Dodano: 22 February 2016
An average, modern Batman fan, who is used to the dark visions of Frank Miller, Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan may be very surprised when he tries to watch even one episode of the 1960s Batman TV series starring Adam West in the titular role. Heroes in bright, colorful costumes, bat-gadgets for every occasion (including the infamous shark repellent bat-sprey from the movie version), didactic elements (like Batman reminding Robin to fasten his seat belt when they are driving the Batmobile), cards with onomatopoeias appearing on screen during fight scenes (“POW!”, “WHAM!”), villains with absurd modus operandi (such as Egghead or Bookworm, obsessed with eggs and books, respectively) – all these elements make it seem like an unintended parody of the Dark Knight universe, much like Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, panned by both critics and moviegoers. In his book devoted to the TV series Matt Yockey proves that the grotesque style of the show was actually a conscious design of its creators. Their goal was to recreate the feel of the comic books from the 1950s and 1960s. Furthermore, by setting the show in the context of the radical cultural and social changes of the time, Yockey sees in it the reflection of the internally conflicted American society which, according to the author, was torn between, on the one hand, being faithful to national ideals and conservatism offering simple, binary oppositions and, on the other hand, questioning all kinds of ideologies, deconstructing hierarchies and revealing their falsehoods and ambivalences.
Yockey’s book is a part of the TV Milestones Series, dedicated to major TV shows in the history of the American television. The author, however, does not merely summarize Batman’s plot or list its characteristic features. Using serious academic discourse Yockey describes the ways in which the series reflects the American ideals and reveals the creators’ ambivalent attitude towards them. In his extremely detailed analysis he quotes the interviews with the producers and actors, the newspaper articles from the 1960s devoted to the show and compares it with other TV series of the time. He also observes hidden subtexts and ambiguities in the seemingly innocent kids’ show.
In the book’s introduction Yockey defines the show’s characteristic style as an example of camp. He quotes an essay by Susan Sontag, who claims that it is a form of aesthetics which “sees everything in quotation marks.” The author also proves that the show actually had a double audience: not just kids, but adults as well. This was precisely the result of the show’s camp aesthetic: didactic elements, uncritically absorbed by younger viewers, were seen by grown-ups as a parody of the former decade’s excessive conservatism.
In the first chapter, “Bat-Civics,” the author brings attention to the fact that the decade during which the show was aired was the time of the US citizens’ growing distrust towards the government, caused, among other things, by the Vietnam war. Batman’s uncritical praise of the American democracy and its institutions against all odds (such as the Penguin running for Mayor of Gotham City) should, according to Yockey, be read as a hidden critique. The author also brings attention to the cyclical nature of the series: even though the villains are always beaten, they come back every time to cause more trouble to the hero and his city. As a result, the state, represented by the Dark Knight and the police, never ensures order and stability.
At the same time, however, Yockey does not idealize the show and acknowledges the fact that it also reflect the worst aspects of the radically conservative ideology of the 1950s. In the second chapter, “Bat-Difference,” he describes the problem of the discrimination of women and black people by analyzing how Batman depicts the characters of Batgirl, played by Yvonne Craig, and Catwoman, at the time when she was portrayed by Eartha Kitt. The former is refused to be granted an equal status with Batman and Robin, whereas the skin color of the latter serves to highlight her Otherness and negative characteristics. The show usually depicts women as inferior to men or, paradoxically, as a threat to the patriarchal society. The author also addresses Fredric Wertham’s accusations of a hidden homosexual subtext in Batman and Robin’s relationship and brings attention to yet another paradox: women in the show were meant to serve as an “alibi” for the main protagonists but their sexuality was also depicted as a threat to the Dynamic Duo.
Yockey does not stop at analyzing the show’s content. In the chapters “Bat-Casting” and “Bat-Being” he describes the series’ influence on the American society and how it dissolved the boundaries between such binary oppositions as reality/fiction, child/adult, popular culture/high culture, producer/consumer and individualism/collectivism. The fictional roles of Batman and Robin overshadowed the real actors: Adam West and Burt Ward. The opposite, however, was the case with the villains: the identities of the guest stars (including Liberace) were impossible to hide. The most literal example of this was Cesar Romero, whose mustache were clearly visible under the Joker’s makeup. Many actors were willing to appear on the show because they used to be Batman fans as children. Finally, the Pop-art artists, such as Andy Warhol, created works inspired by the show.
Matt Yockey’s book proves that even seemingly the most ridiculous product of mass culture deserves a serious, detailed analysis that judges a work of art without any prejudice and on its own terms. This may lead to discovering a number of surprisingly complex contents and finding out more about society, whose current state works of fiction, such as Batman, often reflect very accurately.
The author of this review is Jakub Michalik. Ph.D. in English philology at the Institute of English Studies, the University of Warsaw. The author of a thesis devoted to the features of Stephen King’s American Gothic fiction. Interests: classic works of literature (especially the American Renaissance, the Victorian period and modernism), sociology of popular culture, the superhero genre in comics and movies, literary translation, the history of film, film criticism. Batman fan.
Correction: Klementyna Dec.
We would like to thank Wayne State University Press for providing a copy for review.
Title: Batman (TV Milestones Series)
Author: Matt Yockey
Publication date: March 3, 2014.