Writer Jeff Parker on Batman ’66 Comic: ‘Batman Is In On The Joke’ [Interview]
Last week, DC announced that they were going to be producing a new digital-first series based on the 1966 Batman TV show, with the creative team of Jeff Parker and Jonathan Case. For those of us who love Batman '66 with what some might refer to as "religious fervor," this is pretty exciting news.
And it's good news for Parker, too. While he's most widely known for work at Marvel like Agents of Atlas and Incredible Hulk, he's a long-time fan of the classic show. We chatted with him about how to approach the subject without just referencing its signature style, what villains he wants to use, and why the Archer is secretly the greatest villain of all time.ComicsAlliance: How did the Batman '66 comic come about? Was it something that you were asked to pitch for, or had someone at DC just read Age of the Sentry?
Jeff Parker: I don't think anyone read Age of Sentry, I believe I just came up in discussion. My real theory, and I'm not going to ask and have it ruined by reality, is that when I was doing that Legends of the Dark Knight story with Gabriel Hardman I sent one of the editors the Adam West signed glossy I got when I was a kid, where he wrote "From one crimefighter to another." I think I sent that in just as the rights were coming together and making it possible to do these stories. If not, it's a big coincidence.
CA: Were you the one who brought Jonathan Case to the table for art? You're both in Periscope Studio, right?
JP: Yes, I had a really strong feeling that Jonathan would be perfect for it, and editor Jim Chadwick picked up his books -- actually he already had one and hadn't read it yet. I think he saw how well Case can get that period-yet-classic feel, and then Jonathan did some likenesses and bam, he suddenly became the lead-off artist! You should see his paintings, he can really do it all.
CA: I'm assuming you were both fans of the show before you got the job. I mean, I know you were.
JP: No, I made my dad drive me the next town over at 8 years old because I wanted to see the car show and Adam West and the Batmobile just happened to be there. Of course I was! Jonathan too. But you'll have a hard time finding a comics creator who wasn't, the love of that show transcends the various genres. Indies and Mainstream unite in that, it may be the actual connection point.
CA: That actually leads right into something I'm curious about with the comic. You've written stuff that's got that edge of silliness to it before, but what really made the show great was that all of that weirdness was presented in this really straightforward, deadpan way. It seems like that would be harder to pull off in a comic.
JP: Another reason I wanted to work with Jonathan, I knew he'd get that. When it really works best I think, it's very dry. When Jim asked me how I thought I'd approach the work I made it clear that I would not be making fun of it. There's lots of humor, but in a weird meta sense Batman is in on the joke with the audience, and it has to work that way in the book.
When you're a kid, you completely buy Batman telling Robin that they're all part of the brotherhood of man, and wishing these evil geniuses could be convinced to do good. Of course -- they're heroes! You don't need Batman to be angry.
CA: Along those same lines, it always cracks me up as an adult that Batman's parents being dead is brought up once, in the pilot, and then never mentioned again.
JP: I know! But the neat effect is that when he says it, you still get excited -- oh cool, he referenced his parents! It makes it special because they don't really go to it. That's also the only one where someone dies, I think.
CA: Well, there's Jill St. John go-going into a nuclear reactor.
JP: Yes, she really goes out of her way to fall into it, Batman isn't even hardly chasing her. THE RETURN OF RADIOACTIVE JILL ST. JOHN.
CA: Is that really a story you're going to be writing?
CA: So what can we look forward to, then? The first story involves the Riddler and Catwoman, and we've seen Case's art for the Joker, complete with moustache.
JP: I want to treat the world of Batman '66 like they had an epic-level budget and could really go wild on the sets and stunts. When the Riddler shows up, you get some big action pieces you just couldn't have done on TV. Because we need to take advantage of what comics can do too, and as you know that's Batman's preferred medium.
CA: At the same time, those weird sound stage sets, especially towards the end of the series when they'd just have this black background with, like, empty picture frames hanging up really felt like comics to me, especially shot with those crazy angles. How do you approach doing a comic that has to look like a TV show that tried to look like a comic?
JP: I'm more concerned with getting the feel right through character. If we did everything the same way, use the same story structure, same Batmobile power-up sequence and so on, what you would have is pastiche, not a book that lives and breathes on its own. Then the whole dynamic would be 'ha, that's the way they always did it on the show,' and that would get old really quick. Instead we sprinkle out most of those bits so they're fresh again, you don't feel you know where everything's going. But sure, of course we're doing Dutch angles.
I feel like a lot of the style of the show was influenced by Frank Gorshin at the beginning, on that subject.
The way he would jump around and get down on the floor and start beating the ground -- it forced them to move the camera in odd ways to keep focus on him. He could have been coached that way, but I suspect not. You've read a lot about the back history of the show, what do you think? You are a Batmanologist, after all.
CA: I don't think I've read anything on that. I do think that Gorshin's Riddler was pretty profoundly influential, though, especially on the modern characterization of the Joker. He has those same weird mood swings and gleeful homicidal rages.
JP: Exactly. He's really threatening at points! People who refer to the show as 'camp' all the time don't remember those bits. And Cesar Romero strongly shaped the way we see the Joker now.
I read something where Romero was quoted saying he didn't know why they asked him to do a character who laughs so much. I wish I could speak through time and say "did you SEE yourself in Ocean's Eleven? You howl and cackle all through that movie, amused at Frank Sinatra and his men's antics!
CA: As influential as they were, there are a lot of things that separate those villains apart from their modern counterparts. What makes those versions distinct for you?
JP: They weren't out to slaughter people all the time, and largely just wanted to mess with Batman. And that's enough for me. Stakes or Macguffins never really work for me anyway, they're superfluous to an engaging chase and battle of wits.
By the way, I really like when you first meet The Joker on the show, he's playing baseball in prison and doesn't have his loud suit on, just prison clothes. For some reason he looked pretty creepy in that context.
CA: I like that the premise you're working with is "crooks mess with Batman."
JP: Look, I know you're angling to see if we're going to bring The Archer into this, Sims. I'm just going to go ahead and say no.
CA: How on Earth are you going to sit there and deny that Green Arrow As A Villain Whose Real Name Is "Alan A. Dale" is not one of the all-time greats in Batman's Rogues Gallery?
JP: It was just so weird to have Art Carney not being funny. He comes off as grouchy because he's clearly trying to play against type. That must have been really disappointing for everyone on set who were expecting Art Carney.
CA: So if you're going to leave the Archer on the table, which I'm telling you is a huge mistake, is there a desire to expand on the Special Guest Villains at all? You've mentioned Killer Croc's going to appear.
JP: Yes. I think there are some everyone wished had appeared on the show, and I want to get to that. It's one of the ways the book can expand and show how great these characters would be in 66 -- again, keeping away from the idea that everything is laid out by the show and can't be veered from. That would take away a lot of the potential for fun. Plus the way I want to bring in Croc is pretty freaking cool.
CA: When you're introducing a new character, do you and Case have an actual '60s celebrity in mind to base them on? I know that at one point they wanted to bring Clint Eastwood into the show as Two-Face, but I've always wished I could bend time to get Patrick McGoohan as Ra's al-Ghul.
JP: Wow, that's good casting.
CA: I've thought about it a lot.
JP: Eastwood obviously would put us right into budget/rights problems, now.
CA: I've heard the makeup would've been too scary for the show, but I cannot imagine being any more terrified as a kid than I was of False Face.
JP: Yeah, that is an effective example. False Face can creep you the hell out. Not so much Shame or Ma Parker.
I may mentally cast it, or more likely brainstorm with the artist who would be good, but we probably won't tell anyone who we're thinking of. Comics isn't photo-reproduction, and we wouldn't be saying "and Jason Statham as Hugo Strange!" or whatever.
CA: Obviously, but I think it's interesting how having that kind of performance can influence things, from dialogue to the way the character moves -- I'm sorry did you say Jason Statham as Hugo Strange?
JP: Don't take that seriously.
CA: Let's talk about favorites. Who's your favorite villain on the show?
JP: Gorshin Riddler. Definitely not John Astin, who was fine as Gomez Addams.
CA: Does it weird you out that the Addams Family exists in Batman '66 continuity, which we know because Lurch made a window cameo, and then Gomez Addams dressed up as the Riddler and nobody acknowledged it?
JP: It makes perfect sense, though really it should be Munsters that exists in '66, so we can have a race between the Barris Batmobile and the Munster Koach, also designed by George Barris. Also by your logic, Colonel Hogan and Klink are also in continuity.
I kind of worship Julie Newmar.
CA: Don't we all?
JP: Besides the fact that she's like seven feet tall, she just commands the set whenever she steps onto it. It's like looking into the sun.
CA: Favorite episode?
JP: I was hoping you wouldn't ask that, it's really hard. As a whole I tend to like the earlier ones, where I felt the tone was hitting right. But I bet you have one!
CA: Oh Jeff, I have so many. "Surf's Up, Joker's Under" is probably the all-time greatest.
JP: Well I do love Gordon and O'Hara as hodads Buzzy and Duke. And that Gotham was suddenly clearly in California.
CA: Batman and the Joker wearing bathing suits over their costumes, one of which is an actual three-piece suit, is maybe the best thing that has ever happened.
JP: It's weird that until I rewatched that, I remembered Batman just having a cape and cowl and jams, like he didn't have it over his suit.
CA: It's also maybe the best example of the type of story you talked about, where the Joker really just wants to win a surfing competition and Batman has to stop him at all costs. That's the entire conflict.
JP: I'll steal this champion surfer's skills, and then I'll show up Batman. HA HA HA!
CA: It's one of the few single-episode stories that really works, too, but I assume you're going to be doing end-of-issue cliffhangers and two-part stories.
JP: I suspect Batgirl would have had a one piece that was reversible from her skirt like her cape if she had surfed too.
CA: In a lot of ways, the Brave and the Bold cartoon was an extension of Batman '66. There are subtle references through the show -- a bit where the TV villains like Egghead and Bookworm were seen in prison, a grown-up Robin, the color scheme of the Batmobile -- but it was presented in a way that didn't feel like a throwback. How do you approach the same material without just making it a reference? Do you feel that it needs to be updated, or that there's a way to capture the feeling of the show as it was?
JP: Well obviously we have Jay-Z appear out of the window during a building walk.
Not really. That would be an example of breaking the world of the show rather than expanding it. I don't know that there's one rule to guide this, I think you have to spend the time considering what will feel right. There is a lot of it that is simply universally cool, and that's why we're all excited about it coming back, it's not a niche, it's not just nostalgia. To me it fits in with something like the movie Danger: Diabolik with that best of the 60s feel. And I'm not saying that because Dustin Weaver did that cool mashup with Adam West Batman and Diabolik a while back, but he clearly gets that from it too.
It's all a lot of little choices, and I'm choosing as well as I can. I use many of my studiomates as a sounding board to make sure I'm on the right track.
Say if we designed another type of vehicle for Batman and Robin that you never saw in the show. Like your point out with B&B, we would use the Barris Batmobile as the frame of reference to work from, moreso in this case. It must kill every designer since that that's still the best Batmobile.