The ’60s Batman TV show has a thoroughly complicated legacy. On one hand, the show is highly beloved, iconic and has thoroughly stuck in the minds of the non-comics-reading, public. On the other hand, the show immediately became a stereotype for the seemingly mind-numbing stupidity of comics that is still often perceived by the general public. To a certain extent, all of us as comic fans live with the legacy of this show, for better or for worse.
Whenever we see a page headlined something like “Bang! Pow! Comics are cool now!” we’re simultaneously seeing comics iconography embraced by the media, and comics being insulted by the assertion that they really are just for kids, no matter what we retarded geeks might think. The Batman TV show popularized that iconography, and it’s stuck with comics readers for over 40 years.
But then again, what’s wrong with remembering a TV show that premiered in 1966? There are precious few shows from that era that are remembered by even a bare minority of even the most devoted TV watchers, but somehow Batman has managed to never leave the public’s memory, despite – or maybe because of – it’s complicated and mixed legacy.
I know I feel that way myself about the show. Watching reruns of it now on The Hub TV channel, I love and appreciate the bold, bright and fun style of the series while often cringing at the campy humor and stilted style of the show.
That’s why I was so excited to read Jim Beard’s new book from Sequart, Gotham City 14 Miles. This fun new book presents 14 essays that analyze and discuss different aspects of the show, from the history of the show to its depiction of women to its difficult campy aspects to its often direct adaptations of comic book episodes.
Writers on the book include such well-known writers and comics professionals as Chuck Dixon, Paul Kupperberg, Robert Greenberger and Will Murray, along with pop-culture writers such as Jennifer Stuller, Joseph Bereneto, Michael Hamersky and of course Beard himself.
Together these 14 writers present a very full view of the TV series, giving readers a fascinating and diverse set of essays that serve to put the series in a very interesting perspective.
One of my favorite articles in the book is Robert Greenberger’s article about the proliferation of Batmania during the first season of the show. Greenberger lays out the history of the era in fascinating and entertaining depth, explaining succinctly and intelligently why the Batman TV show caught the imagination of Americans so thoroughly.
It turns out the show was a perfect fit for the times. It was a series that kids could enjoy as straight entertainment and that parents could enjoy as pure humor. In that unimaginable era when there were only five channels on TV and everybody in the family watched TV together, a show like Batman was pure bliss. Because of its huge popularity, the series became a massive merchandising machine, and Greenberger goes into loving detail describing the often schlocky and silly products that were released as tie-ins for the show.
But not all stories have happy endings, as Will Murray discusses in his wonderful article “Jumping the Bat-Shark.” Yes, there really was an episode of Batman where Batman pretty much jumps a shark, which should give you a good idea of how far the former ratings juggernaut had fallen. Murray does a great job of discussing the declining days of the series, talking with great passion about the long list of misfires and poor judgments that led to the demise of the show.
Budgets were cut, poorly considered characters were introduced, plots got stupider, and the humor of the show became much less fresh as the series reached its conclusion. In many ways that’s a story that’s typical of lots of TV shows, then and now, but it’s sad to read how the show became a pathetic shadow of its former self during its third season.
Peter Sanderson delivers a great article about how several episodes of the TV show were closely based on actual comic stories. It’s kind of heartwarming to read about how the comics, recently rejuvenated at that time under the stewardship of legendary editor Julius Schwartz, were good source material for the TV show during its excellent first year. Sanderson digs deep in his analysis of the show, which makes for a really thoughtful and interesting article.
Editor Jim Beard delivers a nice piece that delves into his hypothesis that the series isn’t a radical departure from the norms of Batman but rather just a slightly different interpretation of the character. I didn’t totally buy Jim’s hypothesis, but he presents it in an entertaining and thoughtful way – which should be no surprise, given the great writing he’s done for Comics Bulletin over the years.
Other articles are also a lot of fun. Timothy Callahan delivers 28 notes on camp, an essential article that goes into great depth on the philosophy of camp and its satiric value. Bill Walko has a fun article on the visual iconography of the show – all the BANG! POW!s is strongly influenced by pop art, and Walko does a great job of discussing that without doing too much Art History 101.
Maybe my favorite article is by longtime Batman writer Chuck Dixon, who gets into the villains of the show, digging deep to discuss his favorites and why they mean so much to him. Dixon is a real pro and obviously loves the Batman villains, especially his great love for the work of Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, a performance that stands out as a great among the greats.
We also get articles that discuss the guest stars, the shows wacky gadgetry, the crazy 1966 Batman movie (“Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”), the Batdance, the complex diversity of female roles on the show, and a great article by Michael Hamersky that discusses the weird youth politics of the show.
While there are some stories about the show that are repeated more than once (I got a bit tired of hearing about the show’s creator’s cross-country plane flight while reading Batman comics), this book is a really solid and thoroughly entertaining collection of thoughtful, fun and often really delightful set of essays. It does exactly what Jim Beard wanted the book to do: put the classic Batman TV show into perspective. It definitely does that, instantly becoming one of the best resources available on a much-maligned show with a complex legacy.
Holy essays, Batman, this book is a BIFF! POW! hit!