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Batman ’66 Meets Steed and Mrs. Peel # 1

A quick little break from the routine to note that, for fans of the sort of shows we watch here – and are certainly going to watch here, later on down the line – DC Comics and Boom Studios have a new funnybook out this week that you may enjoy. Three years ago, DC Comics revived the Adam West Batman continuity in a series written by Jeff Parker called Batman ’66. I’ve only seen some of these, but they’re pretty cute, and I like the way that Parker threads together various neat little bits between the episodes, like establishing that the Mad Hatter and the Clock King are brothers. I also understand that they’ve introduced “1966” versions of classic villains who never appeared on the program, or were actually created decades later.

As an aside to this series, they’ve been doing some team-up books, in which the characters from other 1960s media properties get a long story working with our heroes, as they might have done on TV if the stars had lined up right. Each of these storylines is long enough to (presumably) get a collected book edition. In 2014, Kevin Smith wrote Batman ’66 Meets the Green Hornet, which simply can’t be any worse than the one they really did on TV, and last year, Parker wrote Batman ’66 Meets The Man From UNCLE, which has not yet been collected.

This year’s team-up is Batman ’66 Meets Steed and Mrs. Peel – you know, the proper Avengers – which is written by Ian Edginton. I’m very familiar with Edginton’s many series for 2000 AD, the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, like Scarlet Traces, Brass Sun, and Ampney Crucis Investigates. He’s a heck of a good writer, and, teamed with Matthew Dow Smith on art duties and a cover by Michael Allred, he’s put together a good little opening story.

I wasn’t planning to buy this in single issue form (there will be six of them), but, since we’ve moved to Chattanooga, we’ve been looking for a good comic shop. Daniel and I popped into one today, I saw it on the shelf, and decided that I would read it to him. It worked really well on the reading aloud front – it turns out I do a pretty good Stafford Repp, but my Patrick Macnee is appalling – but it also works really well as a story that somebody unfamiliar with The Avengers might enjoy. Catwoman doesn’t need an introduction, but the book’s co-stars, and some characters from their show, do. He really enjoyed it, although he wasn’t pleased that there will be such a long wait to see what will happen next!

Incidentally, it’s called “Steed and Mrs. Peel” because, of course, Marvel has the trademark for any funnybooks called Avengers. Boom Studios has the current comic book rights because back in 1990, writers Grant Morrison, Emma Caulfield, and artist Ian Gibson teamed up for a comic mini-series that was published by Acme/Eclipse and which was out of print for many years before Boom correctly decided that Morrison’s many fans might like to have a copy for their shelves and bought the rights. I’m glad to see that Boom is doing something else with that license, even if the potential audience for a Steed and Mrs. Peel ongoing is probably quite small.

If you’d like to see what we thought of the TV Batman, click here and settle in for a spell, because they made a lot of those episodes. If you’d like to see what we’ll think of the TV Avengers, subscribe and be patient. Daniel’s a little young for it yet.

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Legends of the Superheroes 1.2 – The Roast

The other episode of Legends of the Superheroes is one of those things you hadda been there for, and you hadda been under the age of nine. It still amused Daniel today, quite a lot actually, but to have seen this as a child in the era of celebrity roasts was to love this on a totally different level. As kids, we were all aware enough of the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts to understand what this was making fun of. But the very intoxicated Dean Martin and all of his incredibly drunk friends – seriously, the only reason that Match Game bettered the Martin roasts in the “Inebriated Seventies Celebrities” stakes was that Match Game was on at least five days a week – weren’t for kids. This was, and it was magical.

But kids today, they have no idea what a roast is. And Daniel’s a little small to catch all the “grown up” gags about the Budweiser Clydesdales, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Idi Amin. This just has dumb slapstick to appeal to him, and it succeeded mightily in that. Even if the entire business with the “regional” superhero Ghetto Man went completely over his head.

There’s also the cute innuendo about how the hot new couple, Atom and Giganta, might have children. That also went over his head. Frank Gorshin’s not in this episode, but Ruth Buzzi is, as Aunt Minerva, and all the gags about her finding the right man also confused him. In what might be the strangest thing Daniel’s ever seen, Aunt Minerva – who, if you remember your comics lore, is a loony old lady, meaning Ruth Buzzi was just about the perfect casting choice – kisses Captain Marvel, shouts “Shazam!” and is transformed into a gorgeous young blonde, at which point all the superheroes who have been desperately trying to avoid her want her telephone number. “Who is she?” asked Daniel, not getting it. And he certainly didn’t get the climax, in which Mordru sings a version of “That’s Entertainment” that lists all the naughty things that supervillains enjoy.

Things that he did like: there’s a bit where Adam West and Burt Ward play charades in order for Robin to explain that he’s totaled the Batmobile, and a bit where William Schallert, who passed away last week, plays that “old, doddering fellow” he always played in the sixties and seventies – a bit like Ruth Buzzi, I suddenly realize – and, of course, the greatest and only actually funny moment of either special: Ed McMahon battling Solomon Grundy.

Fact: the day after this show aired, every single boy in my class reenacted and recited this bit ALL DAY LONG, and we kept doing it for weeks. It remains stupendously silly, stupid, and lovable. Ed McMahon somehow manages to repeatedly offend Solomon Grundy by either mentioning the word “swamp” or another word which Grundy can connect to a swamp, at which point Grundy shouts “HATE SWAMP!” and pounds McMahon. It’s a stupid shtick as ancient as, I dunno, Niagara Falls, but it works brilliantly for its target audience.

We’ve been hollering “HATE SWAMP!” at each other for the last ten minutes, actually.

Well, mercifully, they only made these two specials. After this, West and Ward put away their capes and cowls, and most of the other actors who played the superheroes (or, in deference to the ladies, super persons) left their very brief time in the Hollywood spotlight.

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Legends of the Superheroes 1.1 – The Challenge

Well, speaking of Gary Owens, Adam West, Burt Ward, and Frank Gorshin, one day in the winter of 1979, the worst thing in the universe aired. Well, one of them. Hanna-Barbera sold NBC on a pair of variety specials using many of the same DC Comics superheroes that they were using on their Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends, despite the fact that Superman and Wonder Woman’s live-action TV rights were not available.

In his autobiography, Adam West later said that he deeply regretted the experience, but he needed the money. I’m not sure what Ward thought. Frank Gorshin came back as the Riddler for a week, one in a group of seven villains played, in the main, by Vegas-style standup comics. Among them: Jeff Altman as the Weather Wizard. The following year, Altman would appear as the co-host of Sid & Marty Krofft’s equally awful and notorious Pink Lady. Nobody else has that kind of track record.

As the heroes: a bunch of models and stuntmen. Neither of the actors who played Captain Marvel for Filmation and CBS were involved; a guy named Garrett Craig with three other parts listed in IMDB appeared in their place. He at least looked the part. Instead of Batgirl, Barbara Joyce appeared as the somewhat similar character Huntress, who had debuted in the comics a little over a year previously. Joyce was given exactly zero lines in episode one, which tells you where this show’s brain is. Gary Owens is the narrator, because anybody else tapped for the job would sound like a poor imitation of Owens.

The “plot” involves the villains starting a doomsday device, challenging the heroes to find it, and then disguising themselves as gas station attendants, gypsies, psychiatrists, kids with lemonade stands, and used car salesmen to delay them. Since the heroes are, to a man (or, in deference to the ladies, to a person), complete morons, they fall for these traps.

It’s a huge missed opportunity. I’m not such a stick in the mud that I object to superheroes being made to look stupid, but the script has about two dozen things that sounded like they were meant to be jokes and not one of them is actually at all funny. It has a reputation of being terrible, terrible television and it deserves it. It’s boring.

That’s one way of looking at it. What actually happened in the winter of 1979 might have been the best thing ever. I was seven when it aired and I freaking loved it to pieces. Daniel is now five and he loved it every bit as much as I did. One day, of course, he might have the chance to look at this with adult eyes and then he will cringe. Let’s not worry about that.

He looked at the events with curiosity until Solomon Grundy threw a boulder at the Riddler, and then he chuckled. Then Sinestro blasted a hole in Riddler’s clipboard and he howled, and he didn’t stop howling for forty-seven minutes. Every dumb joke landed with expert precision and every slapstick foible ricocheted around the room. Every bonehead disguise and wacky accent employed by the villains had him grinning ear-to-ear. When Batman and Robin chased after Mordru on jet skis, he flipped. That was far more exciting to him than any chase on the original Batman.

I first saw this silly thing at my grandfather’s house in Fort Payne, Alabama. We’d visit every five or six weeks, usually arriving Saturday afternoon and leaving after supper Sunday, and this was one of those occasions that coincided with my uncles, who lived in Kentucky, making one of their long visits. In order to spend more time with Dad’s brothers, we left after school on Thursday, and I begged to watch the show on my Pappy’s only television set.

All the grown-ups tolerated the awful show while my younger brother (then the same age as my son is today) and I were entranced, but the raspberries started with the second commercial break. Each act’s end was accompanied by a caption reading “To be continued… in a moment.” I recall one of my uncles saying “Oh, thank heavens. It’s over. To be continued next week, turn it off!” I think he knew darn well what it meant, but his patience was exhausted. They grumbled and mocked for the rest of the hour.

At school on Monday, it wasn’t quite what everybody was talking about – that would come Friday morning – but I couldn’t wait to talk about it and most of my friends were still raving. This was what we wanted to see: superheroes on TV. Captain Marvel tricking Solomon Grundy into running into the distance to see who threw a tire the farthest was probably everybody’s favorite bit.

I’m writing this the night before my wife and I are going to watch Captain America: Civil War, and we’re completely confident that we’re going to enjoy the heck out of a film made with competence, love, and enthusiasm by a bunch of really good actors who care about their characters. There was so little of it around back then, and when Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman or Spider-Man did appear on TV, they were almost exclusively the only ones with super powers, and never fought villains from the comics.

Green Lantern and Sinestro shot beams at each other from their power rings, and Hawkman tussled with Solomon Grundy. Sure, we know it stinks now, but from the age of five to seven, this was A-OK.

No, it was more than that: it was why television was invented in the first place.

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Batman 3.26 – Minerva, Mayhem and Millionaires

Well, it’s not as though anybody was expecting this show to do much more than limp across the finish line, but this is one of Charles Hoffman’s very few scripts to impress me a little. With cancellation assured by this point, they messed with the formula just a little more than usual, and had the villain be a character known and trusted throughout Gotham City.

Her name’s Minerva, played by Zsa Zsa Gabor, and she runs a spa. She’s begun extracting secret information from all her millionaire clients, and, in a great little bit of continuity, has enlisted Freddie the Fence to move the stolen goods. We saw Freddie, played by Jacques Bergerac, once before in a season two episode. I like the idea of a villain who’s hiding in plain sight, but that’s about all I liked.

It’s a weak, smug, dull episode, and even the final Batfight is boring, but it does have a tremendously colorful corridor set, and I was very pleased by an observation that Daniel made. As Minerva extracted the “deep secrets” of two of her clients, who are producers William Dozier and Howie Horwitz playing themselves, Daniel said “Hey, I know who she is! The Queen of Diamonds!”

This was a remarkably neat thing to say, because Marsha, Queen of Diamonds, whom we saw in five episodes of season two, was written for Zsa Zsa Gabor to play, but they couldn’t work out the schedule and Carolyn Jones took the part instead. It was nice for Gabor to get the chance to join the show in the end as a different character (albeit one who calls everybody “DARLING!” as often as possible), but oddly, Joel Eisner’s Official Batman Batbook says that Minerva was written for Mae West, of all people! West ended up being unavailable, and Gabor appeared after all.

So that’s it for the 1960s Batman, but that’s not quite it for Adam West and Burt Ward… and for Frank Gorshin…

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Batman 3.25 – The Entrancing Dr. Cassandra

Far out, baby! Your mind’ll be blown when those wild hepcats, the mad mod Dr. Cassandra and Cabala, totally flatten those square superheroes, Daddy-O! Or not.

So here’s Stanley Ralph Ross’s final episode of the show, and it appears to have been made for no money at all. They didn’t have budget left for stuntmen in the fight scene – which, in the episode’s best moment, Commissioner Gordon clocks at usually lasting forty seconds – so the villains are given invisible pills. Then Batman turns out the lights.

The villains include six of the most famous arch-criminals on the show, all freed from jail to work with Dr. Cassandra: Joker, Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman, Egghead, and, bizarrely, King Tut, whom we just saw two installments previously restored to health and memory. The villains are played by stand-ins who don’t get any dialogue and who aren’t seen in close-up. It’s a phenomenal missed opportunity on one hand – again, imagine how a contemporary superhero series would do this at the end of a season – but it completely convinced Daniel. This might have been one of the highlights of the entire series to him, seeing six classic villains teamed up with newcomers. He’s too young to realize what a big fake-out it really is! And he loved the fight. Seeing our heroes flail around the set being “punched” by invisible villains had him howling with laughter.

As for the newcomers, they’re played by Ida Lupino and her husband Howard Duff. The actors were actually separated at the time, but they wouldn’t get around to divorcing for another sixteen years! Lupino had a long list of disparate film and TV credits and is remembered as one of the first women directors in Hollywood, with a few movies and lots of sixties TV episodes – everything from The Fugitive to Gilligan’s Island – to her credit. Duff had played Sam Spade for years on radio, and starred in ABC’s Felony Squad. He’d actually made a Batclimb cameo in season two in character as his Squad character Detective Stone. Together, the couple had starred in the CBS sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve for two seasons in the fifties.

Tune in next time for the final episode, and, more than a year after she was first approached to play a role, Zsa Zsa Gabor!

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Batman 3.24 – The Joker’s Flying Saucer

Every once in a while, we run into an episode so boring that there’s nothing to say about it beyond noting the firsts or lasts. This one, like the second Louie the Lilac episode, is just plain dull. It’s the fourth and final appearance in the show for Richard Bakalyan, who here plays one of the Joker’s henchmen, painted green and sent to cause a Martian panic in advance of the Joker’s arrival in a craft-built flying saucer. It’s the final appearance of Cesar Romero, and I would say that it’s the final appearance of the Joker, but I think we’ve got one very silly cameo by a stand-in to get through before that.

Earlier this evening, I picked up two more volumes of the cartoon Batman: The Brave and the Bold for our son, since he’s watched the 13 episodes on the one that he has about six times each. This episode was so dull that I genuinely felt bad putting on this bore instead of letting him have fun with the cartoon. I’ll make sure he has time to watch a couple tomorrow.

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Batman 3.23 – I’ll Be a Mummy’s Uncle

Yes, I know it isn’t fair to hold fifty year-old TV programs to contemporary standards, but why, why didn’t they hold this one back and use it as the season – and consequently – series finale? They must have known that the ratings were in the basement and a renewal probably wasn’t happening, and this episode, ever so briefly, provides the first time that a villain invades the Batcave and knows where it is. It’s all resolved by amnesia-gas and a blow to Tut’s head, but for just a moment… this looked game-changing in a way that sixties television so rarely is.

It’s also tremendously entertaining from start to finish. Almost all of Stanley Ralph Ross’s scripts were great, (and one more of the final three is his), and he had a ball writing for Tut and Victor Buono certainly had a ball playing him. There’s also a tremendously amusing bit of continuity here, when Tut finds the Batdummy that deceived him in the previous episode and petulantly beats it up!

Also appearing this week: Henny Youngman, the “take my wife…please!” guy, in an unbilled cameo as the real estate agent who sells Tut the plot of land next to Wayne Manor (Bruce totally should have checked to make sure the land didn’t have any abandoned mine shafts in it), and Angela Dorian, who was yet another Playboy Playmate – I think the third – to show up in this series.

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Batman 3.22 – The Great Train Robbery

Daniel pretended to sour on this episode despite hooting and laughing all the way through the two fight scenes, both of which are pretty awesome. Interestingly, the second one, deliberately echoing such one-on-one showdowns as High Noon, is just a two-hander, with Adam West and Cliff Robertson, and their stuntmen, going at each other in a deserted street. But the earlier one is the usual big mob of people, and it includes a great big urn that Barry Dennen gets dunked in, which was probably the funniest thing my son’s seen in days.

Shame’s egomania and rank stupidity make him one of the show’s most entertaining villains, but you can see why they never used him, or anybody like him, in the comics, despite the rights issues. The comic book Batman is far too competent and intelligent to face any kind of challenge from this guy, which makes all the build-up about what an unbelievably dangerous arch-foe he is even more hilarious. And Robertson is so incredibly funny, with his double-takes, slow burns, and body language. I don’t think that he had very many comedic roles in his long career, but he certainly should have.

That said, Adam West gets the brilliant payoff line with one gag. Shame’s gang is waiting to open fire on Batman when they get within twenty feet of each other, but Batgirl and Robin spoil that plan behind Shame’s back. When Shame realizes they’ve crossed that twenty feet frontier, he starts twitching and looking over his shoulder, just brilliant physical comedy, because somebody needs to start shooting before Batman beats him senseless. He almost sheepishly asks Batman, “Say, uhhhh, about how far apart are we?”

“Eighteen feet and six inches,” Batman deadpans. Daniel didn’t quite get the joke, but his parents roared with laughter.

Also this week, Arnold Stang gets a small role. Hooray for Arnold Stang! He wasn’t actually in everything in the sixties, but he certainly should have been.

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