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Jim Beard: 14 Miles Outta Gotham City

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
Recently, our EiC Jason Sacks got the chance to catch up with Jim Beard to take a look at his latest project Gotham City 14 Miles: 14 Essays on Why the 1960s Batman TV Series Matters!

Enjoy!


Jim Beard: Hello, Wayne Manor.

Jason Sacks: Oh good, I definitely have Jim!

Beard: I feel like I should use my best Alfred voice and say “I’ll fetch him for you immediately, sir.”

Sacks: You get to do that now! Your house kind of is Wayne Manor -- in a manner of speaking. Are you 14 miles away from Gotham?

Beard: Right, yeah... and it’s only 14 miles.

In my introduction to the book, I explain my fascination with that sign. It’s a family joke. My sister, who’s older than me, when Batman was on TV originally, would see that sign and she’d turn to my parents and say, “why can’t we go there? It’s only 14 miles.” My parents were like, “oh, you know, we have to talk about separating fantasy from reality...”

Sacks: I always wanted to see what made Wayne Manor so stately.

Beard: Well yeah, sure, I mean, I guess from just looking at it you can see how stately it is. And the cool thing is that supposedly that house looks exactly the same from the front.

Sacks: It is an actual house then.

Beard: Yeah, it really is an actual house and somebody somewhere – they were filming something there and a person who got to be an extra got to take some pictures of the front of it. This was somewhat recently, just in the last few years or so, and I was really amazed that you just take one look at that house and you immediately recognize it as Wayne Manor. Oh my god, I would just love to see that.

Sacks: Where is it?

Beard: It’s out in California. It had a fire not too long ago or the house next door… They had mistakenly publicized that Wayne Manor had burned down when it was actually the house next door.

Sacks: The house next door must have been pretty far away from that house.

Sounds like the book came together really well.

Beard: I was thinking about this today – this has been an incredible experience. Even that’s not hitting exactly how I feel about it. I was just saying to my wife how it’s just steamrolling now. I did a lot of promotion myself, but I can go on Facebook almost every day and I see that someone else has picked it up, or has mentioned it somewhere and they link it back to my wall. This is not anything that I’m doing. It’s just that people are picking it up and running with it. That’s the power of this show and the character. It’s just that incredible.

This has really been a heck of an experience. It’s been a learning experience and a pleasurable experience also.

Sacks: What do you think it is about the show that makes people love it so much?

Beard: That’s one of the things that we’re trying to get to with the book. I definitely don’t want to say that it’s timeless, because I don’t necessarily thing that it is in terms of its look and its feel. That’s one of the reasons I love it, because it’s a 1960s time capsule. It’s absolutely that.

One of the things that came up at the panel at New York Comic Con was that someone in the audience asked if we felt that it was an overall positive message that the show was giving, or if it was a somewhat – not quite negative but pessimistic – and once we got talking about it I understood what the questioner was saying. Everyone pretty much agreed that it was pretty much a positive message.

Throughout it, Batman maintains his positive outlook. The character’s always talking about how criminals can be reformed. They can be put back into society – the hench people and the molls, the girls that follow the super villains – can learn to lead a better life and things like that.

Honestly I think it was actually a positive show in the middle of a pessimistic time when there was a lot of strife going on. I think a lot of it is visual. So many of the visual cues have just stuck in our brains. It also helps that that theme song is almost insidious, You can go anywhere and say “na na na na na na na” and people know what you’re talking about.

It’s incredible for a show that was only on the air for about two tears – two and a half seasons, really – and it’s become such a part of the world. DC for a time almost tried to deny the show, but you can open up a DC comic today and you might very well see some sort of visual reference to it, because all the creators who are working today either grew up with it or dig it to some extent.

The way I’ve come around to thinking about this book is by giving the show a new trial. It’s almost as if it had a trial before and it was an unfair trial. It got an unjust ruling. I’m hoping this book is going to be like giving the show a new trial. Parading some evidence before the jury, the readers, and making them make up their minds as to whether it has merit and worth.

I’ve said this before: I’m not expecting anybody to fall in love with this show just because I put this book out, or just because I said so. But I do hope that people are going to say, “there’s something really interesting that went on there. “ Or, “okay, I can see why movies like Scott Pilgrim are honoring it, or why Nicolas Cage announced that he’s pretty much doing Adam West in Kick Ass. They’ll say, “okay, there’s some value there.”

I look at it the same way as with Jack Kirby. Not everybody loves Jack Kirby’s art, and I don’t think that you have to, but you cannot deny the impact on the industry. I feel the same way about the Batman TV show. You don’t have to love the show. You might even still go around still disliking it. But I don’t think that anybody can deny that it’s had an impact on pop culture in general.

Sacks: I was certainly a fan of it when I was a kid, in the ‘70s when it was rerun. Looking back on it when I was older I felt this kind of odd opposing feelings about it. I loved the show – it was fun, it was colorful, it was bright – but at the same time it was “disrespectful.” Especially in the Dark Knight era, it wasn’t trendy to like something that was so nontraditional in its approach to the characters.

It’s almost as if we’ve had to come back around to it, through Morrison’s deconstruction of Batman…

Beard: Absolutely, and I’m so glad you said that because I feel that’s absolutely true.

I personally never was embarrassed about it. Even through the Keaton era – that was like Batmania part two – I was still a strong proponent for the show. I was never on the “Adam West should play Batman again” bandwagon. I did say I think that he had had his time, and did feel that he was probably a bit too old to play the character. It would have been interesting, maybe, to see something done, but I’ve never been embarrassed about the show and I – I think I’m getting dangerously close to insulting you (laughs)…

I never saw it as disrespectful. Although it is said, and we talk about it in the book, that the actual people who made the show, the producers, were really down on it. They thought it was dumb. They thought it was just a juvenile thing. But then you get people like Adam West, who took it very seriously and liked the character.

It’s a really interesting thing that the show was able to be put together, as it were, with really opposing camps (if you pardon that pun) within the same creative forces behind the show. It’s amazing that it came together at all. But maybe, actually, that’s what made it -where you had the producers setting a humorous, often silly tone and setting. And then you had Adam West at the core of it, who was being dreadfully serious. And all this nuttiness is kind of swirling around him. He’s that steady core.

Maybe if it had been any other way, it would not have been anything. Maybe it would have just fallen flat on its face and maybe we wouldn’t be talking about it to this day.

Sacks: It sounds like you have a set of very interesting essays. Who are some of the writers you got, and what are some of the topics they cover?

Beard: I’m the luckiest editor in the world. The team that I was able to put together is really incredible. We’ve got professional comic book writers, a professional novelist, professional historians, and all the way to a few people who have never been published before. I did this all on purpose. I wanted a lot of different voices. I wanted it to be a mix that reflected the crazy mix of the show.

Starting right at the top, the most recognizable name that Batman fans will recognize most is Chuck Dixon. He wrote the essay on the villains of the show, and boy, that was a great experience but a nerve-wracking one too. I remember when he gave me back the essay after writing it… It’s funny, because he was saying, “wow, that was kind of hard. I’ve never had to write an essay like this before.” That wasn’t necessarily the kind of writing that he had been used to. That was almost like a new experience to him. The new experience to me was like, “oh my god, I have to edit Check Dixon.”

But luckily, it was all pretty much there. In fact, I went back to him and said that I wanted a little bit more on a few things. He only mentioned Egghead, but I said that this was a character that was played by Vincent Price! And in the show he was supposed to be the smartest villain in the world! So I said, “Check, come on, say a few more things about this character, for good or for bad.”

We told everybody that you say what you want to say about this show. It was great because he said something to the effect of, “wow, you were right. I wrote a little bit more and I’m glad I did. Thank you for bringing that point up.” I felt it was a really good collaboration.

We’ve got Paul Kupperberg and Bob Greenberger, who should be known to comic book fans. They’re longtime writers with DC in not only the comics, but also with Bob Greenberger, who was involved in the original Who’s Who.

There’s Peter Sanderson, who was once paid to read every single comic that DC ever published. He was the first formal archivist for Marvel Comics, and was heavily involved in the first Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and writing like that. He wrote the essay on the connection between the actual Batman comics and the show. That’s one of those ones where I hope that people are going to be kind of surprised.

There’s this knee-jerk reaction to say that the show had nothing to do with the real Batman. No, there are a lot of episodes that are either directly taken from real stories that appeared in the Batman comics, or were somehow inspired by them. He lays a little groundwork of where the comics were at the time. The New Look era had started just a few years before, in 1964, and then goes from there. He mentions some comics that came after that referred to the show.

I think the greatest example of that is that Neil Gaiman had a story in a Secret Origins Special. It was a crazy story about the Riddler. It’s basically on long monologue from the Riddler, saying that he was looking back on old times. In one panel he actually mentions, he says “Marsha, Queen of Diamonds. The Bookworm. Egghead. Where have they all gone? It’s like they never even existed.” He’s mentioning all the villains that were only in the TV series.

We’ve got Will Murray, who’s a novelist. He’s probably the world’s foremost authority on pulp magazines and pulp characters. He’s written official Doc Savage novels and a lot of those men’s adventure novels. He wrote the essay about the cancellation of the show. If there are people out there who really love the third season, they’re going to have to prepare themselves. Will really digs into the third season and points out probably what led to the show’s cancellation.

It’s called “Jumping the Bat-shark.” He really skewers it – there’s a third-season episode called “Surf’s Up! Joker’s Under!” This is the point where the show jumped the shark.

Sacks: Literally jumped the shark! I remember that one!

Beard: Literally and figuratively. The Joker challenges Batman to a surfing contest. They’re in full costume – full Joker costume, full Batman costume – with surf shorts on over their costumes, standing in front of rear-screen projection of waves, acting like they’re surfing. Batman comes upon a shark, and for the first time since the theatrical movie uses the shark-repellant bat spray to get rid of the shark. Adam West said that at that point he knew that the show was not long for the world. He knew at that point that they had gone too far.

We talked about it at the panel at New York City, and we joked about how there was only one redeeming factor of that entire episode, which is that everybody got to see Yvonne Craig in a bathing suit. I said, there was only one. And Bob Greenberger said, “no, there were two!”

We’ve also got names who comic book readers might not be as familiar with. Like Tim Callahan, who is more of an essayist and also a blogger with Comic Book Resources. He did the essay on camp.

We’ve got Jennifer Stuller, who wrote a really wonderful book called Ink-Stained Amazons, a look at female superheroes and action characters in all sorts of different media. She wrote the essay about females in the show and how they’re presented.

Just some wonderful stuff. There are 14 essays in all. 14 miles. 14 essays.

Sacks: What was the most surprising point that someone made in one of the essays you published?

Beard: I’ve been asked this before and I can’t think of one…

I think the most surprising thing was how much all of my writers really seemed to get into the topic. I didn’t know what to expect with some of them. When I said, “would you write this?” they said “yeah, sure”. When they’re coming back to me and they’re saying, “I dug into all this research. I found this, that and the other thing”, making suggestions. I think that really was one of the more surprising things. That everybody really enjoyed it and I think that they started to see the vision for the whole book.

One of the great pleasures and really great surprises for me is that Mark Waid has a blurb on the front cover of the book. I’m just so grateful to him. They got him the manuscript and he went through it and he came back with this really wonderful quote that really was the cherry on top for me for the whole project. I never imagined that he would be so into it to do that for us.

Sacks: This is really a dream project for you.

Beard: The Sequart folks – this is a Sequart book – they said right at the outset that it really should be a labor of love for me. I know it’s a cliché these days to say that, but it is actually true. I will admit that I love the book. The book is not a love letter to the show in that respect, even though its editor really, really loves the show. It’s my favorite TV show of all time, bar none.

They said that it should really be a labor of love for me to put together, and it truly has been. Going back to when we started, the incredible experience that it’s been. Everybody seems to be embracing this. I’ve seen a really great desire for more about the show. I mean, that was me, that was the reason I did this book, there just wasn’t enough written about the show to suit me. I wanted to fill that gap. I feel like I’m learning that other people feel the same way.

It’s amazing how many people come out of the woodwork and say, “wow, that show really means a lot to me.” Or “I can’t want to see what you’ve written” and stuff like that.

Sacks: What’s your next project?

Beard: Right now I’m working on a volume of a series for TwoMorrows. They’re doing a series on the History of American Comic Books, and each volume is going to be about a decade. I’m writing the ‘70s book. That’s a long term project, and they hope by the end of next year, the first volume will come out. That probably will be the ‘80s volume, and I’m hoping that sometime in 2012 will be my ‘70s volume.

I just had a Ghostbusters comic out in June with my cowriter Keith Dallas, that did very well. We sold out of that.

I started working with the Captain Action guys, over at Moonstone Books, Ed Kato and Joe Ahern, who run Captain Action Enterprises. I have a short story with them that hopefully will be out either later this year or early next year.

I’m always looking around for different things, whether it is a comic script or a test piece, or something like this. I’ve really come to realize that there are a lot of cool projects to be involved in. I really like that. I don’t want to be nailed down to one specific type of project when there are so many cool things to be involved in.

I’d like to edit another anthology like this. Working with all the people, putting it together, picking out the topics, finding the writers to plug into those topics, putting it all together – even something like putting the images together in this book has been an adventure in itself.

It’s been great finding a really cool image and finding out we can use it. There’s actually some images in this book that as far as we know have never been published. Some of them have come from William Dozier, who was the late producer of the Batman TV series. These are directly from his archives. That’s really cool. That’s selling point right there for people who feel like they’ve done it all and seen it all with that show. There’s a few images in it that I’m gonna bet that they’ve never seen before. Some behind-the-scenes shots.

I would love to do some other volume about this for some other favorite topic. My wife has said that she’d like to see me do something about Star Trek. That would be a really cool challenge, to try to find a theme. There have been a lot of books about Star Trek; how could you do something really unique about that?

I’d love to do something about the Justice Society, in this same sort of idea. A book of critical studies about the phenomenon of the Justice Society. That would be another labor of love for me.

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