The pleasures of Batman ’66– both the comic book and the TV show

Since I’ve been enjoying “Batman” on Me-TV lately (more on that later), I was looking forward to the new Batman ’66 release– “DC Comics reimagines the classic Batman TV series in comics form for the first time! These all-new stories portray The Caped Crusader, The Boy Wonder and their fiendish rogues gallery just the way viewers remember them.”

Written by Jeff Parker, it does a fairly good job of evoking those episodes, though he [SPOILER ALERT] missed a few of the obvious elements from the show: the Batphone call from Commissioner Gordon, the costume change down the Batpoles, and the Batmobile racing towards Gotham City that started nearly every episode. And the impossible-to-escape deathtrap. And the two-part storylines. He did touch upon these elements, but tweaked them in such a way that I don’t really think did a proper job of paying homage to the original. [END SPOILER] About the only thing missing was the voice of the narrator (who I think counts as a “character” in the show) setting the scene; Parker’s script had minimal narration, far too little for a comic meant to be paying homage to the classic television show. Still, aside from an overly-jokey ending (the show did not have a laugh track, after all), the characters sounded pretty-much on key.

66panelRichard Case’s art also does a nice job of capturing the look of the show’s mainstays, particularly his Bruce Wayne and Riddler. His scenes with the unmasked heroes in the Batcave were particularly reminiscent of the show! Unfortunately, his coloring job to fake off-register coloring was more distracting than anything else. It’s almost like he didn’t understand how comics are colored in the old CMYK scheme, and thus how they were off-register (hint: it’s not because the black line work was repeated with a blue plate that didn’t line up).

And it’s a particular shame, too, because when done well (as in Erik Larsen’s backup stories in the latest Savage Dragon or in Mike Sullivan’s “Tales of the Infinite”) slightly off-register Ben-Day dots can be a beautiful coloring scheme.

Still, Batman ’66 was a pretty enjoyable comic. If there’s a second issue, I’m likely to pick it up. After sampling the DC² format (via this Wired article), DC’s “next level” of digital comics, I’m sure I’ll hold out for print, too…

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been enjoying re-watching the “Batman” television show. Maybe it’s just because I’ve read so many bad Batman comics and watched so much bad television over the years, but this show– particularly the first season– holds up as an enjoyable, well-crafted show. I can only imagine the impact its color opening sequence had in the days when so much television was still being broadcast in black and white; it’s no wonder it became such a phenomenon!

One of the nice things about the way the show was written was the basic setup that started each two-part story: villain appears, Commissioner Gordon frets about this dire turn of events, then calls Batman. Alfred answers the Batphone, and Bruce and Dick make some ridiculous excuse to Aunt Harriet to make their exit, then it’s down the Batpoles! Even after the opening, that consistent tone continued as they jumped in the Batmobile and roared away to Gotham City while the credits rolled. Not only did it set the stage for the action to come, it allowed for some cost-effective use of stock footage! To me this served the same purpose as the origin blurb in 1970s Marvel Comics, or the same descriptive phrases being used in each Doc Savage novel– it gets the basic expository info out of the way before the action begins!

And what action! Besides the well-known fight scenes, the early episodes had a nice balance of serious and campy bits. Adam West played his Bruce Wayne/Batman pretty straight (not wooden), which made the villains seem all the more crazed in comparison. Some of the early episodes (particularly the first two episodes featuring Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, and George Sanders as Mr. Freeze shortly after) balance this particularly well. I also recommend the early King Tut episodes, the False-Face episodes, and the Clock King episodes– written by Bill Finger!— from season two. These well-written episodes make good use of the two-part story structure, and actually provide motivation &/or pathos for the villain’s role. That is particularly the case with King Tut (Batman makes note of the tragic origin of the villain, an otherwise upstanding professor) and Mr. Freeze (Batman alludes to having caused the accident which led to his condition) – not through episodes or even flashbacks, but via good scripting. The show didn’t bother with elaborate origin sequences for Batman or the villains … and the viewer isn’t stymied by that! Not even when they haven’t seen them before on the show.

Sadly, by the middle of the second season it had become all camp all the time– and that’s saying something with this show! Most of the guest star villains hammed it up (especially painful to watch were Milton Berle’s turns as Louie the Lilac), and everyone seemed to cackle like the Riddler or the Joker, regardless of their villainly persuasion. Roles were not written as well as earlier in the series, and seemed to be more about giving a famous guest star a spot on a popular show than a character to play. The third season was even worse; while Yvonne Craig made a perfectly good Batgirl, her introduction came at a horrible cost: Bruce and Dick were rarely seen outside of the Batcave, and many episodes seemed to focus on the Batgirl/Alfred team instead (although “The Wail of the Siren” featured a great Batgirl/Robin pairing that reminded me of their successful teamings in Batman Family). Cramming another character into the mix, while trading the two-part format for a single half hour made for rushed episodes with no real room for any of the characters to have moments to shine. Even the gimmick of the impossible-to-escape deathtrap was gone (or worse– stuck into the middle of an episode!). It’s no wonder Adam West was so negative about that season in his Back to the Batcave memoir…

So, while I’ve been enjoying these “Batman” episodes as “memorable entertainment television,” I’ve also been enjoying them as what-to-do/what not-to-do writing lessons:

  • A simple expository set-up serves a real purpose. It’s not just padding, but catches the reader/viewer up to speed so they can enjoy the action to come.
  • Skip the origin and tell a good story! I found it particularly interesting that Batman’s origin– unlike in most of the comics of the last 20 years– is not a focus for the character. It’s referred to– but not shown– in the first episode, then not again. Likewise, villain’s origins or first confrontations with Batman are generally not shown, though often referred to. The tragic histories of the villains (such as Batman’s grief at having caused Mr. Freeze’s condition) are revealed not through episodes or even flashbacks, but via scripting. The specifics are left up to the reader’s/viewer’s imagination, and the story’s not bogged down by over-explaining past events.
  • If something works, stick with it. Add and innovate without displacing those elements that worked well in the first place.
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One Comment to “The pleasures of Batman ’66– both the comic book and the TV show”

  1. Guess I’m overdue for a new post, because the 2nd issue of Batman ’66 is alredy out … and it’s much improved. Parker captured– and used– the narrator’s voice better, and the artwork (this time featuring a pitch-perfect Penguin/Mr. Freeze pairing by the great Ty Templeton) was less distractingly-colored, thanks to colorist Wes Hartman. Now if Parker would just give us an issue with the proper two-part structure & an inescapable deathtrap in the middle, they’d have it nailed!

    While I’m not crazy about the idea of paying $4.00 for a corporately produced comic by DC, this was the most fun I’ve had reading a Batman comic in years! If this team keeps improving at this rate– and continues paying such good homage to their source material– they’ll probably keep me coming back for more…

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