I haven’t read any issues of Batman ’66, the comic book series based on the old TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward. I’ve certainly seen the TV show, of course. I grew up watching reruns of this great show, and some of those classic episodes starring great actors, like Burgess Meredith and Eartha Kitt, led to many of my favorite childhood television memories. I’m well-acquainted with the TV series, and I would definitely count myself a fan.
I’m also well-acquainted with Harlan Ellison, the curmudgeonly old sci-fi speculative fiction writer responsible for such great stories as “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” “A Boy and His Dog,” and, arguably, the greatest episode of the original Star Trek series, “City on the Edge of Forever.” I’ve read Ellison before, and I’ve been fairly impressed, so when I heard that DC planned to release a special issue of the Batman ’66 series based on an unfilmed Ellison treatment, I decided it was time to check this series out.
In the proposed episode, Batman and Robin seek to stop Two-Face, the scarred former district attorney, whose two-themed crime spree across Gotham has left the Dynamic Duo confused and off guard. It isn’t that the crimes themselves are odd – in true Batman ’66 fashion, all of Two-Face’s crimes are centered on the number two – it’s the aftermath that bewilders the caped crusaders. About fifty percent of the time, Two-Face returns the stolen goods plus interest. Batman explains it all by the flip of the coin. If the clean face comes up, the good side of Two-Face wins out; if the scarred face comes up, the bad side does. So far, all of this is fairly faithful to the comic book, which is why I can easily see how this treatment failed to make it to production.
Don’t get me wrong. As a comic book, it’s surprisingly satisfying. Actually, I probably shouldn’t say that. It wasn’t really surprising, I guess. I mean, you have a treatment written by a great writer, turned into a comic book script written by one of the great comic book writers of the last three decades, Len Wein. All of this is drawn by José Luis García-López, one of the great comic book artists of the 20th century. All in all, this is a superstar crew, who have turned out a fantastic final product that I can’t recommend enough.
It has action and comedy, witty dialogue and puns galore. It has many of the things that made the original series so much fun to watch, and in this sense, the story they’ve created for this “Lost Episode” issue of the series fits really, really well. On the whole, however – as an entire package – it feels like it misses the mark of what made the series so successful. If this would have gone to production, I think it’s safe to say that, like “City on the Edge of Forever,” Ellison’s treatment would have gone through substantial rewrites before the producers would even consider it close to being ready for primetime.
For starters, Ellison left the origin story of Two-Face intact. I understand that the origin story is important for Two-Face. He’s a former justice fighter in his own right, whose scarred disfigurement causes his sanity to snap. For a show with bright colors that was invariably marketed to kids, the origin story is remarkably dark. I mean, the Joker: you can write him off as a criminal in face paint, made all the easier by Cesar Romero refusing to shave his moustache. It’s hard, however, to see the scars on the side of Two-Face as anything other than what they are: an extremely painful disfigurement that would push anyone past the breaking point. It’s dark and twisted, and pretty much the exact opposite of the original Batman TV series.
The other way I think it fails to miss the mark is in the character of Two-Face himself. Batman spends most of the “episode” talking about how Harvey is in there somewhere, and all Batman needs to do is get through to him to save him. This is of course seen in the ever-present coin, which makes numerous appearances, and even spurs he climax of the story, in a true Two-Face kinda way. The issue I have with all of this, though, is that Two-Face is, at his root, a very cerebral villain, and this seems to fly in the face of the ethos of the original series: clear-cut, good versus evil, Batman versus criminal. The series never dove into the mentally unstable side of the Joker, nor the different layers of the Riddler. The TV show eschewed much of the complexity of the comic books, which was still present even in the campy 60s stories, in favor of giving us themed villains, like King Tut and Egghead.
You can create all the number-two-themed crimes you want, you’re still dealing with a mentally-unstable criminal with multiple personalities, who dictates his entire life by the flip of the coin. The lines between good and evil begin to blur, and this blurring is made all the more murky through dialogue between Batman and Two-Face, whereas the defender of justice attempts to get the criminal to remember who he was. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but that feels a bit deep for a series where the Penguin steals jewels from an heiress and names his henchmen Hawkeye, Sparrow, and Swoop.
The end result, I think, is… odd. Again, it’s not a bad comic book, but I’m not terribly sure it would have made a good episode of the TV series. Or, rather, a good episode of the TV series as I remember it. And that’s as a kid, dressed in his PJ’s, eating Batman cereal (a promotional tie-in for the 1989 film), while watching reruns on The Family Channel. And, maybe that’s the most telling part of my experience reading my first issue of Batman ’66. Maybe I’m just a victim of that classic themed villain, The Nostalgiac, whose crimes all involve some sort of childhood memories.
And… and, now I just want to write The Nostalgiac into an issue of Batman ’66.
Hey DC! Hit me up on my pager. We’ll talk.