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Thursday, Dec. 14, 2000


By Rob Allstetter/The Comics Continuum

Sure, it's Return of the Joker. But it's also the Return of Mark Hamill.

Hamill's back as the voice of the Joker in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, the straight-to-video movie that arrived this week - after a nearly two-month delay for re-edits to tone down the material for a young audience.

Hamill, 49, who provided the voice of the Joker throughout the entire run of the Batman series on Fox Kids and Kids' WB!, called getting the chance to play the Joker again "an unexpected pleasure."

"I have to tell you the quality of the script is so high, I really relished the role," he said. "I never expected to find a character as rich as this one in animation. So I consider myself very, very fortunate."

And, if you've seen the movie, you know this isn't the same old Joker.

"It was different this time with fitting into another cast. Also, the Joker is a different Joker," Hamill said. "I couldn't slip on the old glove. I had to look at it as a whole different animal."

Hamill said he had moved on from the Joker, particularly since Batman Beyond was succeeding and there were no plans for any more Batman episodes. He recalled running into Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker writer/producer Paul Dini at a comics store in Los Angeles.

"I've had some experience at franchises that move on with out you -- and I think you know I'm referring to Wing Commander," said Hamill, joking with an obmission to Star Wars. "I said, 'Paul, what's the matter? You haven't seen Futurama? The Joker can't come back as a head in a jar?' He said, 'Be careful what you wish for.'

"They asked me to do the movie, and I said I'll do it if Joker can come back."

As for the cuts, which forced Hamill to come in and redo lines, he blamed the current climate in Hollywood. "It's a shame," he said.

Hamill will always be linked to Luke Skywalker, the innocent farm boy who becomes a Jedi Knight -- a good guy through and through. But when it comes to roles in animation, Hamill seems to wind up more on the dark side. Among his other voice roles have been Gargoyle on The Incredible Hulk, Hobgoblin on Spider-Man, Dr. Jak on Phantom 2040, Maximus on Fantastic Four and Threshold in the still-to-be-released Gen13 movie. He also played The Trickster in two episodes of CBS' The Flash series.

"When I look back on it now," Hamill said, "some of the most interesting and challenging parts I've played have been in animation. None of the villains I play think of themselves as villains. Even the Joker is this genius who is frustrated by the fact that no one recognizes his great genius."

Hamill said he loves working with the Warner Bros. Animation crew. "They spoil you with how professional they are," he said.

He also loves the anonymity of voice work.

"You are completely liberated from how you look and that gives you a freedom you don't have in live-action, where people can see you," Hamill said. "People would never guess it's me in some of these roles.

"There's nothing more invigorating and exciting to me than trying things that you've never tried before. People don't really understand that. They want to know why you wouldn't rather be on a TV series about a detective with a talking dog."

Obviously, Hamill's background in comics helped him with Batman.

"Mark is a tremendous comics fan," producer/writer Dini said "He's got a love and an understanding of the medium that rivals that of most of the folks working here at Warner Animation. Whenever we did a Joker episode which was based on a comic story such as 'Joker's Millions' or 'Laughing Fish,' Mark would go back and reread the original comics to see what nuances he could bring to his portrayal.

"Arleen Sorkin once told me that years before she was cast as Harley Quinn, she was visiting Mark and kept tripping over piles of comics stacked here and there throughout his house. Now that's a collector."

For sure, Hamill loves comic books. He has read comic books. He has voiced comic-book characters in cartoons. He has played live-action comic-book characters. His likeness has been featured as Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars comics.

But, really, he didn't completely fully comprehend the genre until he wrote a comic book.

Hamill's comic book, The Black Pearl, was published as a mini-series in late 1996 and then collected in a trade paperback the next summer by Dark Horse Comics. He and co-writer Eric Johnson, his first cousin, have worked on bringing their movie script of The Black Pearl -- the original source for the comic -- to the screen. The Black Pearl was optioned for television and film by Rehme Productions but the story of quirky-loner-turned-tabloid-hero Luther Drake has remained in development hell. A video game has also been in the works.

Learning how to write a comic book was an intriguing challenge for Hamill, who had read comics even as a high-schooler in Japan.

"We basically auditioned for the roles of writers because they didn't want us to adapt it at first," Hamill said. "And they're quite right. Movie and television writing are much different than comic-book writing. We did a lot of research and we read a lot of scripts they sent us for the corresponding comics they sent us. So we could see what the form looked like. I had never seen a script for a comic book."

Hamill quickly learned there were similarities and differences between the two forms.

"Isn't a comic book like a storyboard for a movie? Well, yes and no," he said. "Storyboards are usually done for a film or a television show to show everyone involved the specific choreography of any given sequence. When we talked to Bob Schreck, who was our editor at Dark Horse, we learned with a comic book you should liken it more to a slide show, where you're going to show frozen pictures that, even if they're relaying great action, there aren't a lot of in-betweens.

"The idea of breaking it down into chapter stops and then finding your rhythm in terms of how much you get across per page â¤| just by rule of thumb, it's a single idea per page. And the momentum on each page is to get the reader to want to go on to the next page, although you don't have to have a cliffhanger to end every page.

"I loved it. I'd seen them before, but I never really experienced them before professionally. It was a whole different form to express yourself in. I was very excited about the whole thing."

The comic also helped Hamill and Johnson tweak their script.

"When we finished the last issue of Black Pearl, we realized that we had learned so much from the experience in terms of the economy of storytelling and paring it down to its most basic elements to tell the story without having the luxury, let's say, of a movie being able to set mood and ambiance," Hamill said. "It's pared down, but it also becomes more focused. When you really get down to basics, you get to see what's important to you and what's not."

Hamill, who is currently developing a television pilot with Bill Mumy from Lost in Space fame and is a spokesman for the Frag City web site, admitted to getting a kick out of having his own comic book.

"Anything in pop culture is exciting to me," he said. "It's probably embarrassing if you knew how exciting it was for me to become an action figure (as Luke Skywalker). I don't want to let on because that's not cool. But I was like major thrilled (about the comic) -- just to work in a realm I love very much.

"It's not so much looking up and seeing your name on a comic book, although that's thrilling and it's more than some of the best people in the comic-book business ever got in their lifetime. It took me 30 years to figure out who Siegel and Shuster were."

Hamill, whose fan roots are in the Silver Age, hopes comics get a better reputation.

"I look around, and say 'Why isn't like this in America?' when I see college students reading adult graphic novels in France or riding the train back in high school and seeing Japanese businessmen reading Mickey Spillane-type pot boilers, erotic thrillers â¤| whatever they were, they were black and white manga," he said. "There's no onus on it, like there is here.

"My dad was sort of a disciplinarian who felt that comic books were â¤| OK. Comic books to literature was what bubble gum was to the four basic food groups. He didn't ban it outright. We didn't get in trouble if we got 'caught' reading comic books. But he certainly frowned on them and felt like they were for feeble-minded people who couldn't read real books. He was in the Navy, so I guess there a lot of guys who would much rather read the Classics Illustrated version of The Yearling rather than read the actual book.

"So, for me, growing up, it had sort of an illicit allure that I really found exciting."

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