Parody, Play, and the Dark Knight Detective

I was at a dim sum restaurant with my wife and a few friends yesterday when I learned that Adam West had passed away after a short battle with leukemia. I felt a strange jolt when I heard the news. It wasn’t a surprise, necessarily: West was 88 years old, after all. So I didn’t feel that someone’s time and art had been stolen from us (as has been the case with so many other recent celebrity deaths—Prince, Carrie Fisher, for instance). But I had lost the origins of something conceptual with Adam West’s passing, something that became a portal to my future interests as a writer and a critic.

Adam West was my first introduction to the powers of parody and play. His Batman, in the campy 1960s cult classic, showed my fledgling mind what art can do with a well-timed joke or a subtle tweak of conventions or a quiet disavowal of an audience’s expectations. And it didn’t hurt that Batman was a descendant of—and an ever-evolving riff on—the canons of detective literature.

Since his first appearance in Batman’s iconic tights, cape, and cowl, West had cultivated a decades-long career as an actor with a cult following. (Most recently, he’s been known as the voice of the self-parodic Mayor Adam West in Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy.) I first encountered West’s Batman during re-runs broadcast almost thirty years after my parents watched the original 1960s series on television. I absorbed the garish colors, the balloon words with punch sound effects blotting out a live-action scene, the constant word play, a vivid memory of the red phone (direct connection to Commissioner Gordon!) flashing, and the taglines that closed each episode.

Usually with the Caped Crusader and his sidekick, Robin, suspended mid-peril. Tune in tomorrow. Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.

There are moments from West’s oeuvre that I can recall, with ease. From Batman: The Movie, I can’t shake the opening sequence: from the Batcopter, Batman and Robin are investigating the sudden disappearance of a ship at sea; Batman descends a ladder to get readings, and a shark breaks from the water and pulls on his leg; Burt Ward’s Robin saves the day by hanging upside down and passing Batman a canister of “shark repellant bat spray.” It’s a stunning riff on the near-supernatural encounters of the private detective, and it’s also a jab at the near omniscience of, say, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes or Christie’s Hercule Poirot. (Who else would have the foresight to have shark repellant spray? In a helicopter?) Or, when Batman runs around the Gotham docks with a bomb that was left behind in a room occupied by Catwoman’s alter ego (and Batman/Bruce Wayne’s love interest).

“Some days,” Batman says in exasperation, “you just can’t get rid of a bomb.”

That’s a line we can all appreciate in the midst of bureaucratic nightmares, private emergencies, and our own moment of precarity (when POTUS-45’s every tweet carries a diplomatic payload). But it’s overwrought, it’s cartoony. (Batman stops for nuns and ducks.) Yet, because we see Batman’s character navigating the crisis without the high seriousness of previous (and future) detective stories, we develop a different take on the crimefighter’s task. As opposed to the brooding and selfish Batman of Christopher Nolan’s films, West’s parodic Batman brings us nearer to the character and puts his antics in our service. West’s is a character dedicated to fans and citizens.

While he’s chummy, he’s also erudite: Adam West’s Bruce Wayne can quote Shakespeare and Byron, can wax philosophical: “Of what use is a dream if not a blueprint for creative action?”

This vision of the character calls to mind Peter Brooks’s contention in Reading for the Plot: good literature guides us through a narrative by laying out clues as in a detective story. Or, A.S. Byatt’s comment in her novel Possession, that literary criticism is akin to detective work. (These aren’t off-the-wall comments in the context of West’s Batman: he was a literature major and a psychology minor at Whitman College.) In the context of Batman, parody and play were inseparable from the detective narrative. It wasn’t mere poking fun: the lack of stuffiness deepened the episodes by allowing us to suspend our disbelief and believe the near-mystic powers of Batman’s detective skills. This isn’t so different from the meta-narratives, fragmented storylines, self-reflexive structures, and pastiches that make up much postmodern fiction: we break form and violate its tenets with the intention of crafting deeper, more resonant art.

A final note. On the wall of my office, I have a framed 1960s Batman comic, which belonged to my mother. The pages are brittle, making the comic difficult to read. However, its panels remain bright, bizarre, nonsensical. But it’s a touchstone of those evenings in the 1990s when I’d watch Adam West and Burt Ward; mentally, I logged notes, comparing their methods and madness to the books I was reading. (Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, if you need to know.) So it lingers with me, a bit of childhood play that has left its mark on my adult praxis as a writer.

Compare that to the note from Adam West, in the booklet which accompanies the DVD box set. (Which I bought last summer, when I needed a familiar companion: my wife was on a well-deserved trip to visit friends in Boston, our cat Campbell was in her terminal battle with cancer, and a lot was uncertain.) Here’s West:

Little did I know, as a kid growing up on a wheat farm in the northwest, that our performances and the work of all those contributing to BATMAN would produce this classic of pop culture. For me, running around on film in cape and cowl doing rather strange square-jawed things was much like playing Batman as a kid. The great difference being tongue planted firmly in cheek. Yes, it is a comedy, but certainly not to kids.

It is a comedy. It is play. It is parody. And therefore, it’s so much more.

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