Monday, December 22, 2014



Riddle me this: When is an adaption not an adaption?

The answer, it seems, is BATMAN '66: THE LOST EPISODE. While a wonderful book, it's not entirely the product that was advertised. Touted as an adaption for a lost treatment written for the classic BATMAN television series by Harlan Ellison, the end result is neither fish nor fowl thanks to a series of unavoidable creative decisions needed to make this book happen.

Fans of the BATMAN series have been hearing rumors for years of Ellison's screenplay, which has collected quite a bit of moss during the last few decades. My favorite version of the tale is that Clint Eastwood was attached to play the episode's villain, Two-Face, the disfigured (and disgraced) district attorney for Gotham City. Two-Face was the only major Batman villain never to appear on the series, and for obvious reasons. Thanks to the Comics Code enacted during the 1950s (which prohibited a great many subjects), Two-Face was even persona non grata in the Batman comics throughout the 1960s. It was unlikely that the comedy based television series could ever find a way to make Two-Face palatable to prime time audiences.

And, while it seems weird to fans that anyone would turn their nose up at a Harlan Ellison script, keep in mind that Ellison was still a working writer in Hollywood at the time and not nearly the literary legend he's since become. The guy was writing everything from THE FLYING NUN to BURKE'S LAW in those days, so his pitch probably wasn't seen as especially precious at the time.

Ellison's treatment for the episode is reprinted  in the pages of BATMAN '66: THE LOST EPISODE and it's a hoot. Ellison is a longtime comics fan and it shows here. His sense of tone in actually stunning, and finds a respectful balance between adventure and comedy that probably wouldn't have angered fans of the comics the way the television show did.

Still, there are some problems. As a story, it's difficult to envision the producers of BATMAN ponying up the dough needed to make Ellison's story happen. This is a sprawling tale that involves an imaginative car chase, a sword fight on a pirate ship, and the kinds of stunts that required more than just stuntmen dancing around a studio set. The television series was simply too small to contain this tale.

Adding to the problem is the presence of Two-Face. He's inherently a violent character, and there's a LOT more gunplay on display in this story than I ever remember seeing on the television series. Ellison also stops to recount the villain's origin, which is something the series avoided with pathological fervor. The show doesn't even provide a backstory for it's heroes, which makes it one of the only interpretations of Batman that doesn't offer up the obligatory human sacrifice of Thomas and Martha Wayne.

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BATMAN '66: THE LOST EPISODE isn't hampered by the constraints of a '60s television budget, or the outdated regulations of the Comics Code Authority, and proceeds full steam ahead with maniacal glee. Which is where the book runs into a minor problem: This is hardly Ellison's story anymore. While it follows the plot points provided in his script treatment, he's provided very little dialogue. And, what dialogue he wrote back in 1966 is mostly abandoned here. Ellison's presence in the final comic book is mostly notional.

The end result is still quite spectacular, though. While it never fully feels like an episode of BATMAN, writer Len Wein and artist José Luis Garcia-López (legends in their own right) have created one of the single best BATMAN stories that I've read in years. It's fun, witty and beautifully drawn, and makes me wish DC Comics was producing more Batman books like this one. BATMAN '66: THE LOST EPISODE makes me really miss the character.


Unknown said...

He'll sue.

Unknown said...

Ha! The same thought occurred to me while I was writing it.

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