Gather 'round your family radio set and hold on tight to your cereal, because the time has come for a return to the macabre tales of life and death in Gotham City. It was one year ago that HBO Max and Blue Ribbon Content took us back to the Golden Age of home entertainment, before anyone even knew what a television set or video game was, with Batman: The Audio Adventures. The star-studded audio series follows the tradition of 1937’s The Shadow, or perhaps more aptly 1940’s The Adventures of Superman, where families would coalesce around the dial to hear the perils and triumphs of their favorite heroes.
Eighty years later, Batman: The Audio Adventures brings classic superheroes back to one of their first mediums…with a modern update. The production quality, the all-star cast and the whip-smart writing which turns from hilarious to terrifying on a dime is enough to keep anyone from changing that dial.
Now, Batman: The Audio Adventures’ even more ambitious second season is available to stream on HBO Max, and it’s 2021 debut season is now freely available on all podcast platforms. If you’re new to this all-audio take on Gotham, here’s what you’ve been missing…
Have you ever played the Batman: Arkham video games and lingered a while in the shadows before taking down some super-villain’s hired help? If not, you’ve been missing out on what might have been the best dialogue in the games: the idle banter between henchmen that reveals a whole lot about what it’s like to be just a regular joe in Gotham. Which bosses have the best perks? How do you avoid ticking the wrong people off? What’s this Batman guy really like? These little vignettes are funny, clever and do some heavy lifting to make Gotham feel like a real, lived-in place.
Why do we bring this up? Because Batman: The Audio Adventures often feels like a show written entirely by the henchman banter guys. In between the adventures of a Dark Knight caught halfway between Adam West and Frank Miller, listeners are treated to disclaimer-laden commercials for Gotham tourism, newly made Joker goons getting tips on how to survive their first encounter with the boss, a pitch for gas lamps in the summer now that Mr. Freeze has made parole, the GCPD bomb squad trading stories of their strangest cases, and the tragic comedy of Blabbo the Birthday Clown, who despite a rash of city-wide coulrophobia brought on by the Joker, really is just a birthday clown.
What you get in Batman: The Audio Adventures is a Gotham which delights in its own absurdity, without ever making the city itself a joke. The comedy, as written by Saturday Night Live writer Dennis McNicholas, is the kind which laughs alongside Batman fans instead of making fun of them. These aren’t jokes about Batman; they’re the kind of jokes that Gothamites would make about themselves.
Season one of Batman: The Audio Adventures takes place over two weeks in February, as the Joker prepares for a Valentine’s Day scheme he dubs the “Dark Purple Dawn”: a chemical concoction designed to drive the entire city wild with a romantic passion that will tear the streets asunder. But Batman is a little preoccupied with his own desperate scheme to reclaim the sanity of his closest friend, Harvey Dent—even as Harvey falls in league with the criminal Penguin for an alliance which will bring Gotham’s underworld entirely under their control.
Although Batman is rarely seen (heard?) without Robin in The Audio Adventures, you’ll realize that Gotham’s real dynamic duo is the unlikely pair of Catwoman and Gotham Gazette journalist Vicki Vale, uncovering the real story behind the Joker’s schemes—a conspiracy and cover-up which could shake Gotham to its core, as the truth behind what really was happening at Ace Chemicals the night that Joker was born comes to the light. The basis of Joker’s transformation, and the Dark Purple Dawn concoction, is a pharmaceutical drug called “JoyCure,” designed as an antidepressant to evoke euphoria in patients. It’s a scheme that goes all the way up to Mayor Hamilton Hill himself, and it’s Vicki and Catwoman who must save the city’s future while Batman and Robin watch over its dangerous nights.
Although Two-Face’s redemption evades Batman’s grasp, the Dark Knight does manage to save the city from Joker’s Dark Purple Dawn with one exception: the newly arrived psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel, who takes a bath in the lavender concoction. What could possibly be the fallout from a psychiatrist chemically altered to be obsessed with the Joker? And what of the mysterious Scarecrow, whose own pharmaceutical endeavors have the youth of Gotham experimenting with fear drugs to expand their psyches? Will Bruce Wayne’s dearest friend ever find harmony within his fractured psyche? And will Blabbo the Birthday Clown ever find work again, or was his father right about him after all? These stories and more await you in season two of Batman: The Audio Adventures.
Maybe it’s because the show is written by an SNL alum, but Batman: The Audio Adventures features some of the biggest names in comedy and television to fill out Gotham City’s skyline. Batman himself is portrayed by The Batman’s own Jeffrey Wright. Playing Gordon in The Audio Adventures is the mayor of SNL himself, Keenan Thompson, in a dynamic which delectably mirrors Wright’s in the Matt Reeves film. Other standouts include Rosario Dawson, who feels more at home than ever in her portrayal of Catwoman; Bobby Moynihan, who flips back and forth from hilarious to horrifying as entertainment magnate and crime boss the Penguin; John “Johnny Legs” Leguizamo as the frenetic Riddler; and the normally stoic Brent Spiner who plays frighteningly against type as a spine-chilling Joker. Also, a special shout-out to Heidi Gardner, who almost steals the whole thing as the Riddler’s hilariously unimpressed assistant, Miss Tuesday.
Joining the cast in season two is Community’s Gillian Jacobs clowning it up as an endearingly manic Harley Quinn and Bradley Whitford as Jonathan Crane, bringing a strong Hannibal Lecter presence to his Scarecrow. There’s a few more surprises waiting for you in the cast too, but we don’t want to give everything away.
Oh, and did we mention there’s a comic book too? Batman: The Audio Adventures is a limited series written by McNicholas and drawn by Anthony Marques that picks up right where season one leaves off, offering a stylish little bridge to the events of the current season and a chance to experience the audio series’ world in a visual medium—one that, appropriately, would have also been available during the age of radio serials.
With how much Batman: The Audio Adventures leans into the quirks and qualities of its medium, it could have been challenging to adapt it to the page—a medium that’s entirely devoid of audio. Fortunately, McNicholas and Marques embrace comics’ own quirks and qualities, replacing The Audio Adventures’ familiar narration with text boxes and rendering a Gotham that feels like a visual representation of the old-fashioned-but-modern world we’ve only heard until now. This Batman doesn’t wear body armor, this Robin still wears shorts and high-tech gadgets, while they’re used, are kept to a minimum. It feels like a throwback to a more innocent age, albeit one where that innocence hides an undercurrent of danger, much like the audio series.
But what’s truly fascinating is how, with the comic series and its second season, Batman: The Audio Adventures has become as fully developed a Bat-universe as the Arkham game series or the Batman Animated Universe. Yes, these heroes and villains may not be exactly like the ones you follow in the DC Universe proper, but there’s now enough story out there that their world feels alive. The relationships have impact. The ideas carry real weight.
So allow yourself to drift back to an earlier age. Let the sounds (and sights if you’re reading the comics) of Gotham City envelop you. You may be surprised by how strangely fresh it all feels, how big the laughs and how frightening the chills, and just how much you’re looking forward to that next tale of life and death…
Batman: The Audio Adventures Season Two is now streaming on HBO Max. Need to get caught up? Season One is available on all major podcast platforms.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask...the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.