BIFF! BAM! POW! BATMAN GETS CRITICAL TREATMENT!
I feel terrible about the title of this week's column, I really do. I don't know how these headline writers write that kind of stuff about superhero comics and movies without eternal self-loathing. It's a sordid life.
But I just couldn't resist (and maybe they can't either), because this week I'm focusing on a little gem of a television series from the mid-1960s. I bet you can guess which one.
"Batman," the 1966-1968 television series which lasted 120 episodes, defined the superhero genre for almost anyone born between 1940 and 1980 (because even in the late 1970s and early 1980s, "Batman" ran in syndication regularly, even if today it's much more difficult to find any episodes outside of YouTube). We've been stuck with the "BIFF! BAM! POW!" headlines ever since, but the series - and Adam West's performance as the caped crusader - has had a more powerful impact on American culture than almost any other superhero-related piece of entertainment. And some people might think that the series, which I'll refer to as "Batman '66" throughout the rest of this week's column, deserves critical study.
I'm one of those people, even though - and maybe primarily because - I wouldn't consider myself much of a fan of "Batman '66." Writer, editor and comics historian Jim Beard is another of those people and he's a super-fan of the series from way back. Thus, in this month's Diamond Previews, we get a solicitation for "Gotham City 14 Miles," a collection of essays from some of the leading comics scholars and writers working today, compiled and edited by Jim Beard.
My contribution to the book, a brand-new essay looking at "Batman '66" through the lens of Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp" appears, I believe, as Chapter (or "Mile Marker") Four. Unlike many of the critical essays I've had published over the years, this one has never been seen online, in any form. The rest of the book is filled with original content as well, from the likes of Bob Greenberger, Peter Sanderson, Chuck Dixon, Paul Kupperberg,and more. Honestly, I haven't seen an inch of it other than what I submitted for my essay, but the whole thing looks pretty cool.
So I grabbed Jim Beard and we talked about the book.
Tim Callahan: Out of all the things in the world, why do a book about "Batman '66"?
Jim Beard: Simply this - there just aren't enough of them to suit me. It's incredible that this show, one of the most beloved and reviled, isn't being talked about outside of knee-jerk reactions and jokes. I've boldly set out to change that...with a little help from my friends.
TC: You have some impressive contributors and obviously I'm not just saying that because I'm one of them - but how did you wrangle the others into the project?
JB: Some I already knew, like Paul Kupperberg and Bob Greenberger, while others sort of fell into my lap (insert imagery here). For example, I asked one established pro to contribute and he couldn't - but he suggested Chuck Dixon and Chuck Dixon actually agreed. I was humbled right down to the ground. Trina Robbins wasn't able to do an essay, but she suggested Jennifer Stuller. Everything fell into place and I ended up with the most eclectic, energetic and enthusiastic line-up of essayists ever assembled in a Bat-book.
I'm also proud to host a few authors who have never been published. This book is all-inclusive, just like the show itself.
TC: Let's back up and talk about the television show itself for a minute. When you think of "Batman '66," what's the single defining moment in the series for you? Why?
JB: Its got to be the slide down the Batpoles, the running to the Batmobile, the fiery exhaust and the roaring out of the cave - and right past the sign that proudly declares "Gotham City 14 Miles." Those images are burned into my brain. What a way to start a show, infusing your viewers with energy and building them up to action and adventure.
TC: We still get the "Biff! Bam!" headlines about comics today (and sometimes even in columns that should know better), whenever the mainstream press covers some new superhero movie or a "comics aren't just for kids" angle. Do you think "Batman '66" is primarily responsible for that kind of juvenile attitude toward superheroes in the mainstream?
JB: This is very well-handled in Paul Kupperberg's essay on the show's legacy, but suffice to say, yeah, its a part of Batman's "curse," if you will. But, the show's not solely responsible for that attitude - that had been building up since comics' earliest days. I think the show just popularized that attitude and reinforced it in the public consciousness. In a way, it speaks to the continuing power of "Batman '66" and its cementing of a phrase in pop culture. There are much better reasons the show should be studied and remembered, sure, but "Biff! Bam!" is an undeniable facet.
TC: Besides those kinds of superhero dismissals that you see whenever writers at large use that kind of "Batman '66" shorthand, what other effects do you think the show had on comic book or the popular culture at large?
JB: The show both echoed the comics of the day (and the previous era) and then shaped them. "Batmania" swept the entire country and even the world. Unless you were actually there, you can't really grasp the fever that hit everybody over this show. It was the "in" thing to watch and talk about and buy stuff from. It was everywhere, from TV to products to music and beyond.
TC: What's the legacy of the "Batman '66" series today? Can you trace any current works in comics, television, or movies directly back to the Adam West source?
JB: A multitude of today's creators claim inspiration from it: Mark Waid, Cliff Chiang, Mike Allred, etc. - and just look at such things as Nicholas Cage's ode to Adam West in "Kick-Ass" as well as the visual sound effects in "Scott Pilgrim," etc. You can't tell me that the show hasn't made its impact and continues to do so. I think it has now become cool to make reference to it. About 30 years or more too late, in my opinion.
TC: Do you have any favorite episodes?
JB: It's the first few episodes that really stand out to me, when they tried to balance the goofy with the serious. There are some really wonderful moments with the villains in those episodes where you can look at them and say, "Yeah, that's those characters. That's the Riddler done right."
TC: How does Adam West compare to the other actors who have played Batman? How does his interpretation stand?
JB: In my opinion and I go into it in my own essay in the book, West had it right. He knew what Batman was all about. He actually cared about his performance and Batman's standing in pop culture. Can you say that about the actors who followed him? Maybe, maybe not. I don't if Keaton and Clooney and the rest even read any of the comics, did their research, but West did and I think it shows, especially if you look at the comics that preceded him.
This isn't necessarily to put down the other actors - I think Christian Bale is #2 after West - but I think they were playing "super heroes" and not Batman.
TC: You mentioned your essay and I briefly mentioned by "Batman '66" by-way-of-Sontag chapter in the intro to our discussion, but what else is in the book? What did the other contributors tackle?
JB: Here's the rundown:
Mile Marker #1: "Bats in Their Belfries - The Proliferation of 'Batmania,'" by Robert Greenberger. Bob really got into the nuts and bolts of the frenzy that was Batmania. Lots of great examples and really illustrates the deluge of stuff that came out. I mean, in a way, the entire USA stopped dead when "Batman" came on. It spread to homes, campus, workplaces, everywhere. I bet even LBJ watched it.
Mile Marker #2: "Batman - From Comics Page to TV Screen," by Peter Sanderson. Can you believe I got the comics historian that's worked for both Marvel and DC? Peter dug up stuff that even I wasn't aware of - lots of cool connections between the show and the comics of the day. There are episodes that were adapted almost fully and some that served as simply inspiration. Peter also talks about a few of the comics that came later that reflect upon the show. This is an important article because it really draws those strong ties between Batman comics and the show.
Mile Marker #3: "Such a Character - A Dissection and Examination of Two Sub-Species of Chiroptera homo sapiens," by Jim Beard. This is mine :) I'm so ridiculous I came up with criteria for the "real" Batman and then compared both the 1939 Batman and the Adam West Batman to it. Gonna be some disappointed "That ain't Batman!" naysayers out there after this. West really did his research and called up memories from his boyhood and reading the comics. I hope I've illuminated a few facts here about the close connection between "faces" of the character.
Mile Marker #5: "Aunt Harriet's Film Decency League," by Becky Beard. Nepotism in action! But seriously, Becky delved deep into a choice crop of the show's guest-stars and wowed me with the sheer caliber of what its producers wrangled. No other show has had this amount of credible, quality performers. I was pretty amazed at the entries for people like Otto Preminger and George Sanders and Ida Lupino - stuff here that I think a lot of fans aren't aware of.
Mile Marker #6: "POW! - Batman's Visual Punch," by Bill Walko. Bill's a graphic designer and approached this essay from that point of view. Lots of talk about color-use, design, sets and costumes - everything that POPPED out at the viewers and is remembered today.
Mile Marker #7: "Known Super-Criminals Still at Large," by Chuck Dixon. Wow. I mean, just wow. Chuck told me he'd never really written any type of essay like this before so I was honored to have him aboard in this capacity. He got very personal, issuing a great anecdote from his childhood and then talking us behind the thought process of writing Batman villains. I even asked him to give me more about Egghead and he did! I'm so appreciative to Chuck for doing this essay - and having some fun with it.
Mile Marker #8: "May I Have This Batdance?" by Michael Miller. The music that came out of this show was insane. I mean, all the stuff that was inspired by the show and meant to capitalize on it is just insane. Michael talked about almost every one of them and his opinion of each. Guy's got a huge load of knowledge in his noggin about this stuff and is passionate about it. He's not too kind about Burt Ward's singing but hey, it's a well-deserved jab.
Mile Marker #9: "The Best Dressed Women in Gotham City," by Jennifer K. Stuller. Jen came with a great pedigree: she was recommended to me by Trina Robbins herself. I knew that I needed to have a female take a look at the females on the show and Jen tore into it with humor and insight and some great facts. A male writer might have focused too much on the sexual imagery of the female characters on the show; Jen really gave this quite a spin and its one of the essays I'm most looking forward to hearing comments back on.
Mile Marker #10: "Holy Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor!" by Michael D Hamersky. Did you know that almost half the show is about Batman teaching Robin lessons? It's true! Michael looked at this phenomenon and gave a great run-down of all the goofy stuff that Batman espoused. There's an interesting commentary going on in here about 60s youth-culture too.
Mile Marker #11: "Gotham City R&D," by Michael Johnson. I'm not a techie, but my bud Mike is. I wanted Batman's TV tech to be compared with tech of the time and what we have now and Mike dug up some really cool facts about the ones that the show hit right on the head -and the ones that were pure fantasy. And still are. Fascinating. I mean, Batman had an inflatable Batmobile that fooled crooks - the Allies had inflatable tanks during WWW II that fooled Nazis - who knew?
Mile Marker #12: "Theatre of the Absurd - 'Batman: The Movie,' 1966," by Rob Weiner. Big subject here: the feature film. Rob gives a blow by blow account of its plot and tidbits of info on how it did financially and what precedents it set for future superhero films. There's a lot more going on in this film than just Shark-repellent Bat-spray and Rob brings a lot of it to the surface.
Mile Marker #13: "Jumping the Bat-Shark," by Will Murray. Will ripped the third season a new one - but I told him to. I mean, what got the show cancelled? Will explains it all and pinpoints the lowest dregs of the third season and even more about the dirty little business of its cancellation...and almost-fourth season. Hold on to your cowls if you like the third season - this is often a not-so-pretty picture. One of the essays that really balances out the book.
Mile Marker #14: "Some Days You Just Can't Get Rid of a Bomb," by Paul Kupperberg. Oh my golly, did Paul want to get something off his chest. And he does. There's a certain phrase associated with the show that was something of a bugaboo with him and he ties that into the show's legacy. What a way to wrap up the essays!
Afterword by Jeff Rovin, co-author of Adam West's "Back to the Batcave," offers a few personal anecdotes about the show and working with West - I was thrilled to have Adam's biographer and the writer of the novel "Return of the Wolf Man" in the book and putting a capper on the whole thing.
Episode Guide by Joe Berenato. You might think, "why an episode guide"? I felt that with so many episodes being referenced through the book that a brief guide might be a useful thing to have right there at the back of the book. Joe not only listed specs but a few kernels of Bat-trivia.
TC: That is an insane amount of variety - seems like you've got the series covered from every angle, with a kind of populist appeal.
What's your background, by the way? I know you've been working as an editor and comic book historian, but you've also written a few comics for major publishers, right? Tell us about moving back and forth between the critical and creative sides of comics. What has that been like and how did you find yourself in this position?â€¨JB: Yeah, somehow I've become a "comics historian." I've written for DC a few times, Dark Horse once ("Star Wars Tales") and, for IDW, a "Ghostbusters" special. I love comics history and I've found that it's easier to get gigs doing that then actually writing the comics themselves. I honestly don't know how this all happened other than I keep falling into projects and though it isn't anything that I ever planned, I'm having the time of my life.
It's sad, but an increasingly-large number of fans and readers don't know the history behind the comics medium or its spin-offs. This is what I think adds to the problem of the "Batman" show: nobody today really knows anything about it, only what they've heard (the cliches) and what tiny little they've seen. No official home-viewing with DVDs only compounds it. I humbly offer myself as a person who will gladly talk about the history and offer possibilities for exploration. That's what this book is for. And when I write for comics, I try to keep all possible audiences in mind. In a perfect world I'll be able to keep doing books like this and writing for comics. That would be heaven.â€¨â€¨
TC: Who's the ideal audience for this book? Comic book fans? Pop culture fans? Television fans? And I know you'll want to say "everybody," but who would you really love to see pick up this book? Who would get the most out of it?
JB: The people that should pick up the book are the ones who're fascinated by pop culture and the ways it worms its way into every aspect of our lives. Sure I want Batman fans to pick up the book, especially those who dislike the show and write it off, but people who want to absorb all sorts of experiences is who I really want to hear comments from. Also, I'd like to think that Batman fans who like what's going on these days with the character will check out the book to see another "face" of him.
My introduction says the book is for people who love the show...and hate the show. That's not just a clever saying. I mean it. This isn't a kiss-ass book; this is, I hope, a well-balanced vivisection of the show and what made it tick and why it matters today. Students of pop culture should appreciate that, or at least I'd like to think so.â€¨TC: How much more from Batman '66 is left unexplored, after this book comes out? Any possible interest in doing more on that series? Any other shows or movies or comics that might benefit from a critical treatment?
JB: There's more to say, yes. I have a list of topics in case a sequel is demanded. There's about enough left for one more book, I think. There are some topics like politics, police, race and romance that I think would make terribly interesting essays, but the 14 that we have are the most important ones and the ones that demanded my attention. I hope everyone else agrees once they read the book.
I think a look at what came later, like all the animated Batman shows, would be cool and noteworthy. A lot has already been said about the modern movies, but what about the two 1940s serials or the 1970s live-action Legends of the Superheroes TV specials? They almost constitute an attempt at a 'Fourth Season" of Batman, what with West, Ward and Gorshin's participation, not to mention Barris Batmobile.
Heck, the more I think of it, you could have an entire book just on that Batmobile! I'm not kidding! "The Proliferation of the Most Famous Super Hero Car Ever"!
In addition to writing WHEN WORDS COLLIDE for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan