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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Batman is back on TV

In case you hadn't already noticed, itv4 is currently showing the classic 1960s Batman show every weekday starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Two episodes a day. I don't know if they're being screened in order but the ones I caught were from series two.

This is the show that some comic fans find embarrassing. They dislike it because they think it shows comic characters in a bad light, that it fails to treat Batman seriously, and because it led to thousands of media articles on comics starting off with "Bam! Splat! Pow!" headlines.

However, for a generation of us, this was the Batman that introduced us to the character. At seven years old in 1966 I had no idea about Batman until I saw the TV show. It immediately became a hit for millions of kids across the world. Although dismissed as "camp" by critics, Batman cleverly worked on two levels; exciting light-hearted adventure for children, and a spoof of Batman (and the whole ridiculousness of superheroes) for adults. A winner for everyone, except for those who simply didn't "get it". Their loss.

I wonder how National Periodicals really felt about a series that basically sent up one of their key characters? Then again, in the 1950s Batman comics he'd often been plunged into the silliest S-F settings, so in comparison to that the TV show was quite urban and streetwise.

It wasn't long before "Batmania" swept the land and, for many of us, came our first exposure to a Batman comic strip... on the cover of Smash! every week. These were reprints of the American Batman newspaper strips and, like the TV show, swayed towards comedy more than drama.

Batman product was everywhere, and included a series or five of Batman bubblegum cards, some of which are shown here. The artwork was by pulp veteran Norm Saunders (who had illustrated the famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, Mars Attacks cards) based on pencil drawings by Golden Age comics artist Bob Powell.

With the TV show, the cards, the weekly Smash! strip and other merchandise being lighthearted fare it's not surprising that the public came to regard Batman, and superheroes in general, as fun entertainment. Even the DC comic book of the time followed the pattern and when I did eventually buy a proper Batman comic this was the one I had:

Hardly the Dark Knight then was he?

As with all things, the lighthearted Batman eventually had its day and as its popularity waned in the late 1960s DC decided to return the character to its darker roots. When Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams revitalized Batman many comic fans applauded, but I'm afraid it did little for me. Although Neal Adams is an undisputed fantastic artist, it wasn't the Batman I was accustomed to.

Then again, I was only 11 or 12 when I first saw Neal Adams' version. Too young to properly appreciate the artist's craft, and too old to be excited by Batman anymore. Mainly though, the version inspired by the TV show had been so predominant during my younger years that anything deviating from that would be a disappointment. To me, and many others, Batman was a daft superhero who escaped from insane death traps and fought villains even more ludicrous than he. For O'Neil and Adams to treat the subject seriously seemed to me as crazy as if they'd turned Dennis the Menace into a serious urban street kid.

Over the years I've read numerous Batman comics, trying to like the grim and gritter version but it's still the TV show that's my definitive Batman. (I did really enjoy Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns though.) I appreciate that Bob Kane's original Batman was a more somber character, and that most fans probably don't share my view, but I'm afraid the TV show version is the one that sticks with me. It's hard to take the character seriously after that. For me, Batman will always be a gloriously daft character, and it's that TV version that inspired me to create my Batman spoof Brickman in 1979, bringing back silly death-traps, corny dialogue, and straight-faced puns.

It's high time the Batman TV series appeared on DVD. Officially that is, not in the form of the dodgy pirate copies out there, but unfortunately there's some legal wrangle preventing it. The 1966 movie is available though. (You won't be surprised to hear that it's my favourite Batman film.)

If you grew up after the 1960s you may be giving the itv4 repeats a wide berth, but for readers of a certain age, Batman is back. Every day. On the telly.

To the Batpoles!


Tony Howson said...

I read the strip in Smash! every week and the bubble gum cards were objects of desire but apart from that I prefer to forget the Batmania of the 1960's.

My Batman is the Engelhart / Rogers / Simonson version. Reading those when I was 16 prompted me to check out the earlier Adams books. I generally prefer 1970s Batman - although I say the same about Dylan, the Stones and Dr Who so maybe it's just that teenage nostalgia kicking in.

Warren Ellis does a nice take on the Adam West Batman in the Planetary : Night on Earth one-shot. It's only a few pages long but it manages to evoke the spirit of the show while still treating Batman with a modicum of respect. It's a testament to Bob Kane's creation that the character works so well in so many different incarnations but is always recognisable.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post. Seeing the bubble gum cards again was a treat and the Smash cover brought back some great memories. I remember collecting the bubble gum cards that tied in with the film. On the back of each card,you'd find the Riddler's riddles and I think you needed a special cypher to read the answers.You'd place the paper over the coded answer to reveal it. Great fun. This cypher could be found in random packets. That's how I remember it,anyway.I was only 5 or 6 at the time. Thanks for a great post,Lew

John Parker

Anonymous said...

WOW! This brings back memories. I was looking through my Batman bubble gum cards just yesterday. Thanks for the article.

Peter Gray said...

I'm with you on Batman..

Reality can really make a superhero comic not much fun..
Its almost shoehorned in...we need more escapism to get away from the reality of todays news for example..

Also I think it stops creativity by limiting superheroes and keeping it real all the time..
Bring back Calendar man..the 60's version..

All Star Superman was on the right track shame it ended..
it brought back the wonder and magic of superheroes..

Also shorter stories would be much better..

NP said...

Yes, of course, anyone of that age in 1966 LOVED Batman - and it was only in black and white in those days of course, but even so it was the most colourful show on TV. I vividly recall the dfirst time I ever saw a clip from it, in a trailer at Easter 1966, showing Batman and Robin bursting out of a stuffed mammoth amidst a rain of postage stamps! Glorious! And it was hard to see Batman as anything other than FUN. I first saw the 'Dark Knight' in a 25 cents Batman comic in 1973 or 4 which reprinted two very early pre-Robin tales [The Monk?] and I was struck by how GOOD they were!
Still, I have been catching the odd glimpse of these 1967 episodes!

Tim Perkins said...

Holy TV Programs, Batman!!!

Thanks for the heads up...

I'll be trying to catch up on them.

They aired last year at silly o'clock on one of the channels - I had to watch some of them, just to unwind after long hours at the computer you understand... LOL.

Hope all is well, Lew.


Zokko said...

I have a 'Batman' Annual from the late '60's whose text stories are based on the T.V. series, rather than the comic. Alongside 'The Minstrel' and 'The Archer' are a few new villains like 'The Gent', 'The Black Knight', 'The Smiler' and 'The Ace'.

The series was and still is great entertainment. It has never been topped, not by Tim Burton and certainly not by Chris Nolan. I fail to see how anyone can take 'Batman' even remotely seriously. He is after all a rich guy who goes out at night in a rubber suit designed to resemble a bat! William Dozier was right to camp him up.

Anonymous said...

Nice post Lew - my Batman was laways the Neal Adams version, even altohugh I recalled and loved the show first (and I loved the Marshall Rogers version as well) - The Bubblegum cards took me back I recall chewing a lot of brittle cheap gum to get them as a kid - The character is too "dark" now and not the same as he was, even the new Neal Adams Batman strip isn't a patch on the 70s version to me although the old WB Cartoons and DC Batman Adventure comics (especially the Bruce Timm ones)are a lot of fun.

tony howson said...

Well, I accept that all superheroes are inherently ridiculous but Batman always changes to reflect his era so both straight and camp versions are equally valid.

Don't you think that the idea of a millionaire going out at night to beat up the unemployed sounds like Dave's Big Society in action ?

Lew Stringer said...

Agreed, the great thing about Batman is that all of the many versions over the years are valid. It's just the TV one that made its mark on me more than the other styles. As for the comics, my preference is for the Dick Sprang style and the 1950s strips.

Personally I never considered the TV show to be "camp". I may be wrong but I thought that was a description that it inherited later. To me it just seems like a comedy played straight, as Kentucky Fried Movie, Airplane, and Police Squad were later. (Unless they're now considered to be camp as well.)

Manic Man said...

Personally, i never understood why people hated it SOO much.. I have more of a hate of what alot of comics are today.. For some reason, people have the view that to make something okay for adults and more mature, it means alot of nude work, badly made outfits that are dark with seams where they shouldn't be them, alot of blood and death etc.. That stuff might be fine in some comics, but when they turn all kinds of 'All age' comics into that, it's stupid and bad.. but there again, the new idea that 'All age' nees to be SOO dumbed down is stupid (example, look at what they did to the second Tintin book.. It's not allowed as a childerns book now ¬_¬).

This style of Batman always seamed more like the older style (though a bit more funny at times) then what the modern ones are... ah well.. it's why i don't have any intrest in american comics these days..

anyway.. It's good to see this batman getting an nice airing but i was more intrested in the fact of another TV show they have started to show (they have been showing batman for a few weeks i think).. that show is 'Tommy Cooper' ^_^

VariousVarieties said...

I'm in my 20s and although I love the Chris Nolan and Bruce Timm and Frank Miller and Grant Morrison takes on Batman (not to mention the excellent recent Arkham Asylum videogame!), unlike most comics fans my age I'm not dismissive of the '60s TV series.

I have fond memories of it: it was repeated on terrestrial UK TV in the early '90s (can't remember what channel it was on), and I rewatched my taped-off-the-TV copy of the '66 movie many, many times.

And despite the best efforts of Danny Elfman and Shirley Walker and Hans Zimmer, the '60s TV series clearly still has the best theme tune! :)

Peter Gray said:
All Star Superman was on the right track shame it ended..
it brought back the wonder and magic of superheroes..

Alan Moore's Tom Strong did a great job of that, too.

Tom said...

It's a bit dull by modern standards!

Ray Briscard said...

Great post,love the cards comics and the TV series.
Could never quite get my head around the New Guy,being old school.
The Smash Mag was part of our growing up and brings back so many memories.
If I can help in any way let me know.

Henry R. Kujawa said...

The Adam West show introduced me to the concept of "costumed crimefighters". Took me awhile to get used to, but soon, it seemed "normal". (As normal as anything running directly opposite "LOST IN SPACE", at any rate).

But even as a kid, I sensed something "off" when they did the feature film-- and moreso the 2nd season. They lost the "balance", and the writing dropped in quality. Among other things, what happened was, William Dozier hated HAVING to do the show (he was "assigned" to it by his boss, William Best). When story editor Lorenzo Semple Jr. left after season 1, Dozier promoted his WORST writer-- Charles Hoffman-- to take his place. Unlike Semple, Stanley Ralph Ross & others, Hoffman's scripts were NOT funny-- just, "STUPID".

And let's not even think about season 3...

I still love the show, though I often lament how, with just a LITTLE more effort, it could have been SO MUCH BETTER than it was! But it would have taken someone else-- ANYBODY else-- in charge-- for that to happen.

These days, oddly enough, the version I like EVEN MORE than Adam West, is Lewis Wilson (1943). That serial PERFECTLY captured the personalities of Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson & Alfred BETTER than ANY film ever done since!! Wilson's Bruce Wayne is much closer to the source-- and to "Zorro", with Bruce playing the bored playboy (a la "Don Diego Vega"), being a brillaint scientist in his spare time, and a smiling daredevil crimefighter when he puts on the mask. That version of Batman ENJOYS his work!!!

Compared to him, Adam West seems "stiff".

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