Sunday, 7 September 2014

Why I thought comics were a lost cause in the 1960s

When I was growing up in the 1960s, my pre-teen years were almost entirely consumed by comics. In the first half of that magical decade, while so much around me was changing, all I could see was the DC comics of Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz, along with the Beatles and certain favoured tv shows like My Favorite Martian, The Munsters and Space Patrol.

As an eight year old, this was the sort of thing that held my rapt attention - DC comics and Ray Walston as My Favourite Martian. Life was much simpler then.
In the second half of the Sixties, I'd discover Stan Lee's Marvel Comics, The Monkees and Steed and Mrs Peel in The Avengers. While it was a great time to be growing up, there were also plenty of disadvantages to being a kid. Chief among these was the prevailing attitude that comics were stupid.

Once I got to about ten, I discovered Marvel Comics, the Monkees and, a little later, Emma Peel.
For a lad at a tough South London primary school, it didn't pay to be different in any way. I distinctly remember getting the tar beaten out of me on two separate occasions, for reasons that now escape me, by the two toughest kids in the school. It probably had something to do with the fact that I did quite well in class, read comics and didn't play football at playtime. In their eyes that must have made me something of an oddball - and I shared my ostracised status with Joseph "Fleabag" Newey, a kid from an obviously impoverished family, who turned up to school in worn and dirty clothes and was mocked mercilessly for it.

At home, it wasn't much better. I didn't get walloped by my mum unless I had done something pretty bad. But she, too, had a real problem with me reading comics. Any time I managed to amass a small "collection" she'd decide I was spending too much time reading them and unceremoniously dump them in the rubbish chute at the end of the balcony of our block of flats. It didn't matter that these comics might Beezer or Topper, Batman or Green Lantern, or even a clutch of Alan Class or Miller black and white reprints ... into the rubbish they'd go with alarming regularity.

A small selection of some of the comics that ended up in a landfill because my mum didn't approve of me "wasting my time with that rubbish" - as a counterpoint, this was where I started my life-long love-affair with reading and, as a result, regularly came top of my class in spelling and other applied English tests.
My mum's gone now, and I never did get the chance to ask her why she had such a problem with my comics. It may have been something to do with the great "horror comics" witchhunt of the 1950s, which reached even the shores of Britain, driven by the nonsensical ravings of Dr Frederic Wertham. I recall that in the 1960s, folks who didn't know anything about the medium would regularly refer to even the superhero books of Marvel and DC as "horror comics".

All of this contributed to the general feeling that comics were only for dumb people at best, or some kind of pernicious influence on society at worst. Then 20th Century-Fox and DC Comics joined forces to make things far, far worse ...

"HOLY DUMBED-DOWN CRAP, BATMAN!"

As 1965 rolled over into 1966, I was feeling a bit better about the comics I was reading. I genuinely felt, even then, that Marvel Comics were making a real effort to improve the quality of writing in their books. I had been very well aware that DC Comics had aimed their material firmly at the 8-10 year old market. But it definitely seemed like Marvel were for older kids. And of course if ever I detected a sneer while I was looking at a Marvel book, I'd very often try to make some kind of defence by telling the sneerer that the stories in Marvel comics were really cool and loads of college kids read them. I would have been reading the story arc that ran from FF41 to FF43 ... where Ben Grimm is transformed back into The Thing to help defeat Doctor Doom at the end of FF40 and spends the next three issues getting all bitter and twisted, then joining The Frightful Four. Great drama, great storytelling, even now. But of course, you couldn't tell that to a non comics-reader in 1966.

So you can imagine my excitement when I heard that there was going to be a Batman tv series. On television. Right here in the UK. This, at last, was the chance to show the sneerers just how wrong they'd been.

As the days counted down to the show's debut, the anticipation mounted ... and when the great day came, I settled down in front of the tv - black and white in those days - and watched mesmerised as the opening teaser unfolded showing us the Gotham City World's fair and a trick exploding cake containing a riddle - "Why is an orange like a bell?" Then there's a scene at Police HQ with Commissioner Gordon and his staff daunted by the prospect of taking on ... The Riddler. So far, so good.

But it's when Gordon decides to summon Batman that things start to unravel. We switch to Wayne Manor allowing Bruce to explain to a charity committee how his parents were murdered by "dastardly villains" (uh-oh), then he's summoned to the Bat-Phone by Alfred. On the way he picks up Dick Grayson, who's clutching a toy plane, though he looks about 25. When Bruce suggests a "spot of fishing" Dick exclaims theatrically "Holy Barracuda!", then recovers and delivers his next line, "Sure, Bruce. Why not? Sounds swell." Again, uh-oh. Bruce is brought up to speed via the Bat-Phone by Gordon and the pair dash to the Bat-Poles via which they descend to the Batcave - and the opening credits rolled, a crudely animated Batman and Robin, kind of in the style of the older Dick Sprang artwork.

I wasn't keen on the animated titles when I first saw them. I'd been used to first Dick Sprang's then later Carmine Infantino's smooth drafting and the figures of Batman and Robin here seemed very sloppy by comparison.
Arriving at the foot of the poles in their Bat-Suits, they jump into the Batmobile (admittedly a very cool design) - "Batteries to Power. Turbines to speed," says Robin - and Batman drives the Batmobile towards Gotham City at breakneck speed. As the next scenes with Commissioner Gordon and Batman played out, the alarm bells were going off like crazy. As a serious comic fan of almost twelve, I could see straight away that the show wasn't taking Batman seriously. In fact, the actors were snickering at the character while over-acting every line they delivered.

Why was Batman so scrawny? Why was his bat-emblem so far down his torso? Why did Robin look 25? Why did the entire cast behave so foolishly? Could Commissioner Gordon really have been that stupid?
The one thing I really did like was the casting of Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. I had been familiar with Gorshin, because he had appeared on UK variety show Sunday Night at the London Palladium as a stand up comedian and impressionist and had stolen the show. His Riddler was slightly based on the giggling psychopath Tommy Udo character Richard Widmark (whom Gorshin slightly resembles, I think) had played in Kiss of Death (1947). So effective was Gorshin's portrayal that he was actually nominated for a Supporting Actor Emmy in 1967, though Don Knotts actually won.

But other than The Riddler, where Gorshin's over-the-top performance actually worked, everyone else seemed to be acting a bit ... well, odd. The other supporting players were all pretty deadpan in the ridiculous situations (though Irish viewers might have had a legitimate complaint against Chief O'Hara), Adam West's Batman seemed a bit dim and Burt Ward's Robin acted like he had Tourette's.

The remainder of the first Batman adventure concerned the Riddler's attempts to do ... something, it's not entirely clear what, to Batman. First there's a lawsuit for wrongful arrest which is kind of forgotten amidst the sound and the fury. Then Riddler kidnaps Robin - either to substitute his disguised henchwoman Molly (Jill St John) or to lure Batman into a trap. When the Riddler's plan is finally revealed - to steal a priceless jewel-encrusted mammoth form the Moldavian pavillion at the Gotham World's Fair - all that remains is for the big brawl with comic-book sound effects superimposed and the 45-minute tale is pretty much done.

It wasn't just that there were sound effects superimposed on the screen, they were stupid sound effects.
It was the whole sound effects thing that eventually turned me against the show. It wasn't funny, it was just idiotic. Yet strangely, as annoying as I found the series, I was somehow compelled to watch it. Like it was some kind of terrible car-crash, I'd stare at the screen in horror, week after week, while Batman camped his way through ridiculous stories, battling eccentric villains played by even more eccentric actors.

What on earth possessed the tv people to create this travesty of show, I had no idea. At least not back then. But as I dug around researching the origins of the series for this blog entry, it all started to make a kind of sense.

SECRET ORIGINS OF A TV SERIES

I had been used to the earlier silly Batman tales that I'd read in the Batman Annuals. They had seemed a bit daft at the time, even to me, with Batman battling aliens and imps from other dimensions and becoming Scottish-Batman and Zebra-Batman ...

The Silver Age Batman Annuals were a good source of earlier stories, and though I didn't go out of my way, they were usually a diverting read when I couldn't get comics I liked better, like Flash and Green Lantern.
But when Julius Schwartz and Carmine Infantino modernised the character in 1964, it all seemed much cooler and more engaging. At least DC were treating the character more respectfully ... and instead of weird transformations and time travel, Batman was much more down to earth, battling gangsters, escaping death-traps and taking on the occasional costumed villain.

Schwartz's version of Batman returned to the character's detective roots, pitting him against more realistic threats and situations.
The tv show seemed to take aspects of both Batman versions and mesh them together to come up with a wrong-headed hybrid. The tone and outlandish situations appeared to come from the old-style, Jack Schiff edited stories while the surface look came from the later, sleek Julius Schwartz makeover version. Then, tacked on at the end of the first episode of the week, the strangely out-of-place serial style cliffhanger ending ... there was an explanation for all of this, which I'll come back to later.

In the early 1960s, CBS and Ed Graham Productions had struck a deal with DC Comics to produce an adaptation of Batman for television. Actor Mike Henry - who would later play Tarzan in three movies in the late Sixties - was to be the lead and the show would have been a straightforward adventure series in the same style as the old syndicated Adventures of Superman.

Former American footballer Mike Henry would have made a more rugged Batman than Adam West.
Around the same time, the Playboy club in Chicago was screening the old 1940s Batman serials on Saturday nights and the event was becoming very popular. ABC producer Yale Udoff was at one of these parties and, realising how much fun the audience was having, thought it might be a good idea to create a Batman series for television. So he approached ABC executives Harve Bennett and Edgar Sherick with the concept of putting together a Batman show in the same hip and fun style as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. As fortune would have it, negotiations between Ed Graham and DC Comics had stalled, so ABC was able to swoop in and pick up the rights.

They sub-contracted production to 20th Century-Fox who in turn hired William Dozier to produce the show. Dozier had never read the comics and would have been too old during the 1940s to be a comic reader anyway, so it's hard to think of a less-qualified person to put in charge of a comic book adaptation, something Dozier readily admitted. "When they first proposed the series to me, I reacted with complete horror," recalled Dozier. "They somehow had the instinctive feeling at the network that a series based on a comic book character might somehow be a success. I could understand why they wanted to do a program for children, but I couldn’t see anything in it to interest me."

After reading some of the comics, Dozier was at a loss to know what to do with the character until he hit on the idea of doing the show as a spoof. "Suddenly," he recalled, "I hit upon this tongue-in-cheek idea — the so-called 'camp' approach. This seems obvious now, and when I began to see the show in these terms, it began to amuse me. In fact, it began to interest me so much that I found I could enjoy it. Then I felt that older adults could enjoy it, and I found it easy to work on. This was the concept from the beginning and we never shot a foot of film with any other style."

The idea of doing the stories as two-parters with a cliff-hanger at the end of the first episode would very likely have come from Udoff, who'd seen those old Batman serials at the Playboy club. The melodramatic voice-over narration was provided by William Dozier himself, which just gave me something else to hate.

Two screen tests were filmed - one with Adam West and Burt Ward and another with Lyle Wagner (later Wonder Woman's love interest Steve Trevor in the Linda Carter tv show) and Peter Deyell.

At this stage, the producers were clearly following Batman's old look, before Schwartz and Infantino got to work, which might partly explain the dopey storylines and camp approach.
The producers went with West and Ward and the series was off and running sooner than expected as it was slotted in during January 1966 as a replacement for the cancelled show, Shindig and for The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which ABC moved to a different time slot on Saturdays.

BUT NOW ... BACK TO REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAMMING

The next "Special Guest Villain" after the Riddler was The Penguin, in a benchmark eccentric performance from veteran Hollywood character actor Burgess Meredith. The plot had the Penguin unable to think of a new caper and showed his attempts to trick Batman into unwittingly planning the crime for him. Though credited to Lorenzo Semple Jr, the teleplay was actually an uncredited adaptation of Ed Herron's Penguin story from Batman 169 (Feb 1965).

The comic book story "Partners in Plunder" wasn't long enough to fill the full running time of the two-part tv show format, so Semple had to add a sub-plot with glamorous movie star Dawn Robbins (Leslie Parrish).
The next transmitted adventure featured 1940s heart-throb Cesar Romero as The Joker. This story was also adapted from an original Batman comic story. "The Joker's Utlity Belt" had appeared in Batman 73 (Oct-Nov 1952). It's unlikely the show's producers would have had access to this story, but it was reprinted in 80-Page Giant Batman 176 (Dec 65), so the timing makes it highly likely that this is where scriptwriter Robert Dozier would have seen it.

The two source comics for the "Joker is Wild" adventure and, from the show, The Joker (Cesar Romero) shows off his own Utility Belt to his slightly dim-witted assistant Queenie (Nancy Kovack).
The earliest credit I could find for Romero was The Shadows Laughs (1933), but before you get all excited, it had nothing to do with Walter Gibson's pulp hero of slouch hat and swirling cape fame. In fact Romero appeared in a wide range of comedies, musicals dramas and mysteries during the 1930s and 1940s, proving himself to be a versatile and dependable supporting contract player whilst at 20th Century-Fox. "I was never stereotyped as just a Latin lover in any case because I played so many parts in so many pictures," said Romero once. "I was more of a character actor than a straight leading man. I did many kinds of characters - Hindus, Indians, Italians. There were very few pictures where I ended up with the girl."

We couldn't see it at the time, but when the show was repeated in HD recently on ITV4, it was pretty obvious that all was not quite right with The Joker's clown makeup.
Romero was a bit non-plussed at first to be cast as the iconic Batman villain. "Why producer William Dozier wanted me for Batman, I'll never know," said Romero. "I asked his wife, Ann Rutherford, 'Why did Bill think of me for this part?' She said, 'I don't know, Butch. He said he saw you in something, and told me, he's the one I want to play the Joker.' I haven't the slightest idea what it was he saw me in, because I had never done anything like it before."

But in the end Romero was glad he did it. "I had enormous fun playing the Joker on Batman. I ended up doing something like 20 episodes of the show. There was certainly nothing hard about that assignment! Even the makeup sessions weren't too bad. It took about an hour-and-a-half to put the full makeup on, including the green wig. I didn't mind it at all."

Yet, Romero famously refused to shave his moustache and the crew had to plaster white greasepaint over it to hide it best they could. Back in the low-resolution days of 1966 and black and white television, I honestly didn't notice. It was only later when the shows were aired in colour did it become obvious that the Joker had face fungus under the clown makeup.

There followed a largely unmemorable run of villains for the next several adventures, though the big-name Hollywood stars queued up to take on the Guest Villain roles: Mr Freeze (George Sanders, with a really strange German accent), Zelda the Great (Ann Baxter), the return of the Riddler, The Mad Hatter (David Wayne), the return of The Joker, False Face (Malachi Throne) ... then something really interesting happened.

Selina Kyle had first appeared in Batman 1 (Spring 1940) as The Cat. She also turned up in issues 2 and 3, but still as a tricky female cat burglar. The classic costume first appeared in Batman 35, but didn't show up on the cover until Batman 62 (Dec 1951). She made a few more appearances in the 1950s, then disappeared from the comic until the Batman tv show resuscitated her and she turned up in Lois Lane 70 (Nov 1966), of all places.
The producers cast actress and dancer Julie Newmar as the long-defuct Batman foe Catwoman. The character hadn't appeared in the comics for decades, but clearly someone thought it would be a good idea for Batman to face a glamourous villainess.

Newmar told the story of how she got the part: "I had lived in New York at the time on Beekman Place. I remember it was a weekend, Friday or Saturday, and my brother had come down from Harvard with five or six of his friends, and we were all sitting around the sofa, just chatting away, when the phone rang. I got up and answered it, and it was this agent or someone in Hollywood, who said, 'Miss Newmar, would you like to play Catwoman on the Batman series? They are casting it out here.' I was insulted because he said, 'It starts Monday.' I said, 'What is this?' That's how television is done: they never know what they are doing until yesterday. Well, my brother leaped off the sofa. I mean he physically levitated and said, 'Batman! That's the favorite show at Harvard. We all quit our classes and quit our studies and run into the TV room and watch this show.' I said, 'They want me to play Catwoman.' He said, 'Do it!' So, I said, 'Okay, I'll do it'."

At 5'11", the striking figure of Julie Newmar was already known to American audiences after she had played the robot Rhoda in the 1964 show My Living Doll and had also appeared in guest spots on top-rated tv series like Route 66, Twilight Zone, Beverly Hillbillies and most appropriately as Stupifyin' Jones in the movie version of Li'l Abner (1959).

The astonishing Julie Newmar as Stupifyin' Jones in Li'l Abner (1959), then as Rhoda the robot in 1964's My Living Doll, and finally, her first screen seconds as Batman's arch-nemesis and love interest, Catwoman.
Not surprisingly, Julie Newmar's Catwoman collided with my 11 year old sensibilities like a runaway truck. Now I had a compelling reason to continue watching this ridiculous show. If anything, this bothered my mum more than my comics reading. For a lad of twelve to be mesmerised by a 33 year old woman, in a skintight leotard who wielded a cat-o-nine-tails with lascivious glee was probably some kind of indicator of unhealthy tendancies. But it seemed fine to me.

Here's some completely gratuitous portraits of Julie Newmar as Batman's purr-fect nemesis, Catwoman. Maybe you can figure out what endeared her to the predominately pre-teen male audience of the tv series, I certainly can't.
Catwoman turned out to be one of the most popular foes during the Batman run, appearing in six separate adventures, played by Newmar in five of those stories. She was unavailable for the feature film shot between seasons one and two, where Lee Meriwether stepped into the clingy black leotard, and - inexplicably - Catwoman was played by Eartha Kitt for her third season appearances, while Newmar was filming McKenna's Gold (1967).

Lee Meriwether made a credible Catwoman in the theatrically released feature film, but Eartha Kitt (despite the eminently suitable surname) made Catwoman just a bit too - I don't know - "mumsy" ...
Only The Joker (22 episodes) and The Penguin (21 episodes) got more screentime than Catwoman (18 episodes). Runners up were: The Riddler (12 episodes), King Tut (Victor Buono, 10 episodes), Egghead (Vincent Price, 7 episodes), Mr Freeze (various actors, 7 episodes) and Marsha Queen of Diamonds (The Addams' Family's Carolyn Jones, 5 episodes ).

The B-Team - Mr Freeze (George Sanders, based on the character Mr Zero from Batman 145), Zelda the Great (Anne Baxter), The Mad Hatter (David Wayne, from Batman 48), False Face (Malachi Throne, from Batman 113), King Tut (Victor Buono) and Bookworm (Roddy McDowell).
The rest of Season One was played fairly safe, with A-list Batman villains Penguin, Joker and Riddler on baddie-duties. Only King Tut and Roddy McDowell's Bookworm offered weak foes as first series drew to a close. 

Many Hollywood stars lined up to make cameo appearances in the show, including:
  • Jerry Lewis (The Bookworm Turns)
  • Sammy Davis Jr (The Clock King's Crazy Crimes)
  • Ted Cassidy as Addam's Family's Lurch (The Penguin's Nest)
  • Andy Devine (The Duo is Slumming)
  • Phyllis Diller (The Minstrel's Shakedown)
  • George Raft (The Black Widow Strikes Again)
  • Edward G. Robinson (Batman's Satisfaction)
And in minor roles there were plenty of faces familiar to followers of US tv shows.
  • Linda Harrison, a cheerleader in The Joker Goes to School (and more famously, Nova in Planet of the Apes)
  • Sherry Jackson, the Riddler's moll in Death in Slow Motion (and Andrea in the Star Trek episode What Are Little Girls Made Of?)
  • Deanna Lund, the Riddler's Moll in Batman's Anniversary (and a featured role in Land of the Giants)
  • Lee Meriwether, King Tut's kidnap victim in King Tut's Coup (plus a featured role in The Time Tunnel and of course, Catwoman in the Batman feature film)
  • Angelique Pettyjohn a model in A Piece of the Action (and more famously, Shahna in the Star Trek episode Gamesters of Triskelion)
  • Jill St John, the Riddler's moll in Hi Diddle Riddle (and roles in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Burke's Law, as well as Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever, 1971)
  • Grace Lee Whitney, King Tut's moll in King Tut's Coup (and of course, Yeoman Rand in Star Trek)
Fanboy heaven - Lee Meriwether and Grace Lee Whitney, all tied up with a big satin bow, in the King Tut episode Batman's Waterloo, from the second season.
Each week, the two episodes would follow exactly the same formula. First there is a daring crime, or sometimes the threat of a crime. Then a bit of business at stately Wayne Manor to introduce Bruce and Dick to new viewers. Next, Commissioner Gordon calls on the Bat-Phone to request Batman's help. After a conference at Police HQ Batman makes an inspired deduction and sets off to pursue this week's Guest Villain. Meanwhile, the Villain is planning their next heist. Batman and the villain clash at the scene of the next major crime. There is a bat-fight, ending with Batman, Robin or both in an inescapable, cliff-hanging deathtrap.

Holy Bat-cliche - Chief O'Hara (Stafford Repp) and Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) always featured in the mandatory conference at Police Headquarters. And Batman and Robin usually entered premises by climbing up the outside wall on batropes, often encountering a Hollywood A-lister (in this case Jerry Lewis) on the way.
The next episode opening with an unlikely, deus ex machina-style escape. Batman hunts the villain to their secret lair, often gaining access by climbing up the outside of the building on bat-ropes. Then, there's another bat-fight, ending with the crooks in batcuffs.

To me the enormous success of the first season of Batman was completely inexplicable. How could anything so stupid be watched by adults and - even worse - children? Surely kids should have known when they were being patronised, shouldn't they? Everything about it was wrong. The cardinal sin was that it mocked the source material. That would never happen today. Well, almost never. DC Comics certainly allowed Joel Schumacher to channel the idiocy of the 1966 tv show for his two execrable Batman movie entries, Batman Forever (1995) - we should have been warned by the especially dumb title - and Batman and Robin (1997). But then, DC don't exactly have a sterling track record when it comes to movie versions of their properties.

Still, I must have been in the minority, because the repetitive style of the the show kept audiences engaged for the first series ... so much so that ITV screened the second series immediately afterwards, beginning in September 1966.

Second season villainy - The Archer (Art Carney), The Minstrel (Van Johnson), Ma Parker (Shelley Winters) and The Clock King (Walter Slezak).
The second season trotted out the same A-list Batman villains, but kicked off with the distinctly under-whelming Archer (Art Carney). Of course, I wouldn't have been aware of this at the time (as there was no break between the two series on ITV) but it seems, in retrospect, that Season Two fell into a very familiar trap - it exaggerated the qualities the producers felt had made the first series a success. So performances were a little broader, the guest villains were played by slightly bigger stars and clich├ęs of the first series were on display more frequently.

More second season villainy - Egghead (Vincent Price), Chandell (Liberace), Mr Freeze (Otto Preminger, this time) and Siren (Joan Collins).
But what the producers hadn't realised was, by now, audiences had become familiar with the formula and as a result, the show became predictable. Inevitably, ratings began to slip as viewers realised that Batman was essentially just a novelty show that had little value beyond its novelty.

As ratings had tumbled during the second season, producer Dozier decided to spice things up by adding a sexy new companion for Batman - Batgirl, played by dancer Yvonne Craig. Initially Robin was to be dumped, but DC Comics insisted that he stay, so Dozier instead axed Madge Blake, whose health was failing anyway.
We didn't get the third series of Batman - where Aunt Harriet was replaced with Yvonne Craig's Batgirl - in the UK until much later. Around 1974, I believe. By which time I had long left such things behind me. I don't have a 12 year old's perspective on that version, only having seen it recently via repeats on satellite tv.


The other big change Dozier made was changing the show from two half-hour episodes a week to a single half-hour episode. Lost in the translation were the cliff-hanger endings and in came super-villain team-ups. None of this made much difference to the viewing figures and, with ABC concerned about falling ratings and the high cost of production, the show was ignominiously cancelled after the 26 episodes of the third season had aired.


Here's some gorgeous 50mm slides I found: Adam West, Yvonne Craig on set with director Sam Strangis; I can't identify the actress with West here, but I'll figure it out eventually; and a great shot of West and Ward as Wayne and Grayson.
Yet, in an ironic plot-twist worthy of one of Lorenzo Semple's scripts, just a few weeks after production was shut down, NBC approached Dozier to see if they could pick up the property for a fourth season - on condition that the sets were still available. But it was too late. Fox had already demolished the batcave, so that was the end of that.

BATMANIA IN THE SIXTIES

The most visible consequence of the show's initial popularity was that suddenly the shops and the airwaves were crammed with anything and everything you could put "Bat" in front of. Every television chat show was competing to get Bat-guests to improve their ratings. Toy manufacturers big and small scrambled to license and produce as much Bat-paraphernalia as they could and whether you liked the show or not, you were suddenly up to your ears in Bat-guano.

The actors were very popular guests on chat shows. Here Yvonne Craig turns up on The Merv Griffith Show in 1967 in her Batgirl costume. Merv looks a little non-plussed here, doesn't he?
The biggest spin-off was Batman the Movie (1966). Originally, Dozier had planned to produce a feature-length tv pilot over the winter of 1965/66 to showcase the trappings of the show, but because ABC needed to spice up their ratings in January 1966, the series had been rushed into production and the pilot was temporarily abandoned. But in the hiatus between seasons one and two, Dozier shot the feature film and released it in theatres for the summer holidays to keep the property in the public eye until the second season kicked off in September 1966.

The Batman movie was just a longer version of the tv show with a budget of a million-plus dollars, so they could afford more villains, along with a Bat-boat and a Bat-copter. It was still rubbish, though.
The film gathered together the four most popular bat-villains and teamed them up against the Caped Crusader in what was no more than an extended tv episode. The plot, such as it was, had The Penguin (Burgess Meredith) coming up with a plan to reduce members of the United Nations Security Council to dust which would somehow give him and his three partners in crime, world dominion. Uncharacteristically, The Joker seemed happy to be The Penguin's bitch and Frank Gorshin's Riddler was having too much fun cackling to care. Not really sure how that would work. Julie Newmar was unavailable, so Lee Meriwether was drafted in to fill Catwoman's black leotard. At the time, us kids were marginally more interested in Batman in colour than we were when he was on tv in black and white. Colour broadcasting didn't begin in the UK until 1967, and then by the BBC - Batman was shown on the commercial channel, ITV, so seeing the colourful Batman characters actually in colour was quite the novelty.

Life magazine was given access to the Batman set and featured Adam West on the cover. Inside was a series of pictures shot especially for the magazine, including this double page posed spread. I also found the original image the cover shot was taken from.
The media also went bat-crazy and it seemed as though every magazine was cover-featuring Batman - Life had a multi-page article and with exclusive on-set pictures, MAD featured the show on more than one cover, as did TV Guide, Pageant, Screen Stories, Teen Life and many more.

The Bat-Laffs card series featured photos from the Batman feature film. The Catwoman cards were very highly collectible.
Then, of course there were the toys and other merchandising. First and most visible in my 12 year old life was the gum card sets. During the 1960s, there were gum cards for every conceivable taste, some of which I've covered in earlier entries in this blog. When the tv show started in 1966, there were three different sets of cards. These were distinguished by different coloured Bat-symbols on the front of the cards - red, blue and black. Artwork was, for the most part, by Norman Saunders, who had provided memorable art for Mars Attacks, Civil War News and Battle.

Before the Batman movie came out, there were three sets of painted Batman cards for us to collect. Here's examples of the Red Bat and the Black Bat sets - I don't have any of the Blue Bat set - all art by Norman Saunders.
There were also Batman and Robin plastic figures, sold through Woolworths, which cost around 1/6 (7.5p in decimal currency). I think the Robin figure was slightly cheaper. I recall Batman's head-and-cape was detachable, making a kind of ghoulish Bat-symbol. Both figures stood on Bat-symbol bases and were about 4" high.

These Batman and Robin figures were cheaply made, probably cast from existing moulds adapted for the purpose. I found this pic on Nigel Brown's blog, Superstuff in the Bronze Age - well worth a visit.
Then of course there was the Corgi Batmobile. This was the toy of envy during 1966 and 1967. The kids from slightly better-off homes got theirs first, as it wasn't a cheap toy, about 12/6 (62.5p). I did eventually get one, despite my mum's disapproval of all things comic and superhero.

Corgi 267: My second favourite toy growing up - I still loved my James Bond Aston Martin more. But this vehicle is a true 1960s icon, designed by George Barris and based on a Lincoln concept car, the Futura.
Much more recently, I was able to find a 1967 original on eBay with a repro box since, even though I'm not a great fan of the show, I've always thought the Batmobile was a design classic.

Then there was the road safety ad for British television. It was May 1967, and while Adam West was visiting the UK to promote the tv show, he was contacted by the British government's Central Office of Information to appear in a road safety ad, highlighting the dangers of crossing the road without looking to UK children.


Most sources say this photo was snapped in Kensington, but I happen to know the Crawley family lived in Kennington, a completely different part of London. But we all agree it was 1967.
Now here's the weird part. My old friend Tony Crawley, with whom I'd worked on House of Hammer magazine (1978) and on Starburst mag (1979-1985) was looking at this very blog entry and chipped in some information. "A neighbour of mine in Kennington worked for the COI, Central Office of Information. And got an agreement with West, who was coming to London, to shoot a Road Safety commercial for kids. He asked me to write it. Which I did (I don't have the script anymore, or a copy of the film)  They shot it a street away from where we lived, and I naturally took my young son to the shoot." Obviously, he was thrilled to meet the Caped Crusader. Today that young man, Nic Crawley, is President of International Marketing and Distribution at Paramount Studios, in Hollywood, where he helped make Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles such box-office champs.


BATMAN - THE FALLOUT

For me, the worst effect of the Batman tv show was how it infected everyone's view of comics for the next thirty years or so. I can't think of a time when tv or print media have reported on a comics-related story where they didn't start with, "Wham! Pow! Crash!" Even if they were reporting on Love and Rockets or The Walking Dead. Certainly everyone who has never read a comic - and this includes most tv and newpaper journalists - seems to be of the opinion that the Batman show was a fair representation of the tone and reading level of all comics. And for that, I can never forgive it.

But almost as bad was that it was a classic example of the Opportunity Missed. Not only was Dozier's contemptuously spoofy approach what killed the show after just three seasons, but if he hadn't made such a hash of it, maybe we wouldn't have had to wait decades before a movie or tv producer had the courage to try treating comic book characters with any degree of respect.

For some reason, other producers thought that - despite all the evidence - Dozier had got it right and we were subjected in quite rapid order to television shows like Mr Terrific (1967) and Captain Nice (1967), abominations both. Admittedly Captain Nice was created by Buck Henry, who had had a big success with the fondly remembered (though not, I have to say, by me) Get Smart (1965). So it was at least a spoof of superheroes that didn't single out a specific one to ridicule. Mr Terrific was more of a sit-com than a spoof about a secret agent who could fly. I remember seeing at least one episode of one of these at the time while on holiday at my grandparents' house in Glasgow - I think it may have been Mr Terrific, but it's hard to remember, now. I'm pretty sure neither turned up on tv south of the border.

Captain Nice was produced by NBC and featured Carter Nash (William Daniels),  a police scientist who discovered a serum that could give him the powers of strength, invulnerability and flight (though he was afraid of heights). That's Ann Prentiss as Sgt Candy the, um, eye candy. Mr Terrific (Stephen Strimpell) took a pill to give him super-strength and the power of flight.
Dozier even imitated himself and produced a single season of The Green Hornet which, if nothing else, at least brought Bruce Lee some degree of attention. Incredibly, for some unknown reason, Dozier approached The Green Hornet much more seriously than he did Batman. I would have loved to know the thinking behind that. I suspect the history of superhoes on the screen might have turned out differently if he'd done Batman seriously and The Green Hornet as a spoof. But I guess we'll never know ...

The undoubted star of The Green Hornet was Bruce Lee, who was just beginning his show-biz career, as the Hornet's, er, sidekick, Kato. Van Williams was okay in the lead role, but was just a tad bland. I liked the Hornet's car, The Black Beauty - not a cool as the Batmobile, but pretty good just the same.
In the cinema too, the insidious effects of Dozier's dozy decision to go down the camp route with Batman was felt. First there was Modesty Blaise. Released in August 1966, it actually pre-dated Batman the Movie, and by the beginning of 1966 was probably too far along in the production process to be influenced much by Dozier's tv show. But if anything, it was even camper than the Batman tv show. And it was probably more roundly detested by fans of the Modesty Blaise newspaper strip. Like Dozier, I think director Joseph Losey, usually known for his high-brow (some might say, pretentious) projects, just felt embarrassed to be involved in a comic strip movie. So by pitching it as a spoof, he was telling his friends and relatives that he knew it was dumb and was only in it for the paycheque.

Monica Viti certainly looked the part in the title role of Modesty Blaise, but lacked the steely determination. Terence Stamp though was a bit mis-cast as Willie Garvin.
The 1968 Barbarella movie, however, was at least based on a comic strip that started out as a (science fiction) spoof. Not a superhero piece, the project was directed by Roger Vadim from a well-known French comic strip by Jean-Claude Forest, originally published in V-Magazine in 1962. The strip was also published in English in Evergreen Review, 1965-66. The movie version remained fairly close to the source material, though there was still an element of the director somehow feeling he was better than the material. Contemporary critics agreed and the movie was a critical and financial failure. However, the striking imagery has ensured its cult status during the intervening years. And Jane Fonda in those costumes? What's not to like?

Actress and later political campaigner for women's rights, Jane Fonda made a decorative Barbarella. And the set design was especially striking. But you have to wonder if this wasn't more about pleasing then-paramour Roger Vadim than furthering her own agenda.
Danger: Diabolik (1968), on the other hand, I thought was splendid. This one was directed by the mighty Mario Bava and was based on the phenomenally popular Italian comic book about the exploits of a super-thief called Diabolik. As in France, comic strips in Italy are read by a large adult audience, and Diabolik was firmly aimed at that demographic. Smart and sexy, the comic stories made Diabolik a very sympathetic crook, often pitting him again really nasty criminals in a kind of Robin Hood crusade against true evil. As with Barbarella, the Diabolik movie had terrific production design. John Phillip Law was also the Angel in the Roger Vadim film and Marissa Mel made a fetching Eva Kant. Bava's direction might seem a bit over-the-top (all of Bava's direction was over-the-top) - but it didn't mock the source comic strip.

Marissa Mel's costumes for the film were quite a bit skimpier than her comic-book counterpart, but I guess that was simply a sign of the times. Diabolik's secret underground lair was completely brilliant and one day I'll have one just like it.
What all three of these films did have in common, though, was that they were trying to ride the crest of the Batman tv show, even though it had already been demonstrated that the public was pretty tired of spoof superhero tv shows and movies. But Hollywood still didn't get it.

We wouldn't see a costumed hero on screen being treated seriously until 1978, when Richard Donner directed Superman the Movie. Yet despite Donner's best efforts to depict Superman with respect, the producers fought his approach and when he refused to camp it up for the sequel, they fired Donner and replaced him with spoof-meister Richard Lester. 


Richard Donner's take on Superman was respectful to the point of reverence. Despite the massive box office success, the producers remained embarrassed by the subject matter and did everything they could to ensure the sequels went down the well-trodden spoof route.
To the rage of the Salkinds, some shred of dignity remained in Superman II (1980), so to be doubly sure of trampling the franchise into the dirt, they got Lester to make a second sequel, Superman III (1983) and trowelled on the comedy so we ended up with a farce instead of an adventure. Yes, William Dozier has a lot to answer for ... 

And the irony of it is that if movies like Marvel's Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy hadn't done so well at the box office, then we probably would never have seen the day when Fox, DC Comics and the various stakeholders in the Batman tv show finally resolved their differences and agreed to release all three seasons on Blu-Ray. It's not something that I would want to spend over £100 on, but there will probably turn out to be a market for it.

As for me, I'm looking forward to getting back to talking about comics material from my childhood that I actually liked ... so join me soon for more Marvel Comics in the Silver Age.

Next: Back to the Bullpen

14 comments:

  1. I.read somewhere, Al, that The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s later campy tone was influenced by the success of Batman, but if I read you right, you suggest it was the other way around. Any idea which was correct? Also, My Favourite Martian was never shown in Scotland as far as I can tell - I've never spoken to anyone here who's seen it.

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  2. I think the truth is that they kind of fed off each other. ABC's original plan for Batman was to do a light-hearted adventure show. When Dozier got involved, he thought it was too stupid to bother with until he hit on the idea of a spoof. The success of Season One of Batman steered the UNCLE producer's towards spoof as well, but I don't think anyone realised how quickly the audience would tire of that approach.

    My Favorite Martian (sic) was a great show (within the parameters of early 1960s sit-coms). Essentially, Ray Walston's character was Superman with Bill Bixby cast as Lois Lane ... it directly influenced shows like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, but was much, much better. I think it can be picked up quite cheaply on DVD, these days.

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    1. I know it was inspired by Jerry Lewis's 'Visit to a Small Planet' (which I have seen, many years ago) and I read the strip in TV21 every week (great Bill Titcombe art). I'll keep an eye out for it on DVD. Strangely, the first TV21 Annual featured 'Martian' on the cover quite prominently and (to me) is an iconic image from the '60s, yet I've never seen an episode.

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    2. H'mm, in the issue I've just looked at, My favourite Martian doesn't seem to be drawn by Bill Titcombe at all, but I'm almost sure he did draw some episodes. I'll have to check.

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  3. Kid, you are right. I have a book about uncle and the complete series on disc. In both cases they mention that when uncle entered their second year they were being hurt by the competition from Batman.. So they decided to camp it up.

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    1. Barry, I don't think that DVD set has been released in Britain yet - or, at least, I haven't seen it. The one I've got has 5 The Man from U.N.C.L.E. 'movies', which, as we all know, aren't 'real' movies.

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    2. Hey, Gordie … the Man from UNCLE (Region 1) box set of all four seasons can be found on Amazon.co.uk - I paid about £100 for mine. Pricey, but worth it. Wasn't mad about the transfer of season one. Many episodes showed a weird orange fringing to the moving elements in many scenes. (Of course turning the colour down on my tv set helps a bit.) But overall very worthwhile. I've only just made it to the end of season two. I suspect season three is where the Batman-camp influence starts.

      I suppose in retrospect, the UNCLE "movies" do seem like a bit of a swizz - but bear in mind, at the time, we didn't have colour televisions, so the theatrical releases were the only way we could see Solo and Illya in colour. Same applies, I suppose, to the Batman (1966) movie …

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    3. Thanks for that, Al, but I'll probably wait 'til it's released on Region 2. Apparently, some of those U.N.C.L.E. 'movies' did better box office abroad than some of the Bond movies. Hard to believe, eh? Although The Spy With My Face wasn't too bad.

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    4. I think you may be waiting a long time for the region 2 release, Gordie ... the rights are all tied up with the Time-Warner empire and for some reason, they were only able to clear US rights for the DVD release. When it first came out, it was only available through the Time-Warner website, and then they had big red letters saying "we don't ship outside the US". Copies now turn up on both the US and the UK Amazon sites, but only because they've made their way through into the secondary market. I'm sure there's someone who knows more about the situation than me ... and hopefully they're reading this :-) the website DigitalBits.com has pretty good updates on what's coming to the DVD market in both regions 1 and 2 ...

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  4. Some of the points: ABC was successful with the show "Peyton Place which also ran a couple of times a week for 30 minutes rather than an hour. Originally, Batman was going to be an hour but they decided to do it into half hour segments. When the ratings went down they canceled one of the half hours and added Batgirl.

    I respectfully disagree with our friend about My favorite Martian. Yes it probably did influence Bewitched, and I dream of Jeannie. But there are also a couple of movies out including I Married a witch and Bell Book and Candle that more closely aligned itself with Bewitched. Jennie was a clone put out by the same studio as Bewitched.

    There were only three network stations in the United States in the early 60s. And most of all, there was very heavy censorship that came from the FCC. While we say in America we have freedom of speech, speech is always been regulated by the federal government because they have always regulated the distribution of media. You could not talk about any real issues on television. You couldn't talk about real relationships, sex, politics it was very difficult. As a result the shows were incredibly bland. They just weren't funny. My favorite Martian frankly was A bland show that offended no one. But even bland shows we get nearly one third of the total TV audience so they had ratings that true in 30 million people. Today the country isthree times the size and the show will be lucky to get 10 million

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    1. Hi, Barry - thanks for your comments and the additional background information, welcome as always. I didn't mean to suggest that MY FAVORITE MARTIAN was a great show in comparison to say, THE WEST WING. My love of MFM is as seen from the viewpoint of an eight-year-old who also loved puppet shows and anything to do with space. And you're right, those early comedy shows weren't funny. I don't remember laughing once during MFM. For me the fascination was that it was about a guy with super-powers. I didn't have much time for BEWITCHED or JEANNIE - maybe that was because they were about *girls* with super-powers, or maybe I was just a bit older by then. I'd probably have a very different view of MFM if I saw it today …

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    2. I think much of the enjoyment we got as kids from these kind of shows came just from the joy of being alive and surrounded by our families, with the feeling that we had forever ahead of us. They don't always stand up well today, but the memories of them and the times they reflect still provide a lot of happiness. I can't remember if I told you this already, Al, but it's possible to get replicas of the U.N.C.L.E. cards which were available from the Radio Times in 1965.

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  5. Greatly enjoyed your article. I think the impact of the Batman TV on impressionable young male minds in 1966 is not be underestimated, and shaped the minds and ambitions of many boys. Re your comment about your Mum's view on comics....I think there was an association of slight seediness about American comics in the 1960s. They were sold through small news agents, and turned up second-hand as a pile of well thumbed comics next to a well-thumbed pile of Mayfair and Club Internationals in many of the book exchanges that we frequented in the early seventies.

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  6. Camp and pop art were the fads in the mid-1960's; I'm not sure if Batman started it, or was following an already-existing trend. The James Bond movies had tongue-in-cheek comedy relief, and it increased as time went on. And the Matt Helm movie series (Dean Martin as a sort of American James Bond) made the Bond films look like Shakespearean tragedy.

    The camp fad influenced several action-adventure TV shows: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost In Space, The Man From UNCLE, The Wild Wild West, and even The Avengers. Most of those shows really went over the top in 1966-67, then tried to tone it down in '67-68, when the camp fad was obviously passing. By then, though, the damage was beyond repair. Or maybe those series had all just run their course anyway.

    And Batman, unlike the sci-fi and spy-fi shows, could not really pull back and rein things in, because its premise was so inherently campy in the first place. If anything, it got even sillier. The biggest difference between Get Smart and the last season of Batman was that the latter did not have a laugh track. Maybe it should have.

    My guess is that Batman would have bombed if it had been played straight. The Green Hornet lasted only one season.

    There were also some campy made-for-TV movies at the time: I Love a Mystery (based on the 1940's radio series), and The Perils of Pauline (a spoof of cliffhanger serials), starring Pamela Austin. Both were probably backdoor pilots for TV series.

    I think comic books have always had an "association of slight seediness" about them. And the bad publicity in the 1950's linking them to juvenile delinquency could not have helped matters.

    Warren (Famous Monsters of Filmland) Publishing Co. brought out a one-shot magazine, called On the Scene Presents the Super Heroes, in 1966. (Kid Robson did several posts about it on his blog). Mainly, it reprinted articles from their Screen Thrills magazine about the old movie serials (Superman, Batman, the Phantom, Flash Gordon). But their was a new article about the Batman feature film. It mentioned that it would be the first chance for many fans to see it in full color, since 90% of American households only had B&W TV sets at the time.

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