Harlan Ellison gets his kicks on Batman ’66

I sometimes feel rather ambivalent about the Batman television series that ran from 1966 to 1968.  Along with the Super Friends cartoons, when I was a kid it provided my first exposure to many of the characters in the DC Comics universe.  I enjoyed watching reruns of the show when I was growing up in the early 1980s.

A decade later, when I was a teenager, I had a rather different view of show.  By that time, I was reading the actual Batman comic books, along with many other titles.  And it drove me nuts that people would often assume that I was immature for reading comics, that they were nothing but silly, campy stories meant for kids… i.e. exactly like the old TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward.

Along with many other comic book readers, I would protest that comic books could be serious and adult.  I’d wave around my copies of Batman: Year One and Watchmen to demonstrate that comics were intelligent and deep, not at all like that old TV show.  This persisted for years.

And then one day I looked around and realized that everything had turned 180 degrees on me: comic books were too damn serious!  Everyone was trying to mimic Frank Miller and Alan Moore, churning out grim & gritty nonsense, reiterating for the zillionth time the now utterly trite question “What if super-heroes existed in the real world?”  At that point I threw up my hands in frustration and actually started asking “Why can’t comic books be fun again?!?”

Batman '66 The Lost Episode pg 8

It seems that I’m not the only one to have realized that the pendulum had swung much too far in the opposite direction, taking us from campy to clinically depressing.  I think this is a significant factor in explaining the huge success of the Batman ’66 comic book.  Written by Jeff Parker, with interiors by a number of artists and covers by Mike Allred, Batman ’66 is set in the television series continuity.  This brings us to Batman ’66: The Lost Episode, plotted by Harlan Ellison, scripted by Len Wein, penciled by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, and inked by Joe Prado, with a cover by Alex Ross.

Back in the mid-1960s when the first season of the Batman television show was in pre-production, prolific science fiction author Harlan Ellison was invited to write an episode.  He submitted a synopsis entitled “The Two-Way Crimes of Two-Face,” which would have brought the duality-obsessed Harvey Dent into the TV show.  For one reason or another, the episode was never made.  The synopsis then spent the next several decades in Ellison’s files.  Finally Ellison dug it out, dusted it off, and included it in Brain Movies: The Original Teleplays of Harlan Ellison Volume 5, published in 2013.  Then, as recounted by Len Wein, Ellison got in touch with DC Comics to suggest the use of his synopsis for the Batman ’66 book.  That got the ball rolling, eventually leading to The Lost Episode special.

Len Wein is probably best known for co-creating Wolverine and Swamp Thing, but he has many credits to his name, including a number of Batman stories that were published in the 1970s and 80s.  He’s also a longtime friend of Ellison, which made him the ideal choice to adapt the synopsis into a full-length comic book script.

It is interesting to compare Wein’s script to the original treatment by Ellison, which is included in The Lost Episode.  Ellison obviously conceived the major points of the plot, which Wein fleshed out.  Wein also added certain details.  Ellison’s synopsis has Two-Face working alone.  In keeping with the character’s double motif, Wein gave Two-Face a pair of henchmen named Deuce and Twain.  Not only does it suit the character, but it also fits with the TV series.  As I recall, every single bad guy on the show had at least a few henchmen on hand to do the heavy lifting and run interference when Batman and Robin inevitably crashed their criminal capers.

I do think there was at least one point that worked better in Ellison’s original outline.  But on the whole Wein does a very good job translating Ellison’s synopsis into a 30 page comic book script.

Batman '66 The Lost Episode pg 15

Wein did a superb job of capturing the tone of the television show’s scripts.  Reading “The Two-Way Crimes of Two-Face,” I really could “hear” in my head Adam West and Burt Ward speaking Batman and Robin’s dialogue.  Wein also utilized television producer William Dozier’s omniscient voiceover narration, including the obligatory mention of “stately Wayne Manor.”  And there was a healthy heaping of animated alliteration from our compelling cast of characters.

The only thing that was missing was the cliffhanger!  As I was reading, I kept expecting that any minute Two-Face and his goons would gain the upper hand on the Dynamic Duo, and that the next instant Batman and Robin would then find themselves about to meet a gristly end in the jaws of some overly-complicated deathtrap.  That was always how the first episode ended!  I’m guessing that Ellison must have composed his story synopsis before the two-episode structure with its requisite cliffhanger was established.

Penciling “The Two-Way Crimes of Two-Face” is the legendary Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  Now this was when my interest in this project was really piqued.  As I’ve written before, I am a huge fan of Garcia-Lopez.  He is an absolutely amazing artist.  Regrettably it has been quite some time since he has worked on any significant projects for DC, focusing instead on licensing art and style guides.  Most of the published work he’s done recently has been variant covers, and those editions were inevitably rare & expensive.  I recently found out he contributed on a couple of issues of All-Star Western which flew under my radar, so I have to search them out.  So the promise of a brand-new, full-length story penciled by Garcia-Lopez was definitely enticing.

I am not especially familiar with Joe Prado, although I know he’s done quite a bit of work for DC over the last several years.  He has a very modern, slick inking style.  Prado utilizes quite a bit of hatching in his embellishment.  This makes for a distinctive collaboration with Garcia-Lopez, whose style is definitely more traditional.

Batman '66 The Lost Episode pg 37

Perhaps it was done to pad out the size of the book, but The Lost Episode also contains all 30 pages of Garcia-Lopez’s uninked pencils.  While perhaps not an essential element, I certainly regard this as a unique opportunity.  In my blog post Thinking About Inking: The Role of Comic Book Inkers, one of my major points was that it is often difficult for the casual reader to look at a published comic book and discern what the work of the penciler is and what that of the inker is.  The Lost Episode provides us with the chance to view the pencils side-by-side with the inked artwork, enabling us to understand what Garcia-Lopez and Prado each contributed.  It also allows us to see how much of a role the excellent coloring by Alex Sinclair played in establishing the tone and atmosphere of the story.

Garcia-Lopez did illustrate a variant cover for The Lost Episode, although that edition was, inevitably, rarer and more expensive.  At least his uninked pencils for that alternate cover are published inside.

The standard cover is painted by Alex Ross.  I’ve observed in the past that, while Ross is an amazing artist, when it comes to rendering costumed characters sometimes his paintings are a bit too realistic.  If the Batman television series demonstrated one thing, it is that in real life people can end up looking rather preposterous when dressed up in spandex outfits (the exception, of course, being Julie Newmar, who always looked purrfect as Catwoman).  There are times when Ross has created paintings of superheroes that are so photorealistic that it just takes me out of my suspension of disbelief because I feel like I am looking at an actual person wearing a silly costume.  I guess this relates to the whole idea of how a lot of the elements that look fantastic on the pages of comic books end up appearing silly when translated too literally into three-dimensional reality.

Batman '66 The Lost Episode cover

Having said all that, Ross is the ideal artist to be creating covers for Batman ’66.  In this case, since this is a comic book based on a television series (which, yes, in turn was based on a comic book) photorealism is the name of the game.  He definitely captures the likenesses and body language of Adam West and Burt Ward, something he has also done successfully on his recent covers for the Batman ’66 Meets the Green Hornet miniseries.  Ross’ conception of Two-Face is both horrific and tragic, a portrait of brooding, melancholy madness that is obsessively fixated on the duality in life.  He even frames the composition in an off-kilter angle, evoking the tilted “Dutch angle” camera shots the television show utilized for scenes set in the villains’ lairs.  All told, his cover is extremely striking and dramatic.

I do think the ten dollar cover price for Batman ’66: The Lost Episode was a little too high.  Still, all in all, it was a very good book and I am glad I purchased it.

In hindsight, yeah, the Batman television series was pretty cool.  I’m glad that all of the rights issues were finally worked out, enabling it to at last be released on DVD.  And I’m also happy that we have the Batman ’66 comic book series.  It definitely makes for a nice change of pace from the oppressively grim pall of the New 52 Bat-books.

Now if only DC Comics would give Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez an ongoing book to illustrate.  How about a miniseries at the very least?  Come on, DC, just think about it!

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3 thoughts on “Harlan Ellison gets his kicks on Batman ’66

  1. Hear, hear. Haven’t picked up the Ellison issue yet, but I’m quite enjoying the trade paperback release of the first Batman ’66 volume. (Also, on a completely unrelated note, Harvey Dent joined the cast of “Gotham” last week… and, in what I think may be a first, is being portrayed as two-faced, i.e. with a hidden crazy streak, even BEFORE being turned into a villain…

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    • That is interesting to hear. Batman Annual #14 (1990) written by Andrew Helfer and the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Two-Face” (September 1992) written by Alan Burnett & Randy Rogel each proposed that Harvey Dent had some pretty serious mental issues going back many years, and that having the left side of his face become horribly scarred merely exacerbated all the stuff he had buried in his subconscious, bringing it all to the surface.

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