Mask of the Phantasm: She is the Night

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Shirley Walker: (Too Often) Unsung Heroine

Cel-e-brate good times, come on! And these are good times indeed. Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Credits Conductor and National Women’s History Month still has a couple of more days to go. I thought this would be the perfect time to introduce a composer I learned about recently, who wrote all her songs by hand, and stood out as one of the few female composers in Hollywood before she passed away in 2006: Shirley Anne Walker.

I happened across Walker accidentally while being my normal, anti-social self. When Sherlock Season 4 ended, I sought another TV series for comfort. I wanted something humorous, something witty, and something, above all, something every-so-slightly geeky. I found all of the above in Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995). I’m not a reader of the Batman comics, but my best friend is and she praises this show highly for its loyalty to the source material as well as its well-placed ingenuity. The voices of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and the Joker, respectively, have been widely lauded as some of the most definitive portrayals of these iconic characters. But my ear was caught by something other than voices, something that I’m astonished isn’t talked about more: the score.

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Frames from the Batman: The Animated Series opening sequence

I was immediately hooked by the series’ opening music – a variation on the theme from Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) by paragon of film scoring Danny Elfman. I was even more intrigued when what followed turned out to be much more sophisticated than I’d expected from a kid’s show. There were full movements and leitmotifs based off of various characters – a circus-like tune with sinister undertones for the Joker, a quick-paced shuffle for Batgirl’s ability to leap into action. I also noticed that these themes are not canned. In other words, the composers of the show did not simply pull out old recordings of these themes and reuse them every time those characters appeared in new episodes. They scored each. Episode. Individually. To match the beats of each. Individual. Episode.

So let’s see… each episode is a little over 20 minutes long, there’s 4 seasons and about 30 episodes per season…

Well, I was never good at math. But I can tell you that that’s a lot of music. And a lot of effort.

Much of that effort is due to Shirley Walker. Many other composers wrote for the show, but she is responsible for the majority of the episodes and the musical tone. She worked closely with Danny Elfman, paragon of film composing, as a variation of his theme from Tim Burton’s Batman 1989, serves as the opening title theme for the animated series. But while Elfman’s theme is one of the best superhero themes ever created, I personally felt like Walker’s leitmotif for Batman himself best explores the dynamics of the character from a storytelling perspective.

Now, whenever I listen to any Batman theme, I can’t help but compare it to the works of Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer. Elfman’s theme, which I’ve already mentioned, showcases the regal, almost mythological status that Batman carries with him, while Zimmer’s theme, “The Dark Knight,” focuses on the physical strength the character possesses. While both are some of my favorite film themes of all time (especially Elfman’s – my goodness) Walker’s theme explores both these aspects of Batman’s character at once, as well as adding a sense of mystery that Elfman’s hints at but never explores fully. My comic-book-loving friend has repeatedly said over the years that the best versions of Batman are those that acknowledge that he is a detective, a solver of mysteries, and someone who is a bit of a mystery to himself at times, due to his psychological struggles and his constant efforts to end crime in Gotham that never seem to go anywhere. Many people have pointed out that Batman himself is a bit of a paradox – does he fight crime, or does he create the villains that surround him? Is he a dangerous vigilante, or a heroic figure? Walker’s music itself explores these questions. In “Music of the Bat – 101,” a YouTube video, Walker describes the main portion of the theme as having “two answers” – one that is dark and brooding, the other that is uplifting and strong. I feel that Hans Zimmer captures the brooding aspect of the character, while Elfman captures the uplifting side, but neither really goes for both (though, again, I think Elfman is the closest.)

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Still from the opening credits of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

My favorite iteration of Walker’s Batman theme can be found in the opening credits Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a spin-off movie based on the animated series. The film had more funding, and therefore, Walker was able to use a choir to bring more power and mythological weight to the music. One could even argue (and yes, I am going to argue) that the more humorous side of Batman is present in this particular version, as though the subtitles for the film assure the audience that the choir is chanting in Latin, they are actually singing the names of some of the orchestrator’s backward. In my opinion, however, the most important element to the opening credits is that Batman himself is nowhere to be found in them. It’s interesting to me that Walker would use the Batman theme where Batman is not present. On the one hand, it may have been a studio decision, or perhaps Walker had reasons I can’t guess. On the other hand, what is present in the opening is just as iconic as Batman himself: Gotham City. The stunning noire film-esque silhouettes of high-rises are pictured in a single shot – the only CGI shot in the film, as the Nostalgia Critic pointed out in his video, “Is This the Best Batman Movie?” A fair question, Mr. Walker. (Um… no relation.)

I’ve read many an article and watched many a video essay exploring the almost symbiotic relationship of Batman and Joker, but not that of Batman and Gotham, but the connection Walker draws between the two makes me wonder… what would Gotham be without Batman? What would Batman be without Gotham? Would the grandiose villains that constantly plague the city have risen from the shadows of Gotham’s sewers and alleyways if they did not have to rise to match a powerful opponent? Could Batman exist without constant exposure to a mix of common crime and intense psychological drama? I believe that Batman and Gotham are one, that they function as two halves of a quarrelsome whole, and by playing the Batman theme across Gotham’s high-rises, Walker is conveying this idea through music.

Certainly, I find it to have the truest musical depiction of the spirit of Batman that I’ve ever heard. And I find it endlessly satisfying that it comes from a woman’s hand. Shirley Walker must have seemed truly out of place, writing Emmy-winning music that spanned numerous male-dominant fields. Comics, composition, and film in general rarely feature women in top positions. And they won’t tell you about their involvement even when they act as the backbone of the project. Shirley Walker frequently worked with both Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman as their conductors, but her media attention was minimal. Hans Zimmer even worked under Shirley Walker in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm – while she was the sole composer, he worked as a synthesizer. And yet nobody talks about her but fans of the show.

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Harley Quinn (voiced by the delightful Arleen Sorkin) is one of the most popular characters in Batman lore and originated in the animated series. Conclusion: Women in comics make things more interestin’. Puddin’.

This needs to change. We need more directors like Stanley Kubrick, who hired not just one, but four women composers for his films (Vivian Kubrick for Full Metal Jacket, Jocelyn Pook for Eyes Wide Shut, Rachel Elkind and Wendy Carlos for The Shining (Wendy Carlos also composed for A Clockwork Orange.) As a woman interested in film and film music myself, I wish there were more women working in Hollywood scoring today. I wish there was a woman composer whose name stood on every blockbuster-lovers lips like John Williams or even Alan Silvestri.

I believe this can happen because women like Shirley Walker have paved the way. May her memory be eternal. She is an inspiration to me. Her understanding of the essential flaws and strengths of this legendary character make her theme for Mask of the Phantasm my definitive Batman score. Shirley Walker is a superhero. You might even say that…

She is vengeance. She is the night. She is… Batmusician.

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Batgirl and Batman, fighting crime together.

 

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