Friday, July 20, 2012

Bat-a-palooza: Sci Tech # 5: Batman Edition

"Fishing in the backwaters of popular culture, it [TV] has achieved its first indigenous artistic triumph - it has upgraded the comics.  Historians of culture in the future may well say that television's early attempts at art were smaller-than-life dramas of Chayefsky, Nash, Mosel and Foote, but that the medium attained full stature as an art form with the larger-than-life comic, Batman."

- Robert Lewis Shayon. Saturday Review: "All the Way to the Bank." Saturday Review, February 12, 1966, page 46.

Today, many comic-book and Batman fans casually dismiss the 1966 - 1968 TV series starring Adam West as a "camp" atrocity, but the quotation above from Saturday Review reminds us that the series wasn't always considered in such a negative light.  

On the contrary, many critics and audiences of the mid-1960s considered the series a legitimate and even audacious form of avant-garde "pop art."   

No one had ever seen anything like it.  

For better or worse, Batman might even be considered television's first legitimately post-modern effort: a reversal and rejection of well-established modernism in terms of narrative point of view and attack.

True, our cultural taste in terms of superheroes has changed radically in 2012, as proven by Christopher Nolan's opposite -- but immensely popular -- smaller-than-life approach to the Caped Crusader and his universe.   Before someone gets angry with me for writing that Nolan's approach is smaller than life, consider for a moment his meticulous aesthetic.  Everything in Nolan's universe could be real, whether it is the "Nomex" Bat Suit or the experimental military vehicle that becomes the Batmobile.  

In short, Nolan makes the Batman universe intrinsically believable by skewing all the superhero tech to contemporary reality as we understand and perceive it.  This is Nolan's modus operandi.

The 1960s series adopted precisely the opposite approach, exaggerating Batman's world -- in terms of color, scope and believability -- to such a degree that humor became inevitable (and desirable).

Whether subjectively you prefer the Nolan approach or the Dozier TV approach, it's nonetheless difficult to deny that the Batman TV series boasted  its own...unique vision.  We might not like or approve of that vision (just as we might not like or approve of Nolan's or Tim Burton's vision), but it's there for the appreciation...or denigration.  As with all works of art, it's incumbent on us to at least consider it on its own terms.

Regarding Bat-Tech, the Batman series deliberately developed two running gags of the visual variety.  

In the first instance, the creators of the series made certain that every single item in the Batcave was assiduously labeled.  Of course, on the surface, this labeling fetish doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  We don't label our computers, laptops, microwave ovens, TV sets or other every day tools.  Yet every item in Batman, no matter how obscure, gets (obsessively-compulsively) labeled.  

Thus, in the Batcave, one may find a "Lighted Lucite Map" of Gotham City, a "Bat Analyzer," "Bat Poles," a "Bat Tape Reader" or other strange devices.  Again, surely Batman and Robin would know and remember which device is which inside their own headquarters and even we, as viewers, quickly come to recognize the Bat Poles and other tech.

But the gag makes us laugh.  The ubiquitous labels grab the attention, and reveal to us something important about this hero.  He's not just square-jawed, he's a very straight-forward thinker.  Everything goes in its proper place, and is obsessively organized.  He's a "rules" guy after all, as we see in his constant lessons to Robin.  In "Ring of Wax," he told Robin he "never gambles" and in The Riddler's False Notion," Batman opined that Robin owed his life to "good dental hygiene."   The labels thus fit into Batman's "character" and represent an example of form reflecting content.

Even funnier, every device in Batman's arsenal gets a "Bat" prefix.  Why not just call Batman's computer a computer, instead of a Bat Computer?  On and on, this joke grows funnier on Batman as the writers really pushed the envelope in terms of Bat-centric imagery.  

Bat Tweezers?  Bat Fly Swatters? Anti-Thermal Bat T-Shirts? Anti-Mesmerizing Bat Reflectors? Bat Springs in Bat Shoes?  These items are mentioned and played absolutely straight, and yet we giggle at them.

The second visual joke featured on the series involves a logo, if you will: the bat.  Every tool, it seems, is shaped like one.  Bat Binoculars. The Batphone in the Batmobile.  The Batarang.  

Again, the audience brushes up against this idea of a hero who is, perhaps unhealthily, obsessed with one image.  Is it really necessary to use a boomerang or telephone shaped like a flying rodent?  

Is this "branding" or self-marketing run amok?

I realize the purists absolutely can't stand these humorous touches, but in a very real sense, Batman the TV series mirrors the Batman comic as it existed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  It's not fair to say that the series isn't faithful to that period in the franchise, only to say that the producers and writers detected a source of humor in how the Caped Crusader was portrayed in the comics, and ruthlessly and effectively capitalized upon it.  

The beauty of the TV approach, as I have always maintained is that children see the program one way (as a straight-forward adventure with great gadgets and colorful heroes, villains and sets) while adults view it on another level all together (as a post-modern, tongue-in-cheek commentary on the superhero/comic-book milieu.)   There's an artistry and maturity to this successful two-track approach, and it accounts for the continued appeal of the series.  But some people will never approve of it because they see the series as making fun of Batman, and thus, by extension, making fun of their affection for the character and his universe.  

Whether labeled or unlabeled, I continue to find the Bat-tech of Batman fascinating as an example of 1960s era "retro future" design.   Computers were huge, colossal things, and visual read-outs never included text you could read...only blinking, winking, gaudy lights that characters could somehow magically interpret.

Once upon a time, we indeed  thought this was indeed how the future might look, and Batman shares this "retro" futuristic approach in common with Lost in Space and certainly Star Trek.  The revolution in miniaturization had not yet occurred, and so these programs evidenced the belief that bigger was always better and more high tech.

It's a shame that Batman is not yet available on DVD or Blu Ray, so we can get a much better and longer  look at the (Not) Dark Knight's array of (carefully labeled...) technical gadgetry.


  1. You're memory serves you correctly John, 'TDK' was a veritable tour of the Chicago Loop and Lower Wacker Drive.

  2. My 13 yr old nephew was watching Burton's Batman last month and could not have been more bored. I may think that Nolan's version, including the character portrayals, are superior to Burton's, but I never could call Burton's Batman boring. The generational footprint that we live in today is called Realism. Suspension of disbelief has never been lower, if it does not look, sound, and feel like everyday life, then it's fake, and thus it's boring.

    1. Hi Trent,

      I enjoyed reading your comments. Personally, I believe that Nolan has sacrificed too much imagination with the focus on realism, but I understand his approach, and I appreciate that his conceit is consistently and artistically applied, even if it doesn't exactly fit my preference.

      I hope your description of the younger generation's desire for realism is not accurate, but I fear it is. There's something weird and wonderful and yes, magical, about Burton's Batman. It's a film that expresses its meaning through its visuals. It will be a shame if people miss the glories of that approach...


  3. Outstanding as always. I enjoy these sci tech close-ups and your observations. I also enjoyed Trent's succinct take as well. It does feel as though the acceptance of fantasy is in short supply. This problem is why I have such trouble convincing my young ones to watch Land Of The Lost - another great sci tech post you delivered for in the past. Best, sff

  4. Sadly, I think Trent didn't just hit the nail on the head, he bent that sucker into uselessness. I used to think it was simply a case of encroaching getoffmylawnism, but suspension of disbelief is viewed skeptically, everything must be seen through an ironic lens, and so on. Again, what was that line from Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me, all the enchantment's been drained?

    Both approaches have their merits and weaknesses (as does everything, no?), but it's nonetheless sad to see the old ways generally out of fashion.

  5. I'm glad you pointed out that the Batman TV show was a reflection of the comic as it existed at the time (specifically the "New Look" era of Batman between 1964-69). Many people who are only familiar with the TV show think that it came out of a vacuum, but the writers were taking what was in the comic and exaggerating it to a point where the adults would find it funny rather than stupid. Batman already had a Batmobile and a Batarang in the comic, why not put "Bat" on everything in the show? Batman was a do-gooder in the comic, make him an anal-retentive bore in the show. It was a great satire of the comic. And don't forget that this was the era of Andy Warhol and Lichtenstein, when all pop-culture was under scrutiny. This sort of scrutiny was new and fresh in the 60s. We're beyond that now and accept the barrage of pop-culture as part of the landscape. To some extent, you have to understand the era to understand the popularity of the show.

  6. Anonymous11:11 AM

    Bat-reply to your entertaining Bat-blog.:)
    John nice tour of the Batcave technology. I always enjoyed the '60s 20th Century Fox television series production design of the ridiculous assiduously labeled Batman equipment. In first season episodes of Batman '66-'67 you can even see in the Batcave to the right of the batpoles a Forcefield Projector Generator replica prop as used at the same time on Lost In Space on the Fox lot.