Ka-Pow! Zap! Bang! This trade paperback collects Silver Age comics that inspired episodes of the high camp TV series of the swinging sixties including issues featuring such important moments in Bat-history as the first appearance of The Riddler, Mr. Freeze, and Batgirl!
The book begins with an unexpected, but wonderfully written 2-page introduction by the originator and executive producer of every Batman film since 1989’s BATMAN, Michael Uslan. Uslan worked extraordinarily hard to dash the camp from our collective consciousness when he fought for a dark, brooding Batman film so his insight on the subject of the Adam West days was quite the surprise. He even acknowledges his own distaste for the brighter, comedic depiction of Batman, but moves on in his essay to discuss how versatile the character can be, how important the William Dozier series was in spreading Batman’s popularity, and how the TV show enriched the mythology by expanding the rogues gallery and the bat-family itself with new characters that have endured long after ABC canceled the program following 3 seasons. The introduction also offers bits of trivia in a brief rundown of the comics featured in this collection, but I wish that this section had been more thorough. Perhaps it would have been even better to have given each chapter its own short introduction with a blurb about its influence on the show and references to specific episodes.
Batman: The TV Stories collects the following comics: Detective Comics #140, Batman #53, Batman #73, Detective Comics #230, Batman #121, Batman #169, Batman #171, Detective Comics #341, Detective Comics #346, Detective Comics #359. Here you’ll read the work of Bill Finger, David Vern Reed, Dave Wood, France Herron, Gardner Fox, and John Broome with artwork by Dick Sprang, Lew Sayre Schwartz, Sheldon Moldoff, and Carmine Infantino.
Despite the charming cover by Amanda Conner & Paul Mounts prominently showing Catwoman, the book actually doesn’t carry any stories starring Selina Kyle whatsoever. Instead, the book focuses primarily on The Riddler, Joker, Penguin, Carnado (who would become “Zelda the Great” on the TV show), and Batgirl, a character commissioned by the producers in order to boost ratings.
Detective Comics #140 kicked the book off in spectacular fashion. It’s the origin story of the Riddler and it’s remarkable how well it holds up. The very first panel establishes Edward Nigma as arrogant and the second panel pegs him as a cheat. We see these two characteristics grow over the course of two pages as Nigma evolves from a conniving student, to conman, and eventually the obsessive figure question-mark-clad figure who wants nothing more than to prove he’s smarter than everyone else. That’s The Riddler. And if you think that the SAW-esque deathtraps (seen most prominently in Rocksteady’s Arkham video games) are a relatively new convention, think again.
While Riddler has never been one for bloodlust, he has always showcased a willingness to sacrifice an innocent if it meant he could make his escape (Think of the approach as being somewhat like Robert De Niro in “Heat” or Harvey Keitel in “Reservoir Dogs” only more theatrical). Here you’ll see him leave a hostage bound in a suffocating puzzle of ever-twisting wires as he makes a break for it! The comic moves along with the overdone (and often unnecessary) narration and lightning quick pace we’ve come to expect from books of this era and there are certainly some corny scenes, but I think that this comic could be updated into one hell of a modern day introduction to The Riddler. There are some clever riddles, entertaining heists, and Batman’s ingenuity in a climactic chase sequence would fit right in to the comics of today.
It’s easy to see how Batman #53 inspired the TV show. This exceedingly lighthearted story has Joker steeling trivial items ranging from a lady’s hairpin to a literal hole in the ground, which he just digs up with a shovel. Batman and Robin have trouble figuring the method to Joker’s madness, but eventually it leads them to a fantastical fight within a trick novelty warehouse. One scene that stood out to me was when Joker had the opportunity to remove Batman’s cowl but refused. Joker’s need of Batman in his life because “he’s just too much fun” has been a part of the character as far back as 1949.
In Batman #53, Joker’s evil plan began as a plot to achieve greater recognition for his comedy, but it quickly spiraled out of control. Batman #73 begins much the same way when he chooses to attack a comedy museum for not acknowledging him only he’s foiled quickly by Batman, particularly the gadgets within the Caped Crusader’s utility belt. So the Joker decides that what he needs to do is make a utility belt of his own and as you can imagine a fair amount of wackiness ensues as he steps into situation after situation where cops and double-crossing henchmen say a different variation on “We got him! He’s unarmed except for some stupid belt. Come here, JokARRGGHHGLARBELGLARBELGLARBEL!!!” This issue definitely has the feel of an episode from the ’66 TV series complete with overly elaborate death traps and plenty of puns.
Although this is 3 years after the hairpin story, we again see Joker in a hideout that reveals the Clown Prince of Crime to be a bit of a hoarder. You’ll quickly notice that Joker devotes specific rooms for the various things he steals including a “Gold Room” and a “Jewel Room.” Another interesting thing I want to note is that no matter how campy this particular issue is, Batman still shines as an incredible detective in a scene where he notices that the bottle of 1936 champagne being used for a ship’s launch ceremony has paraffin wax that has not discolored with age and therefore must have been tampered with.
1956’s Detective Comics #230 reminds us that there was once a time when The Mad Hatter wasn’t obsessed with Alice in Wonderland nor was he very formidable with mind-control gadgets, he was just a guy who loved to steel hats and was exceedingly efficient at it! It was certainly a simpler time. Most of this issue even takes place in the daylight hours when Batman is not fighting crime, but attending various public events such as high-profile luncheons or a sitting before a renowned sculptor who is making a statue of the Dark Knight. Throughout this story, The Mad Hatter dresses up in disguises to fool the Batman and straight-up accosts him in the street in an attempt to steal the Caped Crusader’s cowl. But the thing I found funniest about this caper is that this Dark Knight is so nice that he probably would’ve given a spare cowl to the Hatter if only he had asked politely.
Batman #121 is another major milestone issue. As many Batman fans I’m sure already know, Mr. Freeze first appeared in this issue and in his debut he went by the name “Mr. Zero.” But another fun fact that many will not know is that Freeze’s 2nd line was, in fact, an ice pun “Before the police answer the alarm, we’ll be far from here… with a fortune in ‘ice’!” he was stealing diamonds at the time. By the way, his second cold-related pun is the EXACT SAME ICE PUN! Hey, not all villains had great first issues like The Riddler.
Next fun fact: his first attack as a villain was with heat, not cold! While breaking into a jewelry exchange’s vault, Mr. Zero utilizes “heat capsules” that warm the walls of a vault before he freezes them. The drastic change in temperature causes the vault door to crack open violently. Zero is later seen using a heat-ray and, yes, he makes a hot-related pun.
And in case you didn’t know, the original backstory behind “Mr. Zero” was far removed from what many love about the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Heart of Ice.” Until that episode aired, the origin of issue #121 was what stood and it’s pretty boring. Mr. Zero was a mad scientist with machinations of being a super villain with a freeze gun, but the freezing solution slipped out of his hand and soaked him, thus changing him forever into a guy who needs a refrigerated suit. Surprisingly—and this is a spoiler if you plan on reading this and being surprised by the outcome—Mr. Zero is cured by the end of the issue! All it took was the inhalation of a bit of steam (just some hot water, nothing fancy) and Zero was A-Okay and ready to join general population at the Gotham Prison.
One more thing I found interesting/funny: The night that Mr. Zero and the Dynamic Duo first meet is the same night that Batman & Robin decide to wear jet-powered roller skates rather than drive. That was a bad choice.
After reading issue #121, I must say that it’s amazing that the Mr. Freeze character endured and the artwork wasn’t all that great even by 1950’s standards either. There were some really oddly drawn eyes and distorted perspectives that didn’t really line up at all.
Final Mr. Zero Pun Count:
6 Ice Puns
1 Ice Pun That’s Not Really a Pun: Mr. Zero says “Now we are ready to execute my master ice crime—’Freezing’ Gotham Arena during the International Gem Show!” He puts the word “Freezing” in quotation marks, but I don’t have any idea why because he is literally going to freeze the place, no quotation marks are necessary.
1 Heat Pun
There’s been less of an emphasis on Penguin’s trick umbrellas in recent years. If this is a fact that saddens you then you will be most pleased by 1965’s Batman #169 “Partners in Plunder.” Not only do umbrellas play a major part in the story, but the word “umbrella” is used 43 times in total.
“Partners in Plunder” reads exactly like an episode of the TV show and I found myself hearing the voices of the actors as I read the speech bubbles. The thing I loved most about this story is Penguin’s sinister plot, which is amazing! Basically, Penguin is at a loss. He’s hit the super villain equivalent of writer’s block. So what’s he do? He launches trick umbrellas all around Gotham to attract Batman’s attention. Nobody gets hurt, nothing is stolen, no laws are broken whatsoever, it’s just Penguin’s way of saying “I’m the Penguin and I’m up to something!” Then when Batman comes around to interrogate him, he switches his monocle to the other eye. None of this has any reason other than to confound The Caped Crusader! And since Penguin hasn’t actually done anything wrong, Batman has to let him go.
The final step in his plan is to launch—you guessed it—more umbrellas. These have a rainbow pattern and a hidden microphone tucked away within. Batman and Robin arrive at the scene and then immediately go into one of their classic deductive brainstorm sessions where they try and piece together what the clue could possibly be because clearly this HAS to be a clue! Penguin listens in on the Dynamic Duo’s over-analysis and takes notes because even though Batman is totally off the mark, he’s also detailing what he thinks would be the perfect crime given the evidence at hand and how he would do it if he were the Penguin. It’s beautiful. The only hiccup is that when Batman and Robin leave to stop Penguin’s up-till-now non-existent robbery of a jewel-encrusted meteorite, Penguin decides that now is the time to do said heist. So… in a way… The Penguin foils himself. Had he just saved the notes and waited a few days or so he would’ve won but for some reason he chose to pull the job at the exact same moment that Batman would be there to stop him. It is simultaneously one of the smartest and dumbest crimes a Batman villain has ever committed.
Issue #171 marked The Riddler’s first appearance as a Batman villain in 17 years! His appearance hasn’t changed, neither has his origin story, and, yes, there was an editor’s note telling kids to go read a comic from 17 years ago if they wanted to know the bad guy’s full story! Thankfully the reference issue in question was the very first chapter of “Batman: The TV Stories” so you won’t have to worry, but just imagine how SOL you would’ve been as a comic fan in 1965.
Now, “The Remarkable Ruse of The Riddler” might be the comic that made the biggest impression on the writers of the show and without it, we would’ve likely never had Frank Gorshin and Riddler himself might’ve remained forgotten. Heck, the show itself might have bombed because it’s widely agreed that Riddler was far and away the most entertaining enemy in all three seasons of the show’s run. And if the show had bombed, would we even have a Batman today? Batman #171 might just be one of the most crucial issues of all time when you get right down to it.
So what is this one about? Well, it’s a storyline that modern comic readers and fans of Batman: The Animated Series will be quite familiar with: Riddler’s Reform. Yes the concept of Edward Nigma apparently going straight and even helping law enforcement dates back to 1965 and as you can imagine Riddler’s intentions aren’t entirely pure (hence the title). The essence of the TV series is very much present in this comic. You’ll find plenty of “POW!” and puns and even the narrator chimes in frequently to address the audience, asking us what could possibly happen next?! I was quite amused at how writer Gardner Fox insisted on calling Robin by the nickname “The Teen-Age Thunderbolt” and it made me wonder just why, much like “The Dread Batman,” that it never stuck.
This tale also inspired the show runners to use the phrase “Stately Wayne Manor” and it supplied the riddle “There are three men in a boat with four cigarettes but no matches. How did they manage to smoke?” If you’d like to try answering that one in the comments section at the bottom of the page, have at it—no Googling though, that’s cheating.
Despite being called “The Joker’s Comedy Capers” this tale isn’t all that funny and lacks any of the campy charm of previous chapters. An incognito Joker sells a movie script for $50,000 that’s premise is merely a series of comedic heists done in the style of old-timey slapstick. The “Mad Maestro of Mirth” shoots it all himself and even plays the part of Chaplin’s Tramp character as well as numerous other comedic icons, but the real kicker is that the crimes are all real. It’s a love letter to silent cinema in a way, but it’s not that well executed. Despite seeing Joker dressed up as everyone from Buster Keaton to Ben Turpin there’s really nothing all that entertaining about this issue and I can’t help but think that there were numerous other comics that would’ve fit in this collection better. It might have been adapted verbatim as an episode of the TV series for all I know, but there was no mention in the book’s introduction by Michael Uslan and the show isn’t out on DVD at the time of this review.
An escape artist named Carnado steals $100,000 to purchase a seemingly un-escapable death trap and then uses the device on Batman in order to steal the caped crusader’s method of escape for his own act. Like the Penguin issue, Detective Comics #346 has a villain who wants to trick Batman into doing all the work for him, however, this issue isn’t as funny, clever, or exciting as Batman #169. “Batman’s Inescapable Doom-Trap” was adapted into an episode of the TV series, but while the escape artist’s accomplice was kept the same, Carnado was changed into “Zelda the Great” and played by Academy Award-winning actress Anne Baxter, who also played the villain Olga Queen of the Cossacks.
1967, the character Barbara Gordon AKA “Batgirl” was created specifically for the TV series, which needed a boost in ratings and to take some of the edge off the weirdness of a grown man living with a boy in tights. Making her first appearance in Detective Comics #359, Barbara Gordon is shown to have Princess Leia hair and a long list of qualifications to make her a worthy crime fighter. In fact, the first few pages is basically made up of exposition detailing how and why she’s a worthy superhero. These stats include a PH.D. at Gotham State University where she graduated Summa Cum Laude, a brown belt in Judo, out-of-this-world sewing abilities, the ingenuity to build her own bat-cycle (this attribute kind of came out of nowhere), and a daily routine that features a “special protein diet and extra exercise.”
The whole idea of dressing up as a “Batgirl” was merely an excuse to have a fantastic costume for the upcoming Policeman’s Masquerade Ball, which she could attend since she’s the Commissioners daughter. Her own job is that of a librarian, which gets rather dull and so when she ends up rescuing Bruce Wayne from Killer Moth on her way to the ball (dressed as Batgirl), she gets so addicted to the rush of it all that she takes her hobby to the next level and that’s when all of the super-sewing and bat-cycle making comes into play.
What makes her sewing so super? Her beret pulls down to become a mask, her skirt reverses and becomes a cape, her boots roll up to become bat-boots, and her purse reverses itself to form a utility belt. Even her perfume plays an important part in the story! Batgirl proves herself throughout this issue to have the right gear, brains, and physicality to do the job of crime-fighter, but Robin still manages to point out her poor use of puns even though she’s not that bad, especially compared to Robin’s own “It’ll be a pleasure I ‘moth’ say!”
Speaking of Killer Moth, he’s just as lame as ever. He has a “Moth Mansion” and henchmen that have names like “Larva” and “Pupa” and just to give you an idea of what bad henchmen they are, when Batgirl vanishes during a fight their first thought is “She must have knocked herself out!” An interesting thing to note is that the great “Batgirl: Year One” also had Batgirl facedown Killer Moth in her first night as a crime fighter.
There are number of campy and really over-the-top moments in this issue (a gravity-free chamber that astronauts use to practice orbital flights?), but it’s overall a really nice debut for Batgirl even though she does sort of ruin Batman & Robin’s sting operation and the ending did seem to belittle her accomplishments a little while also offering a different approach to the father/daughter dynamic than modern fans are used to. The final page has Batman pointing out that he could’ve saved himself and Robin just fine without Batgirl, but thanks her anyway. Then, back at police headquarters we see Commissioner Gordon who is delighted to see a Batgirl on the scene and even voices his own displeasure that Barbara isn’t more like the city’s latest crime-fighter!
Besides the intro by producer Michael Uslan, there are no more special features.
Value: FULL PRICE
Not only is it a great companion piece for those who plan to purchase the upcoming DVD/Blu-Ray release of the TV series, but it comes with milestone issues like the first appearances of Batgirl, Mr. Freeze, and Riddler. Those are books that die-hard Batman fans should definitely have in their collection. I think this TPB has a high reread value that’s well worth the full price of $14.99.
If you’re going to buy the upcoming Batman TV Series DVD/Blu-Ray collection then you absolutely must have this book. You should also own it if you’re at all a fan of the Silver Age or just want to have some highly important Batman comics in your collection. The first appearance of Riddler, Mr. Freeze, and Batgirl? Those are stories every Bat-fan should see at least once! Yes, there are 2 comics in this book that didn’t entertain quite as well as the other 8 and I wish that the comparisons between the TV episodes and the comics that inspired them were more in-depth, but overall this was a highly entertaining read at a great price and I think it’s one you’ll find yourself flipping through again and again for years to come.