‘Batman ’66’ Writer Jeff Parker And Artist Colleen Coover: The ComicsAlliance Interview, Part One
We are currently living in the middle of a renaissance of interest in the 1966 Batman TV show. With licensing deals that have taken decades to work out falling into place, we’ve got action figures, clothes, and DVDs are finally on the way, and at the leading edge of it all is DC’s digital-first Batman ’66 comic, written by Jeff Parker with art by Jonathan Case, Ty Templeton, Joe Quinones, Sandy Jarrell, Ruben Procopio and Colleen Coover.
This week, the first hardcover collection of the series is out in print, and to mark the occasion, I sat down at Portland, Oregon’s Periscope Studio to talk to Parker (and special guest Colleen Coover) about their work on the series. In the first half of the interview, we’ll discuss the competitive relationship between Batman and his villains, the addition of big stunts to the show, and why Parker doesn’t think it’s necessary to be a fan to write a good comic.
ComicsAlliance: I didn’t realize you were as big a fan of Batman ’66 as you are, which is weird. You’d think we would’ve talked about it before the book started.
Jeff Parker: I guess in my mind, I just assume everybody is, so what’s the point of talking about it? After doing this book, all I get all the time at conventions is people coming up and telling me “This is the show that got me into comics.” I hear it so much, it makes me especially annoyed by all the whiny “fans” who don’t like the show or the campy tone of it. That’s the show that brought them in.
But I want to stop you right there while we’re talking about whether I’m a fan or not, and I’m going to say something contradictory. I do not believe that you have to be a fan of something to execute it well, to do a version of it. That’s just the status quo of comics. It’s the first thing I get asked whenever I get any job, “Were you a big fan of Aquaman? Were you a big fan of Thunderbolts?” It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I can assess what the job is and do it, and treat everything with the right feel that it should have, and make it entertaining. I honestly believe that sometimes, the worst thing you can possibly be is a fan of the thing you’re working on. It can freeze you up.
It’s one of the reasons that I was kind of glad Marvel never asked me to write Thor, because I was such a super-fan of Walter Simonson’s run. All I would’ve done is post-Walt-Simonson-y things, trying to emulate whatever he did, and what’s the point? He already did it. He did it better than anyone can do it. There’s a certain irreverence you have to have to actually make the things live and breathe.
That said, I’ll go against myself: I don’t think that if you weren’t some kind of fan of this show that you could get this feel right. There’s a specific appeal to the show, and it’s not just emulating what they did on TV. It’s not just tilting the camera angles and putting the same kind of lines, or showing the back of the car shooting out fire and that sort of thing. There’s a certain groove to the whole thing, and that’s usually what I go for. Jonathan Case, I feel, did it really well. He realized right off the bat that he didn’t have to show everything to make it feel like the show felt when you watched it.
CA: That’s interesting, because I feel like that sets up a conflict between being a fan of characters and concepts versus being a fan of an aesthetic. I’m a big fan of Silver Age Superman comics in terms of the aesthetics, but that’s not necessarily what I want to see in comics.
JP: You can have them inform your books without just simply saying “I’m writing this Silver Age thing.” That was the way when Paul Tobin and I wrote that Age of the Sentry series, and thank you for being our only reader. You’re always there for us. [Laughs] It was purely just us channeling all those Mort Weisinger era Superman and Jimmy Olsen stories and filtering them through that. In that case, you really had to have a sense of knowing what, with everything we’ve come through since then, you might’ve come up with back then.
You’ve got to go above and beyond what they were actually doing at the time, even though it was pretty whacked out, usually, because they were coasting off those great Otto Binder ideas.
JP: Greatest Superman writer, greatest Captain Marvel writer. Maybe the greatest comic book writer of all time. He doesn’t get enough credit.
CA: The reason that I bring up the idea of concept versus aesthetic is that if you’re a fan of Batman, you’ve got a hundred different kinds of Batman stories that we’ve seen over the years. This book is built around the dea of calling it Batman ’66, and not just saying “We’re going to do lighthearted Batman stories” or “all-ages Batman stories.” Brave and the Bold was the same way, where they studiously recreated the aesthetic. Would you have preferred to come at it as someone who wasn’t a fan, to look at it and see something that you wanted to fix rather than something to recreate?
JP: No. I needed to be able to, and I pride myself on being able to, step away from it and realize what’s just slavish mimicking, and what gets the spirit of it. The spirit is really the thing here. That’s why I feel like it’s okay to do these great big effects that they couldn’t have done on the show, because if they could have, they would have.
In the spirit of the show, everyone acknowledges from square one, including everybody that fights him, that Batman is the greatest man alive. [Laughs] That is a given, and it comes up all the time. Sometimes, when they have nothing to do in the scene, they’ll just spend it going on about how great Batman is, and how terrible it would be if he should ever disappear.
CA: There’s a conversation that I had with Jason Baxter and Derek Charm, where they talked about how there’s a competitiveness more than a hatred with a lot of those characters. Yes, they’re trying to kill Batman, but they’re also just trying to outdo him. There’s the episode with Shame that’s all about trying to build a faster car than the Batmobile, because it’s the greatest car that’s ever been built. And there’s the surfing episode, of course.
JP: And the entirety of Joker’s plan is to become the best surfer.
CA: To be king of the surf, and all the surfers.
JP: And Batman is not the king of the surf, so what the Joker does is actually kind of brilliant. He decides to be good at this one thing, and he robs the surfing abilities of this blond kid that Barbara Gordon’s dating.
CA: I feel like, in a lot of ways, that’s a more mature idea of how those characters work. It gets to this metaphorical level of what they represent and this idea that Batman represents society, and if society can fail, why wouldn’t you become a criminal?
JP: I’m very big on the idea that Joker needs to be purely chaotic. Yeah, maybe sometimes he’s a mass murderer, but sometimes he can just go and do some silly prank that’s almost harmless, because that’s the way his insane mind works. It all depends on what amuses him at the time; he’s not always going to come in and just be an enormous threat. They kind of got into that in the ’50s and ’60s, probably just because different people were approaching it and they figured that’s how the Joker was.
I don’t know if Lorenzo Semple ever stated this anywhere, but looking at it across the board, one thing I observed was that everyone on the show is obsessive. They’re all obsessed. Batman’s obsessed with order and improving the world. It’s not enough to just beat the criminals, he wants them to become good guys. He wants them to be rehabilitated. Robin’s obsessed with Batman, but he’s also obsessed mainly with heroes. He loves the idea of crimefighting, and you get the sense that he hopes one day to be Batman, but at the same time, it’s a conflict where he never wants Batman to go away. All the villains are obsessed, Riddler’s obsessed with Riddles, Penguin’s obsessed with umbrellas…
Colleen Coover: Tuxedos, right? He’s obsessed with tuxedos.
JP: Penguin just likes teaming up with ladies and screwing with people. That seems to be his thing. But everybody else. Your favorite, Louie the Lilac. King Tut’s obsessed with Ancient Egypt, Egghead’s obsessed with eggs. Lord Ffogg’s obsessed with fog. There’s something that makes that carry across the board so that it’s surprisingly consistent, even though sometimes they’re probably just thinking of what would be a funny gag.
CC: It seems like if you want to make sure that Catwoman doesn’t come after your crown jewels, don’t name them after your cat.
JP: Do not name these jewels after tigers and cougars.
CC: That’s a surefire way to get Catwoman involved.
JP: And stop making sure that every exhibit tours through Gotham City.
CA: The thing I always want to know is who is the curator at the Gotham City Museum that’s okaying these exhibits of ancient Egyptian cat’s eye statues? That guy needs to be fired.
CC: You’re just asking for trouble.
JP: Can we just have an exhibit where people learn something?
CA: But then here comes Bookworm. But that’s the thing about the show. They have these characters from the comics that are obsessive, but then they invent these characters for the show who are obsessed with way more specific things to fill in the gaps. They’re very specific. Riddler, Joker, Penguin and Catwoman tend to be very broad in their ideas that you can do a lot with. You can do almost anything with the Joker — anything that’s funny can lead him to a crime spree. For the characters that were invented for the show, it’s always very narrow, books and eggs. Do you think that’s a result of the show being produced for specific episodes?
JP: I assume it had to do with the weird way that they would do the rights. The show, as I understand, couldn’t just automatically use any DC character. I really need to read more about it, because I’m not sure why. It’s either that, or the writers just flat-out did not want to read some comic books.
You always got the sense that Lorenzo Semple, especially in that first episode, had read the comics. He knew what they were, and he went for the kind of things that, for him, were going on in them. But yeah, when you get to Louie the Lilac or the Archer, I think they’re just thinking in terms of props and settings, something that’s easy to tell the other guys. “Ah, this person’s into giant cards. You can go that way with it.”
CA: We talked about you wanting to do bigger stuff in the comics, and you open the book with that big action set piece in the first issue.
JP: I wanted to show more of Gotham City. They’d show stock footage of wherever, sometimes parts of New York or Chicago, and as soon as it went into actual filming, the light sure is awfully warm and the grass is sparse, it sure looks like Los Angeles.
I’ve been trying to establish it more. We’ve gone a few times back to Gotham’s version of Central Park, because I like thinking that Gotham has a park in it, but like Chicago, it also has a river running down the middle of it so that King Tut can sail his barge up and down the thing before he travels back in time.
In that way, I’ve been trying to establish more Gotham City things, without naming them after people from comics. That always pokes me in the eye, especially because their names don’t lend themselves to it. Obviously Bill Finger is super important, but his name, because it’s a digit on your hand, doesn’t work so well for a museum.
CA: The first thing you do in the hardcover, the first thing you do in the first issue, is a plane stunt. Adam West flying around on a hang glider cape. Stuff that would never happen on television, because it just wasn’t possible on the show.
JP: I thought it was important to start off with that, because I wanted to make it clear right from the start that we weren’t just slavishly following the show and giving you a second generation of the show. I wanted to prove right off the bat that it’s a comic book, the comics were first, and we’re going to do comics stuff.
I didn’t want it to be a checklist sort of thing, where people are looking for it. “Oh, are they going to have a deathtrap in this one? Now they should be saying this, because that’s what they did on the show.” If you look on Batman TV show forums, sometimes you’ll see people grousing because that’s what they expect, that’s what they want, but I feel like that’s choking all the life out of something and not letting them breathe. I don’t understand it.
I want to go big, but still have Batman sound the way Adam West does when he delivers his soliloquy — which also I can’t go as long with, because it’s comics. I can’t have the sheer amount of verbiage that they would get away with, because it’s not real time. I have to cut it down and make it precise but still have it feel right. This sounds like Burt Ward saying “Gosh!”
CA: That’s something that runs through all the stories you’ve done. There’s the plane stunt, Batman on his hang glider cape, the iceberg floating into the harbor…
JP: It’s nice and big, but it uses the Penguin Sub.
CA: You eventually get up to where you’re doing time travel to Ancient Egypt.
JP: I feel like they also would’ve gotten into doing magic and stuff like that. We have one coming up with Marsha, Queen of Diamonds. If you remember, she had a witch aunt who was a chemist, so she was dressed as a witch and talking witch stuff, who I believe played Samantha’s aunt on Bewitched.
CC: The dotty one?
JP: Yeah. She’s the exact same role here. But do you remember, they had a little serpent puppet that came up out of the cauldron? People don’t remember stuff like that, but it was on the show. They were doing weird sci-fi bits and magic stuff here and there, they just weren’t going whole hog with it. So I thought we can have some magic, if we make it feel right, to the show. The idea that you would enter a sarcophagus and travel through time to another sarcophagus just seems plausible to me. Sounds legit.
Next: Colleen Coover talks about her experience drawing Eartha Kitt as Catwoman and Parker discusses bringing later-era villains into the world of Batman ’66.