Adam West, 1928-2017
While I would be that my generation probably thinks of Michael Keaton or Kevin Conroy as “their” Batman, Adam West will always be mine. At a young age, some of my earliest (and fondest) TV memories are following up dinner and bath time with Batman re-runs on TV with my family. I never met the man behind the mask, but I’ve heard only that he was delightful, patient, and loving when it came to his fans. Thanks for everything Batman.
Batman fans, riddle me this . . . why have we never heard Adam West voice a Frank Miller-penned Batman story? Imagine Adam West doing Year One. Imagine Adam West doing The Dark Knight Returns. Interesting, no? Now imagine Adam West doing All Star Batman and Robin. That would have been amazing, because Adam West is the g@#$%^n Batman.
Like many members of my generation, my relationship with Adam West exists primarily with his version of the Batman and consists of multiple stages. As a child, I loved the 1966-68 Batman television series much as I loved The Monkees (a product of almost exactly the same era) – a joy of afternoon syndication, which I consumed and adored without shame or irony. As I grew older, the 1989 Batman feature film was released, and a few years later my afternoons were taken over by Batman: The Animated Series – famously animated over black construction paper backgrounds. This was a richer, darker Caped Crusader, I was told and, before long, I discovered the roots of this interpretation in Frank Miller’s mid-80s take on the earliest and last years of the Dark Knight. This was a Batman that could withstand the peculiar insecurities of adolescence, serious, deeply shaded, a chronicle of trying to do right in the face of pain and loss. I loved Adam West and then I outgrew him.
Except I didn’t, really. He was always there, most obviously in the “Beware the Gray Ghost” episode of Batman: The Animated Series in which the show laid bare its debt to the 1966 Batman by casting West as an actor whose career never recovered from his run as the lead in a superhero serial. It might be one of West’s richest easily-accessible performances as he conveys Simon Trent’s frustration over his stifled potential and his dawning realization of the impact of his work as he works beside the real-life (as it were) hero he inspired. Executive Producer Bruce Timm himself voices the part of a deranged fan. Rewatching the 1989 Batman, I’m struck by the way Vicki Vale’s flash punctuates an alley fight between Batman and the Joker’s goons. It seems clear now, especially in conjunction with the brilliantly garish neon orange-and-green gas mask that Vale dons in the Joker’s art museum assault, that this was Tim Burton’s tribute to the much-derided “Bam!” “Pow!” interstitials from the 1966 show.
Over the past several years West has largely played the role of a man in on the joke in his Family Guy role as the loopy Quahog mayor “Adam West,” and in cameos as himself wherever an audience might be amenable to a knowing wink. Dipping back into West’s late-60s Batman, finally, gloriously available on home video as of 2014, it’s clear that he was always in on the joke. Delivering the superhero as a hopeless square in the middle of madcap, pop-art villainy, correcting his painfully earnest ward’s grammar in the middle of life-or-death confrontations, West was still game for an in-costume “Batusi” dance echoed decades later by Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction.
Recently, DC comics has even revived West’s Batman in a Batman ’66 comic book that revisits the old TV series’ take on classic Batman villains and even offers inspired period-accurate interpretations of characters introduced in the decades since. After the main Batman ’66 title completed its run, it was followed by a number of mini-series teaming the 1966 Batman with the Green Hornet, the John Steed and Emma Peel Avengers, and the Man from U.N.C.L.E. The most recent title teams West’s Batman with the 1977 Lynda Carter Wonder Woman, giving us a glimpse of a Burt Ward Robin allowed to grow into an appropriately disco-inspired Nightwing, and a retired, jaded but still recognizable Bruce Wayne. You know, like in The Dark Knight Rises, only compelling. I don’t know how much involvement West has had in the recent comics directly inspired by his work, but his voice rings clearly through every page.
And now West really is gone. I’m grateful that he was still around to see us grow at least a bit out of our awkward, insecure adolescent Batman phase and back into a Caped Crusader who can find joy as well as justice.