Ask Chris #119: The Election Of The Century
Over a lifetime of reading comics, Senior Writer Chris Sims has developed an inexhaustible arsenal of facts and opinions. That’s why each and every week, we turn to you, to put his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!
Q: What are the best election-oriented comics? — @dangillotte
A: This year’s presidential race seems to be on everyone’s mind these days, but I’ll be honest with you, Dan: With the exception of the bizarre extremes candidates would go to for presidency of the Silver Age Legion of Super-Heroes, comics about elections don’t really do much for me. Barbara Gordon’s time in Congress is more of a curiosity than anything else, Bruce Wayne’s bid for City Council in the ’80s lasted about three pages, and while Lex Luthor’s election to President in 2000 is pretty notable, it’s mostly because Superman never actually told anyone not to vote for him.
If, however, I’m allowed to expand that question into elections involving comic book characters in other media — and I can, it’s my column and there’s nothing any of you can do to stop me — then the answer’s obvious: It’s definitely that time Batman and the Penguin ran against each other for Mayor of Gotham City.There were a lot of great episodes of Batman ’66, but “Hizzoner The Penguin” / “Dizzoner The Penguin” is easily one of the best, right up there with “Surf’s Up, Joker’s Under,” “in which the Joker has a sinister plan that involves winning a surfing competition while wearing a pair of jams over his purple tuxedo. And it’s also hilarious.
That might not seem like it’s worth mentioning since campy laughs were one of the show’s primary goals, but for most of the series, the formula was built around playing things perfectly straight. The laughs were as much a result from Adam West and Burt Ward’s stoic, earnest reactions to the sheer absurdity of what was going on around them as they were to the absurdity itself. In “Hizzoner,” though, Stanford Sherman’s script and Oscar Rudolph’s direction go for straight-up comedy. The timing alone is just fantastic, and it all starts with a blind newsagent “bein’ hijacked by Harry Hooligan,” which is interrupted when the Penguin (the amazing Burgess Meredith) shows up and clocks him in the face with a boxing glove stuck to the end of his umbrella.
So right away, things are pretty great, especially since the cop watching it all go down and fuming that the Penguin isn’t attacking him like he’s supposed to is named “Sims.”
Quick sidenote: As you may already know if you’re a regular reader of this column, I’ve read a lot of Batman comics, but I’ve still never been able to figure out why the Penguin is obsessed with umbrellas. It’s there right from his first appearance, and while I guess it could just be that it’s an accessory that matches his suit, I’ve always wondered if it’s some obscure ornithological fact that was a lot more well-known back in 1941.
Anyway, the Penguin’s sudden devotion to law and order — and his theatrical declarations thereof, including an assertion that he will never again molest an officer of the law — freaks out the squares in Gotham City something fierce. It seems pretty pessimistic, but apparently Commissioner Gordon is deeply uncomfortable with the idea that someone could, you know, stop being a criminal. Then again, doing police work in Gotham City probably kills your optimism toute de suite around the third time you’re almost decapitated by a clown or strangled by a ficus.
Either way, he’s right: The whole thing is, as you might expect from the title, all a plot to get the Penguin elected Mayor of Gotham City, because, as Batman actually points out, there’s a section of the City Charter that “explicitly allows for convicted criminals to run for office,” even if they once attacked the city with a nuclear submarine. And what’s worse, he’s dominating incumbent Mayor Linseed in the polls, due to some flashy antics that include having a squad of teenage dancing girls at his campaign HQ.
I feel that I should point out that it’s explicitly mentioned in the script that these girls aren’t old enough to vote, and implicitly that he’s probably shacking up with at least two of them. Whaddaya want? He’s the bad guy! And if he’s elected mayor, no teen girls will be safe from the seductive lure of his purple top hat (not a metaphor) (okay maybe a metaphor).
Clearly, there’s only one man who can beat him: Batman, who presumably got on the ticket with the aid of an obscure clause of the city charter that allows for a candidate to run for office while wearing a mask and without disclosing his legal name, let alone his tax records.
It’s worth noting that this episode presents Batman as both completely unconcerned with the Penguin, and also utterly and relentlessly boring about it. His campaign is concerned solely with the issues rather than the “cheap vaudeville trickery” that he believes voters are far too intelligent to fall for. “After all,” he tells Robin, “if our national leaders were elected on the basis of tricky slogans, brass bands and pretty girls, our country would be in a terrible mess, wouldn’t it?”
Still, you can’t blame Gotham’s notoriously fickle public for being taken in by the Penguin’s legitimately awesome signage:
Things really heat up when the candidates come face-to-face on the street, and Batman — with squareness cranked up as high as it can go without actually adding a cardigan to his costume — refuses to kiss a baby because it’s “a rather unsanitary habit,” what with infants being so susceptible to germs. Meanwhile, the Penguin just leans right into the carriage and lays one on the kids, while — in one of my favorite details of the episode — actually smoking a cigarette at the time.
It only gets worse when Batman’s solemn, stentorian campaign rally is attended by five people, focusing on the issues and elevated discourse. Meanwhile, just down the street, the Penguin’s features a hip-swiveling gypsy dancing girl and a live performance by Paul Revere and the Raiders (really).
No word on whether anyone yelled at a chair, but there’s also a musical number with Burgess Meredith doing what I can only describe as a distant ancestor of rap. It is amazing.
Batman tries to win over a few voters by addressing a fraternal organization known as the Grand Order of Occidental Nighthawks, but since this particular version of Batman is a little more “Caped Crusader” and a little less “World’s Greatest Detective,” he doesn’t realize that heading into the torch-lit headquarters of a bunch of G.O.O.N.s — still one of the show’s greatest gags — is a pretty bad idea. Fortunately for them, they’re wearing acid-proof costumes, as one usually does.
The real blow to Batman’s campaign comes from the debate held two hours after the attempted murder, when the Penguin makes the cogent point that Batman is always seen in the company of “thugs and thieves and hobnobbing with crooks,” while he himself is always surrounded by the police. Which, when you get right down to it, has at least a little more truth to it than your average real-world political speech, even those not delivered by arch-criminals.
After the debate is interrupted by a truly amazing sequence in which a sportscaster tallies up the statistics of a fight scene and Batman gets interviewed on his lackluster performance in mid-punch, it’s finally time for the election. Penguin goes in with a considerable margin, but — perhaps because he announces that he plans on appointing the Joker as the Chief of Police, something that I can’t imagine anyone could possibly think was a good idea — Batman ends up winning. So of course, the Penguin does what any defeated political candidate does when his campaign is over:
He kidnaps the Board of Electors and demands that they declare him Mayor and then gets punched out and dragged off to prison by a man dressed as a blue dracula. For readers from other countries, I can assure you that this is exactly how the American political system works.
Here’s the thing, though: Despite being officially and legitimately elected mayor by the good people of Gotham City, Batman’s campaign is a sham from the start. He installs “Deputy” Mayor Linseed by immediately resigning so that he can spend more time beating up the mentally ill in the company of a teenage boy in hot pants and a domino mask. You have to imagine that left more than a few voters feeling at least a little burned on that one, especially since he ends up being offered and turning down the nomination from both the Democrats and the Republicans in 1968.
But I suppose that’s democracy for you. No wonder those two old ladies were holding out for the Monarchists.
That’s all we have for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!