For those who came in late, at one time in America, there were only three channels of television programming available, controlled by the networks NBC, CBS, and upstart ABC. Traditionally, all three networks debuted their new shows the second week in September every year. In 1965, the new fall season was scheduled to kick off a week earlier than usual. The ABC network, always looking for an edge to compete with its older, stronger rivals, used the extra week to attempt a new strategy. It created two "books" of new shows---the ones which would debut in September, 1965 and a package of shows held in reserve, which would be used to replace any of September's offerings that failed to acquire an audience in that first thirteen weeks.
Mid-season replacement series were common then, as now, but ABC was the first to issue a full block of replacement shows all at once, in January of ’66. This kicked off what the network ballyhooed as its Second Season -– “an exciting new television season just when you’re ready for one.” In the second week of 1966, ABC launched several new programmes: Blue Light, The Double Life of Henry Phyfe, The Baron---and a show that would erupt into a world-wide phenomenon . . . .
Produced by William Dozier, Batman mocked the mythos of the Caped Crusader, and comics in general, by adhering to familiar comic-book conventions and then taking them over the top. Adam West’s Batman was ultra-serious; Burt Ward, as the Boy Wonder, was nearly apoplectic in his enthusiasm; the “special guest villains” were gleefully evil; and the citizens, particularly the authority figures, were fawning in their admiration of the Dynamic Duo. All performed with tongue firmly in cheek. Dutch angles, visual sound effects, and garish colours were all employed to evoke a sense of comic-book panels. The result was a burlesque unlike anything seen on television. TV had done super-heroes before, with The Adventures of Superman, but while that show had been performed as straight as possible, Batman exaggerated every fanciful aspect of the super-hero to a comedic level.
And the viewers ate it up. Children, oblivious to the satire, adored watching the feats of their heroes. Adults, recalling their youthful naïvité, chuckled at seeing how the show skewered the comic-book adventures they used to read. If you weren’t around then, it’s difficult to comprehend the runaway popularity of the show. I was around then, and I never saw anything like it, before or since. The coonskin-cap-and-buckskin-jacket fad inspired by Disney’s Davy Crockett in the mid-‘50’s came close, but was restricted to the kids. Batman crossed generational lines.
From Mark Cotta Vaz’s Tales of the Dark Knight (Ballantine Books, 1989):
. . . Batmania raged like a wildfire . . . . There was a nightclub outside San Francisco known as “Wayne Manor”, where guests could buy their tickets from Batman at the front door, be seated by a Joker maître d’, and enjoy drinks being served by Wonder Woman while girls dressed like Robin danced behind a plate glass screen and led revelers in the Batusi. A Detroit hairdresser invented the Bat Cut, while a veteran Cleveland cop named Gilbert Batman became a local celebrity and helped stimulate blood-bank donations by donating his own blood---while costumed as his fabled namesake.
Batmania spread fast, indeed. The 11 March 1966 issue of Life magazine displayed Adam West as the Caped Crusader on the cover, and the article within highlighted all the things mentioned by Cotta Vaz, and more. Saturday Evening Post ran its own Batman feature in its 02 May 1966 issue, and TV Guide published three Bat-articles over the next year. In the fall, the show achieved that definitive distinction of popular culture when it was lampooned in the September, 1966 issue of Mad magazine.
Batman-related toys, games, and merchandise packed the shelves. Two months after Batman’s debut, some one thousand Batman items had been licensed for sale---Batman capes, Batman masks, Batman t-shirts, Batman utility belts, Batman play sets, Batman model kits, Batman board games, Batman trading cards, Batman badges, Batman lunch boxes, Batman colouring books, Batman puppets, Batman wristwatches, Batman toothbrushes, even Batman toiletries.
There were foodstuffs: Batman milk, Batman ice cream, Batman juice bars, Batman cola, Batman chewing gum, Batman bread, Batman peanut butter, and so (naturally) Batman jelly.
There were at least five different Batman record albums, the most notable of which contained songs all written by Neil Hefti, the composer of the Batman TV show theme. Department store book-racks carried paperbacks reprinting stories from ‘50’s issues of Batman and Detective Comics, and a novelisation of the Batman feature film soon to be released.
Jay Emmett, then president of the Licensing Corporation of America, told Newsweek, “This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened in licensing.”
The only demographic that seemed to hate the Batman television show was the narrow set of hard-line devotees of the Batman comic books. It had been less than two years since DC editor Julius Schwartz had rescued the character from gimmicky science-fiction plots and restored him to dignity. Now all of the Masked Manhunter’s newfound respectability had been capsized by the campy programme. The old fans saw it as making a mockery of their hero. They had no idea that the humiliation was just beginning.
It didn’t take long for Batmania to show its influence in Batman and Detective Comics. Batman stories drawn by Carmine Infantino, in his sleek, dynamic style, tapered off. Sheldon Moldoff took up the slack, but his Batman no longer operated on darkened streets, casting broad shadows in the moonlight. Now, Batman and Robin were surrounded by brightly lit backgrounds and colour-splashed characters.
The scripts began to reflect the television show, as well, but gradually. DC was caught between serious-minded Batman readers, who wanted the realism of the New Look to continue, and fans of the television show, who were now buying the comics and expecting to find the same campy approach. Insidiously, elements of the TV show crept into the Bat-titles. The comic-book Robin adopted the “Holy fill-in-the-blank!” exclamations of his television counterpart. Letterers increased and enlarged the sound-effects, especially in fight scenes, until the POW!’s and the BIFF!’s threatened to crowd out the figures themselves.
The sluce gates opened and costumed villains came rushing back into the Bat-books. The Joker---one of the most popular villains on the show---got a lot of face time, but he was vastly watered down from his early days as a maniacal killer. Now he was played as a cackling jester who bedeviled the Dynamic Duo with gags, reflecting the lightweight version portrayed Cesar Romero. The Catwoman was dug out of mothballs. And the Riddler, a minor foe with only a handful of appearances, was promoted to the first tier of Bat-villains on the strength of his television popularity. In between threats from his traditional rogues' gallery, Batman was set upon by such new and insipid costumed crooks as the Bouncer, the Eraser, and Bag O’Bones.
Not that the surge of costumed adversaries bothered the Caped Crusader much, since he had acquired another trait of his television counterpart---an unending supply of devices from his utility belt. No longer was Batman shown as relying on his wits and innate skills to get out of trouble. He simply had to reach into his utility belt (drawn increasingly larger, to emphasize its presence, until it began to look like a truss) and pull out the perfect gimmick, that he “just happened” to have on hand, to extract him from his current scrape.
The statement of ownership published at the end of 1966 showed that Batman posted an average total paid circulation of 898,470---almost twice that of the previous year and, for the first time, out-selling Superman. No wonder the Batman purists were losing out to the “high-camp” Bat-fans---DC knew which side was pumping in the bucks.
While those changes were sort of slipped under the door, there were two major developments in the Bat-titles that were directly attributable to the television show. The first was the return of Alfred the butler.
When Julius Schwartz had Alfred killed off back in Detective Comics # 328, he intended for the character to remain dead. However, the folks at ABC wanted Batman and Robin’s trusty retainer back in livery, again. Tales of the Dark Knight reported Schwartz’s reaction: “It became a very difficult situation when [the show’s producers] wanted Alfred there and they wanted me to bring him back. I said, ‘But he’s dead!’ They said, ‘You can think of a way.’”
And the resourceful editor did think of a way. For the past two years, Batman and Robin had been menaced by “the Outsider”, a continuing villain possessing unusual capabilities. Thus far, the true identity of the Outsider had not been revealed. I’ve never come across any information on who Schwartz had originally planned to be the villain, but it didn’t matter. In an effort to push a square peg into a round hole, Schwartz came up with “The Inside Story of the Outsider”, from Detective Comics # 356 (Oct., 1966). At the conclusion, the bizarre criminal was revealed to be Alfred. The contrived situation which turned the loyal butler into a deformed villain was reversed, and Alfred was restored, in body and mind.
Alfred’s return did not bode well for Aunt Harriet. The overprotective aunt had rarely taken a significant part in the Bat-stories as it was, figuring prominently in only a couple of adventures. The return of Alfred eliminated what limited purpose she had. Aunt Harriet’s presence was increasingly marginalised through the remainder of the Silver Age, until she finally disappeared completely without so much as a footnote.
The other notable development forced by the producers of the television show was the creation of a new Batgirl.
By 1967, the Batman craze had peaked, and ratings of the television show were sliding downward. Dozier and company hoped that the introduction of a Batgirl would revive male interest in the show and bring in female viewers, to boot. Once again, they pressed upon Julius Schwartz. Since the television Batgirl was going to be a curvaceous cutie of obviously adult age, bringing back the prepubescent Bat-Girl of 1961 would not do. Schwartz was forced to come up with a completely new character. He did this, in the form of Barbara Gordon, daughter of Commissioner Gordon. The “Dominoed Daredoll” was unveiled to the readership in “The Million-Dollar Debut of Batgirl”, from Detective Comics # 359 (Jan., 1967). A couple more appearances rapidly followed, to cement the new Batgirl in fans’ minds before the show presented her on 14 September 1967, in the first episode of the third season.
One could never accuse the executives at National Periodical of having any flies on them. With the Bat-craze sweeping the nation, the Caped Crusader was a guaranteed draw for any comic in which he appeared.
So, decreed the brass, he would appear in as many as possible.
Between the summer of 1966 and the beginning of 1968, it was nearly impossible to find a DC magazine in which Batman did not show up. The Masked Manhunter made the rounds of DC titles like an actor hitting the talk-show circuit to plug a new movie. Batman popped up in Superman, Action Comics, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Aquaman, Metal Men, Blackhawk, and even The Adventures of Jerry Lewis. He became the permanent star of The Brave and the Bold. Over in Teen Titans, Robin was thrust to preëminence, making his the largest figure on the cover, shoving the other three Titans into the background.
And when the Bat-guy himself failed to make a personal appearance, readers of DC mags were constantly being reminded of him by “product placement”. Artists would insert into backgrounds billboards advertising the Batman television show, and story characters all seemed to be fond of watching Batman on the tube.
But, perhaps, nowhere was this Bat-saturation more painfully obvious than in Justice League of America, nor more unwelcome by that title’s fans.
In the earliest issues of JLA, the participation of Batman, along with Superman, was largely curtailed, letting the other members shine. Eventually, JLA writer Gardner Fox broke out of that formula, and the World’s Finest Team appeared as often as the rest of the Justice League. Batman was just one of gang, no more, no less.
Then, in the summer of ‘66, Batman became The Star of Justice League of America. Starting with issue # 46 (Aug., 1966), the Masked Manhunter was the largest figure on nine straight covers, often reducing the other members to mere headshots. That is, when he wasn’t the only JLAer to appear on the cover at all. In the stories themselves, Batman was now the prime mover of the group, determining the action and bringing about the final resolution. In “The Lord of Time Attacks the 20th Century”, JLA # 50 (Dec., 1966), fully half the page count was devoted to Batman in action before the Justice League appeared at all.
As if that wasn’t enough, Fox would shoehorn Batman into tales which, logically, he had no business being in. “Missing in Action---5 Justice Leaguers”, JLA # 52 (Mar., 1967), tells the story of the League members who missed the adventure in # 50 and why they were unable to answer the emergency signal. Even though Batman did appear in # 50---heck, he was practically the whole story---he was squeezed into the account of the missing JLAers at the same time. And then there’s the case of “Z---as in Zatanna---and Zero Hour”, from JLA # 51 (Feb., 1967).
This was the landmark case which brought to an end Zatanna’s two-year search for her father, a quest which had brought her into contact with several DC super-doers: Hawkman, the Atom, Green Lantern, and the Elongated Man. But not Batman. Yet, when “Z---as in Zatanna . . .” opened with the Mystic Maid summoning the heroes who had assisted her to the secret sanctuary, there was Batman. The Gotham Gangbuster even admitted to her, “I have no recollection of ever meeting you, let alone helping you!” Granted, Gardner Fox found a clever way to justify Batman’s participation, still, it was obvious his presence was forced.
Not surprisingly, regular JLA readers howled at this Bat-exploitation, referring to him as “His Bat-ship” and “the center of distraction”. Reader Leonard Rosenburg, of the Bronx, New York, caustically pointed out that the title of the magazine was not “Batman and the JLA”.
By the time of 1967’s annual Justice League/Society team-up, those complaints were at a fever pitch. So Fox did an end-around. Batman was absent from that year’s team-up. Instead, Fox handed the readership the grown-up Robin of Earth-Two, who occupied almost the entire cover of JLA # 55, wearing a costume clearly patterned after his Caped Crusading mentor’s.
Fortunately for Fox, for whom by now, JLA fans were coming with pitchforks and torches, by the start of 1968, the bubble of Batmania burst.
Actually, it was more like it deflated. Like all fads, once it flared, it began to die. Ratings on the Batman television show started to sag in the fall of 1966. They remained high enough to carry the show through the season, but continued to hæmorrhage viewers throughout. In response, ABC trimmed the show’s budget, forcing Dozier to reduce production costs---and the cutbacks showed on screen. To further economise, the show was cut back from two episodes a week to one. The introduction of Batgirl did little to stem the tide.
In March of 1968, the television Batman was cancelled, and the Bat-craze was over.
Over at DC, Batman’s “fifteen minutes of fame” had passed. Sick of his omnipresence, readers were now turning away from anything Bat-like. His guest-star turns were eliminated. He returned to his normal place in JLA and actually missed a few cases, to placate Bat-sick Justice League fans. Only his constant presence in The Brave and the Bold continued to be profitable, so there, he stayed.
In the Bat-titles, Julius Schwartz made an attempt to regain the momentum lost by having to cater to the “camp Batman” concept. All the pop art, Bat-gadgets, and “Holy this!” and “Holy that!” were shelved, as Gardner Fox and his eventual replacement, Frank Robbins, once again aimed for legitimate mysteries and realistic crime capers. A new contract between National Periodical and Bob Kane no longer required a certain amount of art produced by him, and Shelly Moldoff was quietly let go. Gil Kane and Chic Stone filled in on the art chores, until DC settled on regular artists Irv Novick, for Batman, and Bob Brown, for Detective Comics.
By the end of the Silver Age, Batman was creeping his way back to being “The Batman”, a dark avenger who haunted the underworld, warring on all criminals.
He wouldn’t quite get there, though, until the Bronze Age came in, along with a couple of fellows named Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams.