"Holy Camp Batman!": The Legacy of Censorship in Comics

Curator's Note

Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, comic books were the target of an anti-juvenile delinquency campaign that inspired book burnings, attempts from local governments to prohibit sales, and a nationally televised Congressional hearing. In the end, comics were never officially banned.  But the general cultural hysteria and still looming threat of legislation were too much for industry leaders, who finally consented to self-censorship in 1955. Within two years, horror and crime comics disappeared, leaving behind nothing but superheroes, who, despite their earnest patriotism, still had to be cleaned up in compliance with the newly adopted Comics Code. Batman, who had been the object of a particularly pointed attack, underwent the most dramatic transformation. Psychologists had accused him of living out a homosexual fantasy with his ward/sidekick Robin, so throughout the late 1950s, publishers worked to distance Batman from this supposedly sordid past. Paradoxically, the resulting character was so innocent and outlandish that when ABC bought the title in 1965, all the producers saw in him was camp. Hoping to attract an adult audience, they decided to use ironic distance to exaggerate these sensibilities even further. In the process, they created a subtext more subversive than anything in the original books.

In this clip, Adam West matches Batman’s excessive innocence with an equally overstated seriousness, accepting his OJ—the “Batman special”—with masculine confidence. But the bat-dance that follows is more playful and suggestive. Similarly, while the gender reversal in the next scene knowingly references Robin’s alleged sexual deviance, the show delights in the moment, getting at a pleasure that would have been impossible on network TV had the tone been more straightforward.

For some fans, ABC’s Batman borders on the profane. Its frivolous aesthetic constitutes a blot on the character’s past. Others, who decry the current incarnation as too serious, celebrate it as a camp classic. Either way, it’s impossible to deny the constitutive role played by censorship. Had the anti-comics campaign been more effective, comics would have disappeared entirely. Had the crusade been less effective, horror might have continued to overshadow superheroes, and we might never have seen the Silver Age, not to mention a Batman TV series. And had the industry not capitulated to self-censorship, (or had intellectuals not argued that it was their public responsibility to do so), we might never have gotten a campy Batman who exaggerated everything he was trying to deny. While nobody’s proud of our history of book banning, our culture would look vastly different if these practices hadn’t pushed and pulled creative expression in unexpected directions.

Comments

Ian Peters's picture

The Brave and the Bold

This is a very interesting piece, and touches on an important moment of popular culture. The clip you selected truly embodies this, and as this clip is actually from the very first episode of the series, it set the tone for everything that followed. 

I have noticed some interesting similarities between this era of Batman (both in the comics and in the West series) and the current Batman animated television series titled Batman: The Brave and the Bold - a series that is loosely connected to the team-up comic titled "The Brave and the Bold" that DC released during the West era and for years after.  I was wondering if you have any thoughts as to why a more light-hearted version of Batman would be resurrected on television (and consequently in a new comic book titled "Batman the Brave and the Bold") during an era where Nolan’s Dark Knight dominates the public’s current idealized form of the Caped Crusader. I find it interesting that they would resurrect the style of an era that was defined by censorship restrictions. Do you think this is it purely for nostalgic purposes - i.e. the more lighthearted style of that era’s Batman to co-exist with the darker modern version - or is it because of something else?

Shawna Kidman's picture

Same Bat-Time, Same Bat-Strategy

An interesting comment Ian.  I think that, in many ways, the Brave and the Bold series is doing today exactly what the ABC series was doing back in the mid 1960s: trying to appeal to multiple audiences at once.  It was a technique that a lot of shows used at the time, including cartoons like The Flinstones.   They would work to attract kids with a colorful aesthetic and big action, to please parents by not going into territory that was too dark, and to reach adults through an ironic tone that would go right over the kids’ heads.  This multi-audience approach was part of the reason that Batman was such a hit its first year out.  Eventually, audiences tired of the "it’s so bad, it’s good" thing, even as the show got more laughably campy over time.

Nonetheless, it’s still a good strategy for the character today.  The publishers are under a lot more pressure to sell Batman today than they were in the old days, not just to comic readers and fans, but to a broader audience who will buy merchandise and movie tickets for years to come.  I think the Brave and the Bold is helping to accomplish that task.  It can bring in nostalgic fans of the old ABC series, like you mentioned, and at the same time is a great way to introduce  a new generation of kids  to the character.  Because in spite of everything after all these years, we still tend to be pretty prudish when it comes to our kids, as Aron’s post this week suggests.  Accordingly, a censorship-era version of the character still fits the bill for good parent-approved children’s entertainment.  And because those kids are going to be far too young to understand the darkness that surrounds the Chris Nolan/Frank Miller version, they’re not likely to complain much about the campy sound effects or dialogue.  When they are ready for a more serious Batman, fifteen years from now, there will likely be another film, promoting yet another re-invention of the character, and more than happy to sell them some R-rated tickets.

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