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Remembering Kevin Conroy

I cried a little today when I heard Kevin Conroy had exited the stage for the final time. His death is the second time he’s elicited tears from me and I’m generally not much of a cryer, especially where celebrities are concerned.

A little background (and by little, I mean a lot. Hang in there. It’s worth it):
I have to admit, I was never the biggest fan of Batman. I’d seen and loved Tim Burton’s “Batman” in 1989. But, even that was not enough to make me care for the character much.

Of course, I liked Batman as a mainstay of the Justice League. But his inclusion in their exploits (and reruns of the 60s era television series) was pretty much where my interest ended.

It was 1992 and I was visiting my aunt who had the television on for my younger cousins.

I had my head buried in a book, much like I always did, when I first heard the iconic theme song of “Batman, the Animated Series” and Kevin Conroy’s distinctive, “I am VENGEANCE! I am the NIGHT! I AM BATMAN!”

And. I. was. hooked!

Batman, the Animated Series was my new jam. I was obsessed with finding and watching every episode I could find from then on.

If I had to pick a favorite episode from the first season, undoubtedly it would be “Beware the Gray Ghost” featuring my other favorite Batman, Adam West, as the titular Gray Ghost – Gotham’s first crime fighting vigilante in the continuity of the show.

Conroy would go on to portray the DCAU Batman for over two decades in “Superman Adventures”, “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited” as well as many other projects featuring the character over the years.

I truly hate when fans claim a character in this way. But, in this case it must be said: Kevin Conroy was MY Batman. When I think of the Dark Knight Detective, I think of Conroy. Every time without fail. All other Batmen are measured by his standard.

It’s always his voice I hear in my head when I read the comics. Kevin Conroy (and Bruce Timm, natch) made me like Batman way more than I ever would have otherwise.

The stories he starred in made me actually care about this privileged orphan boy millionaire who had a fetish for dressing in a leather bat suit and beating people up accompanied by a pre-teen boy wearing little more than a domino mask and a cape, little green undies and elf shoes (okay, when they finally introduced Robin in the show, he was wearing pants and boots, but you get the idea).

When Conroy was briefly featured in the Episode 2 of the WB’s live action Arrowverse “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover event as Bruce Wayne, I cheered!

This was the man!

The only actor I feel who ever brought true depth to the character was reprising his role -LIVE ACTION- even if only for a single scene and I. Was. There. For. It.

I never knew until recently why he resonated so much with me, why – out of dozens of portrayals over the years, some by the biggest, most sought after actors of their time – Kevin Conroy’s Batman was the only one who ever caught my interest.

And here, those who have followed from the beginning of this screed will be happy to learn, is where my first set of Conroy inspired tears were made manifest.

Earlier this year, shortly after Kevin Conroy came out publicly as a gay man in his 60s, DC Comics published their 2022 Pride Issue which featured a number of Queer characters in their stable.

I have mixed feelings about those sort of things because on the one hand I am very wary of non-Queer people who profitize and corporatize Queerness into a commodity.

But on the other hand, I understand how vitally important representation in such things can be for young Queer people grasping for something – anything – which make them feel less an outcast, less a misfit, more accepted for who they are and more loved by those around them.

I usually hold my nose and buy the Pride issues anyway despite their exorbitant pricing and dubious quality as a “special edition” (whatever that is) because I know DC will only keep making Queer interest material so long as it sells.

This time around, the yearly Pride issue contained a story about a hero we hadn’t heard from in a completely Queer context before.

Kevin Conroy – MY Batman – had written “Finding Batman”, a biographical comic at the end of the issue exploring the trials and tribulations of coming of age during the height of the AIDS epidemic, of being a closeted actor in an environment which was completely unforgiving to gay actors, of the many times someone casually called him “faggot” as if that were acceptable.

He spoke about living a double life, being one thing in private and another in public, hiding who he truly was to protect himself while watching practically his whole generation of gay men succumb to AIDS while the world just…watched.

It was a story of growing up Roman Catholic while watching his world fall apart around him. It was a story of a young man whose parents divorced as his father succumbed to alcoholism and eventually death.

It was a story of watching helpless as his brother was taken away inch by inch by schizophrenia at the same time friends and colleagues were wasting away in hospitals dying of a disease no one wanted to talk about.

It was a story of survival and a story of triumph.

Finally, the masked cowl could come off and he could be seen as who he really was: a phenomenal actor who inspired an entire generation of comic and animation fans-who, as it happened, was also a gay man. Finally, he could openly embrace who he was, his own story fully without fear.

Suddenly, this man who had always played a role in both his personal and professional lives could take off that mask and be who he wanted and needed to be.

As the short narrative drawn by the excellent J. Bone came to a close, I shed a few bittersweet tears as I thought about my own journey, my own “secret identity”, my own experience with AIDS both as a gay man and a person living with HIV.

Suddenly, I got it. I knew why Conroy’s portrayal resonated so perfectly for me when Hollywood heartthrobs the like of George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Bruce Willis, Christian Bale and Robert Pattenson looked good in the suit but ultimately fell short.

In fact, I feel like all of them were adept at playing either Bruce Wayne or Batman consistently but couldn’t quite nail the other. But, not Kevin Conroy. He could do both flawlessly and made it seem effortless.

I know what you’re thinking, “We get it. It’s because he’s gay and you’re gay and blah blah…”

Who TF is telling this story anyhow?

Yes, acknowledging my people for their achievements is important. The fact he’s a gay man is a definite plus. But, it goes far deeper than that.

I’m a gay man, yes. But before I even knew what that meant, I was a comic book nerd and like him or not, like all comic book nerds, I KNEW Batman!

Conroy may not have had washboard abs or bulging biceps to fill out the leather and latex outfits. But, he did have authenticity of character. He practically was Batman in a way none of the other hunky hunks who played the role could even approach in their clumsy heteronormativity.

Conroy could convincingly play a man with a double life because he had lived a double life most of his life.

He could play a man driven by tragedy and trauma because he had experienced loss, tragedy and trauma on an almost daily basis.

He could play a successful man who was awash with guilt and anger because he had survived while his friends and family were not so lucky.

He was believable because that imaginary mask was a reality for him.

As I write this, I’m streaming “Batman: The Animated Series” on HBO MAX and remembering all the times as a young gay man I lost myself in an episode of the series.

As a few more tears escape the near watertight edges of my eyes, I want to thank Kevin Conroy for all the times he was there for me and other kids both Queer and straight when we didn’t have anywhere else to go.

For some of us, no doubt, Batman saved us from our own traumas, our own trials and tribulations, our own masks and double lives and Kevin Conroy was the vessel through which he acted.

I can think of few stories more inspiring than knowing Kevin Conroy-the best, the ONLY Batman – got to take off his mask and be his authentic self after years of hiding his trauma from the world and living a double life for the benefit of his public life and his career. Would that we all could come to terms with ourselves so completely.

I only wish he’d been able to enjoy it longer.
Rest well, old friend.

You are missed.

But never, ever forgotten.

F Daniel Kent wrote this heartfelt tribute. Kent may be found on Facebook.

No copyright infringement of the Conroy photo is intended.

November 13, 2022
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