Batman in the 1960s
Bringing Pop Art to the Masses
Batman is a character that appeals to pretty much everyone, and it is not difficult to see why. First of all, the character himself is rich, charming, handsome, athletic, and mysterious, and that is just in his secret identity as Bruce Wayne. Once you add the cape and cowl, Wayne's transformation into the Dark Knight holds even more appealing aspects: the gadgets, the Batcave, and of course, the car. Chicks dig the car. But as difficult as it may be to believe today, what with Batman's ubiquitous popularity in media as diverse as movies, television, and video games, the Caped Crusader was, for a time, in danger of disappearing. This is the second of two articles about the Batman TV show and how it helped to revitalize the franchise. Check out the first one here, and then read on as we uncover just how much television helped Batman become the pop culture icon we know today.
Batarangs, Batmobiles, and Batman Figures
When the Batman TV series debuted on Wednesday, January 12, 1966, at 7:30 pm, it was on just the right time in the evening to find both the adult and youth audience. And it was on at just the right time in American culture's history to become a lasting piece of pop art. The show was an instant smash success, and much of that was due to clever marketing, merchandising, and the tongue-in-cheek nature of the show's offbeat brand of humor. Christmas that year was a true Bat-frenzy, and the merchandising of the show was in full force, with thousands and thousands of children asking for, and receiving, toy Batmobiles, Bat-capes, and assorted other Bat-gadgets.
By March, 1966, Batman, as portrayed by actor Adam West, was the first superhero ever to grace the cover of Life Magazine. In that same month, Roy Lichtenstein, known for his pop art reproductions, designed a Batman cover for TV Guide that drew special attention to the eponymous sound effect "Pow!" And last but not least, the Batman comic books, the original source for the Dark Knight's adventures, were now selling millions of copies a month. Not too shabby for a series that was on the verge of cancellation just a few years prior.
In short, Bat-Mania had swept the nation. And a huge part of this Bat-Mania was down to the creative decisions of the show's producers, including veteran producer William Dozier and writer Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
Hip and Jazzy
The Pop-Art Sensibilities of Batman
Everything about the Batman TV series seemed to scream "POP!" - from the deeply saturated color palette, to the voiceover narration, to the jazzy score arranged by Nelson Riddle - it could all be seen as a celebration of the swinging 60s. And, of course, audiences had near-constant exposure to the show, thanks to an executive decision to air each episode in two segments, with a cliffhanger on Wednesday, and the resolution on Thursday.
"We were everywhere and on twice a week in color," Adam West said of the show's success. Others even argue that the Batman TV show was the first time an entire family could sit together and simultaneously enjoy the derring-do exploits of a superhero saga. For kids, the appeal of a show about a superhero punching out bad guys is obvious. For adults, nods to greater cultural conflicts kept them engaged. Batman was, in the parlance of the times, a "square," but he managed to make civic duty an appealing prospect, something that must have appealed to any parents worried about their children watching violent programming, no matter how ridiculous it might be. Batman also took screen time to champion a variety of life lessons, including wearing a seat belt, doing your homework, drinking milk. At one point, when engaged in a mayoral race against the Penguin, of all people, Batman espoused the importance of running a clean campaign, one that focused on the issues.
It certainly seemed like kids, and even adults, could do a lot worse than to set their moral compass by Batman. But like all things, the popularity of the show was not to last.
A One-Trick Bat
The Eventual Cooling of Bat-Mania
Denny O'Neil, famous for many of the Batman stories he wrote for comics in the 1970s and 1980s, has mentioned that the Batman TV show was destined to eventually run out of steam because of the very nature of the program. "The Batman TV show was pretty much a one-line joke," he said. "I loved this stuff when I was six, and now that I'm 27...look how silly it is."
The show's producers may have also overemphasized some of the pop zaniness by the time the show returned for a second season in fall of 1966. Overacting on the part of the villains, less-than-stellar scripts, and a general sense of Bat-malaise may have all contributed to the lowered ratings (none of those episodes landed in the top twenty for Nielsen ratings). By the third season, budgets were cut and episodes were shown only once a week instead of twice. Batman the TV series eventually ended after 120 episodes, still nothing to sneeze at even by today's standards.
Reinvention and Revolution
Of course, Batman is still insanely popular today, with a variety of comics, movies, games, and toys available for purchase. A huge part of that is down to the flexibility of the character. Batman can be portrayed as dark and brooding, a Dark Knight with a penchant for punishment. Or he can be thought of as light and whimsical, as quick with a quip as with a jab. The Batman TV series definitely skewed more towards the light and whimsical end of the spectrum, something that appealed to people at the time, and something which Adam West still thinks has some appeal. "I think of our our Batman as 'The Bright Knight,'" he said. "The kids loved it and it was funny for adults. And that was our intention."