Adam West died on June 9th, and for Batman fans, his passing stings. West made a tremendous impact on comics and pop culture, embodying a character who’s so ubiquitous, he’s arguably the most important superhero of the modern era. In 2017, it’d be a struggle to find younger fans who’d claim him as their Batman. Comics culture has spent the last few decades running away from the camp that defined the Caped Crusader in West’s 1968 TV show. But as Bob Chipman argues in his latest video essay, it’s possible the version of Batman you view as definitive wouldn’t exist without Adam West, and fans should hold his contribution to the character’s history in higher regard.
I have a confession to make: I’ve actually watched very little of the ‘60s Batman series. What I know and love about the show comes from cultural pass-around. Fans my age talk about the show with a kind of cringing affection. For years, things like the Shark Repellent Bat Spray and the Batusi (which West claims he invented) elicited a kind of “Man, aren’t you glad Batman is better than that these days?” response, as we held up Batman: The Animated Series and The Dark Knight as the gold standard for Batman stories.
The problem is, we were wrong. While Batman: TAS and The Dark Knight are excellent, the widespread idea that the grim and gritty, essentially fascist Batman is the one true version of the character is both tiresome and destructive. Propping up a deeply disturbed costumed man who beats poor people to a pulp, and claiming him as the ür-superhero, is pretty messed up. And I say this as a Batman fan. Recent work on the character hasn’t shied away from the contradictions of Batman’s character. Tom King’s Rebirth run has consistently shown Batman, as awesome as he is, to be a scared little boy in a costume, struggling to keep it together.
Adam West’s Batman sidesteps that entire concept in a way that present-day fans should see more often. West is straitlaced and silly in the role because comic book stories lend themselves to silliness, even when they’re trying to be taken seriously. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just take DC’s Flintstones comic series, which is simultaneously thoughtful and hilarious. (Seriously. You need to read that book.) West was fun, funny, and earnest — three words rarely associated with Batman these days — and older audiences could consistently get a kick out of his wit, while kids came away actually learning something.
What’s more, the show itself was subversive and smart, and it doesn’t get enough credit for, say, the way the show embraced the Flower Power movement at the height of the Vietnam War. And without ‘60s Batman, we wouldn’t have characters like Barbara Gordon Batgirl, who’s as important to the Batman mythos as Robin and the Joker.
Thankfully, appreciation for the West era is resurging. There was the Batman ‘66 comic series, with characters who recently crossed over into the Wonder Woman ‘77 series. There’s the animated Return of the Caped Crusaders, which featured the voice talents of the surviving cast. And then there’s The Lego Batman Movie, which did everything in its power to rib the grimdark version of the Dark Knight while also welcoming in camp and essential ideas like the Bat-Family.
We need more of this lighter take on Batman. The character looms large in a media landscape that’s positively drowning in superheroes, and for too long, there was one reigning interpretation of him. While Adam West was certainly typecast in the role for far too long, he represents a lighthearted approach to Batman that’s become refreshingly different in this day and age. It’s time to give him his due.