Earlier in the week I was stoked when I got to talk to editor Jim Beard (interview here) about Gotham City 14 Miles: 14 Essays on Why the 1960s Batman TV Series Matters! (review here). The book really rocked and is a must for any fan. I was honored that I also got to speak with one of the contributers, comic book historian and authority Peter Sanderson.
Eric: Thanks for taking time to talk with The Pullbox. Batman the TV show is loved far and wide, is there a single factor that you would pinpoint as to why this show (four decades later) is still embraced?
Peter: At their best, the 1960s Batman TV show and the 1966 Batman movie capture the sheer joy that is at heart of the appeal of the superhero genre. After decades of “grim and gritty” superhero stories, and the current trend for stories that kill off superheroes (however temporarily), people lose sight of the excitement, escapist pleasures, and optimism that the superhero genre traditionally provides.
Action/adventure and comedy are continually being mixed together. Sometimes the balance is weighted towards comedy, as in “The Venture Bros.,” or “The Naked Gun” movies, or “Get Smart,” or the “Austin Powers” movies. There are many examples of action/adventure movies and TV shows with strong comedic elements: think of C-3PO and R2-D2 in the “Star Wars” movies, or comedy moments with Merry and Pippin in “The Lord of the Rings” films, or the Doctor’s eccentricities in “Doctor Who.” “The X-Files” and “Star Trek” would sometimes do outright comedy episodes, like “The Trouble with Tribbles.” The “Men in Black” movies are perhaps balanced equally between adventure and comedy. Joss Whedon has proved to be a master of mixing comedy, adventure, and serious character drama in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on TV.
The real question is whether today’s media could duplicate the “Batman” show’s mix of action/adventure and an ironic, camp style of comedy. The “Batman” show’s brand of camp wasn’t explicitly gay, like, say, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s” camp treatment of horror movie conventions. At its best the “Batman” show’s brand of camp was done relatively subtly, with deadpan tongue-in-cheek. That’s why kids could take the show seriously, but adults would pick up on the ironic tone. But not even the “Batman” show could maintain that balance, and it became heavy-handed with its absurdities in the second season (with Batman running for mayor, or being forced into marrying a super-villainness, and so forth). It seems to me that the British TV classic “The Avengers” at its peak superbly struck a balance between straightforward action/adventure and ironic, over-the-top humor, doing so with elegance and intelligence. So it is possible to achieve this balance, but it’s very difficult to do so. In most examples I can think of, like, say, the original film version of “Casino Royale,” “camp” treatments of action/adventure end up as heavy-handed, obvious comedies in which the adventure elements simply become nonsense.
Superhero television shows come and go as fads and most of them will have naturally have a small niche fan base (truth be told, I have the entire Flash series from the early 90’s on DVD) – do you think there are any superhero-based shows today that will have the same level of fan longevity that Batman has? Forty years from now will they talk about Smallville, Heroes or the Cape had an impact on society?
“Heroes” quickly lost its way and forfeited its potential after the first season, and I think it will just be a footnote in TV history. Moreover, “Heroes” was really more of a science fiction show than a true superhero show, since it refused to go all the way and give its characters costumes, heroic identities, or even commitments to crimefighting careers. “The Cape” embraces the conventions of the superhero genre, but still struck me as dead on arrival, providing no original or distinctive take on the superhero genre.
As for “Smallville,” it’s too early to say whether it will have longevity decades from now. It’s had an amazingly long run—ten years—and maintained a high level in scripts and performances. Oddly, though, it seems to stay under the radar, neither attracting critical attention in the mainstream nor the same level of devoted cult following that, say, “Buffy” or “The X-Files” or “Heroes” did. “Lois and Clark” and the 1980s “Superboy” TV series both seem to have vanished from public consciousness, and maybe “Smallville” will in turn be supplanted by the next live action version of Superman. I hope not, and that the series will be rediscovered by future generations.
Among recent superhero TV shows I think that the enduring classic will prove to be the 1990s “Batman” animated series, with the “Superman” animated series that followed as a runner-up. I think that kids who grew up watching the 1990s animated “Batman” may remember it as fondly as many of us remember the best episodes of the 1960s live action “Batman.” Even Warners’ subsequent Batman animated TV series don’t usually come up to the level of the 1990s show, although “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” is almost always fun.
Sometimes in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” the title character is referred to as a superhero. Strictly speaking, “Buffy” is a horror show, not a superhero show. “Buffy,” I think, has already proved to be a classic, so if you consider her a superhero, her show is also a superhero series that people will still watch and discuss for decades to come.
Batman was one of the best known superheroes before the TV show, having not only appeared in comic books for over a quarter century, but also in newspaper strips, movie serials, and on radio. But the 1960s TV show took him to a whole new level of popularity. Moreover, the TV show made the general public aware of many elements of the Batman mythos: Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, the Batmobile, the Batcave, the major villains, and more.
In the same vein, do you think Batman the series planted the seeds that allowed the success of the modern movies and animated series?
I suspect that the “Batman” TV show of the 1960s was a major reason why Warner Brothers launched a new “Batman” movie in 1989. Thanks to the TV show, there was massive public awareness of Batman; generations had grown up watching the show, either in its original run or in reruns. And Warners was surely aware that since the TV show had been such a huge hit in 1966, that Batman could be a major commercial success again. Still, it took a long time for producer Michael Uslan and others to get Batman back on movie screens. But the 1989 film’s tremendous success demonstrated that there was an audience eager to see Batman on the screen once again.
Moreover, this audience wanted to see Batman “done right.” They wanted to see Batman treated seriously, not a camp comedy. Now obviously, there were readers of the comics who were influenced by the serious treatments that creators like Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, and Frank Miller had given Batman since the 1960s. But I also think that those of us who first watched the 1960s TV show when we were kids tried to take it seriously, something that was more possible to do during its first season, when the show struck a balance between adventure and “camp.” So maybe a lot of the TV show’s audience wanted to recapture that feeling when they saw the “Batman” movies as adults. Certainly director Joel Schumacher’s attempts to infuse camp into his “Batman” movies triggered a backlash in opinion.
Both of you are industry historians, did Adam West’s Batman truly have that big of an impact on the comics?
In the wake of the TV show, there were some attempts in the comics to imitate the show’s style, but they didn’t work, and the editors and writers seemed uncomfortable trying to do it. Moreover, the fad for the “Batman” TV show ended almost as abruptly as it had begun. The show started in 1966 but ended in 1968, having worn out its welcome. As far as I’m concerned, the show took a nose dive as early as the start of the second season. What had made the show work so well in its first season, and in the movie, was striking that balance between adventure and comedy: kids could take it mostly seriously, while adults could appreciate the ironic humor. In the second season the stories became blatantly ludicrous, and probably drove away viewers who wanted to take their superheroes seriously.
The show’s greatest influence in the comics was in inspiring a creative reaction against it. The “Batman” comics sales boomed when the show became a hit, but then collapsed when the fad quickly ended. Keep in mind, too, that many “Batman” comics fans were upset that the show made fun of the character, and, indeed, mocked the whole superhero genre.
Important creative figures in the comics, including editor Julius Schwartz, writer Denny O’Neil, and artist Neal Adams reacted by making Batman more serious than the comics had been since the character’s debut in 1939. They consciously turned Batman into an updated version of the grim avenger he had been when he first appeared, the crimefighter driven by the memory of the murder of his parents. This remodeling of Batman set the character on the path he has followed in comics, television and the movies ever since.
The 1960s “Batman” TV show confirmed the conventional opinion that superheroes were silly, and for at least two decades thereafter mainstream media articles about comics always seemed to have headlines reading “ZAP! POW! BAM!” But nowadays the general public and the mass media have recognized that Batman can be taken seriously, partly due to the increasing critical respect for comics like Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” but probably primarily die to Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. As a result, I think, comics fans no longer have to feel embarrassed by the 1960s “Batman” show, but instead can appreciate it as an alternate, comedic interpretation of the Batman mythos.
And so the pendulum of opinion has swung back a little in the 1960s “Batman” show’s favor. Adam West has been cast as a voice actor in the 1990s “Batman” animated series (as a hero who inspired Batman, the Gray Ghost), “The Batman” animated series that followed, and in Cartoon Network’s “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” (as Batman’s father). Casting Mr. West is surely intended as a homage to him and to the 1960s show. “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” generally takes a more light-hearted approach to the character than most other recent treatments of Batman, and this show often has little homages to the 1960s show. There have even been a few recent homages to the 1960s show in the “Batman” comics, even including the Bat-Poles being included in a map of the Batcave. DC Comics even recently introduced its own version of King Tut into the “Batman” comics, four decades after the villain debuted on the TV show.
About Mr. West: watching the show nowadays I am impressed by his skill at delivering lines with deadpan humor. But I also find myself impressed by how he maintains a sense of dignity as Batman and as Bruce Wayne, even when he is surrounded by utter nonsense. And I am also struck by how he projects a sense of genuine goodness. The show may be camp and ironic, but amidst all the silliness, Mr. West conveys an unironic, sincere sort of heroism.
My favorite is Burgess Meredith as the Penguin. He achieved the remarkable feat of playing the Penguin as a living caricature—the waddling, the quacking—while simultaneously playing him as a believable menace, genuinely crafty, sinister, and dangerous. His performance is full of wit, intelligence, energy and verve. I would be very surprised if Mr. Meredith didn’t take great pleasure in playing this part: he seems to be having a great time doing it. Meredith was the most talented of the actors who played the show’s major villains, and the people running the show seemed to recognize this: consider how in the movie, he gets a whole long sequence to himself (invading the Batcave) that involves none of the film’s other super-villains.
A close second place goes to the villain who was my favorite when I was growing up watching the show: Frank Gorshin as the Riddler. There’s his manic glee, of course, with his famous giggling laugh and the way he nearly dances for joy over his triumphs: in a way, he’s a better Joker than Cesar Romero’s actual Joker. But Gorshin’s Riddler is also the most cerebral of the show’s major villains, and you can see Gorshin shift gears from his convulsive laughter to his quiet moods, calculating his next move. And Gorshin also shows you the character’s insecurity beneath his outer confidence: in the movie, when he thinks he has actually succeeded in killing Batman, Gorshin’s Riddler clearly can’t quite believe he finally did it.
Shameless plug time – Any projects coming forth?
I’m going to be writing several books for Sequart, which they haven’t yet officially announced. Check in with them to see when they plan to announce the first one, which we intend will be out by the end of this year. You can mention that I’m a contributor to Sequart’s “Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide,” a book of critical essays about Warren Ellis’s comics series “Planetary.” It looks like I’ll be second-in-command editor of a comics encyclopedia project for another publisher, but, again, I can’t announce the name of this project publicly quite yet.
Once Again, Thank you so much for your time!