Ask Chris #304: Make Gotham City Great Again
Q: Has Batman ever been overtly political? Was there a time Batman ran for office? If so, would you vote Batman? - @ShaneMBailey
A: To answer your last question first, yes: I consider myself a staunch Batocrat on virtually all of the most important issues, like crime, child labor laws, funding for the development of personal rocket cars, and batarang control. But even though I would happily cast my vote for the Caped Crusader if I had the chance, the occasions where Batman chooses to take a political office are pretty few and far between, especially if you don't count the time he was secretly President of the United States for a weekend.
Of course, there was that time Batman ran for Mayor to keep the Penguin from gaining control of Gotham City.
It happened during the second season of the Batman TV series, and --- oh, hang on. Let me dust this thing off real quick and do this right.
Batman '66 Episodes 51 and 52: "Hizzoner the Penguin" / "Dizzoner the Penguin"
Writer: Stanford Sherman
Director: Oscar Rudolph
Original Air Date: November 2 and 3, 1966
Special Guest Villain: Burgess Meredith as The Penguin
Back when I started ComicsAlliance's Batman '66 Episode Guide, these were the episodes that I was looking forward to talking about more than any others, because they make up what might be the single best adventure of the entire series.
And look, I know I say that a lot --- if you're familiar with this column at all, then you will not be surprised to learn that I have a pretty hard time picking my favorite when it comes to Batman '66 --- but if you want to talk about the episode where everything falls into place and it comes together almost effortlessly, this is the one.
See, the thing about Batman is that despite its reputation, it's not quite satire. That's the big trick, the aspect of the show that truly made it a pop-art crossover hit. All of the superhero stuff is played perfectly straight, and the comedy of the show comes from presenting these inherently goofy thematic robberies and deathtraps as being deadly serious.
Even if the people behind the show were ramping up the silliness for comedic effect --- and even though Lorenzo Semple Jr. was pretty up-front about thinking that the entire concept of Batman was just hilariously stupid --- the fact that the adventures had that veneer of seriousness allowed it to play differently to different audiences. Kids could enjoy it as a straight-up adventure, and adults could crack a smile at the goofiness of it. So really, "satire" isn't quite right.
Except in this episode. In this episode, the show goes full-on satire, and it's amazing.
The premise here is a pretty simple one: The Penguin --- who is almost always involved in a plot where he seemingly goes straight, and who is about six months out from attempting to murder every millionaire in Gotham City --- is out of prison and launching a campaign for Mayor of Gotham City, running against the incumbent Mayor Linseed.
Right away, there's so much to love about this, from the childhood idea that the Mayor has absolute control over a town and can just legalize all crime the second they're sworn in (also the premise of a pretty great episode of Powerpuff Girls) all the way to the fact that preventing a single mugging seems to erase Penguin's long history of crime in the minds of the public.
But where it gets really great is when Batman explains how it's perfectly legal for the Penguin to wander out of Gotham State Penitentiary and directly into a mayoral campaign:
"I suspect Penguin has done his civics homework well, Robin, and discovered that Paragraph 34A of the city charter has never officially been repealed. It specifically allows criminals to run for public office."
Gotham City having a law that specifically allows criminals --- not "people who have been convicted of crimes," but just straight up the word "CRIMINALS" --- to run for public office is the most Gotham City thing ever, and I love it.
The Penguin's running against the incumbent Mayor Linseed, and unfortunately, Linseed is not exactly a popular candidate. It's never really specified why, but if I had to guess, I'd say it's probably because his tenure in the office has seen an almost unchecked wave of costumed crime that has left the police completely unable to keep the peace and the entire city's safety in the hands of a millionaire and his teenage pal.
Incidentally, that last name on the list, Harry Goldwinner, is identified as "the monarchist candidate," which is still one of my favorite jokes on the entire show.
Since Linseed is getting trounced in the polls, it's determined that the only person in Gotham City who stands a chance of beating the Penguin is, of course, Batman himself, so Batman begins his own campaign with the intent of winning the election and then immediately stepping down so that Mayor Linseed can take office.
The dubious legality of a masked vigilante running what is essentially a fraudulent campaign aside, it's a solid plan. The only problem is that Batman decides to run on the issues, while Penguin's campaign is essentially a circus led by a grandstanding blowhard that gets attention through bold and ultimately harmful statements, appeals to the lowest common denominator that literally reject science, and flashy, over-the-top stunts.
And that's what's great about this episode. It works as a satire that holds up even today --- especially today, in fact --- because it doesn't go into having Batman and the Penguin take any actual positions, it just takes the premise of the actual show to its logical and political extreme.
Batman, the Ultimate Square who stands for law and order, delivers monotone speeches about the complications of running a city to an audience of three people while Chief O'Hara is literally bored to sleep behind him, while the Penguin, one of the flashiest of the arch-criminals, has Paul Revere and the Raiders swing by his campaign headquarters to accompany a bellydancer.
There's more, too. At one point, the Penguin stages an attack by his G.O.O.N.s --- this being the episode that introduces the Grand Order of Occidental Nighthawks and their monogrammed sweatshirts to the show --- and the newscasters start keeping track of who's beating up more of them and how it might swing voters.
In the end, though, not too long after Batman turns to look right into the camera and tells the viewers that "the American electorate is too mature to be taken in by cheap vaudeville trickery" and that "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?"...
... the people of Gotham City make the right choice and Batman winds in a landslide.
Well. I say "in the end," but the weirdest thing about this episode is that while Batman never made another serious bid for public office --- unless you count Earth-2 Bruce Wayne's eventual career as police commissioner, which I believe is an appointed position rather than an elected one --- the idea of the Penguin running for mayor is one that just keeps coming up.
I've written before extensively about how, despite being hailed as darker and more mature takes on the character, Tim Burton's Batman movies were essentially just slightly more gothic takes on Batman '66, and nothing shows that more than Batman Returns. One of the many, many plots of that movie involves the Penguin running for mayor of Gotham City, and while Burgess Meredith never tried to eat someone's nose, you can't really argue that the movie didn't descend directly from this episode.
It even made its way into comics. In the highly underrated second volume of Batman Adventures --- an Animated Series tie-in that existed after the end of the show it was based on, and therefore had the freedom to introduce elements that changed the dynamic of its setting --- one of the long-running plots of the series involved the Penguin not just running for mayor, but actually winning the election, apparently through legitimate means. The keyword there being "apparently."
Of course, even if you're interested in the politics of Gotham City, I wouldn't take these stories too seriously. They're still fiction, even if the idea of a candidate whose string of umbrella-based murders didn't do anything to hurt his campaign doesn't seem like it's all that far from reality.