroy was. Then, one day, while my family was vacationing to visit other family and I was hunting for a good deal on a video game to pass the time, I noticed that the game Batman: Arkham Asylum was on sale for $20. I'd heard some great things about it, and even though I was more of a "big studio" gamer at the time (i.e. series like Halo, Gears of War, Assasin's Creed, Mass Effect, etc.) I decided to give it a shot since I thought, "hey, if it makes me feel a little like Batman, cool." And thennnnnnnnnn... I started playing. And suddenly I was 5 years old again because, to my shock, I was hearing the exact same voices I'd always heard as a kid voicing Batman and the Joker (that was probably also the first time I realized Luke Skywalker voiced the most iconic Joker I've ever heard as well, wild revelations, I know). Of course, the game itself was phenomenal. But now I was at a point in my life where I was starting to actually care about who played certain characters well. Where I was telling myself, "OK, hang onto the names that truly mean something creatively to certain fictional properties, the ones who truly bring something priceless to their performances." So from that point on, I made sure to never forget Kevin Conroy's name when he was attached to a Batman project. Because I realized... that's my Batman. And not just my Batman, or everybody's Batman. Simply put... he was Batman!

 

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Side note, even in a career of shining moments, Batman: Arkham Asylum is still among one of the greatest highlights of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill's careers in playing opposite one another as Batman and Joker, respectively. Seriously, check it out if you haven't already, you won't regret it.

 

I haven't seen every single Batman property or performance of Kevin Conroy's. Hell, I haven't even finished the Arkham trilogy (life is annoyingly busy like that). But while I can't make some claim to be the biggest Batman superfan or Kevin Conroy superfan, I can still more than appreciate what he did for this role and how he's impacted my life. Yes, nostalgia most certainly colors a lot of my endearment for him as Batman. But it is much more than that. I have seen many great Batman performances in my life, and I know that I will see many more great Batman performances in my life. About the only ones I can even say are bad have less to do with actor caliber/quality and far more to do with whether or not the actor cares about the role they are playing. I've even reached a point in my maturity as a Batman fan that I can accept there are all kinds of ways to successfully play this character! I wholeheartedly believe that Adam West, Diedrich Bader, and Will Arnett have delivered several of the best and funniest performances of Batman ever, and that, just as he is so unique in so many ways from all other superheroes, successfully parodying Batman in a satirical manner or delivering a tongue-in-cheek version of him is uniquely gratifying and hilarious.

 

But here's where Kevin Conroy stands above the rest, for me at least. Conroy understood, probably better than any other actor I've ever seen tackling the role, not just how to deliver separate performances for Batman and Bruce Wayne, but also how to inject humanity into both aspects of the character. Batman is tricky because the character is defined by his tragic origins; I know some people find that either cliche or, in his case, overdone (and trust me, there are FAR too many retellings of Thomas and Martha Wayne being gunned down in Crime Alley to count), but in his case, the reason it's so defining is not simply because it happened, but because it happened RIGHT in front of him. There is a tragic and explosive horror to the image of one's parents lives being cruelly snuffed out right in front of them at the age of eight. Unfortunately, because this is such an unusual backstory at its core in terms of the psychological effects, you see some very bad interpretations of Batman as a result. Some people think the Batman persona is simply a vehicle for him taking his rage out on others in a violent manner; some say that Bruce Wayne is dead, merely a shell and fake persona and that Batman is the true personality; some say that he's not a hero at all and there have even been times where Batman himself has been written to have this mindset; some say at the end of the day he's just a damaged or broken character, a lost soul that could do far more good in life without the cape and the cowl, but who is doomed to be an eternal victim of the defining tragedy of his life, unable to overcome it.

 

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B:TAS addresses some of these themes excellently in the underrated episode "I am the Night"

 

I vehemently disagree with all of these approaches, even if I understand the point that many of them are trying to make (hell, I've probably believed some of these arguments at points of my life). But ever since the release of The Dark Knight Rises (a terribly underrated film that, I believe, was Christopher Nolan's attempt to refocus the films not just on fulfilling his arc for Batman, but specifically on forcing Batman/Bruce Wayne to balance and accept both sides of who he is) I have come to wholeheartedly believe that the core aspect of Batman is this: enduring and steadfast perseverance and determination. Batman is not the strongest superhero. He's not the fastest superhero. He's not the most agile superhero. He's not the most skilled superhero. He's not the most charismatic superhero. He's not the most morally upright superhero. He's not even the smartest superhero, at least if we're applying comic book rules of super-intellect. I would never say he is damaged because that is insulting to anyone suffering from mental and emotional trauma of any kind (which he most definitely is), but he is very scarred, and he certainly doesn't always have healthy solutions to how he approaches life. But what he probably has more than any other superhero in spades is not even superhuman endurance, but simply, a heart, soul, and mind that will not let him ever give up, ever stop trying, ever stop persevering to do all that he can to see that justice is served and wrong is made right and yes, in the process, see if he can truly find fulfillment in life still. His mission is a cross that he has chosen to bear and the idea of whether or not he could ever stop bearing it probably torments him more than any other, not just because he truly does want happiness in life, but because he often finds himself questioning how good he truly is, or if he's even doing good in the world. At the end of the day, Batman is no more fake than Bruce Wayne, and Bruce Wayne is no more fake than Batman; they're not exactly the same, but they are inseparable from each other, and there are good and bad human qualities to both. Batman/Bruce Wayne is one of the most human characters in all of comic book fiction because, separating his billionaire status and the neverending cycle that is storytelling in the comic book industry aside, his central feature is simply his inability to ever stop trying. No matter how many times he fails or falls short of his expectations or even desires, this is a man that will never stop trying to do good and, somehow, maybe, achieve some semblance of happiness or at least fulfillment along the way.

 

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The 'Birth of Batman' backstory in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is one of the quintessential Kevin Conroy Batman performances; it's one of his finest jobs at depicting the eternal struggle to achieve balance between being Bruce Wayne and Batman, and the sacrifices that go into both, though of course credit must go to the writing and animation team as well.

 

And of anyone who has ever depicted Batman in film or television, I truly believe that Kevin Conroy understood this about Batman better than anyone else ever has. He saw a human in both personas, and with his voice alone, as intimidating as his Batman voice could be or cool as a cucumber his Bruce Wayne voice could be, he managed to bring forth the human in both personas in his legendary performances. In his portrayals of Batman, I admire this more than anything else about Kevin Conroy. He was able to so fully become this character because, whether or not he loved the character, he at the very least fully respected and understood who the character is and as a result captured his complex nuances. And while I cannot say whether Mr. Conroy himself actually loved the character of Batman, though I suspect he felt some affection for the character - not because it got him fame or a paycheck, mind you - I do know he at least respected what this character meant to his fans and did his damnedest to bring Batman to life as best as he could for the three decades he spent in the role. As a fan of the character, I can only thank him for all that he did for the character as well as continue to honor his legacy by enjoying his performances, both for myself and with family, and believe you and me, I cannot wait to introduce his Batman performances to my daughter and any other children my wife and I may have.

 

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Even in a show as loaded with superheroes and great storytelling as Justice League/Justice League: Unlimited, Kevin Conroy's Batman still shined brightly as one of the hearts and souls of the show. This scene in particular from the two-parter "Wild Cards" is possibly the best example of his humanity and even willingness to take on the most difficult of tasks in Justice League, though trust me, there are plenty of other stellar Batman moments throughout that show.

 

Before I wrap up this memoriam, I believe a few other scattered details of Mr. Conroy's life are worth mentioning. Just things that stand out and show that we didn't just lose a great actor, but a good man as well. The kind of guy you can't possibly replace, not just as a talent, but simply because he was THAT guy.

 

While attending Juilliard School's drama division, Conroy roomed and worked with Robin Williams, and befriended Christopher Reeves (very interesting turn of fate there). That's both a stunning collection of talent, but I also find it very noteworthy that all of these actors ended up leaving behind legacies as not just being phenomenal actors, but wearing who they were, the kind of people that they were, in as many aspects of their work as they could.

 

Conroy was born in the state of New York, and lived on and off for most of his life in New York City after earning his scholarship to Juilliard in 1973. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he partook in relief efforts by helping cook for first responders, namely police officers and firefighters. When several of them realized who he was, Conroy delivered a handful of lines in his Batman voice, prompting cheers from the responders, probably one of the few bright spots for them in those terrible days following the attacks. It was, in Conroy's own words, a deeply humbling experience.

 

Kevin Conroy and the 9/11 First Responder's Clip

 

Finally, many of his fans still don't know this since he was very quiet and private about it for most of his life, but Kevin Conroy was a gay man. He lived in New York City during the height of the AIDS epidemic, and, quote, "went to so many funerals that I felt such a sense of obligation" to portray the character of a TV producer secretly living with AIDS in the show Eastern Standard. As with many of the LGBTQ+ community from his generation, Conroy made efforts to conceal his homosexuality for much of his life and even then still faced discrimination from potential collaborators and employers once they found out. Thankfully he lived to see a world that, at least in some corners, was far more willing to embrace the LGBTQ+ community; in 2016, while promoting The Killing Joke animated film, Conroy revealed in an interview with the New York Times that he was gay, and later wrote "Finding Batman," a comic book story that recounts his life and experiences as a gay man, as part of DC Comics' 2022 Pride Anthology. It is now available to read for free (along with the rest of the antholoy), and I have posted a link below, shared by DC Comics:

 

Read "Finding Batman" by Kevin Conroy, J. Bone and Aditya Bidikar

 

I find it deeply powerful and even beautifully fitting that my favorite portrayer of Batman of all time was gay. For straight people like myself, as well as for members of the LGBTQ+ community, let his example be yet further proof that one's sexuality cannot and does not mean a damn thing when it comes to defining how masculine or feminine someone is. Conroy didn't just own Batman, he was Batman, for over 30 years, which is closer than most of us will ever be to that character; and for over 30 years, this gay man got to perfectly embody, in performance after performance, a character that many people, including, yes, bigots who can't stand the mere existence of LGBTQ+ people, consider to be one of the "masculine ideals" of popular fiction in American culture. To any of those bigots out there who may have a hard time accepting that one of the greatest Batmans of all time was a gay man (not that I expect any of them to be on this site), I only have this to say: "Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, fellas, he was Batman and you aren't and never will be."

 

Kevin Conroy passed away at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City from colorectal cancer on November 10, 2022, at the age of 66. Private to the end (and probably not wanting to distract from others he felt needed attention more than he did, though that's just my own projection based on my sense of who he was), he did not publicly disclose that he was ill. His death hit fans, the entertainment, comic book, and animation worlds hard, and has prompted an outpouring of tributes from millions of fans around the world as well as close friends and colleagues, including Mark Hamill, Tim Daly, Dana Delany, Susan Eisenberg, Tara Strong, Matthew Mercer, Steve Blum, Andrea Romano, Paul Dini, Diane Pershing, George Takei, Lynda Carter, James Gunn, and many more. Conroy is survived by his husband, Vaughn C. Williams, sister, Trisha Conroy and brother, Tom
Conroy.

 

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Rest in Power, Batman. Rest in Power, Bruce Wayne. Rest in Power, Mr. Conroy, and thank you for a life well lived.

 

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