The Real Comic Book Origins of The Batman '66 TV Series

Feature Arlen Schumer
1/12/2016 at 8:20AM

On the 50th anniversary of the debut of the original Batman TV series, pop culture historian Arlen Schumer takes a look back.

I can still remember the excitement the night of Wednesday, January 12, 1966, the night the Batman TV series debuted. I was 7 years old, and had been reading comic books since I was first exposed to them, in summer camp two years earlier, and was “reading” them before I really learned how to read in school. I remember titles like Superman and The Justice League of America first, but in 1965, I got into Batman, thanks to these 25-cent annuals that DC Comics published in the ‘60s that were stuffed with reprints and extra pages.

From there, I was turned onto the regular Batman titles, grooving on artist Carmine Infantino’s cool version of Batman—slicker and sleeker than the stockier, awkward, cardboard-like figures of the Batman stories reprinted in those annuals, or the cartoonier version of that “other” Batman artist who also signed his name with the familiar “Bob Kane” boxed-signature (whom we found out years later was Sheldon Moldoff and Dick Sprang, respectively). But it was the Infantino Batman I was expecting to see on TV.

ABC began to promote Batman in December of 1965, promising a January '66 debut. The only way I can describe to younger readers what the buildup of anticipation for the night of January 12, 1966 was like, is to compare it to that of The Force Awakens, but compressed into one month!

And there we were, my brother and I, kneeling on our living room floor in front of our TV like an altar at exactly 7:30pm, Wednesday night. After the opening live-action teaser sequence—revealing the villain, The Riddler —we were bowled over by the animated opening that followed! The Batman TV theme, one of the pop signifiers of the the '60s, was as immediately distinctive as the James Bond guitar theme, and has proven to be as unforgettable as that of another favorite, The Twilight Zone.

Stately Wayne Manor, the Batpoles, the Batcave, the Batmobile, all the requisite elements of Batman’s comic book world were faithfully translated. And while Burt Ward’s Robin looked uncannily like the Infantino Robin come to life, the same couldn’t be said for Adam West’s "soft" Batman with his overly stylized cowl with curlicued eyebrows, outlined nosepiece, and (worst of all) open eyeholes. Gone were the sleek, thin vials of the Infantino utility belt, which were replaced by oversized pouches. West's Batman spoke in an earnest-yet-deadpan delivery, and made sure Robin's seat belt was buckled before the Batmobile left the cave.

Now, we didn’t know what “camp” was—we were far too young to have been aware of writer Susan Sontag’s coining of the word in her famous 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’”—but we knew that the TV show was making fun of my beloved Batman, and we didn’t like it at all. We had been trained on the Sean Connery James Bond movies, which, though they had comic relief in the form of Connery’s curt quips, were by and large serious spy films (the series’ second entry, 1963’s From Russia with Love, is practically a Hitchcock film) so we were expecting Batman to have a little more gravitas, like Bond.

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That’s why it irks me when Batman/comic book fans in my age range tell me they loved the TV show when they were kids, and didn’t know it was “camp” til they got older. We knew. Within five minutes, my brother and I, almost simultaneously, turned our heads to face each other and burst out loud, “They’re making fun of Batman!”

Producer William Dozier was the man responsible for the “camp” approach to Batman. Dozier was a typically-successful Hollywood television producer, but also a typical elitist and dilettante who thought comic books were garbage—this was around 1965, when Pop Art, as exemplified by Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book panel-derived paintings, was all the rage, mind you—and didn’t see how the Batman source material could be adapted “straight.”

Perhaps Pop Art in the ether reached the cultured air Dozier operated in (he probably read Sontag’s “Camp” essay), because he figured the only way to do Batman was to go over-the-top campy: as straight as the old ‘40s superhero movie serials for the kids, while simultaneously winking and laughing at it self-consciously for the adults. One of the urban Bat-legends of the origin of ABC’s decision to adapt Batman in the first place was that an ABC exec had attended one of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion parties in ’64 or ‘65, where Hef had been screening the two chintzy ‘40s Batman serials for his effete attendees to hoot and howl at, in pre- Rocky Horror Picture Show style.

Dozier bought a couple of Batman comics at the airport on his way to the meeting with ABC in ‘65 to discuss his producing the series; among the issues he bought were the ’65 Giant Batman Annual—featuring reprints of ‘50s stories of “Batman and Robin’s Most Fantastic Foes,” including the Penguin, Catwoman, Mr. Freeze, and The Joker—and an issue of Batman’s regular title, Batman #171, “Remarkable Ruse of The Riddler,” the villain’s first Silver Age appearance since Batman co-creator, writer Bill Finger, came up with him in 1948.

Those particular issues formed the foundation of the entire show. Everything from which villains were chosen—like The Riddler, a forgotten grade-B villain from Batman’s distant past, propelled to overnight star status only because Dozier happened to pick up that issue at the airport—to its celebrated, canny comic book look, in the costumes, art direction, set design and special (lettering) effects.

The problem is, they didn’t actually adapt that Carmine Infantino Batman that I (and other fans of the current comics) were expecting/hoping to see on our screens. Thanks to those ‘50s reprints in the annual, drawn by Moldoff and Sprang, and that Riddler issue, also illustrated by Moldoff, it was that stiffer (Moldoff) and cartoonier (Sprang) Batman they wound up adapting, for better or worse, not the more realistic, modern model by Infantino.

The Moldoff era of Batman extended from 1953, when he accepted Batman co-creator Kane’s offer to be his “ghost” (an artist who works uncredited for another artist who signs his name instead), up to and through the TV series’ network run, which ended in 1968. Near the beginning of that fifteen-year period, DC decreed that their perennial second banana Batman books should follow the model of their more successful Superman line. And so, under the editorship of competent company man editor Jack Schiff, Batman descended into the utter ridiculousness of fighting formulaic outer-space aliens and investigating interplanetary dimensions, getting turned into the tawdriness of things like “Zebra Batman” and “Rainbow Batman” constantly cracking wise with Robin while, in the words of Neal Adams, “strolling down the Champs-Elysees in broad daylight.”

In other words, everything you would up seeing on TV in the series, the producers gleaned from this era of Batman. Instead of getting a live-action show with the dynamic thrust of Carmine Infantino, we got the clunkiness of the Moldoff Batman, who was ghosting the early, stiffer Kane than the cartoonier Sprang (for a great translation of Sprang, check out the recent Batman: The Brave & The Bold animated series). That the show took its cues from a hack ghost artist (ironically ghosting "original" hack Kane), instead of one of the greatest comic book artists of all time, is the greatest shame of the series.

The Schiff/Moldoff era didn’t “make fun” of Batman (all those shitty stories like, I kid you not, and pun definitely intended, “Batman Becomes Bat-Baby!” were done in deadly earnest), but almost destroyed the character in the real world: Batman and Detective Comics sales were so low by 1963 that DC head honcho Irwin Donenfeld (son of founder Harry) brought in his top editor, Julius Schwartz (architect of DC’s Silver Age superhero revivals of The Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, Hawkman and The Justice League of America, among others), and Schwartz’s top artist (Infantino), to revamp the character in six months...or else DC would be forced to discontinue publishing Batman!

“Julie suggested I make some changes to Batman’s costume as part of our character update,” Infantino recalled in a 2003 interview for my book, The Silver Age of Comic Book Art. “This included changes to the ears and the nose of Batman’s cowl, as well as adding the yellow circle around the insignia on Batman’s chest. We developed what was called ‘The New Look.’ And the numbers started to move up. Batman was coming back...”

Infantino and Schwartz did indeed save Batman—though Infantino’s stint on the character was only a little over three years (he was promoted to DC’s first Art Director in ‘67, then Editorial Director and finally Publisher in ’68), he is considered the Batman artist of the ‘60s (Adams straddles the ‘60s and ‘70s)—but it is only in retrospect that we can say their success paved the way for the Batman TV series, because the show wasn’t even a glimmer in ABC’s camera eye when Infantino and Schwartz performed their Bat-reclamation in ’64-65.

One of Infantino’s coolest covers of that time period was the issue of Batman (May ’65) that brought back The Riddler, the garish green of the arch-villain’s question mark-festooned costume popping against the pungent pink background of the cover! Easy to spot in the spinner racks of the day, like the one in the airport newsstand that Dozier stopped in that fateful day in ‘65. But the interior of the issue was illustrated by Moldoff, whom Schwartz was forced to inherit from his predecessor Schiff due to DC’s binding contract with Kane, not Infantino, so even though the opening two-parter of the Batman TV series was adapted from this issue, it worked off of Moldoff’s Batman, not Infantino’s innovative version.

The highlight of the opening night episode was comedian/impressionist Frank Gorshin’s immortal turn as the Riddler, one of the greatest villains in screen history, big or small. Gorshin patterned his louche, live wire Riddler after the similarly-giggling gangster in the '47 noir Kiss of Death, Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark's debut film performance; remember him pushing the old lady in the wheelchair down the stairs?). Utilizing his flexible physicality as much as his verbal acuity, Gorshin took a grade B Batman villain and crafted something truly "wild and crazy" for the ages, his hat in the ring of pop culture immortality.

Unfortunately, Batman never got any better than that opening two-parter. Because of its blockbuster, overnight ratings success, it became Dozier's cynically-crafted template for pretty much every episode after. The series never introduced any other type of Batman story, ignoring the comic book character’s rich and varied history (it barely mined Batman’s Rogues Gallery, choosing instead to create new, ridiculous villains like Egghead and King Tut). Dozier’s unimaginative stories and formulaic repetition ground Batman into the dirt almost immediately (even the so-called “good first season”), forcing its cancellation a little over two years later. In the broader timeline of American pop culture, much-ballyhooed “Batmania” relatively came and went.

The series did kick off the greatest year in pop culture history, 1966: in music, The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, released in December ’65, triggered an explosion in pop music, with new bands like The Mamas & The Papas and Buffalo Springfield forming, engendering the psychedelia that would reach full flower in the Summer of Love in ’67; in television, ’66 saw the debuts of evergreen pop culture properties like Star Trek, Mission Impossible, The Monkees, Time Tunnel, Space Ghost (“Batman in space”) and The Green Hornet, which introduced America to Bruce Lee as Kato, and was also produced by Dozier, but played straight (unlike Batman), but just like Batman, the stories suffered from Dozier’s lack of imagination and reliance on formula and it lasted only one season.

Since cable outlets like MeTV have been rerunning Batman the past couple of years, I've tried watching the episodes for the first time in decades, thinking maybe I’d been too harsh on them, maybe they’re so “bad” that now, in our post-modern enlightenment, they’re “good,” and the love/hate that I—and many other Bat-fans—have for the series would be outweighed by the “love.”

Sorry, but they still sucked: the formulaic aspects were numbing, the same-every-episode "action" is blocked out poorly, and Adam West's acting is everything William Shatner is unfairly criticized for. I ended up pressing "erase" less than ten minutes into every DVR'd rerun I watched!

But did I buy the deluxe set of long-awaited DVDs that came out last year? You Bat-bet I did!

ARLEN SCHUMER was art director of Batmania magazine when he was in high school, and apprenticed for Hall-of-Fame Batman artist Neal Adams after graduating from Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in graphic design. Since then, he has become an award-winning comic book-style illustrator and a member of The Society of Illustrators. His comic book art history book, The Silver Age of Comic Book Art (Archway Publishing) won the Independent Publishers Award for Best Popular Culture Book. His other books are Visions from The Twilight Zone and The Neal Adams Sketchbook. Comic Book Artist magazine called him "one of the more articulate and enthusiastic advocates of comic book art in America,” and ABC named him “one of the countryʼs preeminent authorities on comics and culture.” His lectures on these subjects at universities and cultural institutions, along with his other works, can be seen at: www.arlenschumer.com