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Holy 50th Birthday, “’66 Batman”!

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Whether you sleep in the Marvel camp or claim “DC FOR LIFE!”, there is absolutely no denying the impact that Batman has had on pop culture.  Sure, The Last Son of Krypton may get plenty of love too but when it comes right down to it, Batman has been leading the way for DC Comics for a good 50 years and the Caped Crusader is single-handedly responsible for millions of fanboys’ first foray into the world of comic books and, really, geek culture in general. As DC Comics’ leading mascot, Batman has starred in eleven live action films dating all the way back to 1943, countless animated movies, dozens of animated series’ and has been featured on television in different incarnations with different actors picking up the cowl.  When it comes to Batman’s impact on pop culture, there is absolutely no more influential depiction of the hero than 1966’s Batman television series, featuring (as if you need to be reminded) Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin, respectively. This week, the series hit its fiftieth birthday, and after fifty years, the series continues to make its mark.

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In order to truly understand just how important the ‘66 Batman series really was, it is probably important to go over a brief history of comic books.  Time for a bit of a history lesson!  For those born in the past twenty years or so, it may be hard to believe that there was actually a period of time during which comic books were not the hottest commodity on the market. A very, very, VERY long period of time, in fact.  Back in the 1930’s, Action Comics managed to involuntarily start geek culture by releasing Action Comics #1 starring Superman. While comic strips and pulps had managed to trigger the imaginations of youngsters across America with their tales of adventure and intrigue, and even a bit of humor, Action Comics #1 opened up an entirely new world in which the imagination could play by introducing the world’s first superhero, Superman. Not only was this new superhero an alien, he was all but indestructible and he was American, through and through! He fought for peace, justice, and the American Way and in a country that was still recovering from The Great Depression, the public needed a new hero. Sure, back then, you were much more likely to see a youngster flipping through the “funny pages” than an adult but you can bet your Batusi that there were plenty of adults reading the tales of Kal-El and imagining a brighter day. Then, there were the people that found The Big Blue Boyscout a bit too unrealistic to truly enjoy. The life America was living at the time wasn’t shiny and not everyone could connect with the Kryptonian. Enter Batman.

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In 1939, just months before the start of World War II, Detective Comics #27 found its way onto shelves and with it came the birth of a new kind of superhero; a superhero that was as dark as Superman was bright; a superhero that had no superpowers but, instead, was simply a man risking his life to make the world a better place. This was the birth of Batman. Detective Comics had managed to find the perfect blend of mystery, suspense, and ass-kickery in Batman and the series quickly became popular.  Once World War II started in earnest, the public lost interest in superhero comics and the entire industry suffered a general decline. Still, as the public’s emotional state went from blue to black, Batman remained a popular title, thanks to the primary focus being on the detective aspect of the character.  Through the Caped Crusader, the public felt its innermost feelings and wishes reflecting back at them from the pages of these books. Every American during this time wished that they had more power, more courage, more opportunity to do something good and as Batman continued to solve problems using his mind and dispense vigilante justice with his fists, he became an inspiration.  

Wars come and go and the comic book industry ebbed and flowed for years until the early 1960’s, when Ed Graham Productions managed to grab the screen rights to Batman and decided to make a Saturday morning kids show.  These screen rights went back and forth through production companies until, finally, ABC wound up with the property and after reading several issues of the Batman comic books, producer William Dozier decided the best way to proceed with the series would be to present it as a piece of comedic, televised pop art. Thus, ‘66 Batman was given life.

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This rendition of Batman was the first exposure to the character for millions of people across the globe and for many, Adam West’s weekly depicition of the billionaire turned crime fighter led them to the comic book bins for the very first time. At the time, natural born geeks already had some pretty wonderful television to watch, inlcluding the original Lost in Space, The Avengers (not THOSE Avengers), Wild Wild West, and Thunderbirds, to name just a few, but Batman…That was a whole other creature.  

Batman wasn’t just Batman, obviously. The mask that Batman wears is the mask of billionaire Bruce Wayne, who just so happens to have all of the electronic gadgetry and all the tricks in the world at his disposal (including anti-shark spray).  Every thirty minute episode managed to showcase both the playboy and the genius aspects of the character and watching the mystery unravel in such a flamboyant manner was a treat to see.  Not that the mysteries ran that deeply, of course. The series was silly, shallow, and even children didn’t have to think too deeply when it came to solving the crimes.  As a matter of fact, the series works much better when the viewer doesnt think too deeply at all! Giving the series more than a passing thought when it came to the escapes, plots, and cliffhangers would be detrimental to your enjoyment of the series!  If you wanted a true crime mystery or a series with depth, there were plenty of others from which to choose.  So, what made ‘66 Batman such an enjoyable show?

The Cheese

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This is a big one when it comes to what makes the series to utterly enjoyable.  Batman wasn’t the first superhero to hit the small screen but previous attempts, such as The Adventures of Superman and Adventures of Captain Marvel, took a more serious approach to their adaptations, presenting dramas to their audiences.  Batman was completely unique in that it took a more B-movie approach to material and rather than present suspense, the series often showcased almost slapstick fight scenes, always punctuated with the best word bubbles in the business, often even presented without the bubble itself. There are many-a-geek that will recall the delight in seeing those bubbles pop up anytime Batman and The Boy Wonder had to throw down. Still, through all of the silliness, the actors who played their iconic parts did so with utter commitment. Even as Burt Ward’s Robin exclaimed, “Holy bouncing boilerplate, Batman!”, he sold the line and even though the dialogue may have never been worthy of Tarantino, somehow, it just made sense.  When it boils down to it, ‘66 Batman was basically a live action superhero series that could have been produced by Andy Warhol’s less artistic cousin and that in and of itself says enough about the cheese to leave it at that.

The Villains

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When it came to digging through Batman’s stable of villains, or even creating new villains specifically for the series, Batman had a hell of a lot of fun bringing the characters to life. It was always a treat when audiences were waiting for the guest villain of the week to pop up during the opening titles, so that they knew what was in store. When it came to that excitement, there was plenty of cause for it.  Whether it was seeing Julie Newmar would be playing Catwoman that week or Ceaser Romero as The Joker, Burgess Meredith as Penguin, or “?” as The Riddler, and plenty of villains in between, just knowing that a favorite villain would be the star of the two thirty minute episodes that week somehow made things better when it came to life.  Well, perhaps there may not have been many people all that excited for King Tut’s appearance but he may be the exception to the rule. The villains were full of style and flash and were every bit as cheesy and wonderful as the Dynamic Duo. No, they weren’t the diabolical villains that Christopher Nolan treated fans to but did that make them any less valid? Nope. Somehow, when placed in this setting right alongside Batman and Robin, Frank Gorshin’s evil laugh as The Riddler sounded a bit unhinged and insane, rather than silly; Mad Hatter seemed that he may be the genius evil enough to take down The Bat; Chandell and Harry seemed…Ok, bad example. The point is that the villains of the series were almost as beloved as the protagonists and while they may have come with a bit of cheese, it only added to the fun.

The Heroes

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Yes, it is very easy to single out Batman and Robin, and, of course, it’s coming, but they weren’t the only heroes that fought the good fight throughout the two years the series aired in its original run. As always, Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler/father figure Alfred was right where Batman needed him, whenever he needed him; Commissioner Gordon, who was always easily perplexed and, somehow, could never manage to follow the smallest clue to lead him to the close of a cash; Chief O’Hara, always the perfect confidant and perfect sounding board for the series to mirror the audience’s questions from beyond the fourth wall; and Barbara Gordon, who would join the Dynamic Duo as Batgirl and fight right alongside Batman and Robin.  The good guys were good and that’s what makes them so wonderful. Somewhere along the way, and fans can either thank or condemn Nolan for this, the lines between good and bad became a bit blurry when it comes to the heroes in the franchise. These days, anytime audiences view a Batman property, even the protagonists walk the line between hero and villain and most times, they stumble a bit onto the other side of that line on a fairly consistent basis. Not so with ‘66 Batman. The good guys never wavered in their commitment to justice and they were always willing to color within the lines of the law. Not to mention, how wonderful was it to see Batgirl in action??

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All of the above is just delicious, sweet frosting on the Batman and Robin cake. Adam West and Burt Ward did more than just act – they seemed to become their roles. Then again, Adam West always seemed to play a more wealthy version of himself, rather than inhabiting a different character. Any interview with West presents his swagger and it would be easy to imagine him as a billionaire playboy turned superhero, even if he had never donned the cowl. In person, Burt Ward seems every bit as wholesome as the Boy Wonder he portrayed, even if stories from behind the scenes place him right beside more than a few eager young women. Between the two, West and Ward managed to breath new life into characters who, up to this point, generally took a darker direction.  Throughout the series, Batman and Robin were placed in a plethora of impossible situations but to them, it was just part of the job. Whether they had to use a rope to walk up the side of a building, were tied above a vat of acid with no hope of escape, or fighting off a shark while dangling from a rope ladder, the Dynamic Duo took it in stride and always knew what to do.  The pair of crime fighters also happened to do something much more important than stop The Joker: they inspired children all over the world. For kids that were too young to remember or appreciate the dark times the country had undergone during the decades since Detective Comics #27 had hit shelves, Batman offered a completely different type of superhero. With the darkness of the character all but shrugged off for the series, children could focus on the good that Batman could do with little more than his wits. Many of these children began to seek out Batman comics, which led to Superman, which led to Wonder Woman, and so on and so on. Even better, thanks to the gift of syndication, all three seasons of the series have seemed to run almost consistently through the past five decades on one channel or another, offering generations of children their first exposure to the world of comic books. This is the biggest gift that Batman could ever give: the gift of opening up an entirely new world for a young imagination to run wild.

How many comic book artists found their passion for the medium through Adam West and Burt Ward? How many little girls grew up to be badass women, just because Barbara Gordon showed them how to kick some ass? How many geeks owe their passion for all things geek to Batman? These are questions that may never be answered but one thing is for sure – there has never been a more important, inspirational, and just wholly fun superhero series as Batman and while superhero television continues to inspire new generations, without ‘66 Batman, the creators behind those newer television shows may have never even been inspired to care about the products and superhero tv could be a thing of the past by now.  Holy 50th birthday, Batman, and thank you.    

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