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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

May 28, 2006

Hidden Meaning in TV's Batman:
What if Adam West's Batman was insane?

Okay, today's musing isn't really apropos of anything -- I'm not tying it into a new movie or a recent article. Sometimes idle thoughts come to you and, when you're editing a 'zine, any idle thought becomes fodder for an editorial. So...onward!

If you've ever seen the 1960s Batman TV series starring Adam West -- and I'm guessing you've probably at least glanced at reruns at some point over the last 40 years -- if you've seen it, you know how it lends itself to different interpretations.

If you saw it as a kid then, sure, you knew it was sort of funny, but you still didn't necessarily see it as a comedy, per se. If you ask any kid who watched it, he/she would probably describe it as an adventure series...that was kind of funny. I have a feeling P&D founder Jeffrey Blair Latta covered some of this at one point in an earlier editorial: how, to a kid, even Get Smart -- as funny as that was -- still took on an aspect of being a thriller. To adults, it was just a comedy. Period. To kids, well, it could be kind of scary and suspenseful.

So it was with the 1960s Batman TV series. To kids, it was as much action as comedy. But as you get older, it veers more and more into straight comedy -- or camp, as it was described. You weren't really supposed to be on the edge of your seat, wondering if Batman was going to escape the latest villain's death trap when you tuned in tomorrow to the same Bat-time, same Bat-channel. It was just supposed to be a lark. It was too silly to be taken seriously -- so it is taken as camp.

But, you know, there's a third way to take it. If ya wanna.


I was recently reminded of a conversation I had a few years ago with my late brother, Blair (yup, he may be gone, but his wisdom lives on through me -- so tough it out). Neither of us had seen Batman in years, when Space (the Canadian sci-fi channel) started running it again. After seeing a few episodes, as adults, as grown ups, recognizing it was supposed to be campy, one of us -- we'll say Blair -- made the comment that the series became even more intriguing if, instead of seeing it as camp, you went back to taking it seriously, at face value.

And asked: what if Batman was insane?

Think about it: the reason we view it as camp is because it's so preposterous, this guy in a bizarre costume, fighting crime with "Bat"-gadgets. And more so than even the comics themselves, or the recent movies, it just seemed so...garish. The costume was garish; the gadgets were just that much goofier than in the comics. And let's not forget: the Batman in the TV series was, in many respects, a Liberal...more so than his movie or comic book counterparts. He believed in the law, he believed in compassion, he believed in the possibility of matter how recidivist his foes were, he was quick to make speeches about hoping they would learn their lessons. Adam West's version wasn't just a Batman...he was a nice guy Batman.

A cynical adult looks at a guy like that and snorts and says: the series is a camp-joke because for a guy to really act like that he'd have to be, you know, crazy.

But what if he was?

Think about it. What if the 1960s Batman series wasn't a joke...but a kind of pathos-tinged look at a man who went insane?

See, in the comics, particularly in recent years, they've kind of toyed with that idea already. The Batman of the modern comics is a kind of one-note, humourless, vigilante, who was so scarred by his parents murder, he became emotionally arrested and locked into his War on Crime. A lot of readers, myself included, don't really like this current take on Batman, and every few years (like right now, as a matter of fact) the comicbook editors agree and publicly promise to soften him up -- then, whammo!, like Lucy Van Pelt pulling away the football, say, "fooled you, you chump!" and go right on making Batman an unlikeable, one note, anti-hero. But that's not here nor there. The point is, in a sense, the comic book Batman was twisted by the murder of his parents.

So couldn't the Adam West Batman have been twisted as well...but in an opposite direction? In the classic Batman comic, The Dark Knight Returns (not to be confused with the astoundingly awful sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again!) -- a comic which largely cemented the vision of Batman as a dark, hard line vigilante -- there's a line where Batman, thinking of his parent's murders, remarks that the world only makes sense when you force it too.

Maybe that's what the 1960s Batman did. Faced with a cruel, capricious world that murdered his parents for no reason, he retreated into a fantasy where one man could make a difference, where with a good right hook, tempered with a dollop of Liberal compassion, any threat could be overcome. A fantasy world where actually labelling your computer the "Bat-computer", even though no one would see the label but you (and Robin and Alfred) made sense, where spending God knows how much to custom design your car's steering wheel to look like a bat emblem was perfectly logical -- your steering wheel fer God's sakes! And the force of his conviction, his belief in a world where good could triumph over evil, married with his ability to deliver on it (crazy or not, he was obviously highly intelligent and physically formidable) began to have an effect on those around him, as others decided they'd rather live in his world than the one they knew to be true. So you have an aging police commissioner -- perhaps slightly senile to begin with -- swamped by the crime and injustice around him, embracing the hope and optimism of this madman who believed the world made sense, as long as you believed it made sense.

Perhaps he even influenced the villains who began dressing up, acting out the part of comic book villains. Maybe they, likewise, decided they'd rather live in his world -- a kinder, more humane world.

In a way, it's not such a weird concept for a story. In the 1960s movie The King of Hearts, a soldier decides the madness of a town where the asylum inmates have taken over is more sane than the madness of reality. Stories of the misfit whose insanity and/or innocence has an affect on those around him have been done before -- movies like the great They Might Be Giants, starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward. Even TV's Due South flirted with that concept with the idea of a guileless, squeaky clean Canadian Mountie triumphing over crime in the big, cynical city of Chicago. In fact, go back 400 years and the character of Don Quixote even gave us a name for the concept -- Quixotic.

Obviously, I don't for a minute think Lorenzo Semple Jr. and the creators of the Batman TV series intended that reading of the series. No sir, not for a minute. But I think it's funny how we can easily imagine, and embrace, a hero who let a tragedy push him over the edge into the Heart of Darkness...but we can't imagine or embrace the opposite: a guy who was so traumatized by evil that he refused to allow evil in his own heart.

So next time you see reruns of the Batman series, watch it with the eyes of a kid, and see it as a cool action series; watch it with the eyes of an adult, and see it as a funny send up; but maybe you can also see it with the eyes of a dreamer, as a bittersweet story about a man who went insane...and became a hero.

D.K. Latta, editor

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