The Great Gotham City Crime Wave Of 1966: The Expanding Roster of ‘Batman 66′ Villains
Ever since the first issue of DC’s Batman ’66 comic climaxed with an honest-to-Gotham airplane chase scene that ended in a fiery explosion, it’s been pretty obvious that one of the goals of that book is to do things that they never could have done on the TV show. As much as the comic has captured the tone of the series, it’s also made it a point to go bigger, throwing in bigger set pieces for the action, exotic locations and stories that literally go to new places that we never saw on the show. But there’s one other way that the comic has been expanding on the show that’s even more interesting than just pitting Gotham City’s arch-criminals against a giant crime-fighting robot.
Over the past two years, writer Jeff Parker and a rotating cast of artists that includes Joe Quinones, Jonathan Case, Rubén Procopio, Sandy Jarrell and Giancarlo Caracuzzo have been introducing villains that never appeared on the show to the world of Batman ’66, bringing pop-art takes of characters like Harley Quinn and Killer Croc to the comics. And they’ve been doing it in a way that’s absolutely fascinating.
That they’re even adding to the Rogues Gallery at all is pretty notable, when you get right down to it. The show was, after all, known for special guest villains and stunt-casting crooks more than anything else, which gave it a pretty impressive roster of characters to work with, some of whom never made it into the comics — or at the very least, took their sweet time getting there. King Tut, for instance, was created for the show as a pretty prominent recurring character and didn’t make it into print until 2009, and I don’t think Bookworm showed up until he made a cameo appearance in Gotham Academy this year. Either way, the show gave the people behind the comics a lot to work with right at the start.
That said, it makes sense why they’d want to expand, too. One of Batman’s greatest strengths as a character has always been that he has an incredible cast of interesting, compelling villains to bounce off, each of whom has been designed to reflect a different part of his character — not to mention bringing their own highly specific brand of thematic crime to the table. As much as the show did a lot in its three seasons, 75 years of comics have given Batman a pretty deep bench of characters who never made it onto the show. There are even characters who existed in the comics at the time that never made it to the small screen. I’ve always been shocked that we never got Ann Margaret as Poison Ivy, for instance.
And all that leaves you with a pretty interesting problem. How do you take characters that were never on the show and rebuild them to fit the very specific aesthetic of Batman ’66? The easiest solution, I’d think, would be to just do what the show did and drop new characters into adventures with the assumption that all these crooks just exist in the world already. That’s what Parker and Jarrell did with Lord Death Man — their version of Jiro Kuwata’s version of Robert Kanigher and Sheldon Moldoff’s original villain, a weird little ouroboros of adaptations that makes him one of my favorites — and it worked really well. Lord Death Man appears fully formed and acts as the centerpiece of a story that does all the stuff that they never could have done on the show: A trip to Japan complete with a new Batmobile, a fight against an army of ninjas that vanish into smoke, and a cave that ended at a skull-shaped mountain and a chasm shrouded in cherry blossoms.
But Lord Death Man was the exception to a rule that Parker’s scripts established early on when it came to introducing new villains. Rather than just bringing them into the continuity of the show as the exist, the creators have done something the show never did and probably wouldn’t have done: They’ve tied new characters to existing ones and allowed them to slowly build towards their roles as villains we already know.
It starts early, too, when Parker and Quinones introduce the Arkham Institute’s specialist, Dr. Holly Quinn — and folks, if you don’t think I have a lot of opinions on just what the introduction of the Arkham Institute rather than just sticking with Gotham State Penitentiary means for the world of Batman ’66, well, I hope you’re enjoying your first time reading ComicsAlliance.
Despite the familiar name and color scheme — and the fact that she’d definitely be played by a Laugh In era Goldie Hawn — Dr. Quinn didn’t start out as a criminal, or even a henchman for the Joker. Instead, she appears as his therapist in a few stories, setting up and establishing the character before taking her in a direction that seems inevitable from her first appearance. That’s finally coming up, if the solicitations for the next arc are to be believed, but it’s almost two years after her first appearance.
Obviously, that’s an easier connection to make with Harley Quinn, since she started out with that connection to the Joker already in place, and not everyone is going to get that kind of buildup, but it established the pattern of tying the characters together in order to expand the universe. You see it with Killer Croc, too, who starts out as a henchman for King Tut and winds up imbibing a magic potion from Ancient Egypt that gives him the skin and fangs of a crocodile:
He hasn’t made a return appearance yet, but he’s out there, ready to be used, with an origin that not only fits with the strange world of the show, but also ties him to it in a way that just having Waylon Jones, Pro Wrestling Crocodile-Man, might not have.
Not that I don’t want to see more pro wrestling in Batman ’66, you understand.
The ultimate version of this idea, however, came in the most recent issues. Not only did we get Solomon Grundy appearing as a product of one of Aunt Hilda’s potions, tying him to Marsha, Queen of Diamonds, but the issue right after that went one step further. Parker and Caracuzzo managed to tie a new villain to one that already existed, and turned an arch-criminal from the show into one that never appeared.
In Batman ’66 #59, Parker and Caracuzzo make a connection that, in retrospect, is so obvious that it’s amazing no one did it before, turning False Face, a villain who can look like anyone, into Clayface, a villain who can also look like anyone. For a certain part of the population of which i am most definitely a member, this is a pretty huge deal. If nothing else, 49 years after False Face showed up on television, we’re finding out the character’s real name — Basil Karlo, the first Clayface. And amazingly, it makes perfect sense, not just for ’66, but for the larger context of Batman comics as a whole.
That reveal, along with the others that have been creeping into the series since it started, show exactly what it is that makes Batman ’66 such a great comic — it’s not just a comic driven by nostalgia that’s loaded up with BIFF!s and POW!s, and Batman offering some square advice for the youth of America; it’s a book that’s every bit as dynamic and surprising as anything else on the stands. Even though it’s based on TV shows that were committed to film 50 years ago, there’s nothing static about these stories.