Batman 66 @ 50

Fifty years ago today on January 12, 1966, Batman premiered on ABC television.  I was nine months old.  The show ended its network run in March of 1968, just before I turned 3, so it’s safe to say I probably missed the whole thing.

Still, as noted in an earlier post, the pop-culture tsunami that was 60s Batmania left in its wake scads of colorful bat-merchandise that filled the toyboxes of my friends’ older siblings.  So it was that through items like the Remco Batmobile Dashboard toy and Topps’ trading cards painted by Norm Saunders (specifically one showing a rescue via Batplane) I was introduced to the Batman character, which in turn led to the comics and eventually back to Adam West.

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It wasn’t until the early 70s that I finally got to see the “live action” Batman, thanks to a television broadcast of the 1966 motion picture featuring the same cast, sets and vehicles used on the show.  I think it’s fair to say it blew me away. Up until then, the only live action superheroics I’d seen were The Adventures of Superman, which I loved, but as awesome as George Reeves was, in the end he was always stuck rounding up two-bit gangsters, con men and bank robbers on a shoestring budget, compared to the comics, where he battled fantastic super-villains and alien invasions and moved whole planets with his bare hands. I had learned to set my expectations pretty low, so when Batman showed up I was awestruck.

Here, suddenly, was a flesh-and-blood Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder, duking it out with honest-to-gosh comic book villains The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin and Catwoman, tooling around in an actual Batmobile, Batcycle, Batboat and Batcopter and hanging out in a huge and wonderful Batcave. Where George Reeve’s Superman was the only really remarkable element/character in a typical 50s adventure show,  Batman was a comic book brought to life, with characters, settings and situations that had only existed on gaudily-colored pulp paper before. For an eight-year-old, it was pure awesome.  If we’d had a color TV set, I’d probably have had heart failure.

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Flash forward a couple more years and the show itself aired in syndication on a local TV station.  If anything, it was more amazing than I remembered the movie being, and certainly the whole enterprise was more effective in half-hour installments.  These days Batman always seems to air in two back-to-back episodes; the first ending in a nail-biting cliffhanger and the next resolving the crisis.  I preferred it the way I got to see it, spending the 24 hours between chapters in total suspense until another school day ended and I could run from the bus stop to have my fears allayed.  How were the Dynamic Duo going to escape that huge cake made of quicksand (and how does one make a cake out of quicksand)?  Can Bruce Wayne save himself from going over the cliff on that runaway stretcher? Did that giant clam really swallow Robin? Half the fun was arguing with your classmates about just how the latest peril would be resolved (and knowing no matter how crazy the kids’ solutions would be, the show’s writers would deliver something even crazier).  On the other hand, in those pre-VCR days, you always ran the risk of never seeing the end of the story if you were held after school, or the bus ran late, or your folks wanted to take you somewhere.  And then there was that occasional super-long wait when “part one” aired on a Friday.

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I was just anal enough to be bothered by the details they got “wrong.”  Batman and Robin’s utility belts looked different from the comic-book versions, Bruce Wayne’s hair wasn’t dark enough and, hey, was that a mustache on the Joker? But compared to what Hollywood had in store for Batman further down the road, the TV show was a model of fidelity.  In the first, best season, that’s where the comedy came from; situations and dialog that passed for acceptable on the comic page became outrageous and hilarious when acted out by flesh-and-blood actors, transferred as opposed to translated from the original medium.

For years after it left the air, Batman was despised by comic book fans who saw it as an insult to the character and the comics medium in general.  Certainly it was frustrating that every comic-related news article typed by every lazy journalist for decades started with “Zap! Bam! Pow!”  Personally, I never lost my affection for the show, even though the comic book Batman of my era was the darker, spookier version drawn by guys like Neal Adams and Jim Aparo.  Hey, I grew up with the original Star Trek and the Roger Moore version of James Bond, so I developed a taste for cheese early on.  Plus you had to love deathless dialog like this:

“I’ve heard that song before, Catwoman.  The last few bars are always the same.  The criminal is always behind them.”

Eventually, enough other versions of Batman came along, many of them dark and brooding and humorless, that the Adam West version seemed less threatening to fanboys.  Today the show is widely loved for what it is — harmless entertainment and a time-capsule of another era — while Mr West himself, type-cast and employment-challenged for years after Batman, has evolved into something of a pop-culture icon.

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I confess the show doesn’t have nearly the same hold on me now that it did in childhood.  Once you’re out of grade school, you can see it’s basically a one-joke concept dragged out for 120 episodes.  Plus, after you’ve seen them all a few times, the law of diminishing returns factors in.  What’s fascinating is that my kids are totally indifferent to the whole thing; they can take it or leave it.  But I suppose here in the 21st century, where scores of celluloid superheroes fly around with magic hammers and hi-tech armor in films with budgets larger than the gross national product of some countries, the TV-scale adventures of a non-powered guy in a leotard and satin trunks aren’t as impressive as they once were.  In my day, though, it was slim pickings; almost no one considered comic books worthy of adaptation to the screen, let alone sure-fire money-makers, so discovering a show like Batman, replete with with otherwise respectable (even famous) grown-up actors dressed in spandex and capes, trading punches on outrageous sets that even a kid could tell cost a lot of money, was like getting an extra Christmas.  At the time, I was convinced it was the whole reason they’d invented TV in the first place.

If nothing else, Batman taught me life lessons that have stood me in good stead all these years: never operate a vehicle without fastening your safety bat-belt, be sure to drink your milk, mind the rules of proper grammar and don’t go anywhere without a full can of shark repellent.

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See you again in another 50, Caped Crusader.  Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.

Hitting 50: Thunderball

tball-posterWith the latest Bond film, Spectre, in theaters, and considering I’ve been writing about 50-year-old things this year, it’s a good time to take a look at 007’s battles with SPECTRE a half-century ago in a film billed as “The Biggest Bond of All.”

Hitting US theater screens in December, 1965, Thunderball certainly would go on to be the biggest money-maker in the franchise’s history up to that point, and held that distinction for more than a decade, vindicating Eon Productions’ strategy of making each new entry bigger, flashier, louder and more expensive than the last. To paraphrase the old saying, “Nothing succeeds like excess.”

On the other hand, Thunderball was also where we first started seeing the negative effects of the “bigger is better” approach, as the film is bogged down by long, lingering shots of its opulent Bahamian locations and protracted underwater sequences, as well as a piled-on plethora of gadgets both big and small.  There’s an epic scale to the film that wasn’t found in its three predecessors, but on the human level, there’s not much to sink your teeth into; human beings — including Bond himself — tend to get dwarfed by the spectacle.

The pre-credits sequence sets the mood, as Bond assassinates an enemy agent (who’s in drag, because why not) and escapes from the upper floor of a sprawling mansion via jetpack (the Bell Rocket Belt in its most famous screen appearance).  The real-life jetpack pilot who performed the stunt insisted on the un-Bondian precaution of a safety helmet, so Connery has to don one as well for the sake of continuity, but at least Q-branch has gone the extra mile and painted it to complement Bond’s bespoke suit.

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Here we have in microcosm the whole spirit of “Classic Bond,” which is both ridiculous and awesome at the same time.  In the moment, the scene works, and in 1965 it was probably fairly astounding.  In terms of logic, however, it doesn’t really hold up: How did Bond get the jetpack up to the top floor?  If he’d flown in on it, someone would’ve heard it (it’s VERY loud).  If he’d carried it in the front (or rear) door and lugged it upstairs, one imagines that would’ve attracted some attention, as well.  Here’s where we’re really getting into the “Don’t think, just have fun” approach that will characterize the series for years to come.

Anyway, cue Tom Jones and his over-the-top rendition of the theme song (legend has it he fainted after hitting the last, extended note) and then it’s off to a secret meeting of that organization of global evil, SPECTRE.  In Dr No, it only got a name check. In From Russia With Love, we just saw a small office and a mysterious guy with a white cat with a handful of flunkies.  This time SPECTRE gets a massive Ken Adam set in all its stainless steel glory, with a large assemblage of no-goodniks plotting deviltry across the globe.  As in FRWL, bossman Ernst Stavro Blofeld browbeats a subordinate with threats of punishment before — surprise! — killing the co-worker next to him, instead.  But where in the earlier film death is dealt by a kick from a poison-toed shoe, this time the victim is rather more spectacularly electrocuted, his chair then lowered into the floor to return scorched and smoking.  And the meeting moves on to the next order of business…

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The Plot Du Jour involves the theft of atomic bombs, which SPECTRE manages by hi-jacking a British bomber and crashing it in the ocean, then removing the bombs via submersibles and a force of frog men.  The easily spotted wires holding up the model bomber don’t detract (much) from the wonderful audacity of the sequence, both on the part of SPECTRE and the movie-makers.  The various underwater sleds invented just for the film are impressive, though soon enough we’ll tire of aquatic sequences.

Moving to London, the spirit of visual one-upmanship continues as, instead of the customary one-on-one briefing in M’s office, Bond attends a much larger meeting in a massive mansion with giant paintings concealing equally huge maps and diagrams.  Here we get a rare (indeed to date, unique) glimpse of the entire Double-0 section.  Late as always, Bond takes the seventh seat from our left, suggesting we’re looking at agents 001 through 009, in order.  Interestingly for 1965 and the frankly chauvanistic Bond series, one of the Double-O’s is a woman.

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Soon enough Bond is off to the Bahamas to meet the Bond Girl and Bond Villain.  This is one area where it’s already become difficult to out-do what’s come before, but Thunderball takes a stab by giving one of them an eye patch.  In retrospect, it might’ve been more memorable if it had been the girl.

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Claudine Auger as “good girl” Domino Derval is a looker (rumor has it she and Connery had an affair during filming), but for my money the standout is Luciana Paluzzi as the evil Fiona Volpe, Bond’s equal when it comes to separating sex from sentiment.  In a nod to Pussy Galore’s “conversion” from bad girl to good girl in Goldfinger, Fiona delivers a fun speech on how a mere roll in the hay with Bond isn’t enough to change her stripes.  Fair enough.  It just means she ends up dead in the next scene.

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So then lots of other stuff happens, way too much of it underwater.  In fairness, though, the final battle between two armies of frogmen is pretty impressive, despite playing out in something close to slow motion thanks to the pesky laws of physics.

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As if to compensate, the showdown between Bond and Largo unreels in near-superspeed, with portions shot “undercranked” like a Keystone Kops comedy short.  I have no idea what they were going for here, but it always feels like the producers said, “Yikes, all those underwater scenes put us 20 minutes over our time!  You’ve got 30 seconds to wrap this thing up!”

 

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Anyway, virtue triumphs and, with the bombs retrieved and the world once more safe for democracy, Bond is allowed some relaxing downtime with the lovely Domino as they float in a raft, waiting to eventually be picked up by boat.  Just kidding; a big plane zooms overhead and jerks them into the clouds via “skyhook” extraction.  Bigger and better, remember? Subtlety is for suckers.

And so we reach the end of Thunderball, great big gaudy Christmas present plopped down in US movie theaters on December 22, 1965 amid a marketing frenzy that would serve as a blueprint for blockbuster franchises to this day.

Yes, the end, but James Bond will return. And if you think this one was over the top, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

 

 

 

Gracie Talks Turkey

Earlier this week I pulled into the driveway after work and saw Grace and Scott “galloping” around in the front yard.  Grace explained that they were “riding their turkeys.”

She saddled up again and gave me a demonstration. “If you make this sound, he goes left,” she explained.  “If you make this sound, he goes right, and if you go like this, he’ll circle back to the start.”  Then, while she pretended to tie the turkey’s reins to the porch post, she said what I was afraid she’d say: “Now you try it.”

I’ve done a lot of goofy things to entertain my little princess, but this was one indulgence I wasn’t ready to grant, at least at that moment.  “No, honey,” I demurred, “I’m afraid if the neighbors saw me riding around on a turkey at my age, they’d think I was silly.”

“Daddy, it’s okay,” she assured me.  “He’s invisible.”

Somehow, I wasn’t convinced that would help my situation.

The next day, I asked if the turkey was getting wet in the rain, and she said, “No, he’s in his pen.”  Just to tweak her, I said, “Oh, no, I’m afraid he got out of the pen.  I saw a turkey running down the street after the mailman yelling, ‘Gobble Gobble, Gimme Mail!'”  Without missing a beat, she answered, “Well, it couldn’t have been mine.  He’s an off-road turkey.”

Check and mate.

Murphy Anderson, RIP

Comic book artist Murphy Anderson passed away on Oct. 23, and while I always knew I liked his work, it hadn’t occurred to me until now just how many of the most powerful and best-remembered images of my childhood flowed from his brush.

I was a “Bronze Age” kid, introduced to comics in the early 70s when Mr Anderson was teamed with the late, great Curt Swan on the Superman family of comics. Their styles melded together so seemlessly, they became known as the blended entity “Swanderson,” producing not only memorable covers and interior art but also figural icons used on the comics of the era as well as countless pieces of Superman merchandising, including a good half of my school supplies.

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Decades later, the covers Anderson produced with (and without) Swan still have the same pull they did when they first appeared on the spinner racks, calling out to me, “Buy this book!”

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On the inside, “Swanderson” specialized in distinctive, expressive faces, something not even the best comic artists always truly master.  A great example occurs in the much-celebrated and often-reprinted story, “Kryptonite Nevermore.”

kryptonite snack

I’d missed out on the “Silver Age” of Comics by a few years, but the images Anderson created with Carmine Infantino in the ’60s for Batman and related characters were omnipresent well into the 70s.  So again I knew Anderson’s work long before I figured out who he was.

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One of the things that made me a “DC Kid” when most of my friends were Marvel Zombies was the more “polished,” elegant “house style” of DC art, which seemed tied to the tradition of classic magazine illustration, compared to the more hi-octane, cutting-edge Marvel style.  In retrospect probably the best exemplar of “DC polish” was Anderson, who paired with Swan created Norman Rockwell-like imagery of life “not as it is but as it ought to be.” More vitally, for me, he smoothed out the rough edges of artists like Infantino and Gil Kane; each were brilliant at drawing figures that conveyed power, speed and agility, but those figures were often saddled with faces too sharp-edged and stylized (even “cartoony” at times) for my taste.  If I had a criticism of Anderson, it was that when he did both pencils and inks, his figures could be a bit on the stiff, posed side, so when he was paired with Kane and Infantino, we got the best of both worlds; dynamic, kinetic figures but with added elegance and attractive faces.

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This ability to, let us say, tame the wilder tendencies of some artists led to Anderson’s most controversial gig, re-drawing faces of Superman family characters in Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” comics. Wooing Kirby away from Marvel was a coup for DC (although by the end, he couldn’t have needed much of a “push”), and for months his arrival was touted with house ads proclaiming “Kirby Is Coming!” But when he arrived, he seems to have been more than the company was ready for, so they covered up his signature style with something closer to what it was felt the DC readership would accept.

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This infamous editorial move is often cited as one of the many injustices done to Kirby by various publishers, though no one blames Anderson, who just did what he was told.  In all honesty, for me it worked.  I likely never would have pestered my folks to buy me Kirby-era issues of “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen” without the comforting presence of Anderson’s handsome Superman.   As it was, the books were already crammed with trippy psychadelic vistas and creepy creatures like “The Four-Armed Terror” that alternately intimated and thrilled grade-school me;  Anderson’s reassuring inks were like having a trusted parent along on a walk through a Halloween “haunted house.”

Over the years, almost every major DC character was drawn by Murphy Anderson, and they always looked the better for it.

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I never got to meet Mr Anderson personally (I missed my chance at a convention once, and I’m still kicking myself for it), but he had a big impact on my youth and helped spark a lifelong love of comics.  If nothing else, his consistently excellent artistic output ensures he’ll live on through his work, as long as classic old comics are reprinted.

RIP.