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With a new(ish) Batman on the way, I’m reminded again that Kevin Conroy was an all-timer

Batman is one of the most iconic superheroes in comics, and one of the most complex, with almost a century of accrued lore behind him by this point. With that Marianas Trench of mythology to explore, adaptations have always made perfect sense. From early film serials to TV shows and onwards, we live in a world where Batman is always being remade and reimagined by someone.

One of the most successful reimaginings is Batman: The Animated Series, created by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski. In stark skyscraper canyons dropping away beneath menacing red skies, this cartoon introduced a new generation of viewers to Batman and his rogue’s gallery. The art was stellar, as was the noir-infused storytelling, but the casting was just as important. Here was Mark Hamill as the Joker, and the late Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn. And holding it all together was Kevin Conroy, stern and perfectly unknowable, and bringing just the slightest trace of grim humour, as Batman.

I’ve been thinking about Conroy a lot these past few days. A fan favourite, his death in 2022 devastated the community, and it underlined something that had been felt for a long time: here was truly a Batman for the ages. This summer has brought news of a new Batman game, Batman Arkham Shadow, with Roger Craig Smith returning to the character after his turn in Batman: Arkham Origins. New Arkham games are always welcome, and I’m sure Smith will do a great job. But it’s been a perfect opportunity for me to think of Conroy again and be thankful for what he brought to the role, regardless of the medium.

Here’s a trailer for Arkham Knight.Watch on YouTube

I can honestly say that Conroy’s voice shaped a huge part of my youth. When he died, and I’m sure I’m not alone, it felt like part of my childhood memories had changed for good. When I think of Batman these days, I think of Conroy. Even now, when I read a Batman comic, it’s Conroy’s voice speaking the lines in my head. Again, I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

Crucially, for me Conroy’s performance is the definitive take on both Batman and Bruce Wayne. He created the perfect dual-identity voice, with the shift in tone as he moves between identities understated but still clear and distinct. As he spent more time with the character, his performance seemed to deepen, too. You’d increasingly feel for this tired man fighting a war he knows he cannot truly win.

Even Batman fans who missed out on the Animated Series will know Conroy’s Batman, though. In the main trilogy of Arkham games he gave an astonishingly rich performance. From that first drive into Arkham Asylum carrying the Joker, Rocksteady’s decision to use the voices from the Animated Series paid off in terms of depth and groundedness. Here was a Batman you could really believe in.

Batman takes down some enemies in Arkham Knight

Batman has his back to us in this shot from the Arkham Trilogy

Batman: Arkham Knight. | Image credit: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

You see this in a variety of ways. Despite the broad cast of villains and heroes, the core Arkham games are essentially two-handers a lot of the time. There’s Batman crawling through a vent, and there’s the Joker, mocking him in his ear, or in his head. Conroy and Hamill’s work on the Animated Series gave them a history of playing off each other to build from – Hamill becoming more shrill and devious as Conroy grew more quiet and menacing and withholding. Conroy channeled controlled rage into these performances, but something more, too: recognition, deep, mortal frustration with someone who he’s had a real history with. These two were brilliant together.

And as the Arkham games progressed, they became more interested in exploring the psychological aspects of Batmam, all aided by the immersion presented by gaming, which would allow players into that head and into the character’s internal world of personal fear. The games take Batman to some genuinely strange places. One moment I will never forget is the death of the Joker at the end of Arkham City: a pitch-perfect moment of deep emotion from Conroy. I can see it now. Batman walks out of the Monarch Theatre doors, solemnly carrying Joker’s body, clearly upset and clearly confused. The scene comes close to implying that Batman has lost a friend. Only Conroy could have made the following quote believable, in part because his Batman had already shown a full range of emotions throughout the animated series:

“Even after everything you’ve done, I would’ve saved you.”

Here’s a glimpse of Arkham Shadow.Watch on YouTube

It’s clear that the role meant a lot to Conroy too. For anyone interested in learning more about this remarkable actor, I recommend his entry in DC Comics’ 2022 Pride Anthology, Finding Batman, in which he talks about his experiences as a gay man working in the entertainment industry. (Conroy had felt the need to hide his sexuality over the years and spoke movingly about the discrimination he endured and the jobs he missed out on.)

Sometimes it feels like with Conroy gone we’re living in a world without Batman. But the strength of the character, and I think Conroy understood this beautifully, is the way that he could be reimagined and reinterpreted. There will be plenty of Batmen in the years to come, but Kevin Conroy will always be my Batman. And I will always be grateful.


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