30 Days of Batman
In college, I took a course on “Transmedia Storytelling,” with our example being the Star Wars multimedia universe. “Transmedia Storytelling” is a term coined by media scholar Henry Jenkins that describes telling stories across multiple forms of media that are derived from one original source material. These various ways of elongating a narrative within one particular universe offer unique experiences based on that media platform, and engage in what is known as “world building.” In other words, the more varied one universe becomes through its different media outlets, the more expansive that particular universe gets. What the authors are attempting to do is build a larger audience for that specific universe, so that way people who might not be, for instance, comic book enthusiasts can still tap into a fictional world via television, film, or video games and find enjoyment. Perhaps one of the earliest examples of “transmedia storytelling” is the universe of Bob Kane’s comic book hero, Batman. Batman could have remained in the comic book zone forever, but do you honestly think his story would have reached as many people, touched as many hearts if it had done so? I’m sure fan boys wish to some extent that Batman never broke free from the confines of comic book pages, but I for one can stomach a cheesy television series like the 1960s’ Batman if it means getting all the way to Batman: The Animated Series and Christopher Nolan’s Batman film trilogy. Moving the Caped Crusader away from his comfortable domesticity in the comic-verse was a risk, but I obviously do not have to tell how you much it’s paid off almost fifty years later. Therefore, it’s crucial that everyone understand the history of the transition from Batman: The Comic Book Series to Batman: The TV Series, so let’s all take a trip down memory lane…
If there’s anyone to really thank for bringing Batman: The TV Series to life, it’s shockingly Mr. Playboy himself, Hugh Hefner. Hefner was screening the 1940′s serials of Batman in his Chicago Playboy Club in the early 1960s on Saturday nights, as Saturdays were synonymous with serials in those days, which played incredibly well amongst casual moviegoers and youthful audiences. ABC executive Yale Udoff, a Batman comic aficionado, went to the club one particular evening and responded greatly to the campy serials of the live-action Batman, believing they could a be a hit on prime time television. He then pitched the idea to fellow executives Edgar J. Sherick and Harve Bennett, who got on board with the idea since the network had already planned on bringing a comic book superhero adaption to the small screen, but had yet to settle on who they’d choose.
It was also at this time that the Ed Graham Productions television company wanted to bring the comic book hero to life on CBS as a Saturday morning kid’s program. They yearned to mirror the success that The Adventures of Superman was having in this same format, and had just formed contractual ties with DC Comics to bring Batman and his universe to the television milieu. Unable to come to an agreement about the direction they wanted Batman to go in, DC Comics was able to re-obtain the rights of the comic series from Ed Graham Productions, and subsequently formed an agreement with ABC to make Batman the superhero poster child of the network. Now all they needed was a major production company to help produce and finance the series (and guess what? It wasn’t Warner Bros.).
It turns out that 20th Century Fox had a vested interest in bringing the comic book hero to the small screen, and agreed to produce the series so long as it would be run by prominent Hollywood executive William Dozier and his Greenway Productions company. Dozier became such an influential component to Batman: The TV Series that he even served as the narrator of the show throughout its three season run. Dozier was a businessman first and foremost, and as someone who never appreciated or took seriously the world of comic books, he thought that parroting the campy, over-the-top style of the successful 1940′s live-action comic serials would translate better to a wide audience. Film noir had all but died after the mid 1950s, and so that genre was too great a financial risk to dive back into, especially since the screwball comedy genre was starting to really gain momentum in Hollywood. It was unfortunate that this was the case, seeing as how the comic series itself was reverting back to its detective/noir roots as opposed to its more recent foray into the supernatural.
Originally, ABC and Dozier wanted to make a TV-movie to introduce the series to the general public (think: the miniseries of Battlestar Galatica that introduced the re-imagined television program), but their hired screenwriter Eric Ambler disliked the direction of the show, citing its campy/comedic approach as the primary reason from pulling out of the project. With Ambler gone, there was no head writer for the television series, not to mention ABC pushing up the date of the show’s launch, which would delay the introductory movie as a result (the film would eventually premiere during the hiatus between Seasons One and Two). By this time, two pairs of actors were being screen tested for Batman & Robin: Lyle Waggoner (The Carol Burnett Show, Wonder Woman) & Peter Deyell in one corner and Adam West & Burt Ward in the other. Apparently, Waggoner and Deyell didn’t get the memo that they had to produce poor displays of acting and over-the-top camp, giving West and Ward a landslide victory as the chosen heroes in tights.
Adam West was a fairly successful actor in his own right before becoming the first major live-action Batman. His two biggest film credits before the Batman television series came around were The Young Philadelphians, opposite Paul Newman, and The Outlaws is Coming, the final theatrical film featuring the legendary Three Stooges. West, whose surname was originally “Anderson,” was a regular guest star in many Western television shows and films, and so it seems a bit remarkable that the actor could make the leap into the comic book realm. However, it only took one episode or two of watching Batman: The TV Series to realize the Western conservative values of law, order, justice, and morality reigned supreme against the evildoers in fictitious Gotham City. In other words, West was right at home. After Dozier saw Adam West in a Nestle Qwik commercial, it was love at first sight, and Dozier knew he had to invite West in for a test screening. The rest is history, folks!
Burt Ward, on the other hand, was an unknown. A spry, avid 19-year old comic book reader, Burt Ward — originally Bert John Gervis Jr. — had unlimited exuberance that matched Robin’s personality to a tee, and being young and in shape as opposed to the somewhat older Adam West, Bert could do his own stunts on the show. Thus, Burt Ward was cast as Robin in the series, and let’s just say he was the Wesley Crusher of his era (Star Trek: The Next Generation character, for those of you aren’t hyper-nerds). Meaning what, exactly? Meaning he was so typecast as this role, not to mention it was a laughable one that many fans genuinely loved to hate, that Burt Ward had an incredibly trying time attempting to find work in a post-Batman world. Ward found better luck in Hollywood’s technical departments, and created his own business company called Boy Wonder Visual Effects®. The company’s most high-profile work to date was for 2003′s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
Going back to the origins of Batman: The TV Series, the final component needed was a scriptwriter who could not only write the show’s “pilot” episode, but also pen the upcoming film’s screenplay and serve as story supervisor for the program. That last piece of the puzzle turned out to be Lorenzo Semple Jr., a former short story contributor to high-profile magazines such as Collier’s Weekly and The Saturday Evening Post. Semple Jr.’s style was in line with Dozier’s vision — pop art, campy, pulp heavy, and unafraid to go the satirical and slapstick route. ABC signed Semple Jr. to the project immediately after reviewing his prior work, and had enough faith in Semple Jr. to give him free reign of script supervision, story editing, and narrative input on every episode of Batman’s inaugural season.
Thus, the long-envisioned series had finally come to life, premiering on January 12th, 1966. Unlike most prime time shows of today, Batman was granted two episodes per television week for its first two seasons. This means that although the series had a three season run (ending in 1968), it was able to accrue 120 episodes by the time it had ended and passed the television quota for its syndication. Although the series suffered in the ratings by the second season — where the laughs derived turned into fits of torture — it was picked up for one more season thanks to the comic book’s introduction of Batgirl. ABC, hoping to net in a wider female audience, renewed the show for a third season following a successful promotional short featuring Batgirl. However, ratings continued to slide down the rabbit hole, and West and Dozier protested the show’s continuation after they learned that budget cuts meant getting rid of Robin, leaving Batgirl to serve as Batman’s right-hand partner. Cancellation soon followed, and with the direction the series was taking into the bizarre, surreal, and low-rent, I think fans and the ABC network were more than happy to have their somewhat successful experiment put to infinite rest. Still, as my colleague Robert Hamer said in response to a recent Batman article, it sometimes takes a terrible idea and concept to get to a place of brilliance. He was referencing Joel Schumacher’s criminal Batman and Robin, which served as the catalyst for Nolan’s epic reboot of the series in 2005. The same could be said about the cheesy and often laughably egregious Batman: The TV Series — its low standard of storytelling and universe-building paved the way for future authors to take the Batverse and run with it. In effect, we had the marvelous noir graphic novels of Frank Miller and Jeph Loeb, the bizarrely amazing Batman, courtesy of Tim Burton, and the unconquerable Batman: The Animated Series. So, let us give thanks to the first major Batman device for transmedia storytelling that began to build a pyramid in which Nolan’s films sit comfortably on its capstone.
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