Thursday, July 10, 2008

Batman In The Movies - When BAM, WHAP, POW saved Batman...

Please pardon, as this site may start to resemble the 'all Batman all the time' blog for the next two weeks. I'll do my best to have some variety.

Here is a fun article by Lorenzo Semple Jr. about his memories creating and maintaining the classic 1966-1968 Batman television show. Although the show gets a bad rap from comic fans, there are three things everyone should know...

1) Batman the TV show saved Batman the comic book from cancellation. It was 1966... Batman had not been relevant since 1945 and sales for the comic book were declining and hovering on cancellation. A creative rejuvenation by Julius Schwartz helped a little, going back to earthbound detective stories and bringing back the rogues gallery, in 1964 (in Detective Comics 327, with the 300th issue of Detective Comics featuring the caped crusader). It added the yellow oval and helped bring the title back from almost twenty-years of science fiction, time travel, and harmless nonsense, the books were still not terribly popular (Schwartz also temporarily killed off Alfred and brought in Aunt Harriet, to dispel rumors of Bruce and Dick's homosexuality). Only the explosion in popularity that the series caused during its three-year, 120 episode run, allowed the comic book to stay alive, stay competitive with the newly emerging Marvel, and allow it to hang in there until the 1969 Dark Knight Detective revival by Denny O'Neal and Neal Adams. Without the campy TV show, the Dark Knight likely would have never returned.

2) The TV show was completely faithful to the comics of its period. In fact, many of the episodes of the TV show, especially in the first two seasons, were directly based off of existing comic book adventures. Detractors now decry the show as making a mockery of comic books and making it harder for the characters to be taken seriously, but when the show aired, the Batman comic books were not exactly a place of dark menace and psychological introspection. They were goofy, quirky, well-written detective stories where a happily deputized Batman and Robin did battle with devious but never murderous rogues like The Joker, The Penguin, and Catwoman. If you wanted introspection and human drama in 1966, you were likely reading Spider-Man.

3) The TV show was and remains a pop-culture time capsule and a brilliantly subversive social satire. When you think of visual entertainment in the 1960s, you probably think of Star Trek, The Beatles, and Batman. Visually, the show was one of the first to really use the advancement in color television to its potential. Even today, there has never been anything as creative and joyously buoyant in its use of colors and pop art (the closest modern comparison in this area would be Pushing Daisies). The acting was pitch perfect for the material and only Frank Gorshin ever got the credit he deserved. In terms of writing, the show remains a subtly subversive satire of the overly puritan fifties. In its campy, slyly kid-friendly manner, the entire show sends up the overly authoritarian morals and codes of proper conduct that are now synonymous with the 1950s.

The absolute authority of the police, the chaste nature of the romantic entanglements (in one episode, Bruce invited a woman upstairs for milk and cookies), the complete lack of shading in regards to the villains, the no-harm no-foul manner in which the violence is depicted (no one ever got hurt and with two freak exceptions, no one ever died), the completely 'aw-golly-gee-gosh' morals... these were all things that would have been taken quite seriously in the 1950s. But, now, in the 1960s, these very same concepts and values were being presented as fodder for broad, ridiculing comedy that only young children would take seriously.

The show truly worked as a one-of a kind masterpiece, especially in its first season-and-a half. It may have inspired forty-years of cheap Batman jokes (Pow, Baff, Holy 'whatever' Batman!), but it also was an inspired comic adaptation, a terrific artistic creation, and the vessel which allowed the Batman character to survive and grow for the next forty years. Without Lorenzo Semple Jr and co, we would have no Dark Knight Detective, no Dark Knight Returns, no Batman Returns, no Batman: The Animated Series, and no Batman Begins.

Scott Mendelson

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