Monday, June 12, 2017

In Memoriam: Adam West

So, it's been a while, huh? And while I'm preparing to return to The Matt Signal on a more regular basis, an event this past weekend has made me shake off the dust and write a little something in tribute to the first Batman that many of my generation share.

I can't remember if I had seen the classic Batman TV series before I received Who's Who in the DC Universe #2, the first comic I was ever given, the issue that spotlighted most characters whose name began with a "B." I know I watched it in syndication pretty regularly from when I was a kid through when it stopped being syndicated, sometime after Batman Returns, but by then I had Batman: The Animated Series and I hardly noticed. But I know that gaudy, lively, energetic series was part of my formative years, and you can't talk about that series without talking about Adam West, it's Batman, who passed away over the weekend at the age of 88.

 People have very different opinions of the Batman TV series. Glen Weldon, the NPR comic book critic who wrote the excellent book on Batman's history, The Caped Crusade, said in an episode of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour (exactly which one I alas cannot recall, and pardon the paraphrasing if you read this, Glen), that most people go through three phases when it comes to that series: as kids they love it as an adventure series, as teenagers/twenty-somethings they hate it because it's so campy and doesn't take Batman as a SERIOUS CHARACTER, and as adults they learn to love it again as a piece of crazy camp art. And a good part of that camp artistry comes from Adam West's straight faced performance as Batman.

It would have been easy to play Batman for laughs, to make him a goof or a joke, but producer William Dozier didn't want that: he knew that having a Batman who was this rock of deadpan seriousness in an absurd world is what would sell the series. And Adam West pulled that off perfectly. He delivered every line with a degree of gravitas. He only winked at the camera when it was written to do it, like when he was pulling the wool of his secret identity over the eyes of the sweet (if a bit dim) Aunt Harriet, Commissioner Gordon, and Chief O'Hara. He was dashing as Bruce Wayne, heroic as Batman, and while the villains often tried to steal the show, he held his own (which is more than can be said for other live action Batmans).

I think everyone who has come to appreciate the madcap genius of the series has favorite episodes. While the Joker is my favorite villain in Batman history, when it comes that this series, Burgess Meredith's Penguin is the performance that always grabs me, and the two parter, "Hizzonner the Penguin/Dizzoner the Penguin," where the Penguin and Batman run against each other for mayor of Gotham is clever and has Batman give great speeches about the importance of elections and government (and the concept of Penguins mayoral ambitions that has been recycled in Batman Returns, Gotham, and the tie-in comics to Batman: The Animated Series). Joker does pop up in the favorite, "Surf's Up! Joker's Under!" where Joker and Batman compete in a surfing contest, which is as delightfully absurd as it sounds. There are more episodes than I can name, with the Catwomans, the Riddlers (although, as much as I love John Astin in Addams Family and Night Court, Frank Gorshin is the truly memorable Riddler, while Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt are equally memorable as Catwoman), and numerous other villains that spring to mind, but Adam West's Batman always stood against the criminals of Gotham.

And if I'm talking about Adam West and Batman, I need to briefly discuss the feature film tied into that series. Not only did it have the most spectacular scenes that ever were tied to West, including Shark Repellent Bat Spray, dehydrated pirate goons in the Batcave, and a bomb on the boardwalk, it also allowed West to do some real acting. Early in the movie, he becomes smitten by a reporter (who is clearly Catwoman in disguise to the viewer), and throughout the movie he romances her, and when it is revealed she is Catwoman, he genuinely looks pained by the betrayal. It's a nice bit of acting, and proves that West is more than just a stiff, cardboard cut-out of an actor, but is actually trying, and acting as Batman.

Sadly, most of the stars of this classic bit of superhero lore have now passed on. Burt Ward (Robin) and Julie Newmar (the first Catwoman) are the only regular or recurring members of the cast who are still with us. Adam West was a fixture at conventions, always out talking to his fans and reminding them of when Batman would dance (I never met him myself, and admit to having heard mixed opinions on how he was with fans, but it is undeniable he was an ambassador for his own take on Batman, and had an easy smile when someone came up to him). Towards the end of his life, I know he was working on a second direct-to-DVD animated film, a sequel to last year's charming Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders, voicing Batman in the lost episode featuring Two-Face, which was adapted into a comic a couple years back, and would have William Shatner voicing the villain; I am unsure if the recording was completed before Mr. West's passing, but I hope it was, as it would make a great final testament to his lasting impact as Batman.

So, goodbye Adam West. Safe journey to whatever might be next, and may you never have one of those days where you just can't get rid of a bomb.

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