Rest well, Dark Knight

A goodbye to Batman's greatest performer, Kevin Conroy

I grew up loving comics and I thought, like most people who were kids during the 80s, Batman was one of the coolest heroes. The Dark Knight (by Frank Miller) was released when I was 12, blowing my mind with the kind of dark and absolutely nightmarish places it went. Then Tim Burton's Neo-Gothic masterpiece hit the screen a few years later and somehow melded the 1966 camp of the Batman TV series staring Adam West and Burt Ward with the still-new dark vibe of modern Batman (before that darkness transformed into the almost campy "Grimdark" plague that swept the comic world shortly after). A few short years later, in 1992, the world was introduced to Batman: The Animated Series, a neo-Noir art deco masterpiece of animation, capturing the beauty of the 1920s with a world that never was wonder, giving Batman a hold on an even broader audience.

After the surprising turn by Michael Keaton in Batman and Batman Returns, it was anyone's guess who would play Batman in this stylish and retro-chic cartoon. As soon as we heard the baritone resonance that was Kevin Conroy, it didn't matter, because we knew we had the perfect voice for the job. Combined with Mark Hamill as The Joker and his sidekick Harley Quinn played by Arleen Sorkin, the show gave rise to three distinct characterizations that in many ways went on to inform not just the animated adaptations but the film and comic book adaptations as well. Conroy played Batman or Batman-related characters up until his passing November 10, 2022, with his last performance as Thomas Wayne coming on the TV series Batman: Caped Crusader, expected in 2023. He was definitively the longest to consecutively inhabit the role of any of the Batman performers.

But what made these performances and Conroy's performance in specific so special was they were never treated as cartoony. There was a depth to all of them, and Conroy's in specific. Conroy was a Julliard-trained actor; while attending school, he was a roommate to Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve, who were all studying under the acting great John Houseman (Three Days of the Condor, The Paper Chase). We all know of Robin's glory and Christopher's break-out role as Superman after graduating, and while they achieved their greatness, Kevin took his own path doing Broadway productions, working at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego performing Shakespeare, and doing a variety of roles in television miniseries (like as Ted Kennedy in the Kennedy miniseries) and soap operas (recurring roles on Another World, Search for Tomorrow, and Dynasty). He was a working actor moving from show to show, series to series, putting in the work.

But there was something that he was keeping secret and it was the thing that he felt was holding him back -- he hid from many for years that he was gay. For many fans, they didn't know until his recent essay written for the 2022 DC Pride issue (now free to honour Kevin's memory); the experience of being a gay man hiding in plain sight. Watching the tragedy of the HIV/AIDS epidemic unfold around him, for years he was not able to say or do anything about it but hold his voice that gave his Batman the anger and sadness of a person who has experienced loss, but also the compassion that only someone who has seen the utter tragedy that they could do nothing about can feel.

In season 2 of The Justice League Unlimited, the standalone episode Epilogue told of the death of Batman, a man who kept his secret to his grave. It was discovered that his protégé Terry McGinnis was in fact a clone of Bruce Wayne who was inserted into his mother. At first, he thought this was some scheme of Bruce to propagate his legacy, but Amanda Waller (a character introduced first in the comics but truly came into their own in The Animated Series) actually admits that it was her who cloned Bruce because she felt the world needed him to be there to be its guardian and she wanted to make sure she had a contingency. She then recounted a story of a time he defied her, and his true power -- something that even Superman never truly had -- compassion. As Ace, a young girl imbued with superpowers by Cadmus, runs amok, Waller explains to Batman in a flashback that Ace is dying and they need to kill her before her powers destroy reality. Batman takes the device Waller intended to have used on Ace and goes to confront the girl, but instead of killing her he sits with her, listens, and he holds her hand until she passes, peacefully, loved, and heard possibly for the first time in her life.

Conroy's performance was restrained and gentle, like a firm steady hand comforting a broken and lost soul guiding them through their pain. It's a performance that very few people could complete and it's one he does apparently effortlessly. He does it because he's felt the pain that Batman felt, he's seen loss and tragedy and he's held it deep inside, but he never let it take him.

Unlike Batman, Kevin revealed his secret. He allowed people to see his private experiences and he found love and was public. He left behind his husband Vaughn, as well as an essay opening up about his experiences living in a world intolerant to his very existence. He was kind to fans, generous with his time, and dedicated to doing right by the people who loved his performance. He was Batman in a way that no other performer will ever encapsulate, because he wasn't defined by anger or loss or rage, but was a hero defined by compassion -- a power we all need a little bit more of in this world.

Tags: Kevin Conroy, Julliard, Christopher Reeve, Robin Williams, Batman, Justice League Unlimited, Mark Hamill, Batman: The Animated Series, Warner Bros., DC

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