Friday, 2 July 2004

Batmania

In 1966 Batmania took America by storm. The TV series Batman, based on the comic book character of the same name, was a hit from its January 12 debut. It aired twice a week in two part episodes that would begin on Wednesday and end on Thursday, the first episode always ending in a cliffhanger. Batman ranked twice in the Nielsen top ten for the 1965-1966 season--the Wednesday night showing at #10 and the Thursday night showing at #5. The series was successful enough to spin off a feature film released in the summer of 1966. The movie also proved to be a box office bonanza. With the possible exception of The Beatles, nothing else probably inspired as much merchandise in the Sixties as Batman.

I am not sure when I became aware of the Batman TV series, but it must have been very early. I cannot remember a time when the show did not exist. With the exception of Underdog, Batman was probably the first superhero of whom I was aware. At any rate, like many youngsters, and many adults as well, I was caught up in Batmania. Batman has remained my favourite superhero ever since. As a child the colourful series featuring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin were deadly serious adventures. As I grew older I realised that it was actually one of the funniest comedies of the Sixties, a great parody of the superhero genre.

What makes the Batman phenomenon all the more remarkable is that all the hoopla surrounded a character who was nearly 27 years old when the series debuted. Contrary to the TV series, however, Batman was hardly a comedic character when he made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27, May 1939. Created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, Batman was Bruce Wayne, a millionaire who had sworn vengeance on crime when his parents had been gunned down before his eyes as a child. He adopted a costume that resembled a bat in order to strike fear into cowardly and superstitious criminals. And in the beginning the Caped Crusader was hardly gentle with felons, sometimes dispensing justice as brutally as possible. In fact, in his earliest adventures, Batman even carried a gun! From the beginning, Batman was one of DC Comics' most popular characters, second only to Superman.
Batman softened a bit after the introduction of his sidekick Robin (who was Dick Grayson, a circus acrobat whose parents had also been murdered), but the character continued to be popular throughout the Golden Age of Comics. In fact, he was popular enough to inspire two serials produced by Columbia: The Batman in 1943 and The Adventures of Batman and Robin in 1949. There was also a Batman newspaper strip that ran from 1943 to 1946. Starting in 1945, Batman and Robin appeared regularly on the radio show The Adventures of Superman. A pilot for a Batman radio show was made circa 1950, but failed to sell.

As I stated above, with the introduction of Robin, Batman softened a bit. From that point on, Batman gradually drifted away from the idea of a dark night avenger who struck fear into the hearts of criminals. A greater emphasis was placed on Batman's various gadgets as time went by and a love interest was even introduced in the form of Vicki Vale. After coming under attack in psychiatrist and comic book detractor Frederic Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent and following the introduction of the Comics Code Authority (the comic book industry's self censorship entity) shortly thereafter, drastic changes came to Batman comic books. Increasingly, the Dynamic Duo found themselves involved in rather silly, pseudo-science fiction stories featuring space aliens and time travel. With the exception of The Joker, Batman's rogue's gallery fell out of use. Perhaps as a result, sales for the Batman magazines fell to a point that DC Comics even considered cancelling them.

Fortunately, editor Julius Schwartz had other ideas. He revamped the character and introduced the "New Look" in 1964. Batman's costume was subtly changed, with the addition of an oval around the bat insignia on his chest and minor alterations to his utility belt's design. The pseudo-science fiction stories fell by the wayside, as a greater emphasis was placed on Batman's detective abilities.

Of course, with the success of the Batman TV series, the comic books veered towards a campier style starting in 1966. And while sales for Batman comic books soared when the TV series was successful, they plummeted as the show fell in the ratings. It seemed that Batman once more had to be revamped. Fortunately, writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Addams brought Batman back to his roots as a dark avenger of the night. This was the period when I was first able to actually read Batman comic books. In fact, I remember the first Batman story I read--it was "Half an Evil" in Batman #234, August 1971. Although I didn't know it at the time, this story was significant as it was the first appearance of the villain Two Face since 1954! At any rate, I must say that as much as I enjoyed the campy TV series, I loved Batman as a dark avenger of the night even more.

Since Neal Addams and Denny O'Neil returned Batman to his roots as the Dark Knight, his popularity has continued unabated. The 1989 movie Batman was the most successful superhero movie of its time, unsurpassed until Spider-Man was released in 2002. Its sequels strayed a bit from the portrayal of the Caped Crusader as the dark avenger of the comic books, but even they were not enough to damage the Dark Knight's popularity. Indeed, even as I write this, a new Batman movie, Batman Begins, is in production. As a Batman fan since the late Sixties, I must say that I am looking forward to it.

Anyhow, hard as it is to believe, I do owe a good deal to the 1966 TV series Batman. It was because of that TV show that I took an interest in comic books. And it was because of comic books that I took an interest in writing. In a round about way, then, the old Batman TV show is why I am a writer!

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