Batusi Returns: The Camp Knight Rises by Jerry Whitworth
Last summer, Warner Bros inked a deal with 20th Century Fox to produce merchandise based on the likenesses of the Batman television series from the 1960s. The advent is quite revolutionary considering both companies have gone back and forth over the franchise for decades with this deal being the first time since the show left the air that something new has been made from the material (save for replica miniatures of the show’s vehicles). While as yet there are no plans to see the series make the transition to DVD or Blu-Ray, which is something fans have rallied to see happen for many years, the new deal gives hope of this. However, short of the series released for home video, fans will be happy to see the series adapted for comics starting this summer as a digital first title from the creative team of Jeff Parker and Jonathan Case (with covers by Michael Allred). Lets take a look at the genesis of the Batman television series, its cultural impact, and its legacy.
Yale Udoff, an executive for ABC, was attending a party at the Playboy Club in Chicago where on one evening the Batman serials of the 1940s were playing to much fanfare from the crowd. The experience motivated Udoff to try and bring a prime time television series based on the character produced in the same vein as shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, and The Wild Wild West. ABC would tap 20th Century Fox to produce the series for them who in turn contracted William Dozier and Greenway Productions to bring the show into reality. American screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. wrote the pilot for the show and acted as the head script writer for its first season. What set the show apart from virtually anything else on television, beside the costumes worn by its cast, was the use of “camp” which employs excess ridiculousness to denote humor. Though what made camp work for the show was that the series’ protagonist who would play the part deathly serious (in other words, the “straight man” to the show’s farce). The show’s Batman would be little known actor Adam West partnered with rookie actor Burt Ward as his partner Robin the Boy Wonder. While the dynamic duo added dimension to the series as its straight men, it was the veteran ensemble cast that really stole the show with actors such as the Latin lover Cesar Romero as the Joker, impersonator and stage comic Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, sultry dancer, singer, and actress (and later Playboy playmate) Julie Newmar as Catwoman, and serious thespian of stage and screen Burgess Meredith as the Penguin. Fairly true to the plots of the root comics the series was based upon, the show proved to be a hit of epic proportions (more accurately, a cultural phenomenon called Batmania).
The United States began dancing the Batusi in clubs across the country, Batman’s visage was plastered on virtually any conceivable product children would buy, and the Caped Crusader appeared on the cover of virtually any comic book DC Comics could logically portray him upon (such as The Brave and the Bold, World’s Finest Comics, and Justice League of America). The Riddler, who only appeared in one issue of the Batman comic previously, became one of Batman’s most prolific rogues following his fame found on television. Likewise, the one-shot cold-themed villain Mr. Zero was reborn as Mr. Freeze in the Batman television show to become another top ten enemy of the Dark Knight. The Mad Hatter used for the Batman show only made two appearances in the comics before making his two two-part episodes across the show’s first two seasons. Even longtime Bat-villain Two-Face was considered for the show as a news anchor who had half his face disfigured by exploding equipment until the concept was believed too gruesome for the show (reportedly, cowboy actor Clint Eastwood was considered for the part). Not all villains used for the show had renewed fame. False Face had a single sole appearance in the comics but his appearance in the show didn’t bring him any recognition. The Great Carnado was adapted to be Zelda the Great and Brainy Barrows as Egghead (famously played by Vincent Price) but the basis characters never received renewed pushes. Though, original character King Tut (famously portrayed by comedian Victor Buono) became a hit with fans making ten appearances on the show. Some other reoccurring villains created for the series included Louie the Lilac (played by comedian Milton Berle), Siren (portrayed by actress Joan Collins), and Marsha, Queen of Diamonds (played by actress Carolyn Jones, famous for her role of Morticia Addams in The Addams Family).
A film based on the television series would be produced intended as a pilot for international markets whose greater budget provided new vehicles for the show’s production in the Batboat and Batcopter. The musical score composed by Nelson Riddle for the television series would be used for the film El Dorado starring John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. Batman was heavily referenced in the television series The Monkees, so far as Julie Newmar and Burgess Meredith making appearances on the show (not to mention the band’s use of a Monkeemobile). The Batman series had various guest-stars of other television shows such as Colonel Klink of Hogan’s Heroes, Lurch of The Addams Family, and Detective Sam Stone of Felony Squad (as well as celebrities like Jerry Lewis, Dick Clark, and Sammy Davis, Jr.). Greenway and Fox would try their luck with producing a similar, but more serious, series in the Green Hornet that crossed over with the Batman show (the accompanying series making actor Bruce Lee, who portrayed chauffeur, mechanic, and enforcer Kato, a superstar in Hong Kong). Greenway filmed a pilot trying to sell a television series based on Wonder Woman in Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince? featuring Diana Prince as a somewhat delusional woman who appears plain but perceives herself as a beautiful woman and who uses her superhuman abilities to fight crime. Batman and Robin would host a special on the 1966 Fall line-up for ABC. Unfortunately, Batman‘s second season would help see the series begin to tumble. As Semple began to reel back from involvement with the series, Batman was rushed to try and capitalize on its success as its quality decreased, plots became silly, formulaic, and uninspired, and West and Ward quarreled behind the scenes which affected their performances and their roles on the shows (each actor wanting more screen time). West pushed hard for the show, making a ridiculous amount of public appearances as Batman from talk and comedy shows down to state and county fairs. However, the show was failing.
Producers managed to convince ABC to fund and air a third season but with single weekly episodes (rather than the two episode a week format it started with) and the addition to the cast in Yvonne Craig as Batgirl (the actress previously having memorable single appearances on shows like Star Trek, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and The Wild Wild West). Originally, a pilot was shot for a Batgirl series featuring Killer Moth in the piece and appearances by West and Ward that executives decided should form the basis of the third season of Batman. In a cooperative effort, DC Comics adapted the proposed Batgirl character for their Batman comics (so far as pitting her against Killer Moth in her first adventure). However, these efforts were not enough to save the television series. The third season would be the final season for Batman. NBC demonstrated interest in picking up the show but their offer came too late to save the sets which were taken down and the network was unwilling to pay for new ones to be built. In 1972, Ward and Craig would reprise their respective roles for a public service announcement for equal pay for women for the U.S. Department of Labor. In 1977, West and Ward would reprise their roles by lending their voices to Filmation’s animated series The New Adventures of Batman. Two years later, Hanna-Barbera produced a live action version of its popular Challenge of the Super Friends in Legends of the Superheroes for NBC bringing back West, Ward, and Gorshin as their characters though only lasting for two television specials (Superman, Wonder Woman, and their rogues couldn’t appear as their rights were tied up elsewhere in film and television). West would lend his voice to Batman for the last two seasons of Super Friends. Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman gave renewed interest in the old television series seeing its cast return in a reunion in 1988 on The Late Show with Ross Shafer and the series broadcast on the now defunct Family Channel.
While it would appear the Batman television series was dead and buried, fans did not forget its stars, especially Adam West. In 1992, West would lend his voice to the Gray Ghost, childhood hero of Bruce Wayne in Batman: The Animated Series. For the show Animaniacs, West lent his voice to the Caped Crusader Spruce Wayne, portrayed Black Scorpion’s nemesis the Breathtaker in 2001 for her self-titled television series, voiced Catman in The Fairly OddParents, portrayed the mayor of Gotham City in the animated series The Batman, Bruce Wayne’s father Thomas in Batman: The Brave and the Bold (with Julie Newmar as mother Martha), and the Marvel Comics’ Batman-analogy Nighthawk in The Super Hero Squad Show. In 2003, West would reunite with Burt Ward for the television film Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt. The movie would bounce between scenes telling stories behind the scenes of Batman to the modern day with a fictional comedic trip of West and Ward trying to recapture the stolen Batmobile with guest appearances by other Batman cast members (including Gorshin, Newmar, and Lee Meriwether, the Catwoman of the 1966 Batman film).
Batman, as a character and franchise, started as a narrative very much in the vein of noir film and pulp fiction that had to be brightened up, such as with the inclusion of Robin. Throughout the years, his stories have bounced between lighthearted fair to gothic darkness but in around the time of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke, Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, Tim Burton’s Batman films, and Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski’s Batman: The Animated Series, it appeared the Dark Knight had firmly been planted in where the franchise found its roots. Attempts were made to add some variety to this depiction. When Joel Schumacher took up the reins of the Batman film franchise from Burton, he tried to blend Burton’s vision with the camp of the 1960s television series to disastrous results (while doing quite well at box office, the hybrid was generally panned leading to an almost ten year drought of live action Batman films). However, James Tucker and Michael Jelenic’s animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold managed to find a balance that worked with fans.
Initially fought against by Batman fans, Batman: The Brave and the Bold brilliantly and masterfully balanced camp with good, at times heartbreaking, storytelling demonstrating not all versions of Batman had to be dark (Grant Morrison would even at times incorporate elements of the lighthearted years of Batman into his stories, though often times by turning those concepts on their ears). The animated series would often pay homage to Batman’s lighter years, especially the 1960s television series. While they couldn’t incorporate characters unique to the television show, they would manage to sneak in faces of those characters in crowds leaving them unidentified. The only exception would be Egghead who would appear in the comic book adaptation of the series changed slightly and renamed as Egg Head. A similar technique was done earlier with King Tut in the pages of Batman Confidential where the name was kept but the concept was changed just enough to avoid infringing on the rights of Fox. Batman: TBTB would eventually be canceled to make way for a <a href=”http://comicartcommunity.com/2012/07/beware-the-batman-from-page-to-screen/”>new, darker animated version of Batman</a> where the hero’s butler Alfred wields firearms and the Dark Knight is assisted by a sword-wielding partner in Katana to battle Batman’s more recent rogues like Anarky and Professor Pyg for the CG-animated Beware the Batman. Still, you need but look to the adult film Batman XXX: A Porn Parody to see there’s still an active audience for the 1960s series.
Born from the mind of comic fan Axel Braun and produced by Vivid Entertainment, Batman XXX was excruciatingly faithful to the source material, so far as using exact replicas of original costumes (made from the same type of material), renting an exact replica of the Batmobile, quoting dialogue from the source material, employing obscure characters from the show, and building sets perfectly replicated from the original series. Costing $100,000 to produce, the adult scenes were the only element that skewed from the original work in execution (and even then, a special feature on the DVD permits watching the film without adult scenes). The film was the highest selling movie of its industry for the year it was made, won more than half a dozen awards, and inspired numerous imitators in its industry so far as Vivid starting the imprint Vivid SuperXXXHeroes headed up by Braun to capitalize on the phenomenon. While a sequel has long been in the works for the film, the burgeoning adult parody genre has ignited in its industry a highly-profitable niche with an ever expanding line-up of parodies being conceived and showing no signs of slowing down (quite the opposite as more money is being spent to produce these films and audiences are spending even more to obtain them). And while this subject may not be a wholesome one to discuss, one has to consider if the continued success of Batman XXX didn’t have at least some bearing on motivating a deal being struck between WB and Fox.