Friday, July 11, 2014

Recommended Reading for 7/11: Batman '66

On an episode of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, comic book scholar and critic Glen Weldon talked about the 1960s Batman TV series, and said something very interesting (pardon me as I paraphrase). He said fans (modern ones anyway) go through three phases when it comes to Batman if you're a Batman fan. When you're a kid, you love it because it's big and loud and crazy and fun. When you hit your teens/20s, you hate it because you're viewing it as making fun of this thing that you love. And when you grow up, you look at it as the piece of pop/camp art that it is, and you see the fun again. Unfortunately, so many of today's fans remain stuck in that second phase. Me? I have come to really appreciate the craft of the series, and with the announcement of a DVD/Blu-Ray release of the series on November, and this past weekend's Fourth of July marathon on IFC, I thought it was time to talk about the current Batman '66 comic, with an eye on talking more about the show itself when the DVDs hit.

Batman '66 is one of DC's digital first comics, but I read it in physical form (someday I'll probably talk about why I have yet to embrace digital comics, but that's a whole other topic), and when it was first announced, I was skeptical. Would this be able to work without the jaw-droppingly earnest performances from Adam West and Burt Ward and the manic performances of the various actors portraying the villains? Or would it come off as too corny? Seeing Jeff Parker as the series principal writer helped assuage me, and by the time I read issue one, I was pretty well sold, and each issue has sold me further. Looking back over the past year, I was surprised to see I hadn't actually reviewed an issue yet, and so I thought the best way to remedy that was to do this entire feature.

Batman '66 is a pitch perfect reminder of what makes the Batman series from the 60s memorable and classic. Batman is square jawed and seems to know pretty much everything. Robin is genuinely surprised by everything. Alfred is the loyal retainer, Aunt Harriet is confused and always underfoot, Batgirl is awesome (Yvonne Craig's Batgirl was my first TV crush. Don't judge me!), and the GCPD desperately needs Batman. And the villains? Oh the villains! Plus the plots are wild and convoluted, yet simple enough for a kid to follow, the set pieces are gorgeous, and you get at least one, if not two stories in each issue!

The stories all are perfectly suited to the tone of the series. From a story of Penguin and Mr. Freeze driving a giant iceberg into Gotham Harbor and having it declared an independent nation or to a team up between Joker (always with a hint of Cesar Romero'ssignature mustache beneath his make-up) and Catwoman (and yes, by the way, some stories have featured the Julie Newmar Catwoman, and some the Eartha Kitt one), the stories are fun adventures that are appropriate for all ages. And there are stories featuring not only these classic comic book Batman rogues, but of course the rogues that originated from the show. Bookworm, the Minstrel, and the Siren all pop up, and so do the most famous TV originated rogues, King Tut and Egghead. There's a fun Egghead story is issue three, and issue eight is a King Tut feature, dealing with time travel to ancient Egypt. It's great to read such fun stories that fit so perfectly with this era of Batman.

Another fun aspect of the series is that Parker is bringing in elements from more modern Batman comics, but giving them a '66 twist. The Arkham Institute has appeared as the home for the villains who Batman brings in. The story in issue three tied the Red Hood into the Joker's background, and we met his doctor at Arkham, Dr. Quinn, who has appeared a couple times, and in a recent issue became an accomplice to the Joker, although not in the same way as the comic. And my favorite nod is in the King Tut time travel story. One of King Tut's thugs is a large, hulking guy named Waylon, who drinks too much of an extract that is said to give him the tough hide of crocodile. He runs off before the transformation is complete, but I'm hoping this will mean that we will soon see a '66 version of Killer Croc.

Jeff Parker has written the lion's share of the series, but other writers have joined in the fun, including Tom Peyer and Art Baltazar and Franco. And along with the campy and fun stories, the varied artists on the book have all provided tonally perfect art. Colleen Cover's Batgirl story, featuring her fighting the Eartha Kitt Catwoman is a favorite, but Jonathan Case's art from issue set the tone for the rest of the series, and artists like Ty Templeton, Joe Quinones, and Craig Rousseau have all contributed some great art. The Mike Allred covers are always a treat, and always serve as perfect teasers for the stories within.

I understand that Batman '66 isn't going to be to everyone's taste. Some people really don't like these simple, light tales of a very different Batman than the one we've gotten since the O'Neil and Adams run in the 70s. But everyone should really try an issue. The creators are doing something different and fun with a character who has proven infinitely malleable. And the craft is worth the price of admission. Plus, you get to see what the writers come up with for Robin to, "Holy!" each issue, and that's some pretty great fun all on its own.

Batman '66 is released monthly at your local comic shop, and digitally through your favorite comics apps. Aside from the current ongoing, there is a mini-series, Batman '66 Meets the Green Hornet from writers Kevin Smith and Ralph Garman and art by Ty Templeton. The first hardcover collection of the series, collecting issues 1-5 is currently available, with a paperback collection released this fall just in time for the DVD release of the series.

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