So it wasn’t all for nothing…
—The Gray Ghost, “Batman: The Animated Series”
There is a trope in some modern Batman comics (such as Darwyn Cooke’s Batman: Ego and the Legends Of The Dark Knight “Shaman” storyline) in which a type of eternal/universal “Batman” archetype/thoughtform exists outside of Batman himself. A “primal” Batman. An “idea” of a Batman. An “ur-Batman.”
It is my belief that these archetypal entities such as “ur-Batman” sort of…”choose” who will represent them. I don’t think they always get “rights of first refusal,” certainly (I mean…just the entire Batman and Robin movie fiasco)…but they do seem to have a “say” where it matters the most; where it is most crucial.
And I believe that this is what happened to actor Adam West.
West was best known for portraying Batman in the 1960s TV show of the same name, and was probably one of my biggest childhood idols.
I can’t even begin to describe to you how obsessed I was with this show as a kid. It’s all I ever thought about. It’s all I ever talked about from ages old-enough-to-talk to around 12 (when I discovered The X-Men and my tastes began to…well, mutate). Adam West’s Batman got me into comics—and many people have expressed being similarly inspired in the wake of his passing in 2017.
But in the late 80s, I read a lot about West’s unhappiness with the role of Batman, which basically typecast him in Hollywood. In short, he felt it wrecked his career; and he was sort of depressed about it. As an early teen reading all this, I was so shocked: who wouldn’t want to be Batman?! How could being Batman “ruin” things?
Seeing things from his perspective, however, it becomes more obvious. His Batman was not the one of Christian Bale or Michael Keaton. West’s Batman was played for laughs (though he himself played it dead straight and serious). And so because he made such a hit of it the first time, that’s all casting agents wanted him for: “Funny Batman.”
So by the time you got to 1989’s Batman helmed by Tim Burton, you could see how this would sting. West was in his 50s at that time. Actors in their 50s in today’s Hollywood play roles of the Batman stature all the time. In fact, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns—the most hippest “Batman” take at that time pre-Burton—featured an older Bruce Wayne.
But the last thing Burton wanted to have anything to do with this “funny Batman.” So there was almost this outright hostility and derision in Hollywood at that time directed towards West’s performance in that show. It was pretty ugly, in fact.
However, then you got Joel Schumacher doing his Amazing Technicolor Batman with Batman Forever in 1995, and…we were sort of back where we started in the 1960s anyway. Only, at that point an interesting sort of “transformation” fell upon West’s career.
In short…West started being famous not so much for being Batman as for being…Adam West.
He became, in effect, a sort of hypersigil. And while such a intimate connection between a person’s public and private persona has ruined some lives in the past, it actually seemed to help West quite a bit.
It might have started all the way back in 1989 with Wally Wingert’s parody song “Adam West”—sung to the tune of “The Wild Wild West” by Escape Club. But the key year for West’s transformation from Batman back to “West” was 1992, when he provided the voices for The Grey Ghost in Batman: The Animated Series, as well as himself in The Simpsons episode “Mr. Plow.”
“Beware The Grey Ghost” was pretty much a thinly-disguised metaphor for West’s post-Batman career, as he played down-on-his luck actor Simon Trent, best known for portraying the pulp hero “The Gray Ghost.” Through the course of the story, Trent works with Batman to solve a case and in the process, becomes a real-life hero—enjoying a revitalized career entertaining new generations.
The Gray Ghost episode was a deep, healing “ritual” for West’s life. Not only did it help him process all the years of frustration regarding his own career…not only was it made in an official “Batman” forum…but it presented a positive blueprint of how his life could progress within the next 25 years.
There is a certain ritual quality to re-presenting certain events again; a ritual quality that only magnifies through the repetition of image, continually re-broadcasted, viewed and absorbed by masses of people.
West’s appearance in “Mr. Plow” was also highly significant in that he established himself as a “character”—a cartoon version of himself. Here we have the hero’s journey from ordinary citizen (Adam West) to hero (Batman) to almost an “archetypal” version of himself—an “ur-West,” if you will.
He would go on to play “himself” in the cartoons Johnny Bravo and, most famously, Family Guy; in the latter, becoming a regular cast member and even having his own action figure. In fact, after his death a number of people claimed to have remembered him primarily as “Mayor West” from Family Guy, rather than Batman.
And having mastered the portrayal of “himself,” West, in the last years of his life, began to play Batman again.
In 2016’s animated Batman: Return of The Caped Crusaders, Adam West—along with the original Robin (Burt Ward) and Catwoman (Julie Newmar)—literally resumed their roles from the 1960 TV series. West even had a chance to play a somewhat “darker” Batman in parts of the film, uttering the line made famous by Michael Keaton in Burton’s Batman: “do you want to get nuts?”
And by going all the way back to the beginning again—illustrated by a young, fresh-faced, thirtysomething version of himself, as if time had stood still in 1966—West was able to process, and release, the entire drama of his relationship with this archetype. He made peace with it; and by all accounts, he was a very kind, much-loved, good-natured, and happy man in his later years. He was very active in the fan community, contributed to many charities, and continued to work.
Contrast this to the fate of 1950’s Superman George Reeves, whose life was cut short (maybe) by his own hand. What if Reeves had the chance to similarly “process” his relationship to his most famous role—to exorcise the demons caused by typecasting and frustration, to develop a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards things, to be able to see how he influenced and inspired future generations?
What is commonly called in the “geek” world as “fan-service”—”stunt-casting,” callbacks, homages, etc.—has a ritual, shamanic purpose. As with anything, it can be used for good or for ill; thankfully, more often than not these days, it is used for the former.
But none of this would have happened in West’s life had the “ur-Batman” didn’t decide that he was going to be Batman—the Batman, the “first” Batman (though of course there were the movie serials, but…), the “Bright Knight.”
Sometimes, the studio chooses you. And sometimes…the Batman chooses you.
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