Did Andy Warhol kill Batman?
by SJ Griffin
Or POP! goes the Batman
In January 1966 Batman zinged and kapowed his way onto TV screens in America, Dick “Robin” Grayson hot on his heels, one time even in his heels. Holy hotpants, Batman!
Comics were wildly popular in the fifties and sixties in the States. Not like they are popular now, a nerdy enclave of geek culture. They were out and overground. They were foregrounded in popular culture. They were so mainstream Robert Crumb and his comrades in San Francisco were creating an distinct underground. Around this time one in every three print periodicals being purchased was a comic. They were like loom bands minus the environmental impact hysteria. Comics were big business.
Television was the new kid on the block so some smart TV executives decided that TV shows based on comics would be a great idea. The biggest comic around in the early sixties was Dick Tracy but the rights for that had already been snapped up and Superman, the next biggest comics star, was on Broadway. Holy jazz hands, Batman!
So the Caped Crusader, number three in the hit parade, was next in line. ABC and Fox wanted a hip show, one that was funny yet could handle serious messages. William Dozier was given the reins and when he read a few comics ( he was one of twelve people at the time who had never read one before) he decide that the only way that Batman would work on television was if it was a comedy-action-caper. His mission was not to put Batman on screen, but to put a comic on screen. Because that had never been done. And that was hip.
Pop Art was also big in the sixties. Fundamentally, and briefly, this meant that people like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were taking the mass produced and turning them into art. Something people could put on gallery walls not on shelves. Holy soup cans, Batman!
Lichtenstein (Whaam – above) hit the big time with his comic strip influenced work although it’s not all he did, and Andy Warhol’s Factory was churning out stuff much in the same why that ABC was churning out TV shows. There were 120 episodes of Batman made in two years. That’s some churning right there. The sets were so expensive every episode went $1 million over budget. In the sixties! A million dollars. Holy suicidal accountants, Batman! The pop artists have never struck me as frugal either.
Batman was big and bold, with bright primary colours. Everything was simplified, given a strange emphasis. Pop art was too. One word often pops up when people talking about the 1966 TV incarnation of Batman: camp. Camp was the oil in the engine of the Pop Art vehicle.
Adam West’s Batman is not, for me, Batman. And the TV series in not really a rendering of a comic book on screen but it is camp. Not camp in the 21st century sense of the word, often a criticism, but in the more academic sense. As Susan Sontag says in Notes on Camp:
Camp is a vision of the world in terms of a style – but a particular style. It is the love of the exaggerated.
Comic give us a particularly stylish vision of the world – whether it’s Morrison and McKean’s Arkam Asylum or Moore and Bolland’s Killing Joke. Batman is camp, because comic are camp. And Batman 66 could be the campest of them all.