Pop! After pop! J. Hoberman on the Batman TV show.
Camp was really being mass-marketed--everyone was in on the joke now. --Andy Warhol on the TV show Batman, in POPism: The Warhol '60s (1980)
BUT WHAT WAS THE JOKE? And who was the Joker?
Loved and loathed beyond measure, the televised Batman (ABC, 1966-68) arrived sufficiently late in the day to recognize itself as a manufactured craze. The show, initially broadcast cliff-hanger style on successive evenings, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, lasted only two and a half seasons--just a speed bump in Batman's nearly eight-decade career--but its goofy lese-majeste besmirched the durable icon forever.
Candy colored, broadly acted, and proudly tacky--making use of a theme song by Neal Hefti that, with no lyrics save the show's name, was a sort of abstract advertising jingle--this aggressively one-dimensional and self-conscious exercise in tinny delirium was predicated on the absurdity of costumed creatures capering about in the "real world." Many episodes begin by establishing Gotham City by way of an actual Manhattan location, and real New York geography is occasionally acknowledged.
The same month Batman went on the air, New York's new "movie star" mayor John V. Lindsay declared the town "Fun City." The show's premiere, on January 12,1966, was celebrated with a reception at Harlow's, a fashionable discotheque on East Seventy-Ninth Street. Andy was there; Jackie was a no-show. Guests were transported down First Avenue to the York Cinema for a "live" broadcast complete with commercials, among them one for a breakfast cereal that parodied Grant Wood's American Gothic and, according to the New York Times, was hailed with cheers: Snap, Crackle, and Pop! (Would that the new DVD box set of the complete Batman TV series included the original commercials.)
Batman's inaugural show, "Hi Diddle Riddle," was something of a Pop art mise en abyme. It opened with footage of the recently closed, Pop-identified New York World's Fair and featured Batman (Adam West) dancing the "Batusi" at an Upper East Side disco. "You shake a pretty mean cape, Batman!" coos the villain's female accomplice (future Bond girl Jill St. John). But the real joke, saved for the episode's second installment, was the gender-blur gag in which she disguised herself as Batman's teenage sidekick, Robin (Burt Ward).
The original Batman, created for DC Comics by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in the late 1930s, was a formidable mass-culture pastiche--a nocturnal crime fighter aka the Caped Crusader or the Dark Knight, equipped with a hooded, pointy-eared face-mask-cww-helmet and a secret identity. The character synthesized elements of Zorro, Dracula, and Sherlock Holmes. Kane has acknowledged the influence of the Universal horror and Warner Bros, gangster flicks of the early '30s, as well as of the comic strip Dick Tracy and pulp characters such as the Shadow. Indeed, the cartoonist's absorption in mass iconography anticipates filmmakers Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg; Kane modeled Catwoman on Jean Harlow and got the idea for the Penguin from Kool cigarette ads.
Jules Feiffer (whose 1965 coffee-table book The Great Comic Book Heroes is a landmark text in the popification of pop) characterized Kane's early drawing as "pretentious and stiff" and his writing as "a form of florid pre-literacy." Kane's strength lay in his conviction and his design: "Batman's world was more cinematic than Superman's," Feiffer observed. With their skewed angles and looming shadows, the drawings of Batman's escapades among the skyscrapers and in the back alleys of Gotham City were an analogue to film noir avant la lettre.
More visually sophisticated than the TV show, Batman comic books were arty--and, with his skintight bodysuit, slit-eyed bondage headgear, and scalloped cape, Batman himself was kind of kinky. In an attempt to domesticate this strange creature--by day, an apparently harmless playboy named Bruce Wayne--his creators gave the Batman a young ward, Dick Grayson, aka Robin the Boy (later Teen) Wonder, to assist in the battle against crime and to keep him company in his mansion above the Batcave.
Hinting at a depravity that dared not speak its name, the Dynamic Duo's domestic arrangement famously piqued the interest of Dr. Fredric Wertham, the German-born psychiatrist, then engaged in his own Cold War crusade to save American youth from the scourge of comics. Just as Superman, an interplanetary immigrant invented by two Jewish teenagers at the height of worldwide anti-Semitism, has been envisioned as a crypto-Jew (by Feiffer among others), so Batman was imagined as having a second secret identity.
In his Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954, Wertham noted that the Batman stories were "psychologically homosexual" and that "only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature 'Batman' and his young friend 'Robin.'" In outing the Batman, Wertham observed that Bruce and Dick "live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred.... It is like the wish dream of two homosexuals living together."
Dark was the knight! The Mad magazine parody "Bat Boy and Rubin!," written by Harvey Kurtzman and drawn by Wally Wood, published in late 1953, seems uncharacteristically chaotic. Here the Dynamic Duo are literal inverts: The diminutive Bat Boy functions as lanky Rubin's junior partner. Nervously asserting itself as parody throughout, the story has the Dynamic Duo confounded by a gang of Wood's typically statuesque va-va-voom dolls. The last panels reveal Bat Boy's secret identity as a vampire and hence the murderer whom the team is ostensibly seeking.
Some thirteen years later and one season into the TV show, Mad satirized Batman and Robin as closet heterosexuals, with Sparrow (as the Robin character was here dubbed) scheming to dispose of Bats-Man so as to have an opportunity for "good, clean teenage activities, like making out and sniffing airplane glue."
THAT A BATMAN WITHOUT PATHOLOGY was simply absurd was demonstrated by Donald Barthelme's ostensibly pointless short story "The Joker's Greatest Triumph." Here the Caped Crusader keeps a bottle of vodka under the seat of the Batmobile and, with Robin away at Andover, hangs out with his adult friend Fredric (as in Wertham).
Although not published until 1964, the story was written three years earlier, around the time that Barthelme became director of Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum and Warhol, one of the canniest analysts of American mass culture since Kurtzman and his colleagues, intervened in the Batman saga. Warhol appears to be the first painter to directly reference the Dark Knight, although his 1961 Batman canvas seems more tentative than the portraits of Dick Tracy, Superman, Popeye, and Nancy he executed around the same time. Warhol's interest is the Batman logo, here a kind of doodle rendered in fire-truck red--Batman as trademark.
Warhol abandoned his comic-strip imagery when he discovered Roy Lichtenstein's work. It was Lichtenstein who, after a brief experiment with Disney characters, used generic comic conventions and integrated comic graphics into Pop art. At the same time, comic books became more self-consciously Pop. Introduced by Marvel in 1961, the Fantastic Four were a naturalistically dysfunctional outfit; SpiderMan, who made his debut during the summer of 1962, was the first teenage superhero to have his own comic. (Fully aware that Lichtenstein's well-known painting Image Duplicator, 1963, strongly suggested a Jack Kirby drawing from an X-Men comic, Marvel briefly took to calling itself Marvel Pop Art Productions.)
Having represented Batman as a product, Warhol may be seen as an even more haphazard pioneer of Batman dramatization. In 1964, he initiated a movie known variously as A Lavender Filter Throughout, The Rose Without Thorns, Silver Dracula, and, finally, Batman Dracula, made in conjunction with and starring Jack Smith. Judging from a handful of existing hundred-foot 16-mm camera rolls (of which there are well over a hundred), this enterprise seems to have been envisioned as a posher version of the polymorphously perverse, intermittently orgiastic dress-up fool-arounds featured in Smith's Flaming Creatures (1963) and his work in progress Normal Love (1963-65). (1)
It's difficult to know who exactly did what--Warhol might be considered the project's producer-cameraman and Smith its star-director--but, given Smith's privileged use of movie archetypes in his previous work, it would seem that Dracula was more his interest and Batman Warhol's. In any case, Batman Dracula may have been two movies shot concurrently: In some footage, Smith plays Dracula, dressed in black and sporting a pair of Halloween fangs; at other times, he wears a mask and cape a la Batman.
Staged in the Factory, one elaborate Dracula set suggests a cross between a mad scientist's lab and a discotheque crammed with Factory regulars, notably Baby Jane Holzer in a tinfoil bikini, as well as raw chicken and an unidentified male nude. The various entanglements are barely risque, but the mood is giddy; the scene ends as Smith dances the twist with Beverly Grant atop a mock operating table. Other sequences are more sedate. One has the caped Smith in long shot running across a manicured lawn toward the camera and collapsing; another depicts Smith twirling his cape on the Factory roof in the company of Grant and Tally Brown.
Batman Dracula was never finished (or edited, or even completely processed), but it nevertheless entered public consciousness. Reporting on the opening of Cheetah, a three-floor nightclub on Broadway at Fifty-Third Street, the New York Times film reviewer Vincent Canby noted that in addition to a giant dance floor and a room big enough to seat eighteen hundred, the club would have rooms devoted to television, Scopitone (the pre-MTV 16-mm musical jukebox), and "movies in the Andy Warhol-Batman genre."
Meaning what? Three months after the TV show went on the air, some sort of merger between the Caped Crusader and the King of Pop (or was it the Camp Crusader and the Queen of Pop?) had occurred--a relationship that was clinched during the summer between the show's first and second seasons, when Esquire used a photograph of Warhol, playing Robin to Nico's Batman, to illustrate the Robert Benton-David Newman essay "Remember the Sixties?" (2)
Batman was not exactly a Warhol film. At its best, the TV show suggests a high-budget Kuchar brothers production directed from a Barthelme script. The characters quote their lines in a manner suggesting the then-current vogue for adverbial puns known as Tom Swifties ("Careful with that chain saw," Tom said offhandedly). Although former D. W. Griffith actor Neil Hamilton's Commissioner Gordon provides the show's most consistently brain-dead characterization, producer William Dozier himself supplied mock-self-important voice-over introductions and closers ("Tune in tomorrow, same Bat time, same Bat channel"). Every episode features at least one choreographed slugfest cartoonishly emblazoned with mockLichtenstein sound effects: pow! sock! biff! splat! (3)
It was inevitable that Lichtenstein would be commissioned to design TV Guide's Batman cover: A close-up of Batman on a yellow field, cape billowing, with red letters spelling pow exploding off his clenched left fist, graced the weekly's March 26, 1966, issue. Warhol was not referenced by the show (directly or indirectly) until its second season, when, offended by a realistic portrait of Batman, the Clock King (Walter Slezak, wearing shades and a beret) declares himself the King of Pop Art (although his piece is more in the line of kinetic sculpture), and, in a separate episode, abetted by socialite Baby Jane Towser (Diana Ivarson), the Joker (Cesar Romero) defaces both old-fashioned representational art and newfangled abstractions.
Yet in its provocatively desultory quality, orchestrated tedium, and cheerful head-on awfulness, the TV Batman may be seen as the materialization of Warhol's unmade movie. Certainly, the show's key element--namely, the use of well-known personalities (Liberace, Tallulah Bankhead, Otto Preminger) submitting themselves to a regimen of ridicule by dressing up to play preposterous villains--is suggestive of Factory Screen Tests. But there is also the attitude. (4)
BATMAN INSPIRED some significant ancillary pop, notably the children's record Batman and Robin, which was mainly public-domain riffs on Chopin and Tchaikovsky and, although credited to "The Sensational Guitars of Dan Sc Dale," was actually performed by a session combo drawn from Sun Ra's Arkestra and Al Kooper's Blues Project. Batman PEZ dispensers and Japanese Bat-manga, collected and packaged in 2008 by Chip Kidd, are other examples. (5) But the show's main accomplishment was desecrating the Batman--or at least undermining his seriousness. Even the comic-book covers went Pop by employing the ironic Lichtenstein sound effects that gave the TV series its POW!
What romantics like Kesey (and Wolfe) regarded as an American mythology, the nihilistic Warhol saw as a commercial signifier, famous for being famous, and hence a joke. Not until the retro-minded Reagan era was Batman recuperated, by Frank Miller in his four-part comic-book series The Dark Knight Returns (1986). Miller accomplished the task in part by bringing Batman out of retirement into a lawless, nearly anarchic Gotham City and by eliminating the Boy Wonder--or, rather, drafting a thirteen-year-old girl as the new Robin. Drawing on Miller's Dark Knight, Tim Burton's 1989 movie Batman did away with Robin altogether while giving the Caped Crusader an adult heteronormative love interest, played by Kim Basinger.
The brand's renewed sobriety notwithstanding, Jack Nicholson played the Joker with a ridiculous surplus of gusto--at one point vandalizing works in the Gotham Museum of Art, just as Romero's Joker had on television. Further camp elements crept back into the ensuing franchise films Batman Returns (1992), again directed by Burton, and Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever (1995), which brought back Robin, also present in Batman: The Animated Series on Fox (1992-95). Schumacher's disastrous follow-up, Batman & Robin (1997), brought down the series and again raised the specter of a queer Batman (George Clooney with nipples visible beneath his Bat-cuirass). The franchise's most recent iterations, Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), again dispense with Robin, the Boy Wonder having perhaps come to be seen as a stain on the Batman's honor.
BACK IN 1965, print ads for "An Evening with Batman and Robin" (see note 2) had posed the question, "Is it 'Pop Art' or 'Camp'?" The resurrected serial may have been camp (although the exhaustion factor inherent in the presentation would seem to mitigate that mode of reception). The TV show (however campy) was a more ambitious attempt to make pop Pop art. As then-arbiter of underground taste Susan Sontag wrote, Pop art, in contrast to camp, "is more flat and more dry, more serious, more detached, ultimately nihilistic."
Applying Sontag's formula for camp, most critics thought that Batman was not bad enough to be "good." But Batman was bad in a special way. The show's strongest defense was published by New York Times columnist Russell Baker the week after Mr. Freeze (here played by George Sanders, employing a ripe German accent) declared, "First I toy, then I destroy," before turning Batman and Robin into a "noble pair of human popsicles." Baker concluded his lead paragraph with the approving suggestion that Batman was "un-American." The show's basic assumption was that its heroic protagonist was "a simple-minded ass," while his "stooge," Robin the Boy Wonder, was "insufferable," "dumb," and even "odious." "Ridiculing heroism and children would be enough to qualify Batman as the most daring TV show in ages," Baker wagered, "but there is more. It violates two of television's most sacred taboos by depicting cops as imbeciles and tolerating dialect comedy." In other words, Batman was so facetious that it was subversive. Though maybe, like the Joker, Baker was being facetious himself.
(1.) Callie Angel's illustrated essay "Batman and Dracula: The Collaborations of Jack Smith and Andy Warhol," which appeared posthumously in Criticism 56, no. 2 (Spring 2014), is the definitive account of this project and likely to remain so.
(2.) Canby may have been thinking of the cinematic event billed as "An Evening with Batman and Robin." Perhaps in anticipation of the TV show, Columbia Pictures rereleased its fifteen-episode 1943 serial The Batman as a single four-and-a-half-hour presentation that played two Manhattan theaters, the 8th Street Playhouse and Liberty 42nd Street, for extended runs, complete with weekend midnight shows, in late December 1965 and early January 1966. In a sense, Warhol's Sleep (1963) and Empire (1964) paved the way for such outrageous duration and built-in repetition.
(3.) Will Brooker points out the show's fondness for "gargantuan props," linking them to Claes Oldenburg's monumental sculptures of ordinary items, in Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon (London: Continuum, 2000), 243-44.
(4.) The most provocative extension of the Batman aesthetic is Otto Preminger's bizarre (and disastrous) 1968 hippie satire Skidoo. Having appeared as the villainous Mr. Freeze, sporting blue pancake makeup, purple lipstick, and pasted-on red eyebrows, Preminger went on to produce and direct a comedy in which retired mobster Tough Tony Banks (Jackie Gleason) and his moll, played by Carol Channing, appear as the mismatched parents of a wayward teenybopper who are themselves beholden to a criminal mastermind named God, played by Groucho Marx. The cast was heavy with Hollywood veterans, among them the three key Batman villains, Frank Gorshin (the Riddler), Burgess Meredith (the Penguin), and Cesar Romero (the Joker). The action, which includes Tough Tony taking a lengthy acid trip, and the attitude were inscrutable. Lampooning the institution of show business, Preminger employed as his main strategy a playfulness that upended entertainment conventions to confound normal criticism.
(5.) Jiro Kuwata, Bat-Manga! The Secret History of Batman in Japan, ed. Chip Kidd (New York: Pantheon, 2008).
The DVD box set Batman: The Complete Television Series was recently released by Warner Bros.
J. HOBERMAN IS A FREQUENT CONTRIBUTOR TO ARTFORUM. (SEE CONTRIBUTORS.)
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2015|
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