In January, 1966, I bought my first issue of Batman. I’d already had plenty of exposure to the character by this time, of course, in multiple issues of Justice League of America, plus appearances in The Brave and the Bold and World’s Finest. More to the point, one of the very first comics I’d bought had been the 344th issue of Detective, Batman’s “other” book (and arguably the primary Batman book, as it was the 27th issue of Detective in which the character made his debut way back in 1939). Still, up until January, 1966, I hadn’t gotten around to buying an actual issue of the Caped Crusader’s titular comic.
But if I was ever going to pick up an issue of Batman, there could hardly have been another month when I would have been more primed to do so than January of 1966. Because on January 12, eight days prior to the release of Batman #179, American television viewers saw this on their screens for the very first time:
… and for better or worse, the public perception not only of Batman, but virtually the whole comic book medium, would never be the same.
I feel obliged to acknowledge here that for most of the ’70s and ’80s, I was completely disdainful of the Batman TV series, seeing its camp approach as having been detrimental to comics in general, and to Batman in particular. Today, however, fifty years after the program’s debut, my opinion is a little more nuanced. I still prefer a “straight” (and, yes, dark) approach to the Dark Knight and his mythos — but in 2016, it would be foolish to claim that the ’60s TV series’ version dominates the image of Batman in contemporary culture. After all, even an unapologetically humorous take like Lego Batman draws on a grim vision of the character (“Darkness! No parents!”), based on the assumption that that’s the Batman most people know. And looking at the broader picture, comic books in general are doing pretty damn well in other media while (mostly) eschewing camp. (Just last night, ABC and The CW aired a full five hours of comic book-based programming between them, in prime time. I’m still pinching myself.) Knowing all that, I can now look at the William Dozier – Lorenzo Semple, Jr. Batman and appreciate it for the innovative piece of popular entertainment it was.
Fifty years ago, however, I appreciated the program with no need for nuance. “Camp” was a meaningless concept to my 8-year old self, as was irony, and parody was the kind of thing they did in Mad magazine. No, I loved Batman because it brought the comic book page to life, POW! ZAP! onomatopoeia and all. As far as I was concerned, the creators were playing it straight, and I took it dead seriously, as did (so far as I can remember) each and every one of my peers.
The issue of Batman that hit the stands the week after the TV series’ debut cover-featured the costumed super-villain known as the Riddler — who, probably not coincidentally, had been the “Special Guest Villain” in the Jan. 12 – 13 two-parter that launched the series. (That two-episode tale had itself been based on Batman #171 [May, 1965], which featured the Riddler’s first comics appearance since 1948.) The issue’s lead story, however, was the Riddler-less “Clay Pigeon for a Killer!”, a Robert Kanigher-penned tale pitting the Caped Crusader against a millionaire who’s decided to combat his boredom by committing the perfect crime. It’s not a badly-executed yarn in most respects, but the initial setup, involving a TV dramatization of the crime as an unsolved mystery, makes no sense at all; in short, it’s not a classic of the “New Look” era Batman, by any stretch.
The issue’s second 12-pager, “The Riddle-Less Robberies of the Riddler”, holds up better. (As with the previous tale, there’s nary a credit given save to Bob Kane [Batman’s co-creator, and sole creator “of record” until very recently], but the Grand Comics Database identifies Kane’s ghost artist for both stories in the issue as Sheldon Moldoff, and the Riddler story as having been scripted by Gardner Fox.) As the story open, Edward Nigma, alias the Riddler, has just escaped from jail using a skeleton key he made himself in the prison workshop. (Hopefully, the state prison will be moved to tighten their workshop’s security procedures just a bit following this incident.) Nigma is ready to resume his life of larceny, but he’s bummed knowing that if he sends Batman and Robin a clue to his next crime in the form of a riddle, they’re likely to figure it out and catch him in the act. He decides to try to rob a jewelry store without providing a riddle-clue in advance, but when the moment of truth comes, he finds himself physically unable to remove the precious gems from their display case:
I must pause here to note that this story is not just only the Riddler’s second appearance since the Forties, but is in fact only his fourth appearance ever. The character was introduced in 1948’s Detective #140, returned a short two months later in #142, and then didn’t surface again until 1965. So his background and motivation still hadn’t been fleshed out very much at this point, even by ’60s comics’ standards. And so, while the Riddler’s pattern of compulsive behaviors — what we would today term a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder — is likely familiar to those who’ve encountered the character in contemporary comics or other media, it had never been seen — or, at least, foregrounded as a psychological problem — until the publication of this story.
The Riddler quickly bounces back from his initial despondency — in the very next panels, in fact, he determines that he can and will overcome his neurosis:
One might quibble that the “physician, heal thyself” analogy isn’t quite logical, since Edward Nigma isn’t actually a psychoanalyst (or a psychiatrist, for that matter), but never mind — I think Ed is actually on to something here. Writing as someone who’s had his own struggles with OCD over the decades (though my particular variation isn’t nearly as colorful or dramatic as the Riddler’s — and, um, is this too much information?), I know that cognitive behavioral therapy, closely related if not quite identical to “conditioning”, is an important aspect of treatment for the problem, and you can learn a lot about it from books. (Though I’d also recommend working with a licensed therapist, at least at the beginning, not to mention a doctor who can prescribe the appropriate SSRIs. On the other hand, I’m not a habitual criminal.)
After hitting the books for a few days and nights, the Riddler tries another robbery, this time of rare coins from the office of a soft drink company (?), without providing the Dynamic Duo with any riddles — and appears to be successful at it. Or is he? Batman and Robin give a little attention to a number of odd occurrences that have come to their attention in the last week, including an outline of Minnesota painted on the wall of a post office, and eventually work out the time and location of the Riddler’s robbery, even if after the fact. This achievement is extremely reassuring to our Caped Crusader:
(By “human nature”, Batman apparently means “the intractable nature of chronic mental health problems”. Well, he would know, I guess.)
Having figured out that the Riddler is sending them clues, just being extraordinary obscure about it, the Dynamic Duo figure that they can dope out his next crime before he commits it, as long as they have enough people paying attention. They proceed to send out a call to Gotham City’s policemen and journalists asking them to report “any out-of-the-way happenings”. That may sound way too broad to be useful, but in practice it works out just fine, as Gotham in the ’60s is a much more orderly and predictable place than the version we know today. Thus, the calls that come in, about a guy dressed up as Napoleon and other such innocuous matters, do indeed turn out to be clues which, when put together, lead our heroes to the Corsican Glove Factory in the dead of night — just in time to interrupt the Riddler and his brand new gang in the midst of robbing the factory’s office safe!
One SOK!, a SMAK, and a passel of BAMs later, the criminals have been subdued, and the poor bemused Riddler begins to realize how his self-conditioning has failed; he’s been falling asleep while poring over his tomes of psychiatric lore, and during these naps his subconscious mind has taken over and forced him to provide riddles. (Based on the complexity of most of the clues’ setups, these must have been some pretty long naps.) Robin, being the wry scamp that he is, can’t help but rub it in as E. Nigma is hauled off back to the pokey:
The story concludes with the Riddler back in his cell, resigned that he’ll always be compelled to provide riddles as clues to his robberies, but determined that he can still prevail by coming up with cleverer ways to stump Batman and Robin, next time. (Of course there’ll be a next time. That’s a given. When, in any era, has Gotham City ever managed to keep its costumed criminals locked up? Sheesh!)
One thing that strikes me about this story now, fifty years after I first read it, is how low-key, even laid-back, the whole adventure is. The Riddler is a criminal, but all his robberies are non-violent, and for fairly small stakes — a tray of jewels, a set of rare coins, the cash in an office safe. He doesn’t even have any accomplices until his last job, and the handful of well-dressed henchmen he fields against Batman and Robin at that point don’t even appear to be armed. It all does seem to be something of a game, for the Dynamic Duo as well as for their adversary. For a stark contrast, compare this practically harmless Riddler with the Edward Nygma of the current Gotham TV series, who kills two people even before he adopts the Riddler identity.
A darker vision of Batman and his milieu has been with us for quite a while, of course. Back in 1989, around the time of Tim Burton’s first Batman movie, Neil Gaiman wrote a memorable story in Secret Origins Special #1 (art by Bernie Mireault and Matt Wagner) in which the Riddler himself comments on how much things have changed since the good ol’ days, when he used to hang out with the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, and their fellow villains:
Poor guy. Though he doesn’t know it yet, things are going to get even darker. At this point, though the Joker may be killing people, the Riddler himself isn’t. That will change.
Understand, I’m not lamenting the shift in tone from the Batman comics of the ’60s. As I said at the outset, I like my Dark Knight dark. I think that’s how the character was originally conceived, and how he works best. Still, I find myself freshly struck by just how much things have changed since I first encountered the Caped Crusader, fifty-odd years ago.
The Riddler may have been a minor, nearly-forgotten comic book villain in early 1966, but he soon became a mainstay of the Batman TV series, and before very long he was my own personal favorite Batman villain. That probably had very little to do with his portrayal in comic book stories like “The Riddle-Less Robberies of the Riddler”, and almost everything to do with Frank Gorshin’s live-action performance. The Riddler in Batman #179 was a mostly serious, subdued, even sad-sack character — but Gorshin was high-energy, over-the-top, manic. Gorshin’s Riddler soon became so popular that at the height of Batmania he actually put out his own 45-rpm record, featuring a song composed by none other than Mel (“the Velvet Fog”) Tormé. (Ask your grandparents if you don’t know who Mel Tormé was. Better yet, ask your great-grandparents.)
Have a listen:
The Riddler would remain my favorite Bat-villain at least until the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams-driven revitalization of “The Batman” in the early 1970s, and I’ve maintained a fondness for the character to this day. I believe that’s still in large part due to the 1960s TV series. Camp or not, Frank Gorshin’s manic interpretation was so memorable that it became hard-wired into the Riddler’s DNA, and would remain in evidence even after the character, with the rest of the Batman mythos, was taken to a consierably darker place. For all my ambivalence about the Batman television series, that’s a legacy I can happily support.
Holy unexpected denouement, Batman.