Buy This Book: ‘Batman ’66: The Lost Episode’
There are a lot of great things about the Batman '66 ongoing series, but I think my favorite is how it's been expanding the Dutch-angled, pop-art universe of the original TV show beyond its three-season run. There have been new adventures for the show's roster of special guest villains, new locations, and even new characters in the form of additions like the Arkham Institute's Dr. Holly Quinn and the massive, atomic-powered Bat-Robot.
On top of all that, the not-at-all surprising success of the Batman '66 revival has expanded the universe in one of the most interesting ways by finally giving us one of the biggest missed opportunities in the character's history: A full adaptation of Harlan Ellison's unproduced Two-Face story.
I've known that this story was out there for a while because it always comes up in discussions of great superhero stories that never happened, and finally getting to read it in this week's Batman '66: The Lost Episode was a fantastic experience -- not just because the story itself was fun, but because the way it was presented was amazing.
To be honest, I'm not a huge Harlan Ellison fan, but that's more from lack of experience with his work than a reaction to the work itself. Don't get me wrong, I like "The City On The Edge Of Forever," and that amazing story in Detective Comics #567 about how mad Batman gets when there aren't any criminals to punch, just as much as the next person -- but I'm mostly familiar with him as the notoriously grumpy writer of a bunch of stuff I haven't read.
That said, I've always wanted to see what he had panned for Batman '66, especially once I found out that it was a Two-Face story. Next to Poison Ivy, who made her first appearance right as the show was starting, and may have been thought too new to get a foothold on TV, Two-Face has always seemed like the biggest omission from the show's roster of arch-criminals.
I've heard plenty of reasons why they might have skipped him, including the pretty obvious one about how it probably wouldn't be a good idea for a lighthearted comedy series to feature a character whose major distinguishing feature is "horribly disfigured by acid." I mean, it's one thing to fall into a vat and pop out looking like a slightly frightening clown with a painted-over moustache, but if they were going to actually go all-out with Two-Face, it really wouldn't fit the tone.
Of course, I've also heard that they'd planned on it and that they'd even considered (and possibly cast) Clint Eastwood for the part, which would have been amazing, but I've never known whether those rumors were true.
Either way, the way Ellison structures the story makes for an interesting read all on its own. In a lot of ways, it's the same Two-Face story that you've seen a million times (spoiler warning and all, but it involves a trick coin). Even so, it's really fun to see, if only because he makes sure to reference Two-Face's origin story, which is something that almost never happens on that show. I mean, we barely even get Batman's origin -- Adam West mentions the Wayne Murder exactly once in 120 episodes.
The only villain who ever gets an origin story is, I believe, King Tut, if only to explain why he seems to actually believe he is a reincarnated pharaoh, a delusion that's pretty weird even by the standards of the Joker somehow believing that winning a surfing contest will give him dominion over Gotham City.
Again, it's another one of those things that seems like it wouldn't really fit in with the rest of the show. A regular, non-arch criminal mob boss chucking acid in a lawyer's face is a pretty far cry from the deathtraps that the show usually indulges in, especially when it leads right into a series of flashy thematic crimes and good deeds, depending on how the coin turns up.
Of course, Ellison's pitch also gives Two-Face a shotgun -- double-barreled, of course -- which doesn't really fit in that well either. For some reason, those TV villains weren't all that keen on just shooting Batman.
All of this plays out in an adaptation scripted by Len Wein, but what makes the book so interesting is that DC included Ellison's original pitch, complete with notes and revisions. Reading through the pitch is incredibly enjoyable, if only to see how big Ellison was originally planning to go with the story. One of the great things about the current Batman '66 comic is that it allows for set pieces that the TV show never could've budgeted for -- the latest issue involves Bookworm's Wuthering Heights-themed robotic dinosaur, the Emily Brontësaurus, and the very first story involved Batman gliding through the air to chase down the Riddler's airplane.
Ellison's pitch had huge set pieces, including the Batcopter chasing Two-Face's boat to an abandoned island, and a fight on a double-wheeled Mississippi riverboat, something that Wein's script changes to a pirate ship:
It's the ultimate example of knowing exactly why this episode was never produced -- it couldn't have been, at least without significant changes to the tone, structure and setting -- but that also makes it a pretty incredible read for fans of the show. This reads less like a two-part television episode than what Ellison would've done for a second Batman movie.
All that said, though, the main draw for me was the art. I'm a huge fan of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, and his work here is as jaw-dropping as ever. Oddly enough, I'm pretty sure that his last work on Batman was also a '66-inspired throwback, a story in Batman Confidential with Nunzio DeFillipis and Christina Weir that introduced King Tut to modern continuity, and it was beautiful. Here, though, there's the added attraction of seeing one of the true masters of comic book art tackling a subject that's inherently fun in a pretty incredible way.
Garcia-Lopez's art in this story combines Adam West's costume and mannerisms, beautifully rendered on the page, with the idealized superheroic physique and action of the Batman of the comics. It's gorgeous, and in another example of a pretty slick production, they include Lopez's penciled pages and sketches at the end along with Ellison's treatment.
The overall effect isn't just that it feels like a "lost" episode of the TV series, but it feels in a lot of ways like the best possible version of that episode. It's Ellison's script delivered with an unlimited budget for sets and effects, with an Adam West who crashes through windows and leaps from helicopters, presented in a book that features really great bonus material and what might actually be my favorite Alex Ross cover of all time.
It's not the perfect Batman '66 story, mainly because it doesn't have Julie Newmar in it, but it's definitely a pretty great treatment for a missing piece of the series.