Digital Comic Overlook #5: Batman ’66 #1-9
So, kids, once upon a time there was this TV show in 1966. It featured a somewhat pudgy guy in a Batman outfit and a teen sidekick in short pants. He was such a great detective that one time he foiled a sea crime, and deduced that because it took place in the “sea”, it was a clue to the letter “C”, which means one of the culprits was “Catwoman.” Giant letters like “POW!” and “BAM!” would show up on the screen during fights, there was a catchy as hell theme song, and Gotham was sunny Santa Barbara, California, for some reason.
I am talking, of course, about Electro Woman and Dyna Girl.
No… wait! I mean Batman. Despite repeated attempts over the last three decades to turn the Dynamic Duo into a grim Dark Knight, and despite the show not being available on DVD due to entangled rights issues, no one has ever been able to fully erase the goofy fun and colorful campiness of the megapopular 1960’s TV show. I wasn’t around back then, obviously. Guys, I’m old… just not that old. However, I did catch whole runs of the show back when it was on FX. (This back in the day when that channel was promoting itself as an upscale lifestyle network and not a gritty drama network. It’s… a weird fit either way.) In my opinion, the show got a lot right. It had the best ever live-action depictions of both the Riddler and the Penguin, and it captured the wacky Silver Age feel that comic creators are desperate to recreate these days.
The show’s spirit shows up every so often, partly because a lot of comic professionals are secretly in love with it. From time to time, characters created for the show, such as King Tut, reappear in the comics. (In fact, the Riddler would haved been a forgotten minor character if not for his prominence on the show.) Batman: Brave and the Bold was essentially an animated sequel to the show. And now there’s this: Batman ’66, an digital comic on the DC2 imprint featuring the new adventures of the Dynamic Duo.
Digital copies of Batman ’66 are available for digital download at $0.99 a piece. Most stories are multi-part. Covers are provided by Mike and Laura Allred. How is it that these two haven’t illustrated an entire issue yet? Allred’s retro ’60’s style is perfect for this kind of project. Can’t they see that they were made for each other? Writing duties are handled by comic veteran Jeff Parker, while art is provided by a rotating group of artists not named Allred.
The first three issues of Batman ’66 feature that sexy swiping feature that the digital comic wags are all upons these days. What does this mean? Digital comics with friggin’ Powerpoint transitions. Now, I know that there are quite a few fans of this look, and I admit that there are some benefits artistically. There are times when the panel is kept the same, only the color palette goes from a realistic look to a crazy pop art style. And of course there’s the show’s trademark onomatopoeia, which looks great when it takes up the whole iPad screen and it’s coming our right atcha. In a way, these comics are probably the gold standard for digital comics based on a TV show that was itself based on a comic. (The less said about the Arrow digital comic, the better.)
Here’s my problem, though. Like I said, this is basically a comic in Powerpoint format. But have you ever had to sit through a Powerpoint presentation made up almost entirely of weird special effects and creative transitions? It’s nifty at first, but after a while it gets really old. Batman ’66 doesn’t get quite that bad, but there are pages upon pages where you’re swiping through the pages where word balloons pop up one excruciating panel at a time. It kills the pacing a little. Plus, the end of my fingers got so warm from all the swiping that I began to wonder if heat signature was a potentially untapped new comic book language/gimmick. Either that or I need to start spraying my iPad screen with WD-40.
The first story is mainly to reintroduce us all the characters, including Irish stereotype Chief O’Hara. It’s a simple Riddler story. Dressed in the hated spandex suit (actor Frank Gorshin was actually the one who opted for the suit and tie look because it was more comfortable), the Riddler taunts the Dynamic Duo with clues while he goes about on his crime spree. At some point, Catwoman is involved. The riddles here are more intriguing than the one from the Adam West Batman movie, or even the ones in Batman Forever … but then again, what isn’t? (For the record, I remember Riddler’s clues being way more clever on the TV show than their reputations suggest.)
Anyway, it’s pretty light disposable fluff. The Powerpoint gimmicks are disposed of by the fourth issue, though, at which point you’re going to have to ask yourself: am I such a big fan of Batman ’66 that I’m willing to sit through what’s basically a modern update of Silver Age Batman stories? There’s a hazard with writing stories for a beloved TV program. You can’t really change the characters too much or they’ll become unrecognizable. Joker, for example, can’t suddenly become the homicidal maniac as he’s been portrayed in the comics for the past 40 years. Doing so would invalidate the existence of a comic based specifically on a silly kid’s show.
Tthe comic does remain experimental, though on a smaller and traditional scale. In issue 6, Batman encounters a singer named Circe, whose voice puts Batsy in a hallucinatory state. (I have a feeling this was inspired by the Justice League Unlimited episode where Circe runs a night club, but I don’t know. Maybe this is just the character’s M.O.* in the DC universe.) What follows is a pretty trippy sequence which recall less the 60’s comic pop art sensibilities and more the airbrushed paintings you’d find on vans a few years later. This is still Batman rooted in the 60’s but less Andy Warhol and more Woodstock.
Batman ’66 leans on the nostalgia card, which is to be expected. For why else would Batman ’66 exist? The villains look very much like their 60’s incarnations. This version of the Joker even has the mustache that Caesar Romero refused to shave! (Serious talk here: I always felt that Mr. Romero, mustache or no, was the actor that came the closest to looking like the comic book Joker.) Then we have the villains who show up that were created only for the TV show. Egghead shows up in all his Vincent Price finery to menace the Dynamic Duo, and there’s a cameo by that one cowboy dude who I think was named “Shame.” It’s only a matter of time before fan favorite King Tut shows up in his Party City pharaoh Halloween costume. You even get a reference to the beloved “Batman and Robin walk up the side of a building” gag.
But then Batman ’66 throws us for a loop by including very ’60’s version of characters who never showed up on the show. Characters such as Harley Quinn, who was created for the 90’s animated series (though the nerd in me wants to point out that it was Gotham Penitentiary, not Arkham, where villains were sent in the TV show)…
… and the Red Hood, a character who showed up briefly in the ’50’s but didn’t gain prominence until recently when former Robin Jason Todd took up the mantle.
That panel above is pretty nifty from a comic history sense, by the way, since the original Red Hood from 1951 was … *SIXTY-TWO YEAR SPOILER ALERT!* … the Joker himself. It was his villain identity before he took the leap into the acid bath.
I guess that this is a comic that’s fine for kids to read, but has enough Easter eggs to make adults happy. (Which, weirdly, is a little bit like what the TV show was like.) But… it’s hardly ever essential. By the time I reached the last page, I was amused and a little happy that I got to revisit the characters I loved all over again. But after that initial burst of fun, am I all that eager to download it again? Is the only hook to see how modern characters would be reimagined in the swingin’ 60’s? I mean, I might tune in again to the same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel just to see what Bane ’66 looks like. (My guess? He would look A LOT like my luchador alter ego.)
I stopped at Issue 9 despite technically have one other issue (#10) available for download. That one has Batman matching wits with The Mad Hatter. This is the one with the obsession over hats, not the beloved Alice In Wonderland loony. And I was all, “Is this something I really want to read? Campy Batman fighting a guy with hats?” That issue remains undownloaded.
A little West goes a long way.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5).
*M.O. – Modus Operandi. Plus there’s a pretty fun gag where a little yellow caption box explains exactly that.