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Monday, September 14, 2015

Week of Review - Batman '66

Edited by Robert Beach

One week from now the Batman prequel show Gotham will be returning. I’ve talked about the show extensively before offering up no less than 3 different prediction articles about heroes, villains, and masterminds we might see coming in the new season.  Of course, Gotham isn’t the first time Batman has been on TV. He’s been featured in live-action and animated TV appearances for over nearly 50 years, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today.  

Welcome to Week of Review, a sort of mini-series I’ve foolishly elected to do. Basically, there are times when I have a large volume of topics to discuss in regards to an upcoming event, and I don’t want to choose just one to focus on. In the case of Gotham’s season 2 premiere, I’m going to spend the next 7 days talking about Batman’s numerous television shows in the past 60 years starting with the one that started it all: the Adam West Batman show. 

The Adam West Batman show is one of the strangest pop phenomena in the history of geek culture; that's mainly owed to how much comic book nerds have worked to forget the show ever happened despite it being one of the biggest moments for comics of all time. We don’t really talk about this now but in 1966 Batman was considered to be of the same level of cultural importance as James Bond and the Beatles, and it was all thanks to that show.  

The show was such a popular success that it became a major hit in Japan, spawning an entire line of unofficial Batman Mangas that have only recently been embraced by DC Comics. I seriously cannot stress the incredible cultural capital the show possessed; the best example of it I can give is that we all basically know it. If you make a single joke about the dynamic duo, bat rope, and old chum, and everyone gets it. Even now those are references we all understand. That level of imprinting on the cultural lexicon doesn’t happen without massive popularity. 

'60s Spy Culture 

We’ll get to the show’s weird consideration in the modern Bat pantheon in a bit. First, some grounding: originally, the show was intended to be a serious take on Batman, but production stalled on that take relatively early. As the show lingered in development limbo, one of the ‘60s greatest cultural fixations made its presence known: spy films. This mainly came through the triple smash of Goldfinger, Get Smart, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. As a result, the proposed Batman show was hastily retooled into a quasi-satire, taking the comical and kid-friendly elements of the Batman comics at the time and dressing them up with a bit of winking, tongue-in-cheek humor for the adults. 

The results are actually a really great synthesis of the Batman comics of the time with the quick wit and clever writing that punctuated so many great ‘60s genre spoofs like Get Smart and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The format of the show was to use Batman and Robin as the straight men of the show; they’re the characters we laugh at for their straight-faced ridiculousness. The true comedy centers of the show, and the driving force behind most episodes were the villains. That’s why a lot of the villains on the show were stunt cast as famous comedians or entertainers; folks like Rama Tut or Book Worm were created specifically to facilitate major actors, even Liberace made it onto the show at one point. 

The Show That Created the Batman (Mythos) We Know

The show aired twice weekly and spread a single story across both episodes, with the first episode always ending in a cliffhanger, one usually involving a death trap.  That’s where the idea of Batman villains leaving the hero in some ludicrous contraption comes from.  The actual stories each week tended to come straight from the comics themselves.  For instance, most of the Joker stories were drawn straight from the comics, and in turn, Cesar Romero’s performance helped cement the Joker’s identity and shtick as a character. 

Other times, however, the show ended up reviving or re-inventing whole new characters. The series’ breakout villains were always Riddler (played by Frank Gorshin) and the Penguin (played by Burgess Meredith), but both of those characters had actually fallen out of favor when the show started up. It was their popularity on the TV show that led to renewed reader interest and the preservation of those now classic bat villains. The same is arguably true for Catwoman, who had basically disappeared from the comics due to fears that she was too overtly sexual. The performances of Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar helped propel her back into the forefront of the Batman comics. 

The show also re-invented both Mr. Freeze and Batgirl. Mr. Freeze was originally just a crook in a refrigeration unit named Mr. Zero till the show took the look and concept and added the tragic backstory of his frozen wife. Meanwhile, Batgirl in the comics was just an anonymous crime fighter invented to prove that Robin wasn’t gay (yes, really), and it was the show that made her Barbara Gordon and gave her the iconic outfit. I think it’s fair to say that without the Adam West Batman show, huge swathes of the Batman mythos would be just gone.  

Revisionist Rejection of Batman '66 

The show’s massive importance to the Batman mythos as a whole and the continued popularity of the character are part of what makes its memory holing by geek culture so terribly disappointing, though not necessarily surprising. Like it or not, the geek culture of today remains the house the ‘90s built, and a major aspect of that decade was the boom of adult markets driven by critical prestige.  From 1986-1989, comic books underwent a massive shift in tone and public perception. This was driven mainly by the triple punch of The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and Tim Burton’s Batman; all of them conjoined to form a new general image of comics as being “Not just for kids anymore.” 

In the wake of that major shift and emergence of the out and proud adult comic fan, the narrative of comics took a seriously different tract. The center of this new mythology was Batman, as is usually the case, with nearly all of geekdom jumping on the bandwagon that Batman had always been a dark and mature character the world simply misinterpreted him as being light and campy due to the Adam West show. It’s a major failure on the part of comic nerds overall. It goes tragically hand-in-hand with the unfortunate obfuscation of the inherent queerness in the Batman mythos, but that’s a subject for another time. 

As it stands, Batman ’66 is a great show that’s very much worth your time to check out. Though the episode format can get a little repetitive, there’s so much talent on hand that it’s an easy flaw to overlook.  For the longest time, DC wasn’t able to publish a box set due to rights issues over all the cameo episodes along with the uncomfortable ethos of them shunning the show over its campiness. Recently, both those issues have resolved. DC published a complete DVD version of the show and has even re-embraced the series in comic format, publishing a weekly digital comic adaptation called Batman ’66 and even adapting the so-called “Lost episode” that was to star Clint Eastwood as Two-Face. I highly recommend checking it out to see the caped crusader’s first encounter with cultural dominance. 

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