Our Batman: How Adam West Took On Pop Culture
Jacqui Griffin remembers the late Adam West - the heroic, wacky and nostalgic actor whose career and look-on-life transcended generations.
Our Batman died.
The text lands on my phone late in the evening on a Saturday. My dad doesn’t text often; in fact, he didn’t even want a cell phone to begin with. I helped him download What’s App so we could communicate across the Atlantic ocean, and he does use it, but only sparingly and usually just to respond. Initiating a conversation is rare. He texts again:
I respond and we exchange I love you’s. All told, the conversation lasts maybe 30 seconds, but I can feel tears in my eyes.
A quarter-century before and 3,000 miles away, I’m standing on the stairs of my grandparents house. My mother waits at the foot of the bottom step, ready. The cartoon Batman: The Animated Series has completely captured my young imagination, and ‘playing Batman’ is a preferred pastime of mine. But as I prepare to launch, it’s not the dark Burton-inspired theme tune from the animation that I chant.
“Da na na na na na na na BATKID!” I practically scream as I leap from the stairs into my mother’s arms. In that moment, I am soaring from a Gotham skyscraper, cape fluttering in the wind, off to protect the city from baddies. The illusion ends as my mother catches me, so of course I immediately run back up the stairs to repeat the activity. Sometimes, I bravely climb up an extra step for a more thrilling plunge through the air.
Looking back, I find it fascinating that despite my strongest visual memories from the time consisting of the animated Batman, voiced by Kevin Conroy, I still sang the original theme song from the Batman TV series fronted by the late great Adam West. Of course, the more I think about it, and the more I think about that text from my father, the more everything falls into place.
The man I call my father joined our family when I was around four, marrying my mom when I was five. Over time, our relationship grew into the father-daughter bond we now have, but it wasn’t always so simple. He had a big job cut out for him. Seeing my obsession with the animated Batman, he shared with me his Batman – a goofy, campy Batman straight from my dad’s 1960’s childhood. His Batman became our Batman. As I’m sure millions of parents did with the resurgence of Batman’s popularity in the late 80’s and early 90’s, my dad brought Adam West’s unique and incomparable performance as the Caped Crusader into the forefront of my pop culture reference system.
It doesn’t matter who your favourite on-screen Batman is, the single most iconic Batman is Adam West. Right down to those drawn-on eyebrows. This is largely because that adaptation is so purely of its time. You simply couldn’t create a live-action TV show in this day and age that features a grown man in spandex carrying an obnoxiously large and obvious bomb through the streets in an attempt to save people. There’s an innocence and a childish association with that Batman – or to sum it up in a word, it is nostalgic.
As I got older, Adam West started to become a name people would throw around as a joke. With the Batman stories getting ever darker, the camp attitude of the 1960’s adaptations just seemed silly in comparison. Many actors would silently slip away into obscurity to sulk. Adam West, however, grabbed this new perspective by the horns and turned it around to his own advantage and success. He transcended his status as the embodiment of a pop icon and become one himself.
That’s a huge deal, especially for current generations.
The unique thing about this generation (call it Gen-Y or Millennial, doesn’t matter) is how we communicate. Hop onto a reddit or tumblr thread and take a look – a large portion of our communication and expression is done exclusively through pop culture. Whether it’s memes or gifs, many of us can communicate entire thoughts and emotions through the conveyance of a single image, imbued with pop significance. It’s one of the reasons that a young generation is mourning the loss of Adam West alongside our Gen-X and Baby Boomer predecessors.
“Adam West” became bigger than just the man. He answered the call of millions of fans everywhere, a call to be that campy, kooky Batman/Adam West that our parents remembered and shared with us. We wanted to be reminded of Adam West’s Batman. It’s nostalgia reminded us of positive childhood memories for so many, and yes, it is typecasting. It’s the death of many an actor’s career, but Adam West found a way around it.
By embracing the popularity of the iconic Batman series and film (along with all its silliness and 60’s charm), and by playing into cultural expectations of what or who “Adam West” should be, at least publicly, West solidified his place in modern pop culture. Credited as portraying “Adam West” (importantly, not “self” or “himself”) in no less than 19 different shows or films, Adam West wasn’t just an actor, he was Adam West. The reference no longer became “the guy who played Batman”, in fact, it was the other way around. Batman was Adam West. In a brilliant career move, Adam West took the camp and outrageous iconography of the 1960’s Batman and infused that into his portrayal of “Adam West”.
Personally, I’m most familiar with Mayor Adam West on Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy, a character who makes the word “bombastic” seem underwhelming. He also made appearances as “Adam West” on The Fairly OddParents, The Big Bang Theory, 30 Rock, and Funny Or Die Presents… among others. He is almost always playing some larger-than-life parody of himself. Not only do these roles and cameos show that West had a charmingly self-deprecating sense of humour, they show that he took control of what is normally a terrible situation to be in, especially for an actor. He apparently decided that if the masses were constantly going to compare him to that early and eccentric role, then he was just going to have to go further.
“Adam West” reminded all of us of our childhoods. In turn, Adam West gained our respect and admiration. Not just younger generations, who may have discovered him through Family Guy or The Fairly OddParents, but older generations, who tuned in week after week to see him square off against the likes of Cesar Romero and then later were treated to small reminders of that childhood experience through his cameos. Adam West/”Adam West” represented the best years of our lives, spanning decades and reaching across generations. For me, personally, he was a vital aspect of my childhood and a bonding link between me and a man just trying to step in and be a father. For millions of others he was something just as crucial. He was wacky. He was heroic. He was nostalgic. He was Adam West.
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