Wednesday, March 10, 2010

That damn show

“Batman’s rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure this is a lighter incarnation but it’s certainly no less valid and true to the character’s roots than the tortured avenger crying out for mommy and daddy.”
- Bat-Mite
The Brave and the Bold cartoon

* * *

Admit it, if you like superheroes, you fucking loved the Batman TV show as a kid. And then you hated it as a teenager. And then, if you grew up enough, you started to like it again.

* * *

The good bastards at the comic shop near my work put out a whole bunch of comic magazines on sale for $1 each. Issues of magazines I’d never seen before, many from the TwoMorrows publishing outfit – stuff like Alter Ego, Comic Book Artist and Back-Issue.

I had only seen a small handful of these magazines before, and was surprised how much I enjoyed their unashamed wallowing in nostalgia. The sheer amount of reproduced raw art is responsible for most of that enjoyment and a general tone of unabashed enthusiasm is highly contagious. After reading a long, rambling and highly enjoyable conversation between Dave Cockrum and Mike Grell, any reader will be convinced of the genuine worth of that mid-period Legion of Super-Heroes and that funk-tastic design sense.

But the writers often leave their inner fanboy showing a bit, most notably through their enthusiastic gushing over subjects few others care about. There is also the unfortunate tendency to dismiss the Adam West Batman as an unfortunate diversion from the true Batman which has tarnished the public’s perception of the character and pushed back any serious interpretastions of the concept.

The inherent fanboy can be heard in the sneering. It’s obviously an embarresment to all true Batman fans, a campy glitch in the history of the Dark Knight, the annoying uncle you have to acknowledge.

* * *

But it’s not. It’s brilliant. Turns out this annoying uncle actually has a good sense of humour and all sorts of stories to tell. The Batman TV show from the ‘60s is bright and colourful and cheerful and surprisingly ironic. It’s a bit stupid, but smart in ways that really matter. All those old showbiz hamming, chewing down on the gaudy scenery. Those catchphrases, those actors and that music, imprinted on generations. It’s brilliant.

* * *

When I was a little kid, the first television programmes I ever remember watching were Doctor Who and Batman.

That was my tastes rooted for life.

But I was genuinely excited about the Batman show when my brain was forming, and it was 20 years old then. There is something about that absolute deadpan that made it timeless.

Kids love it because it is loud and fun. It’s got a theme tune that is insanely catchy and these bright characters running around and having adventures. Its most obvious humour level is pitched somewhere around the eight year old’s level, so it always gets them laughing with the dumb joke.

I’ve seen kids in the 21st century fall over themselves in excitement when the Batman TV show was on television. They were eating that stuff up and asking for seconds. Their parents didn’t understand.

* * *

And then you get older and a girl catches you reading something meaty like The Killing Joke and laughs at you because she thinks it’s full of Fatman and Slobin and you’re like fuck that shit

* * *

I once had a lovely conversation with a girl who sometimes has to go out and do weather reports for breakfast television. They make her do the stupidest things, any old excuse to drag the waking eyes over to a TV screen.

She said she knows it’s all horribly embarrassing and tacky and cheesy, but if you show an inch of that knowledge, it just doesn’t work. The only way to avoid being embarrassed is to be as embarrassing as possible. Otherwise you just look stilted and awkward, and that’s much, much worse.

That’s how the television Batman works. There was just enough winking to show they were all in the joke, but not enough to be mean about it.

* * *

I watched it again in my early twenties and it was just stupid, so I filed it away as something best forgotten. Comics are serious business for serious young men. There will be no camp here.

And then I watched an episode with those kids I was talking about earlier, and it was bloody fantastic. The whole programme was dripping with deadpan irony and still played well – four decades after it was made.

It looked crisp and clear in a way that 70s television shows never do. It remains timeless and I can handle a Batman that digs the day.

* * *

That’s not everybody’s Batman. Many remain convinced that the tortured avenger of the night is the only valid interpretation of a cultural icon that is deserving of the respect its history deserves. Other people just like a Batman who grimaces and throws bad guys into meat grinders.

Others like a Batman who can be a bit competitive, while always fair. Who isn’t afraid to show others how it’s done and can do it with a laugh.

There have been a lot of thoughtful and genuinely mature stories about Batman that have been absolutely fantastic. There have also been a lot of goofy and funny stories that have been so enjoyable.

They’re all valid interpretations.

* * *

Nananananananana! Nananananananana! Batman! Batman! BATMAN! Nananananananana!

* * *

I still know loads of people who love reading comics, but wouldn’t be caught dead with them in public. While there are more people reading Sandman on the train than ever before, it’s still perceived as a child’s medium in western eyes. If you like it, you must be immature.

Well, so what? What’s wrong with liking a kid’s product if it’s smart and funny enough? It doesn’t do any harm. If people laugh at you because you get a bit over-excited about Batman and Robin, that’s their problem. It shouldn’t taint my enjoyment of it.

It took me fuckin’ years to figure this out.


Adam said...

But you see, when you say "they're all valid interpretations" you don't go mean enough. What you mean is that none of them hold the centre ground therefore anyone who cleaves purely to one of them is a wrong-cock.

I would agree.

Love 60s telly Batman. Love The Dark Knight Returns. Love Brave and the Bold. Love Morri-Bats. I win.

Bob Temuka said...

I agree. Zom wins!

Duncan Falconer said...

Man, if I ever want my every belief about anything reaffirmed (some of which I was unaware I actually held) - I just visit the Tearoom of Despair.


(although I don't like reading comics in public, as I like to avoid the horrible stereotypesmear, some of which might be even a teeny-weeny bit true of even a man like me)

Justin said...

One of the most frequently overlooked things about the show is that it has it has its own warped internal logic. On the one hand, bat-shark repellent is a joke, but he does *need* it, doesn't he? Batman & Robin's "deductions" from the Riddler's clues are totally ludicrous, and yet they're invariably 100% correct.

You could *almost* take it completely seriously (and kids do, I know I did for a bit at least), like a window to a totally wonderful alternate reality that plays by a different set of rules to our own.

David said...

Yes! Up with wrong-cocks! Down with Batman! Wait… did I get that right?

There's this bit in the sixties Batman movie where Bluebeard (a sixty-year-old henchman in a pirate costume) is standing looking through a penguin-themed periscope on the Penguin's penguin shaped submarine, and... Catwoman's standing beside him, meowing and purring like she always does, when it suddenly dawns on Bluebeard that this is all a bit weird. He turns around slowly and he gives her this awkward, comedy "what the fuck" look and... it just absolutely kills me every time, basically.

We're talking tears of laughter when I watch the scene, with more to come whenever I try to explain it anyone – it’s more than a little embarrassing, especially when there’s magnified Bat-junk and shark repellent to laugh at. And especially when, for whatever reason, no one else seems to find old Bluebeard funny! But come on, we've all experienced that moment, right? You work hard at pirate school and end up with a shitty job anyway, just like your parents did. They had high hopes for you, that’s why the paid your way through the academy and named you like they did, but still, no joy – it’s a skivvies life for you! So you get up every day, you wash yourself down with Joker soap, you read the Daily Riddler, you get into the Penguin-copter, you get goosed by Catwoman, you take her to her 10am at the aquarium, and then you go pick up the Penguin's underoos from the dry cleaner. At some point the day ends up being done, so you head home because you don’t know what else to do. You sit down on the couch feeling shit about your life, and you try to wash it all away by downing a bottle of Jokerade. It doesn’t work, of course – it never does! So you end up hunched over the toilet puking blisters again. You wipe the puke off, head back to the couch and switch the TV on. You watch the Riddler present Steal or No Steal, you get bored, you get tired, and what’s worse you can still smell the blisters. So, defeated, you go to bed and struggle your way into a few hours sleep, you wake up, you repeat the whole dammed thing over and over again. Same as it ever was.

Then one day the Joker passes you another exploding cigar and as it blows up in your face you find yourself wondering why you’ve let the days go by like this, and how you could ever have thought this was normal. Worst of all, with your face covered in gunpowder stains you have no idea why all you can do is stare at that grinning weirdo, with his ghost moustache and punk granny haircut. Shouldn’t you do something a little bit bigger, a little bit more definitive? Ah, whatever – here comes Batman! Time to fight him using a comedy oversized cuttlefish and hope that the Riddler sends bail money instead of fortune cookies this time…

David said...

Which is all just my very round about way of saying: great post, great blog!

Andrew Hickey said...


Nik said...

Totally agree, I love 'em all -- Grant Morrison's been fantastic about showing how they're "ALL" Batman. I love to show the Batman movie from the 60s to my boy, he totally digs it. I really wish they'd sort out whatever stupid legal issues are holding up releasing the tv show itself on DVD/video/whatever, I would so buy up sets of that in a New York Bat-minute.

Bob Temuka said...

The other night in the Tearoom of Despair -

BOB: Hey! Hey, honey!


BOB: These guys on the internet say I'm right about everything!

BOB'S WIFE: (After a long, long pause) This is why I never believe the internet about anything.

Atomic Kommie Comics said...

If it's well-done Batman it's valid Batman.
(except maybe the two 1940s serials.) ;-)