The conventional wisdom goes something like this: there’s an A-team of Batvillains, the ones who had their origins in the funnybooks. Then there’s the B-team, who were created for the show and made repeat appearances, and then there’s the C-team, the one-shots made for TV who showed up once and never again and who are mostly kind of awful. That’s not right. Zelda, False Face, and Bookworm all impressed and entertained the dickens out of me. And the Minstrel? Amazingly, part one of this story is terrific. I really enjoyed this one.
A few weeks ago, I was mentioning how all these Batvillains are known to Batman already, but I was mistaken. The Minstrel is new to town, and Batman is unsure how to find or fight him, eventually settling on using a Bat-drone to fly and track the signal of his transmission, a gambit that the Minstrel predicts, leading to a trap, and a cliffhanger in which our heroes are being roasted on a rotisserie.
The character is an electronics super-genius, and he’s sabotaged the Gotham Stock Exchange with false numbers that result in wildly foolish sales or new investments in response. Then he overrides all television transmissions with a blackmail demand. His music shtick and medieval garb is a product of the times and a demand of this show. His actual scheme wouldn’t be out of place on any other adventure series.
Incidentally, I’m pretty sure that these were being broadcast in a totally different order than they were made. Batman and Robin list some of the villains that they’ve defeated recently: Penguin, Archer, Clock King, King Tut, and Catwoman. Was that the production order for this season, with this story, filmed sixth, being shown third?
Van Johnson is one of those actors who I really only know from his appearance on this series, but he had an amazingly long career, with dozens of films in the 1940s, usually light entertainment things that spotlighted his dancing, before taking some more prestigious work like The Last Time I Saw Paris and The Caine Mutiny. Put another way, he was a huge enough star to make a guest appearance as himself on I Love Lucy and everybody watching would know who he was. His casting was a big coup at the time, and I can envision that the producers and network would want to move the big names like him and Art Carney up to launch the season.
I like the way that the Minstrel avoids violence himself, and has a larger than usual gang of henchmen to fight in his place. In fact, the character is a huge missed opportunity. In a modern version of this series, the Minstrel would be a cerebral master planner who coordinates other super villains. About ten years ago, around the time I was giving up on DC Comics, the publisher was repurposing a silly 1970s character called The Calculator into that role. The Minstrel was almost there first. Shame he never reappeared.