The latest Batman story to receive the spotlight in this continuing series isn’t a widely recognized classic like “Almost Got ‘Im” or a character-defining work like “Year One.” Instead, it’s simply a wonderfully made little story that doesn’t get too much of the limelight. It’s “A Bullet for Bullock,” a jazzy, noir-soaked episode of Batman: The Animated Series.
Based on the comic story of the same name published in Detective Comics #651 in October 1992 and written by Chuck Dixon, “A Bullet for Bullock” centers on boorish detective Harvey Bullock. The Gotham City Police Detective has been targeted by a mysterious assailant, whose attempts on his life become more and more bold. With no leads on the case and the situation growing desperate, Bullock turns to the one man who can help him, and the last person he would ever want to work with: Batman.
Unlike many of the greatest Batman stories, “A Bullet for Bullock” features no established villains and doesn’t have any major effects on The Dark Knight. Instead, this episode from 1994 is a perfect example of why B:TAS is a cartoon that not only stands the test of time, but is appealing for Batman fans of all ages. This is Batman storytelling distilled to its finest.
“I Wonder How Gordon Puts Up With This.”
The real centerpiece of the episode is the relationship dynamic between the smooth and dark Batman and the grating, bull-headed Bullock. Any sort of grudging respect that Bullock has for Batman is far outweighed by his dislike for vigilante activity and the general way that Batman operates under a cape and cowl. But Batman may have even less respect for Bullock. He’s a somewhat dirty cop who, while still having his morals, isn’t nearly as upstanding as Commissioner Gordon or the other officers that Batman works with. He’s got skills and works to achieve justice, but practically no one likes him.
While both Bullock and Batman are trying to figure out who is targeting the detective, they run parallel investigations, neither one fully trusting the other or wanting to cooperate. They clash and fight, each preferring different ways to operate and having their own ideas about who would want to do in Bullock (it’s a long list). No wonder the two dislike each other, they can barely keep it together while working on one case.
One of the episodes strongest aspects is the overall focus on Bullock. While the rough detective had been around since the first episode of the cartoon series, he was usually relegated to supporting appearances, having good moments, but only sporadically. Here, he plays the lead while Batman is the supporting character, popping in and out to help the detective and even save his skin multiple times.
Voice actor Robert Costanzo fills Bullock with character. He’s a wise guy, spitting out noir-inflected dialogue and giving off a generally rough attitude, but he’s likeable and doesn’t fall into caricature. Despite having some oafish characteristics, he’s a capable detective. Add in his squalid apartment and unique opinions on Batman, and he easily stands out amongst the many characters. Even other characters remark on his appearance and demeanor, with the generally amiable Alfred calling him “the detective who looks like an unmade bed” at one point in “A Bullet for Bullock.”
Noir Through and Through
The animation that defines so much of B:TAS is on full display throughout this particular installment. Nearly every scene is filled with stark shadows filling rooms and playing across each character’s face. Bright car headlights cut through snow-covered nighttime streets. Interrogation rooms are lit by a single dangling bulb. Heroes and assassins lurk along moonlit rooftops waiting to strike.
“A Bullet for Bullock” is not nearly the bleakest episode of B:TAS, in fact, it stays fairly light and funny while still being extremely stylish. But the general dark atmosphere is great for an episode that embraces the noir aspects of the series’ storytelling.
And that noir feel is impeccably reflected in the episode’s sound design. The best episodes of B:TAS can work just as easily as radio plays straight out of the 1930’s. Voices, scores, and sound effects easily tell the tale on screen. Just close your eyes as you watch an episode and you may find yourself even more immersed. “A Bullet for Bullock” definitely falls into that category.
At the forefront are Costanzo’s Bullock and the always astounding Kevin Conroy as Batman. These two have such distinct, character-filled voices that they easily sell every step of the story, even without the lovely animation. The dialogue they spit out is even more mature than the normal episode of B:TAS, which never went in a kiddy direction, but still kept it family friendly. Here, Bullock talks about working for Vice and Batman even references “South Gotham crack houses,” as well one unsavory individual selling “rock crystal.” These ideas may fly over the heads of kids, but adults definitely know what is being referenced. It’s even a little shocking upon first notice!
But what may most define “A Bullet for Bullock” is the score. B:TAS is known for having a fantastic soundtrack, especially the opening theme, but every episode is filled with unique and pitch perfect music. Well, for the most part. Episodes like “Christmas with The Joker” and “Moon of the Wolf” are actually quite terrible. But they are the rare exception.
“A Bullet for Bullock” is a real standout in the series as a whole. Composer Shirley Walker and Harvey R. Cohen fashioned an extremely jazz-focused score that lovingly compliments the noir tones of the episode. Somber trombones fill many of the quiet scenes featuring Bullock alone while a full jazz band picks up when action and suspense kick in. It’s a fantastic way to keep a solid hardboiled theme running throughout the episode, while still adapting properly to whatever is happening on screen. There’s even a jazz version of the Batman theme thrown in for good measure!
All in all, “A Bullet for Bullock” is an incredibly enjoyable one-off in the Batman canon. Unraveling the mystery and soaking in the atmosphere are just two of the many reasons two watch the episode again and again. Throw in twists and turns during the search for the slovenly detective’s aspiring killer and the episode keeps drawing you in step by step. Plus, the storyarc for Bullock helps push him along the path toward appreciating Batman, without ever getting too sentimental. Which is easily encapsulated by his remark toward The Caped Crusader near the end: “By the way, I still think you’re a freak, but … thanks.”
If you have never seen “A Bullet for Bullock” or paid enough attention to it, do yourself a favor and give it a rewatch.