In January 1966, the overnight success of the Batman TV program led to a miscalculation in the entertainment industry.
The archly comical ABC show was created to be “camp,” a term defined by Merriam-Webster as “…something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate or out-of-date as to be considered amusing.”
The early TV stories, lifted right from the comic books, didn’t sit so well on actual human beings in tights — even though it was fun to see Adam West address each crazy scheme involving puzzles, umbrellas, Rube Goldberg death traps and brightly colored knockout gas as if it were the imminent detonation of a hydrogen bomb.
A 12-year-old then, I understood that the show was laughing at Batman, not with him. And I didn’t appreciate it one little bit when that same attitude backwashed into superhero comics — not just the Batman comics, but many other bandwagon riders.
Take the revived Archie Comics MLJ superheroes, for example. Subjected to the faux-Stan Lee writing of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and the indifferent art of Paul Reinman, 1940s stalwarts like the Web, the Shield, the Fox, Steel Sterling and the Black Hood became goofballs as the Fly-Man title turned into Mighty Heroes in 1966-67.
Only the Web — now a henpecked, middle-aged superhero making a comeback attempt — had the seeds of a real story, touching on themes that would be developed in superhero stories 20 or more years later.
But finally, once all the publicity dust settles, things that are said to be “…so bad they’re good” are usually, after all, just bad.
The Batman show, and the comic book superheroes that copied it, all quickly fell victim to the problem that afflicts every camp melodrama. You can’t generate concern about the fate of characters after you’ve encouraged the audience to laugh at them by making them appear ridiculous. The ticking time bomb can’t be suspenseful when we know it’s really a jack-in-the-box.