Sunday, November 20, 2016

1966 And All That

The true strength of a pop cultural icon lies in their resilience. Heroes and villains come and go, but the greatest of them endure through generations and interpretations. Yes, there may be periods when they are considered out of vogue, but being strong figures they are bound to return - perhaps as a farce, or a revisionist retelling, or as a mirror to contemporary society's travails.

I speak of the big ones: Robin Hood. King Arthur. Sherlock Holmes. Batman. The Sixties version.

No, come back, I'm not mad. I wasn't even mad in 1989 when I sniffed at this rare product of high camp and sixties psychedelia and walked away. Tim Burton's reinvention of the character was just around the corner and the big bad Nineties introduced a less colourful, more serious take on the character. The Dark Knight was the order of the day, and the Caped Crusader had quickly become For Selected Audiences Only. I eschewed the series' self-knowing silliness and cheap later episodes, and those misspent afternoons screwing my youthful freckled schoolboy nose at the hyper kinetic hi-jinks our neighbours' colour TV provided every same Bat-time same Bat-channel.

So what changed for me to rediscover the West and Ward Batman? Well it wasn't the TV show, though I do want to 'reconnect' with it in some form - the Blu Rays look mighty tempting. Of course the car I rediscovered to my surprise in the Dark Knight Rises extras. It was also the Bat-history, dutifully documented, directed and delivered by that doyen of the Detective Comics dynamo, Mr Jim Moon that got my attention. And it was the comic strip.

Yes, again, the Wellington City Library has done itself proud and has a pretty decent collection of the recent Batman '66 anthology series, being a set of new Batman tales told with the energy, the enthusiasm and the tongue-in-cheek aesthetic of the 1966 series. When they're good they're very very good- not since Lego's Batman '66 set have I been so relieved to see Caesar Romero's painted moustache so faithfully rendered beneath his Joker makeup. And Burgess Meredith's Penguin, Frank Gorshin's Riddler (who owes his reputation purely to the TV series and Gorshin's talents), the triumvirate of Catwomen in Kitt, Merriwether and Newmar plus other TV-only villains, like Egghead, Bookworm, Louie the Lilac, Ma Parker, Shame, King Tut and Marsha Queen of Diamonds. The captions recall the exclamations of the show's cliffhanger closers, the title fonts are perfect, and over all there's a spirit of fun in the series, even in recent years with its canon-bending introduction of anachronistic characters like Harley Quin and Bane.

For the most part the series sticks close to its roots, even with occasional crossovers to contemporary TV series (Green Hornet, Man From Uncle, The Avengers) and shout outs to the future (including a seemingly irresistable nod to a certain Seal song during a Poison Ivy outing). In case you're wondering, Batgirl gets as good as she gave, and there are some intriguing stylistic ventures also - notably a meta trip to Japan for the Bat trio where an encounter with Sixties comic villain Lord Death man. Trippy.

And trippy is as it should be. The '66 series is something to be celebrated, particularly amidst the sturm und drang of the Snyder films and Arkham video games. There was a time when Batman was fun, and was in on the joke, and those days did more for the survival of the Bat brand than anything in its comics. At The Warehouse in Whanganui recently I picked up a copy of the West and Ward Batman movie - until recently all you could get of the original series. Jet Jr and I watched it when it came home with me and we had a blast.

All of this presumably comes from a relaxing by Fox on its grip on the old TV series, leading to a minor snowstorm of retro products. The final release of the full series is the obvious jewel in the crown (those extras!), and the comic follows  of course. Batman 66 Lego is utterly adorable:
But no Batgirl minifigure? For shame!

And after the success of West, Ward and Newmar's animated reunion in Return of the Caped Crusaders there's now a follow-up in the works, featuring Two-Face voiced by - who else? William Shatner. Holy Dream Casting!

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