Wednesday, October 11, 2017

My Two Batmen

This originally appeared on this blog in three parts back in February of 2016. It was Batman's first appearance in Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do). Presumably fresh 2017 thoughts follow the original post below (with SPOILERS for those not up-to-date on Batman's current comics storyline).

I've got two Batmen, and I ain't ashamed; two Batmen, and I love 'em both the same.

Let me tell you 'bout my first Batman.

I became a Batman fan 50 years ago, following the debut of the Batman TV series in January of 1966. I was six years old, and that show would have a far greater impact on my life than any other TV show. I had heroes already: I watched reruns of The Adventures Of Superman, and had read some Superman comic books, as well--I specifically remember a Lois Lane 80-Page Giant, which was likely my first comic book; I adored Popeye cartoons; and, of course, everyone in my neighborhood knew Flash Gordon, whose 1930s movie serial exploits were shown every afternoon by Baron Daemon, Syracuse's hugely-popular local vampire TV host. In fact, my earliest memory of Batman is from Baron Daemon's show, when a commercial for the Caped Crusader's then-forthcoming new TV series was aired, prompting the Baron to exclaim in his mock-Transylvanian accent, "Vhat's dis?  I'M the only Batman around here!"

I was probably initially resistant to Batman because its Wednesday night showing aired opposite one of my favorite TV shows, Lost In Space. That resistance certainly didn't last long, because I was a dedicated Batman fan in no time.

When you're six years old, you can believe in heroes, and you can believe with wide eyes and open heart. You can don the Halloween mask, fasten the towel around your neck, and get right down to the serious business of ridding North Syracuse of evildoers. POW! BIFF! The Joker? The Riddler? No match for these fists o' steel, bucko.

Of course, at six years old, I had no idea that this TV show was making fun of Batman. Smugly, complacently, even pompously, the creators of this camp sensation television phenomenon thought themselves above this corny character, whom they were milking and ridiculing to great success.

But the joke couldn't sustain itself. What had seemed stylish and fun to the viewing public in the show's first season gave way to increasing hokiness; by the third season, the larger audience had moved on, and the show was cancelled.

Batman had a long history prior to becoming a TV star. Our hero debuted in Detective Comics # 27, cover-dated May 1939, the creation of cartoonist Bob Kane and (then-uncredited) writer Bill Finger. The character flourished in the '40s, appearing in multiple comic books (BatmanDetective Comics, and World's Finest Comics [co-starring with Superman on the covers, and eventually in the stories themselves]; Batman's partner, Robin the Boy Wonder, was also a cover-featured solo star in Star-Spangled Comics, with Batman himself a frequent guest star). Batman appeared in a syndicated newspaper comic strip, in two low-budget movie serials, and made guest appearances on the Superman radio show. Batman was one of the very few costumed comic-book heroes to survive the superhero bust in the late '40s/early '50s; by the time the TV series was cancelled in 1968, Batman comics had been published regularly for nearly 30 years.

And for all that, the campy TV series had turned Batman into damaged goods. Even with a new Saturday morning TV cartoon show, sales of the Batman comics plummeted. To re-establish his relevance, Batman needed help. Batman needed a hero of his own.

Enter Neal Adams.

After the campy Batman TV series was cancelled in 1968, sales of DC Comics' Batman titles plummeted.  To save Batman, to redeem the character from the joke of his cathrode-ray caricature, he would need to return to his pulp roots.  He had to become, once again, a dark and terrible creature of the night, striking fear into the hearts of superstitious and cowardly criminals.

 He had to become a bat.  Or rather, he had to become The Batman!

In the aftermath of mid-'60s Batmania, there was little or no grand plan at National Periodical Publications (aka DC Comics) to make Batman exciting again. Even at the height of the TV show's popularity, the comic books rarely succumbed to the sillier aspects of the show; even before camp receded, editor Julie Schwartz had already eased up a bit on some of the flashier elements that had migrated from the tube to the comics pages, nixing Robin's "Holy Tombstone!" exclamations, and scaling back the colorful sound effects graphics. But the damage was done. Attempts to return to a pre-1966 status quo were done in by the sheer efficiency with which the TV show had highlighted the absurdities of Batman and his milieu. Even when Batman wasn't trying to be camp, Batman stories now seemed unintentionally corny, square, old hat. Worse:  Batman was boring.

Man, was that about to change!

An artist named Neal Adams had come to DC with a background in advertising and newspaper comic strips. There isn't space here to detail Adams' accomplishments as a comic book artist; suffice it to say that it is not even the slightest exaggeration to say that Neal Adams revolutionized the look of superhero comic books from the late '60s on. Adams' realistic style was vibrant, exciting, irresistible.  And Neal Adams wanted to draw Batman.

Editor Julie Schwartz told Adams to go away and stop bothering him.  

But Adams, then and now, was not shy about getting his way. If Schwartz wouldn't allow Adams to work on the main Batman titles (Batman and Detective Comics), then Adams would go to another DC editor, Murray Boltinoff, who was in charge of the Batman team-up comic book The Brave And The Bold. In the pages of The Brave And The Bold, veteran writer Bob Haney was plugging along in his own world, teaming Batman with a wide array of other DC characters, blithely unconcerned with what was going on in any other Batman book. Haney's scripts and dialogue could often be sillier than anything found in other Bat-stories, but Haney always seemed committed to whatever outlandish tale he told. Neal Adams began illustrating Haney's B & B stories, beginning with The Brave And The Bold # 79, cover-dated August-September 1968, the first meeting between Batman and Deadman, a character that Adams had been drawing in the pages of DC's Strange Adventures.

It was freaking awesome.

In those days at DC Comics, writers and artists rarely had any contact, and shared no real collaboration on their stories. The writer turned in a script to the editor, and moved on to his next assignment. The editor gave that script to a penciller, who would follow the script and turn it into comic book pages, usually to be inked by another artist. So one presumes that Haney wasn't suddenly so jazzed at working with Adams that he pulled out all of the stops to make his script a classic. It's hard to tell objectively if it really was intrinsically better than the Haney scripts that preceded it (though it was a great improvement over the previous issue, where Wonder Woman and Batgirl fell in love with the Caped Crusader and...I don't even want to talk about it...!).  

But Neal Adams' depiction of Batman in that issue? It was as different from recent depictions of the characters as day and night. Literally! Because the familiar costumed crimefighter, good ol' Batman, was now being shown only in night scenes, draped in shadows, blanketed in dark, moody tones. Everything seemed more alive, more real...but Batman, in particular, suddenly seemed like a creature of twilight, a midnight avenger, a scourge of crime sent to Gotham from Hell itself.


As Neal Adams continued to illustrate Batman and his various guest-stars in The Brave And The Bold, Julie Schwartz took note of letters coming into the DC offices, clamoring for more of the "real" Batman they'd seen in The Brave And The Bold. Schwartz was no dummy. Adams would be working for him from then on.

From this unlikely starting point, Batman was revitalized. Schwartz turned to writer Dennis O'Neil to become his main Batman scribe, while still retaining the services of writer Frank Robbins, as well.  O'Neil and Adams concentrated on returning Batman to his original image as a dark knight, symbolized in part by referring to the character as The Batman, returning the original billing unused since the early 1940s. An earlier story by Frank Robbins had already split up the Dynamic Duo, as Dick (Robin) Grayson left stately Wayne Manor to attend college. Flamboyant criminals, which had been a hallmark of Batman since the beginning, were now eschewed as being too reminiscent of the super criminals with whom Adam West and Burt Ward had wrestled on TV. (The only exception was Two-Face, a classic Batman villain who had not appeared anywhere since the '50s, until he was revived in stirring fashion by Adams and O'Neil.) O'Neil created Ra's al Ghul, a new adversary that has become as integral a part of the Batman mythos as any villain this side of The Joker; Ra's al Ghul's daughter Talia, a morally ambiguous femme fatale in love with The Batman, added spice to the storyline (and was incomparably sexy as drawn by Adams). O'Neil and Adams, along with inker Dick Giordano (and also with artist Irv Novick, who pencilled the stories the meticulous Adams didn't have time to do), had taken Batman from the banal shenanigans of the '60s to becoming one of the most compelling superhero comics of the early '70s. When O'Neil and Adams brought back The Joker in Batman # 251 (September 1973), the formerly buffoonish Clown Prince Of Crime was once again the vicious, cold-hearted killer he'd been when first introduced in 1940's Batman # 1.

To all intents and purposes, Neal Adams left Batman in the mid-'70s, but his mission was accomplished:  he'd wanted to re-establish The Batman, The Dark Knight, and he and Denny O'Neil had certainly done that. O'Neil did quite a bit more Batman work over the ensuing years, and eventually became editor. A writer named Steve Englehart, who'd been successful at Marvel Comics, decided to leave the comics business, but wanted to write one year of Batman stories (in Detective Comics # 469-476, May 1977 through March-April 1978) before retiring from the industry. Englehart's Batman stories became my all-time favorite run on the character, mixing in everything that had ever made Batman great, from the '30s through O'Neil and Adams, and spinning a tale that actually made me quit comics for a while; seriously, after Englehart's Batman stories, everything else I read seemed an empty disappointment to me. After two stories pencilled by Walt Simonson, the remainder of Englehart's run was pencilled by Marshall Rogers, who combined a hint of Adams' realism with a stylized approach that also drew inspiration from Batman artists of the '40s and early '50s (from the great Dick Sprang, in particular), all inked by Terry Austin. Rogers, in fact, remains my all-time favorite Batman artist; believe me, dethroning Neal Adams wasn't easy!

  Adams. O'Neil. Giordano. Novick. Englehart.  Rogers. Austin. There were others (like Jim Aparo, who wound up becoming the definitive Brave & Bold artist), many others, who contributed to this long, successful effort to rehabilitate Batman's image. In the mid-'80s, writer/artist Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns grabbed mainstream headlines for its gritty depiction of an aging Batman coming out of retirement to save Gotham one more time. 1989's Batman movie, starring Michael Keaton, washed away the camp image of Batman '66, and brought the Dark Knight to the consciousness of the mass market. Much later, director Christopher Nolan's own Dark Knight film trilogy would further cement this more serious image of Batman within the public consciousness.


Have we gone too far?

When did Batman become such a dick?

My first Batman, the campy TV Batman of the 1960s, was played as a joke. To counteract that image, my second Batman looked back to the character's pulp noir roots in the '30s and '40s, and became once again The Batman, a darker and grittier hero for the 1970s. And this was fine by me.

I barely noticed as my hero grew even darker. When I started buying comics again after graduating from college in 1980, I may have noticed that Batman had grown a bit...well, gruffer, for lack of a better description. He was certainly more rude than he'd been previously; even as O'Neil and Adams, and Englehart and Rogers, had made the hero less square--and way more intimidating--he was still a hero. Neither of my Batmen would have ever spoken unkindly to Robin, or Alfred, or Commissioner Gordon, or Superman. They may have disagreed, even argued a point or two, but c'mon--Gordon was a friend, Superman was a best friend, and Robin and Alfred were family, for God's sake.

But times changed. Darker! Grittier! Over the ensuing decades, I grew to detest that mantra in superhero comics. I liked--loved--a lot of it at the time. Frank Miller's Daredevil. Alan Moore's Saga Of The Swamp Thing. And later, Moore's Watchmen and Marvelman, and Miller's grim takes on The Batman, Batman:  Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. Batman was taken seriously! Rolling Stone magazine noticed. By the time director Tim Burton's Batman triumphed at the box office in 1989, the whole country knew Batman wasn't camp anymore.

But still:  did he have to become such a dick?

When the Batman film franchise was revitalized with the release of Batman Begins in 2005, a critic for our local newspaper complained that director Christopher Nolan had forgotten that Batman was "supposed to have a sense of humor." I loved the film, and thought the critic was just revealing her own gross misunderstanding of the character. But I'm starting to see her point.

I didn't want Batman to be camp again; I still don't want that. But I wish he could go back to being a good guy. I wish writers and artists who buy into the stupid notion that Batman is as crazy as his foes could be physically restrained from ever again creating a Batman story. Creators who think Batman's war on crime is so single-minded that he can't be bothered to treat his partners with a modicum of respect do not understand the Batman created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, the Batman chronicled by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, or (initially) by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams. (I say initially because, from the '80s on, O'Neil seemed to lose sight of the character's virtues as badly as anyone.) These creators do not tell stories about my Batman.

And that's why I gave up on Batman comics. Aside from my brief sabbatical from comics while in college, 2015 marked the first time since 1966 that I was no longer buying any Batman comics. I still buy comics; I buy new superhero comics every week. But they're mostly Marvels now, plus titles from some other publishers, and not many from DC Comics. The Marvel Comics are more fun.

(Well, to be honest, I'm still buying one Batman-related series:  Batman '66, a new series set in the campy continuity of the old TV show. As I write this, Batman '66's current incarnation is a crossover miniseries with Napolean Solo and Illya Kuryakin from The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and it's been a joy so far.)

As I've aged, I've come to recognize some of the great things about my campy first Batman. First, even though the TV show's producers absolutely felt they were above their low-brow source material, their attention to detail was precise; the TV show exaggerated the silliness, but the silliness was indeed already there in those great, classic Batman comics stories of the'40s, '50s, and '60s. And the main actors were invested in their roles--you'll never hear me say a bad thing about Adam West, ever. I rejected Batman '66 as an adolescent; now, I embrace at least parts of it.

I haven't given up on my ideal Batman returning. I loved Christian Bale's Batman movies, because there was still a human heart within the darkness and grittiness; I will see the forthcoming Batman v Superman film with an open mind, even though it's apparently beholden to the Frank Miller Batman that I once loved and now loathe. (And Ben Affleck's gonna be terrific as Batman.)  I still watch the Gotham TV show, though it's gratuitously violent and manages to piss me off about as often as it engages me.

I'm 56. I'm surely old enough to have given up belief in heroes by now. Except that I don't ever intend to grow that old, to shed the sense of wonder of a six-year-old boy using a blanket as his cape, yelling "POW!" and "BIFF!" while crusading in my living room. I'm not going to give up on the thrill of a Dark Knight protecting a defenseless city from superstitious, cowardly criminals that prey on unsuspecting citizens, a strange figure who seeks justice--not as an act of vengeance, nor as a manifestation of his own insanity, but as the noble fulfillment of a promise he made years ago before the graves of his murdered parents: that no innocent should be made to suffer again. I still believe in Batman. I still believe in my Batman.

And my Batman's not a dick.


I was apparently not the only comics fan deserting DC, and DC took notice. The successful DC Rebirth relaunched and revitalized the line in 2016, and DC is once again my favorite comics publisher. DC's current Batman and Detective Comics titles are the best they've been in years. The character doesn't always behave precisely the way I would have him behave, but he's recognizably my Batman, and not a dick. I am delighted that he's finally asked Catwoman to marry him, and that she's said yeah, baby! I'm encouraged by his ongoing effort to be a good father to his son Damien Wayne (the current Robin) and to his de facto son Dick Grayson (now Nightwing). He's starting to work well with others, at least better than he's been portrayed in recent years. Batman is a hero again.

I'm in the minority of comics fans who enjoyed Batman v Superman, and I think Affleck was very good in the role. Yeah, Affleck's Batman is a dick, but seems to be a dick on the path to redemption. I accept that.

The death of Adam West this year prompted an outpouring of warmth and affection for the late actor and his portrayal of our Caped Crusader. I mourned his passing here, and later added this:

TV heroes aren't real; we all know this. The fantastic champions we see on the tube, as well as in the movies, and in the pages of comic books and pulp novels alike, are mere flights of fancy, flickers of imagination, capable of diversion and amusement, but no more bona fide a savior than the Tooth Fairy or the Great Pumpkin. Parents and teachers are real heroes. The men and women of our armed forces, law enforcement, emergency service providers, friends and neighbors and even total strangers who lend a helping hand in a time of need...those are heroes, all of 'em.

The above is true. And it misses the point.

Because the dreams we dream--the legends we cherish, the folklore we hold dear--help to define the best within us. If we can conjure visions of heroism in our minds--if we believe in ideals--we can aspire to be better. Whether a cartoon crusader to amuse children or an archetype to thrill the inner child within an adult form, our heroes inspire us. Our heroes matter.

Adam West was an actor who played a comic book hero on TV and in a movie, who voiced him in cartoons, and appeared as him in person at car shows and conventions. The character he played was my hero; for playing Batman, West was my hero, too. Still. Always. The Batman series led me to superheroes, and to comic books; exposure to Superman and Flash Gordon predated my discovery of Batman on ABC-TV in 1966, but it was the Dynamic Duo of Batman and Robin that transformed hero worship into a prevailing passion. I would never have wanted to write if not for the spark that Batman ignited within my young soul. If not for Batman, my life would be completely different--and poorer, I think. I am so grateful for all that Batman has meant to me.

The character of Batman predates West's portrayal, of course; Batman debuted in 1939, the creation of Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Batman was played by actors Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery in 1940s movie serials (and on radio by Gary Merrill), and the role has been taken over by many others since West retired his cape and cowl. The comics have never stopped, published continuously for more than 75 years, reflecting varying interpretations of a durable character. The campy crusader played by West fell into disfavor, but was eventually rediscovered and embraced.

West struggled with the typecasting caused by his most famous role. He was a talented and amiable personality, but his career suffered from his success as Batman. I'm happy that he seemed to have come to terms with it in later years. Because the role that cast such a large bat-shaped shadow across his life also made him immortal, in ways few of us will ever be able to fully understand. He wasn't really Batman. Except that he was. And he was my hero. Thank you so much, Mr. West. This citizen salutes you.

This week sees the release of the new animated feature Batman vs Two-Face, Adam West's final turn in the role that made him famous. The Batman '66 comics are finished for the time being, concluding earlier this year with a Batman '66 Meets Wonder Woman '77 miniseries and a Batman '66 Meets The Legion Of Super-Heroes one-shot. There is an unconfirmed rumor of a possible Batman '66 Meets Archie project, and I remain available if DC wants to hire me to write Batman '66 Meets The Monkees.

Gotham finally did piss me off sufficiently to get me to stop watching; the character of Silver St. Cloud, a key figure from my favorite short run of Batman comics stories, was thoroughly mangled and mishandled in her TV interpretation, so I clicked off in anger. And then I clicked back again. I'm back to enjoying the show each week. Just don't mess with Silver anymore!

And Batman is the central character in DC's new comics event Metal, a series which allows us to view all manner of repulsive, dickish alternate-universe Batmen, while our familiar Batman tries to prevent cataclysmic results. I'm all-in so far.

I concede the fact that I'm never going to write Batman. I'm very happy with the one complete effort published on this blog: The Undersea World Of Mr. Freeze. If that's my one shot, I'm satisfied with it.

Gotham City is safe. My Batman endures.

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