Updated: Jan 24, 2020
Alan Burnett has been synonymous with so many animated series and films for close to 40 years both as a writer and a producer. He worked on hit shows like "TaleSpin", "DuckTales", and "Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers" and "The Smurfs".
But most people will probably recognize him from his work on "Batman: The Animated Series", with Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, and the subsequent DC Animated series and films. It is widely recognized as the best adaptation of Batman outside of comics and one of the best animated comic book shows of all time. It won numerous awards and led to what many refer to as the "Timmverse" series of shows "Superman: The Animated Series", Batman Beyond, "Justice League, and "Justice League Unlimited".
Not only did he help shape the DC Animated shows but he also worked on the DC Animated films starting with arguably the greatest, animated, comic book film "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm". He's worked on other films such as, "Green Lantern: First Flight", "Batman: Under the Red Hood", "Batman: Year One", "All-Star Superman", and "Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay", to name a few.
He recently wrapped up work on "The Death of Superman" and "The Reign of Superman". After which he has one more project that hasn't come out yet, before he enjoys his retirement.
COMIC LOUNGE: You have been writing in animation for over 40 years. How did you first break in? What was your first project?
ALAN BURNETT: Let me first say that between the ages of 9 and 14 I was an intensive comic book reader. This was when Marvel burst on the scene. I don’t think there has been a more exciting time in comic books since. I never thought that I was paving the way for my career by reading comic books, but it’s probably done me more good than my college degrees. In film school, I took only one animation class, and that was just to fill out my schedule. I never thought that I would end up in that business.
After graduation I became a page at NBC and ended up in an internship in Children’s Programs under Margaret Loesch. Years later she became the Vice-President of Production at Hanna-Barbera. I was out of work and really needed a job. The week she hired me was the week my first child was born.
In the beginning I wrote mostly development. There was another young writer, Jeff Segal, who was also recently hired, and we became writing partners by virtue of the fact that we liked one another and shared an office. He had written a version of a the first “Star Wars” sequel for Lucas, so I was mightily impressed.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but a lot of new writers were being hired. Management wanted new blood. This was 1981 when H-B owned Saturday morning. They had 13 shows on the air. In fact there were a couple of time slots in which H-B shows competed against each other on all three broadcast networks.
The first big thing Jeff and I worked on was a pilot for an animated version of “Dukes of Hazzard.” We were supervised by a veteran H-B writer, who was a nice fellow, but quite professorial. He used to be a writer for Art Linkletter and ghost-wrote the “Kids Say the Darndest Things” books. Unfortunately, we were on a completely different wavelength from him and ended up getting booted from the project.
I thought maybe Jeff and I wouldn’t last long here, but fortunately, we were much more appreciated on “The Smurfs” and wrote episodes for that until we were offered “Superfriends” in ’83. Margaret knew what a fan I was of superhero comics, and they wanted new life injected into the show. “Superfriends” had been on the air for years and was fading in the ratings. So that’s how it began for me.
COMIC LOUNGE: BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES has long been regarded as one of the best animated series of all time. How did the series initially come to be? Did you guys pitch the show or were you tasked with coming up with a pitch?
BURNETT: I wrote a fairly detailed article about the start of the series for last year’s Comic Con Magazine, which you might be able to find on the net. But to boil it down, around 1990 Warner Bros. and Fox Kids were in negotiations to bring “Tiny Toons” to Fox. Warner Bros. told the network it would have to buy additional series if they wanted “Toons,” and Batman was among them. Two artists, Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, independently developed art for the show. Bruce did a page of models and Eric came up with background designs. Jean MacCurdy, the president of Warner Bros. Animation, liked what she saw and slapped both guys together as a producing team.
But as production began, there were story problems, and that’s when I was brought over. The great attraction for me was that it was Batman, maybe my favorite hero as a kid, and that the show would be broadcast in the afternoon, which meant I could get more adult with it than on Saturday morning. We could actually use guns and have impactful fights. After ten years of restraining myself at H-B, I was like a spring unbound.
COMIC LOUNGE: There were so many amazing episodes in the series, do you have a favorite?
BURNETT: Well, of course, everyone loves the first Mr. Freeze story, which was Paul Dini’s. I also like “Almost Got ‘im,” another Dini script, about villains in a poker game, reminiscing about their close encounters with the Dark Knight. There were two episodes written by the great horror novelist, Joe R. Landsdale: “Perchance to Dream,” which imagines Bruce Wayne’s life had he not become Batman, and “Speak No Evil,” the first Ventriloquist story. That one is among our most noir-ish looking shows – you’d think it was drawn on black velvet. I also have a lot of affection for the two-part Two-Face origin, script by Randy Rogel, and the second part of the origin of Clayface, which has animation to die for.
I have to also add “Robin’s Reckoning,” which got us an Emmy for a primetime animated show. We were on Sunday nights against “60 Minutes”. We lasted 13 weeks. That was the year that “The Simpsons” took themselves out of the running, because they wanted to be nominated as a sitcom. Lucky us. I think we even thanked them at the ceremony.
“Batman: The Animated Series” never won an Emmy for best daytime show all the years that it was on daytime. I don’t think we weren’t considered a kids’ show by Academy voters, even though we were under the aegis of “Children’s Programs.” There’s that, and a sense that the Academy had zero respect for superheroes. I started making a stink about this early on, and I don’t know if I had any influence, but the Academy eventually split the animation categories into two: a “special animation” category as well as a children’s show” category. We did win in the “special” category years later for “Batman Beyond.”
COMIC LOUNGE: Out of all the DC shows what are some of your favorite episodes you worked on?
BURNETT: Well, my favorite may be a three-part Superman/Batman story,”World’s Finest”, which was put together as a mini-movie and first shown in primetime. I felt it had just the right comedic tone for a comic book movie. The best superhero stories have a healthy dose of humor, like the Spider-Verse movie, which I much admire. “World’s Finest” also presented one of the rare times a critic surprised me by an observation. He called “World’s Finest” a “menage a quatre” story. That had never occurred to me, but he was right. It wasn’t just two guys, Superman and Batman, fighting over Lois, but four: Superman, Batman, Clark and Bruce. And then you had the evil couples, Luther and Mercy and Joker and Harley. It was all about couples. It was like a date movie.
COMIC LOUNGE: You went on to work on the DC Animated Films, all of which have been highly successful. What do you think has made them so appealing to comic book fans and non comic fans alike?
BURNETT: The fans like to see big, graphic novel stories. We do the best we can to stay as close to the original books as possible. Sometimes that’s not easy. The videos are usually 70 minutes, and the scripts are about a hundred pages or less. This all means that the videos can best cover six issues of a mini-series. More than six issues and you have to crunch. Less than six , and you have to expand. I marveled when Dwayne McDuffie, who is still greatly missed, was able to boil down the 12-issues of ALL-STAR SUPERMAN to six issues and yet let us feel the wholeness of that comic’s complete run.
When you see “The Reign of Supermen” as well as “The Death of Superman”, you’ll have seen 24 comic books crunched into less than three hours. Fortunately, we had Mike Carlin, who edited the original comics, help oversee it all, and two great writers – Peter Tomasi and Tim Sheridan – to script it.
COMIC LOUNGE: Although you've worked a lot with DC characters, you've worked on other numerous projects. What have been some personal highlights in your career?
BURNETT: I loved working on “Ducktales”. It was the year executive producers and story editors Ken Koonce and David Weimers created Gizmo Duck, and I had a blast with that superhero loon. I also loved being producer/writer on “Ozzy and Drix.” Doug Langdale, who was the story editor, is among the funniest people ever to work in animation. He and his wife, Candy, wrote my favorite “Scooby” video when I was doing those. The villain was a phantom-of-the-opera take-off, and there wasn’t a suspect in it who didn’t end up getting unmasked as the villain. It was very clever.
The hardest show was perhaps “The Smurfs”. Between the network and Peyo, the creator of the Smurfs, the politics was nuts. I don’t think more than a third of the pitches survived to outline. The show was 90-minutes every Saturday morning, and when I became story editor, we were so desperate for ideas, we paged through the yellow pages in the phone book to come up with new Smurfs. I was smoking then, and that show got me up to a pack and half a day. The day I finished my last season was the day I put the cigarettes away forever.
COMIC LOUNGE: Are there any other projects that you've worked on, that haven't been released yet, that you can talk about?
BURNETT: There are several titles coming out in which I’m co-producer, which mostly means I supervised the scripts. I retired a year-and-a-half ago, but still have one co-writing credit coming out on a future DC video. I can’t tell you which one, but they say back in Burbank that the animation looks really good.