On a cloudless January day in 1966, Los Angeles was such a dull small town that children could be alerted to something as small a skywriter at work. My parents must have been watching the Rose Bowl, as they did every New Year's Day. In those days we lived five miles or so away from the arena, on the heights over the Arroyo Seco. They saw the plane on TV buzzing the big game and urged me to go outside and have a look. Up in the sky, the small plane, low enough that you could hear the drone of the engine, spelled out the words in smoke B-A-T-M-A-N I-S C-O-M-I-N-G.
I was 7, and didn't read comic books enough to know who Batman was. But we were all front and center when the TV show made its debut, a half-hour drama that ended with an assistant villain (played by Jill St. John) falling to her death into a nuclear reactor. ABC's Batman has been called a trashy show, but it reversed the usual order of entertainment: here was childish silliness for the adults and adult strangeness for the children. The full force of the Bat-frenzy hit a society unprepared for it, in a way that's impossible to imagine now. There were three TV networks and few magazines, and all of these took the duty of explaining the world very seriously. Show business news was almost nil except for Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, and these were trade papers, not commonly found.
There was no way to imagine what Batman would look like when he arrived. The clashing pop art colors and the drastically tilted Dutch angles weren't done in TV or the movies of the day. Even the sounds were disorienting: the eerily electro-synthesized chorus chanting the hero's name during Neil Hefti's theme song-an Arrakis-sized earworm-the spine-chilling shriek of the glowing red phone in Bruce Wayne's study, the cackles of the different villains off stage.
Now, my mom knew where Stately Wayne Manor was. ("Was" is the right word; it was destroyed during last year's fire season.) It was a mansion on the southwest edge of Pasadena, and she could drive you by it and point it out. But seeing this exterior wasn't enough to dissuade my obsession. I wasn't sophisticated enough to understand the concept of suspending disbelief, but I did feel that there was some possibility it was all real. Children allow themselves this dichotomy without worrying about it. I was being taken through some catechism classes, and that was helping me deal with the imaginary world. And anyway I saw the Batmobile at a public appearance in downtown LA. That was more physical evidence of the supernatural than anything I was getting at church.
The obsession peaked and then broke, like any other fever. Later in1966, an indifferent movie spin-off came out and we couldn't wait. We'd missed the initial run and had to second-run it on a double-bill with Hammer's The Reptile. We went into the city for it, to the Westlake Theater on Alvarado right at MacArthur Park, a vintage 1920s house that still had a blazing old-time marquee on the roof. The trip was more exciting than the movie, really, since the Gotham-like qualities of that inner-city neighborhood meant more than the diminished returns of a dogpile of villains.
Though I loved underground comics since age 12, I became a mainstream comic book reader in college, mostly because I had a part-time job that got me home at 3am and I couldn't sleep. My roommate had a serious collection of X-Men and this led me to Frank Miller's Daredevil. I became a huge fan of Miller's revamping of this red-dyed version of Batman, on an endless search for justice and vengeance. Miller was a bold writer in a field of tentative hacks. A man who had learned the value of negative space and vertical panels from Japanese manga. So I was all ready for his mid-eighties graphic novel The Dark Knight, which has no relation to this new film. Pushing 30, I still turned up at comic book stores like a child begging to see the latest installment.
My mother died in October 1988. It was a slow, terrible death from cancer, and I was still bewildered by loss by the time Batman 1989 came out. Hard not to conflate it all, seeing a film version of a TV show we'd both been mad about, she and I. Burton's film had some of its power because of the contrast between youthful pleasures and adult reality. The audience was full of people who'd been children who loved the show. And then they grew up to see that even if Batman isn't real, Gotham City is. Yet there was nothing mixed about the metaphor, in Burton's poetic approach. The film floored me. Bruce Wayne's inconsolable loss was my own inconsolable loss. And that pure silent movie gesture of Michael Keaton leaving a pair of roses on a sidewalk was something I could barely watch.
Loss is something that we all get more of as we get older. The last 7 years were the worst, a numberless series of reversals of fortune, of war and financial turmoil. It's bad taste to talk about success and whining to talk about failure, so let me make it clear: my own great good luck and happiness during the Oughties doesn't blind me to what's going on elsewhere. I'm never going to mistake schadenfreude for gratitude.
The new movie (I think it's brilliant) isn't about grief, anyway. It's about Gotham City's royal coronation of King Panic. I'd read that Ledger's Joker didn't have an arc, that he goes out of the film the way he comes in. This is not the case. Joker gets a larger point of view as he climbs, and Ledger's breathtakingly nimble performance encompasses a change from witty thug to grand megalomaniac. No, our hero is that arcless creature, in the bigger sense. Certainly, Christian Bale, with his raspy accentless accent (he's doing Clint Eastwood, gang) has some doubts he must overcome during the course of the film. But Batman remains smartest and saddest person in the room, either as the dashing adventurer or teary little boy who just can't get over it, no matter what.
And this movie saw how big that story is: Nolan roots this story in real issues as well as real places. Nolan's task was to make this myth tangible and he did it well. Thus form changing over the decades, the essence remains the same. For this last After Images column, I thought I'd go back to this early TV obsession, which exposed me to a lifelong love of the theatrical, the strange and the mysterious. That's perhaps the common thread in these two years plus of columns. Only a few months ago, I was depressed by the narrowness of the niche market. In fact, this has been the best summer for movies in years: The Fall sticking it out bravely as a cult film; Fatih Akins' terrific Edge of Heaven showing Paul Haggis how to do a story of looped destinies. And, to dazzle the world: Iron Man, Wall-e and The Dark Knight, all, in their vastly different ways, escaping escapism.
Thanks for reading.