BIFF! BAM!! BONK!!! The Legacy of the Adam West 'Batman'
The hype surrounding the approaching debut of The Dark Knight has reached frenzied levels that would make the Scarecrow proud. Early word suggests the newest Batman movie could set a new benchmark for comic book-inspired cinema, and that’s not just message board hype. It’s coming from the mainstream, “serious” critics.
And not a POW! BIFF! or KA-POW! in sight.
Even though it’s no longer mandatory for a comics-related story to reference the sound effects that were trademarks of the old Batman TV show, the image of a pot-bellied Adam West partnered up with Burt Ward’s banana-hammocked Boy Wonder is still hard to shake.
Amazing Spider-Man scribe and Green Lantern screenwriter Marc Guggenheim even cited the series during a recent Newsarama interview when talking about the pressure he feels to get the GL screenplay right.
Maybe it’s time to give the show a break. The series left an indelible imprint on the pop culturesphere despite being on the air less than two and a half years. It delivered more episodes in three seasons (120) than most programs do in six. It had the top celebs of the day begging for a cameo, had people actually doing the Batusi and landed Adam West on the cover of LIFE, back when that magazine mattered. You could stop 25 people on any American street today and go “Na na na na na na na na” and at least 24 will recognize Neal Hefti’s theme song. It even earned The Riddler, thanks to Frank Gorshin’s Emmy-nominated turn, a promotion in the comics to the A-list of Batman’s Rogue’s Gallery.
For a long time though, you got the impression many older comics pros and fans would rather the show’s master tapes be buried inside the Batcave behind the Giant Penny and next to the Joker-in-the-box.
There are even conspiracy theories suggesting interference from DC Comics is keeping the show from being released on DVD (instead of the more-likely reason – a messy rights entanglement). Speculation is the company doesn’t want its most popular character’s bad-ass image to be compromised (DC declined comment for this piece).
For many comic fans/collectors older than 30 (like this reporter), after-school reruns of Batman in the late 70s-early 80s probably made it tough to convince your Khoury League teammates to give Uncanny X-Men or The New Teen Titans a try with dialogue like this:
[From Season 2, episode 16, “The Dead Ringers”]:
Robin: Holy Metronome! What a fate--punched into player-piano rolls!
Batman: True, Robin, scarcely an end I'd rather anticipate! Life--a cupful of surprises to the last drop!
Cheesy on a Velveeta level? Sure, but it’s not like the Batman or Superman comics of the day took themselves very seriously, either. (Don’t believe me? Dig through your long boxes and find an issue of ‘Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen’ – ANY issue).
And back in the day, it was one of the only ways for kids to get their live-action superhero fix. And camp or not, it was infinitely better than the terrible Spider-Man TV show.
Comics pros from that era complain Batman saddled the industry with a ‘silly kids stuff’ label they couldn’t shake for decades. But the blame for that shouldn’t fall on the show alone, according to superstar artist Jim Lee.
“Overall, I don't the TV show held back the maturation of the medium. The first and even second generation of comic book creators felt some hint of embarrassment in their line of work,” said Lee, who worked on the bestselling “Hush” story arc with Jeph Loeb. “For me, it's no coincidence that once the creators started approaching the material with a more serious approach and attitude that comics started gaining traction in the mainstream as work not just for kids.”
Veteran comics writer Steve Englehart, whose 1976-77 run is considered a seminal moment in Bat-history, thinks the show helped more than hurt the character – and comics in general.
“I know sales on Batman kicked up over a million an issue for a while. And Marvel was raising the level of quality all the while, so comics never sank back to pre-TV show levels,” says Englehart. “I think, if nothing else good came of it, the show did cause people to say ‘’Here's a new way of looking at that trash.’ People got the wrong impression, and then got sick of it, but at least they thought about comics, as opposed to not.”
Almost as soon as the show was axed in 1968, DC Comics was distancing the character from the TV show’s campy image. The legendary Dennis O’Neil/Neal Adams run took him back to his gritty roots.
A huge fan of reruns of the show as a kid, Lee credits the O’Neil/Adams issues for changing his perception of Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego. But he says it was Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 that erased the Adam West image for good.
“What Frank did and this is a huge accomplishment...what he did was produce the first Batman story an adult could read and appreciate without feeling embarrassed they were reading a comic book. At least that's the feeling I got.”
“I was 20, 21 when that was coming out and had really outgrown comics when I was in comics,” Lee said via email. “The Dark Knight Returns really just made me aware of the incredible potential of the medium.”
Three years later, the mainstream finally noticed a darker Caped Crusader was patrolling Gotham with the release of Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman.”
“Batman '89's greatest contribution to the Batman mythos is exorcising the "Pow, Biff, Zap!" camp mentality from the mainstream,” Bill Ramey, founder of the popular online Bat-site www.batman-on-film.com, said. “It's not the best Batman film -- that's Batman Begins. But it is the most important one.”
“Watchmen,” the Vertigo line and the rise of independent publishers also pushed comic books in general into a new era of respectability.
Sadly, all that progress was almost completely undone a few years later by the big comics crash of the mid-1990s, and two fellows named Joel Schumacher and Akiva Goldsman and the historically bad Batman & Robin.
Thankfully, Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale rescued Bats from Hollywood Arkham. The Dark Knight appears to be another home run for Gotham’s favorite vigilante.
For those of us who kept our comics habit under wraps as kids for fear of catching grief on the playground, this current comic movie Golden Age comes as welcome – if overdue – vindication.
So is the Batman TV show’s influence still felt in comics? In regards to the punny headlines, chances are those won’t ever go away. To many non-readers, comics will always be ‘silly kids stuff.’
The irony is, it seems everyone but kids are reading comics. As Lee and others point out, kids today digest their hero worship through different mediums like TV and video games (and movies of course). Attracting new, younger readers remains a problem for the industry.
When you take that into consideration, along with the fact that the show was the first example of the franchise potential of a comic book character, maybe it’s time we started showing Adam West’s Caped Crusader a bit more love. ‘Holy belated appreciation, Batman!”
(sorry, couldn’t resist)
Michael Avila is the producer of the syndicated movie show “REEL TALK” hosted by Jeffrey Lyons & Alison Bailes. Check local listings @ www.reeltalktv.com