Written by Fred Patten, and published on the LASFS Rex Rotary, March 31, 1966. Intended for CAPA-alpha, Nineteenth Mailing, April 1966. Address: 1825 Greenfield Avenue, Los Angeles, California, 90025. Phone: GRanite 3-6321.
|WesterCon -- San Diego -- July 1-4!||Salamander Press #165.|
Well, the Bat-boom is on us with a vengeance, and am I ever glad that I'm not a completist collector in the field of comic-book memorabilia! Those who are, who collect all the newspaper clippings about comic books, the plastic model kits of the costumed heroes, the "authorized" buttons and pins and T-shirts and the like, and so on, are going to go crazy, or broke, or both, trying to keep up with the flood of Batmania that's suddenly gushing across the country.
The dam burst in January, with the release of the "Batman" television program, although things had been building up for quite awhile. I think that credit can be given to four major events that correlated in making all America comic-book conscious: the appearance of organized Comics Fandom and collectors willing to pay high prices for old comics, in the last five years; the "discovery" of comic books by the Intelligensia style-setters, among both the Pop Artists who discovered comic art as a whole, and the "camp"-seeking college In-group who unearthed the old 1943 Columbia "Batman" serial; the publication of Jules Feiffer's book on The Great Comic Book Heroes, which first made the general public aware of the two aforementioned groups and of comic books as something more than just pre-teen ephemeral reading matter; and, finally, the new "Batman" television program, which has combined the Comics Fans and the "camp" followers, and brought the whole pot to a boil on the hotplate of public interest.
Quality -- or the lack of same -- aside, there's no denying that "Batman" -- the television show -- is a smash hit, as the American public's fad-of-the-moment. Especially on the nation's college campuses: the day following the first show, students arriving at the USC campus discovered a flag displaying the Bat-signal fluttering from the tower of the new World Affairs Center. In a class at CalTech, the lights suddenly went out, the Bat-signal flashed across the room onto the blackboard, and two students in the front row (one tall, one short) jumped up, cried, "That's our signal!", and raced down the aisle out of the room. (To the bewilderment of the professor, who had to have the rest of the class explain about "Batman" to him.) A fraternity house was turned into "Wayne Manor" for a party, complete with a Bat Cave and the trimmings; and a coffee-house in Santa Monica was hastily redecorated to reopen as The Bat-Cave.
The "Batman" theme song has made it to the Hit Parade in several different recordings, and a new rock-&-roll group ("Robin and the Batmen") has taken the motif as its theme. "Batman" parody skits are to be found among almost every night-club comic's routine, and on almost every television comedian's show. (A "Man from U.N.C.L.E." episode called "The Bat Cave Affair" is upcoming this week.) Bat-jokes have replaced Tom Swifties and Elephant Jokes as the current humor fad; a $1 paperbound collection has already made its appearance -- It's Fun To Be A Batman, by Leonard Goldstein. "I Gave for Batman" became the theme of this year's Blood Drive (on the USC campus, at least); donors got black-bat-on-yellow buttons with the above legend. The nation's merchandisers are capitalizing on the craze in as many ways as possible: there are automobile bumper stickers ("Send BATMAN to Vietnam"; "BATMAN for Governor"; "Protected by BATMAN"; etc.), poster-size reproductions of panels from the comic book or from the cartoon credits from the tv program, cheap Bat-buttons and Bat-rings, expensive children's Bat-costumes, and even Bat-hairstyles. Toy manufacturers have promised that this year's Christmas releases will add Batman to the present lineup of James Bond and Napoleon Solo, in "authorizing" costumes, games, toys with hidden compartments or that turn into weapons or that blow up when handled by "unauthorized" personnel, etc. Disc-jockeys are holding Bat-contests and forming Bat-clubs; "Charter Member - Batman & Robin Society" reads one pin available in dime stores. Articles and news releases on comic books in general and the "Batman" show in particular are to be found in general magazines such as LIFE, LOOK, TV GUIDE, and the like -- the current MACLEAN'S, one of Canada's top slick magazines, has a special BATMAN adventure by Bob Kane, incorporating elements of both the television show and the local political scene; "Holy Fleur-de-Lis!" exclaims Robin as he and Batman rescue Prime Minister Pearson from the Mafia, only to be dismissed for their troubles because they don't pun bilingually enough for the Canadians (a French-speaking Superman takes their place) -- and in almost every newspaper in the country. And last, but by no means least, is the adaptation of the "Batman" motif by political cartoonists all over the country -- three examples are reprinted here; there are others. When a political cartoonist appropriates a theme for his work, you may be sure that it's one that is both timely and familiar to everybody!
And if all this is stunning to the Comic Collector, just imagine how he's going to feel once next season's television shows hit the screen. Already announced as picked up for television or motion picture viewing, in live-action or cartoon format, are the Green Hornet, the Shadow, Wonder Woman, Superman and Superboy, Aquaman, Spider-Man, Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and a host of others -- all of whom will doubtlessly foster floods of their own of merchandising items, newspaper and magazine articles, etc. If there is a Comic Book Library anywhere attempting to keep track of everything pertaining to the comic-book industry and art that is released, it will have to build several new wings to contain the ocean of new material that is now flooding the country, and that can be expected to continue to do so for the next couple of years, at least.
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Now that the Bat-boom has arrived, though, we can all sit back and relax in the glow of national publicity that's come to our little microcosm, happy in the knowledge that comic books are finally getting all the public recognition that we've long known was their just due. Or can we?
Certainly, the current wave of mundane hysterical interest in comic books is healthier for the field than was the last -- the anti-comic-book witch hunt of Dr. Wertham fame, in the early '50's. But in the long run, I wonder if the current boom is going to prove that much more beneficial, in the literary sense? The position that literature and art in the comic-book format can have real merit (even if it usually doesn't) is hardly one that has been supported by the current craze, which is playing up comic books from the "camp" viewpoint: the reason that they're so good is that they're really so bad!
The keynote is idiocy. Idiocy "revealed" by the publisher (television producer, news reporter, etc.) for the edification of his audience, as a bit joke that they're all In on, being superior to the idiots who "believe" in it. If some people are paying large prices (usually quoted at an unrealistic $100 and upwards) for old comics, it's not because they're any heretofore unrecognized value in the comics, but because these people are idiots. Anyone who likes "Batman" for any reason other than because it's so bad, so corny, so ridiculous, is an idiot. The people involved with the show are idiots: LIFE (March 11) reported "Batman (Adam West) is serious about his work. He said he couldn't just plain jump, but had to know why he was jumping. We told him he was leaping into the fray to vanquish a gang of interlopers. He said, 'Ah, good. I have to be motivated.'" (Was he trying to put LIFE on, or were they both trying to put us on?)* Even a newspaper article about one of the props on the show -- "BATMOBILE REVEALED AS FORD IN DISGUISE. New York -- The Batmobile (VROOM, POW, SCREECH), the sleek and unique automobile driving by that crime buster Batman with his chum Robin (BIFF, THONK, FLERGH) was built originally by Ford Motor Co. at a cost of $250,000 the company has disclosed. Asked about the cost, a Ford spokesman exclaimed, "Holy Transaxles!" The company said the car was handcrafted (PURR, BANG, RUB) by its Dearborn (Mich.) styling center in 1955 as a one-of-a-kind experimental vehicle. ..." -- is written almost as though to imply that the company that made it ten years earlier for mundane reasons must be run by idiots because of what it's currently being used for.
* The cover for this same issue of LIFE shows Adam West as a giggly Batman, looking as though he's on LSD.
What's wrong with all this is best summed up by Charles Champlin in his column in the Los Angeles Times for Feb. 28, which I am taking the liberty of reprinting here because I agree with it so thoroughly:
"Batman is now firmly enshrined as the boffo, socko, gewhizerooney showbiz smash of our times, the greatest thing since the safety pin, the graham cracker and soft ice cream, but greater than any. It is high-piled in ratings, merchandised beyond the dreams of avarice, affecting our speech-patterns, wreaking insomnia the length and breadth of Madison Avenue, shaping our televiewing for years to come.
It is also a listless, tasteless, witless, styleless, humorless bore of staggering proportions. It was born of a devout and monumental cynicism towards the television audience that has probably not been equaled since Hair-raising Tales of pre-coaxial cable days, or since the last used-car commercial.
Theoretically, very theoretically, the Batman boys have got everything going great for them. They've supposedly come up with that creator's dream, the criticism-proof creation. If the critic says it's a terrible show, the lads can nod eagerly and say, "But of course. That's the whole point. It's supposed to be bad. And the worse, the better." The critic who crosses his heart and says the show is good, on the other hand, is not likely to be asked to make a retraction: of course it's good.
This concept of goodness arising out of deliberate badness or indeed out of any kind of badness is very moderne. It must in fact give Henry Ford the screaming fits to think that it has all happened too late to do the Edsel any good.
In a way, this new development has probably been inevitable. The big fictional item in the postwar years has been the anti-hero, the unregenerate bum whose cheating, thieving, wife-beating propensities made sense because he was a product of our time. What could you do for an encore except come along with the anti-value?
An upside-world in which bad is good is bad and good is bad and old is new and new is stale is a marvelous luxury -- a chance to make foolish judgments because of a presumed lack of any need to make serious judgments on serious matters. It eliminates the need for criticism because a simple whim will suffice -- only assuming the whimmers are a peer group.
The great rationalization for Batman and the others who will soon join him on the bandwagon is that it's camp, it's pop. ("There, in the sky, it's camp! It's pop! It's spoofertime!" ) Thereby invoking two of the most misshapen words in the language.
"Camp," as I get it, began as a vaudeville term for performers or acts that a later day would probably have called swishy. Maybe a half-dozen years ago it showed up in a slightly wider meaning, covering things as well as people who were precious, inordinately stylized, outrageously removed from what anybody regarded as the norm. As usual, mass use brought further fuzzing-up of meaning, as well as a whole mystique of high camp, low camp and middle-camp. But what is still involved, basically, is a bent and supercilious view of the world.
Pop art as a term can, so far as I know, be ascribed to one man, Laurence Alloway, an English art critic. And what he had in mind, I think, was populist art or popular art -- the notion that things existed in our society which were neither created nor intended as works of art but which were part of the "art" we are all exposed to. Thus the outsized paintings of soup cans and comic strips and the collages of labels, headlines, magazine covers and cigarette packages. It may have got out of hand, but philosophically it was a reasonable attempt to break down the barriers of "art" as something exclusive, refined and removed from every day reality.
What "pop" is taken to mean presently, I don't really know. But it has, I think, acquired some overtones of derision that weren't there in the beginning. Pop has become a snob word for enthusing over bad taste. But it began, if I'm right, as an acknowledgement of the sometimes gaudy vigor of a mass culture.
To get back to Batman, and I guess we have to, to be true camp or true pop art, it would have had to take itself seriously, as The Lone Ranger or Superman television series did, and be unintentionally funny. Instead, it giggles "Aren't we devils" with the infectious gaiety of a man wearing a lampshade at a cocktail party, and the in crowd enjoys a few sniggers at the Batman-Robin relationship.
To be a true parody, as the show attempts to be, is hugely difficult because you start with fantasy rather than reality. It requires a power of invention, a sense of style, a feeling for the genuinely absurd and a production budget that have been denied the series.
Batman in his wrinkled sweatshirt and fetishist hood looks like a refugee from a third-rate costume party. The Batmobile obviously could not outrace a Baker Electric and the Batcave looks like a warehouse for obsolete pinball machines. The villains are so much smarter than Batman (and reveal what little ingenuity goes into the show) that Batman manifestly couldn't win a round if the game weren't fixed. An anti-hero at least has the courage of his lack of convictions. The semi-detached hero is a new breed.
It'll never do."
And what's wrong with all this as far as we're concerned is that it hasn't improved the public image of the comic book media a bit; if anything, it's given the field an even lower reputation as far as the possibilities for literary merit are concerned. Before "Batman", we had at least a theoretical chance of convincing the man in the street that there was something to be said for the comic book -- he didn't really know enough about them to have a closed mind on the subject. Now, though, he's convinced that comic books are necessarily absolute trash, doomed by a malignancy inseparably inherent in the literary format; and if we see anything of value in them at all -- why, then, we must be idiots, to be humored possibly, but certainly not listened to seriously. So we aren't going to get much satisfaction out of pointing with pride to our comic collections and saying, "See what real merit there is in them?", after all. Frankly, if I told someone I was a panelologist, I'd be surprised if he kept a straight face. I think my opinion of the new "Batman" show can best be summed up in one word: Frustrating.
PUBLISHERS' WEEKLY, March 21, 1966
A Batman anthology of reprints from the early comic book adventures of the caped crusader is being rushed into a 750,000-copy paperback printing by New American Library. The 50-cent book, entitled "Batman", will contain eight episodes in a black and white version drawn by Bob Kane, the creator-artist of Batman and his young sidekick Robin.
At the same time, NAL will bring out a three-part novelization by Winston Lyon entitled "Batman vs. Three Villains of Doom." The classic opponents in this 50-cent paperback are the Joker, the Penguin and Catwoman.
Both paperbacks are scheduled for shipment on March 25, 10 days after all material reaches the printer. They will be published on April 21 by arrangement with National Periodical Publications, Inc., owners of the Batman reprint rights and publishers of Batman comics. The books will available through NAL's paperback distributor, Independent News Company, a subsidiary of National Publications.
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Ted White, in L #18:
A month or two ago I was making cryptic remarks about a new project of some interest to fans, and about my interest in seeing Batman succeed on TV. Well, I can now reveal that the project was torpedoed, and I couldn't care less about Batman's success.
Early last fall, my agent told me there would be a Batman tv show, and asked me if I'd like to write a Batman novel, for Bantam Books. I agreed with some enthusiasm, and then he began unraveling the legalities of a show co-owned by 20th Century-Fox and National Comics.
At first there was the usual buck-passing ("I haven't any control over that"), but at last it came down to a simple fact: National runs a distributing company (which distributes, among other things, the Marvel comics line), and distributes Signet Books. When originally agreeing about this, Signet pressed for, and got, exclusive rights to any and all books resulting from National Comics characters.
Thus, 20th Century-Fox was happy with the idea of a Batman book. And National liked the idea. But while Bantam wanted to do it, first chance must go to Signet.
Signet dithered. They 'couldn't make up their minds'. And time started running out; the show was on the air already, and a book should have been written. Meanwhile, my agent and I waited, anxiously, for news of whether Signet would be going ahead with the book or relinquishing it to Bantam.
PUBLISHERS' WEEKLY broke the story, to my agent's total surprise. It seems Signet had already, very quietly and without telling anyone, bought a Batman book, apparently an unsold juvenile slightly reworked. My agent hit the ceiling, and everyone at National was very embarrassed. And I was out the book.
... My Batman book -- the one which will never be written now -- would have harkened back to the Good Old Days. The main villains would've been the Joker and Two-Face -- with one startling difference: Batman had been hypnotized into becoming Two-Face himself. (After the tv show started, I thought of adding in the Catwoman as a sympathetic character.)
As a postscript, at least a friend of mine got to do Batman -- on gum cards. Yes, Larry Ivie, intrepid Topps Bubble Gum Card writer, has written the stories for five Batman sequences of eleven cards each. The art was penciled by Bob Powell (S.R. Powell, to you old-timers), and Larry says it was very good. But the over-painting was by different artists, some of whom were wretched, and the quality varies enormously.