Coming up on next week’s Bat-premiere, I have a couple of Batman-related pieces floating around:
– This article from the print magazine about how there’s no one “authentic” take on the Batman character (the print version includes some panels from the famous “Joker’s Boner” story).
– A web-only piece about some of the dumbest, weirdest, jaw-dropping-est Batman stories ever. The “Critters” episode of the animated series, Bat-baby, “I’m the Goddamn Batman” — the usual.
As I said in the introduction to the web piece, I didn’t include anything from the ’60s Batman series because it was intentionally silly. Though you could certainly make an argument that “Critters” was also intentionally silly (I agree, but I didn’t find it funny), and furthermore that some of the Batman episodes from the final season go beyond intentional campiness and are just bad, so maybe “The Joker’s Flying Saucer” should make a list of worst Batman episodes ever.
Still, my point is that comparing the ’60s Batman to a really bad Batman incarnation, like Batman & Robin or some of the doofier late ’50s comics, is unfair. The ’60s Batman show was a great series at its best, and more than that, it was in its own weird way the most faithful comic-book adaptation ever made for television up to that point. That’s because in order to mock the comics, producer William Dozier and head writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. had to actually capture the tone of an actual Batman comic book, a tone that they then exaggerated and pushed into absurdity.
The pilot and some of the early episodes were based on then-recent Batman stories (the pilot was from a 1965 story called “Remarkable Ruse of the Riddler”) And the director of the pilot and the early episodes, Robert Butler, made the show look like a comic book come to life, with the bright colours, stark angles and, of course, the POW! BAM! ZOK!. (Butler, by the way, is perhaps the greatest pilot director in television history; he also directed the pilots for Star Trek, Hill Street Blues, and Moonlighting, and was basically the guy any show went to when it needed to create a distinctive visual style that could be replicated on a TV budget.)
The approach was really the exact opposite of Batman & Robin‘s approach, even though that film is sometimes compared to the TV show. Batman & Robin is loud, stupid and unrelentingly over-the-top. The ’60s Batman is not over-the-top at all. Instead it tries to make itself look and sound as much like the comics as possible, and using that as a foundation, it highlights the silliness inherent in the premise, in the fact that comic-book characters take themselves so seriously even thought they’re wearing such crazy costumes. Like all good spoofs, it stays grounded in the reality of what it’s spoofing; when Bruce says a line like “Perhaps, if there had been anti-crime centers when my parents were murdered by dastardly criminals…” it’s recognizable as being a parody of comic-book dialogue, but it’s not that much sillier than the things Batman would say in an actual comic. It’s just a little sillier.
The pilot of Batman, written by Semple (now one of the Reel Geezers) and directed by Butler, is actually quite a brilliant TV pilot by any standards, and you can see why it created such tremendous excitement when it first aired. (My Dad once told me that he was in a bar in New York when Batman premiered, and he realized this was something special when every single person in the bar stopped whatever he was doing and gathered around the TV set, cheering for Batman and Robin.) Semple’s script pulls off something that’s really difficult: doing a spoof while also creating a story that will keep us interested and involved over two half-hours. The show never runs out of ways to satirize comic books and the goody-two-shoes squareness of superheroes, yet it also makes the Riddler a credible threat to Batman and makes us wonder what he’s going to do next.
One more thing to note about the ’60s Batman series is that even though comic book purists used to get really angry about it (this doesn’t happen as much any more), it had a big effect on even the “serious” versions of the Batman mythos. Especially in the characterizations of the villains. The show’s versions of Riddler, the Penguin, and Julie Newmar’s Catwoman all influenced future versions of the characters; the plot of Batman Returns is partly ripped off from the Penguin-runs-for-mayor episode of the ’60s series.