There is a common story, known well to comic book fans, about the evolution of the Dark Knight Detective that goes like this...
In 1939, Bob Kane (with some credit going to Bill Finger for those with a memory for detail) created a hero of the night. Part Zorro, part pulp noir detective, The Batman was the opposite number to the brightly coloured Superman introduced not long before. Vengeful, brooding and mysterious, he meted out vigilante justice from the roof tops of Gotham City.
Unfortunately, the darkness would lift soon enough. Robin -- a kid side kick who inexplicable wore scaly green hot pants and a bright yellow cape -- was introduced and things just started to get weird. Batman lost his edge and his stories drifted further and further into camp. Rainbow Batman. Space adventure Batman. Zebra Batman. Batman turned into an alien. And Bat-mite. Oh, by Commissioner Gordon’s mustache, we fanboys hate Bat-Mite. Batman cracked puns. Often fought silly villains with a smile on his face. The entire ridiculous mess finally hit its climax in 1966 when on television Adam West put on an ill fitting cowl, strapped on a huge, plastic yellow belt over his belly and became a duly designated officer of the law in Gotham.
Then before Burt Ward could grab another can of Bat-Shark Repellant, Batman was rescued. The team of Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams restored Batman to his brooding, dark self in the comics. This set the stage for the physiological complex, often damaged figure written by Frank Miller through to Chris Nolan’s big screen adaptation of the character.
It’s mythological, fanboy stuff isn’t it? Trouble is, says comic writer and essayist Jim Beard, it’s not entirely true.
“When I went back to compared the (Adam West) TV show to those early Batman stories -- even the stories before the introduction of Robin -- I found that the character really wasn’t that different,” says Beard, comic book writer and editor of GOTHAM CITY 14 MILES, a new book looking at the impact of the iconic 1966 TV Show. “He was dark, sure, but he wasn’t brooding. He’s dark on the outside. He smiled. He cracked jokes and puns. What I call bat-angst came later. That is something that comes with the O’Neil/Adams era.”
There’s no question some of the stories coming out of Batman comics in the 50s and 60s were not exactly epic examples of comic book story telling. They were silly, often bland quasi-science fiction pap. But Beard’s point is they were still Batman stories. The original stories were Batman stories. So was the TV show. So is Miller’s Batman. And Grant Morrison’s. Each radically different. Each authentically Batman.
“BATMAN ‘66. You either love it or you hate it,” Beard writes in the book. “Chances are, if you hate it, your reasons pretty much boil down to, ‘It’s not Batman.’ It’s a simplistic claim which deserves a simplistic retort: ‘Of course, it’s Batman.’”
For Beard, so long as some basic elements remain unmolested -- Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered before his eyes, the bat-suit with Bruce in it, and a few other key elements -- you still have Batman. That’s why for all its camp, its puns and double entendres -- elements that seem light years from the snarling and vicious Batman portrayed by Christian Bale -- the Batman television show’s hero, with West under the cowl, is as authentically Batman as it gets.
GOTHAM CITY 14 Miles -- the title is lifted from the sign the Batmobile raced past whenever the Dynamic Duo left The Batcave -- explores this authentic corner of the Batverse from a variety of angles. Fourteen essays cover everything from the history of the character (given a vastly more accurate history than the fanboy myth above) to why the camp on Batman worked so well, from the short lived cultural wave of “Batmania” and what ultimately undid the once popular program.
The essays themselves are meticulously researched and while on occasionally they slip into the myopic view of pop culture literature that assumes the reader has a working familiarity with arcane trivia, well written.
With few corners of the BIFF! POW! and BLAM! of the Batman TV left unexplored in the book, it’s Beard’s own exploration of the character as he was, and as he is, that is particularly fascinating.
He isn’t suggesting that the 1966 show was a literal adaptation of the original stories from nearly 30 years before. But, even with the camp and comedy, it was firmly rooted in those tales. If West’s Batman is not a direct adaptation of Kane’s character from 1939 he is, at the very least, a faithful reflection.
“For me, it all comes down to perception,” Beard writes in Such a Character: A Dissection of Two Sub-Species of Chiroptera homo sapiens. “I’ve found that many people perceive the 1966 TV series in very odd and even unfair ways.”
What’s more, says Beard in an interview, the show is not merely a relic of Batman’s past, no longer influential save for jokes on the FAMILY GUY or THE SIMPSONS. Grant Morrison’s recent run in the comics, Beard contends, has brought back some of the TV shows sensibility, albeit in Morrison’s darker, acid trippy view of things.
And a far more direct link between 1966 and 2010 existed on the small screen until recently.
“BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD [animated series] is as close as you get something that is a direct homage to the 1966 show,” Beard says.
If nothing else, in an era so different and so far removed from Adam West’s glory days, GOTHAM CITY 14 MILES gives a new generations a glimpse into what once was the very definition of Batman in popular culture. And it might even encourage those accustomed to seeing their hero hunt crime in the dark, revisit a time when he easily, with a wink and a grin, walked in the light.
“Batman endures,” writes Will Murray, one of the book’s essayists. “It’s unlikely that his worldwide fame would be a fraction of what it is in the 21st century were it not for a quirky, risky TV show that happened along in an experimental decade when audiences were open to it.”
The 60s BATMAN TV Series: Jim Beard’s favorite moments:
* The Slide, the Leap, the Zoom, the Sign - its in just about every episode and it remains my most favorite moment in BATMAN. The Dynamic Duo hit The Batpoles, leap into The Batmobile and speed out of The Batcave on their way to another case…what a way to energize the viewer for the adventure ahead! For me, it’s the quintessential scene from the show.
* The One With Batman’s Origin – “Hi Diddle Riddle,” the very first episode, actually mentions the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents; a rare, chilling moment that flies by much too swiftly in this otherwise-sunny series
* The One With Other Super-Heroes - “Batman’s Satisfaction” gifts us with the still-incredible-to-this-day meeting of Batman and the Green Hornet. Forget all that hoopla about the Robin-Kato fight; it’s the Caped Crusader versus the Hornet that trips all my geek alarms.
* The One Where Dick Gets His License – There’s something pretty “real” in “Enter Batgirl, Exit Penguin” when young Master Grayson passed his driver’s test and was awarded with a hot little sports car of his own by Bruce. The series is filled with lots of little chummy scenes between the two in their civilian identities, but I thought this one always had a lot of heart.
* The One Where Bruce Gets Lucky – Another little gem of a scene that may surprise people who aren’t too familiar with the show arrives at the, ah, climax of “Batman’s Waterloo,” when Bruce accepts Lee Meriwether’s invitation to come in for, ah, “milk and cookies.” Yep, for realz. “Man cannot live by crimefighting alone,” the viewer is told by the innocent-faced millionaire.