HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Film To TV, TV To Film

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we’ll touch on the move of comic book properties to the small screen and the way motion pictures affected, and were affected by, this change.

In 1951, just one year after the last Superman serial, Atom Man vs. Superman, was released, a production company named Lippert Pictures, Inc. released a full-length feature film called Superman and the Mole Men. What set this apart from the Superman serials is that the film served another purpose, it was meant to be a theatrical pilot for a Superman TV series.

Television had been commercially available for about three decades by this point, but it wasn’t until after World War II that the medium experienced an explosion of popularity. TV sets became less expensive to produce, allowing more families to own them. The technology had advanced to such a point that sets which broadcast in color were being made. Television networks with scheduled programming were being formed. And shows such as Texaco Star Theater with Milton Berle, I Love Lucy, Your Show of Shows and Dragnet were drawing viewers in. The face of popular entertainment was changing, and television was what it looked like.

There were a number of changes from the serials to the movie pilot. Noel Neil was replaced as Lois Lane by actress Phyllis Coates. And Kirk Alyn, who was offered the TV show but refused out of fear of being typecast, handed the cape over to another actor, one who starred in large roles in small movies (he made several B-movies with future President Ronald Reagan) and small roles in big movies (most notably as one of the “Tarleton Twins” in Gone With the Wind). That actor was George Reeves.

Superman and the Mole Men was a successful pilot and soon Adventures of Superman was born. The syndicated show (eventually picked up for broadcast by the ABC Network) began in 1952 and ran for six seasons. Neill replaced Coates as Lois starting with the second season. It might have come back for a seventh season in 1959 if it wasn’t for the untimely and controversial death of Reeves in June of 1959.

If Reeves did not die and Adventures of Superman continued on, one would have to wonder if it would have lasted until 1966 when his fellow DC hero Batman would arrive on TV screens.

You’d typically find two major opinions amongst comic book fans about the Batman TV series. Some have begrudgingly come to appreciate it for what it is. Many have found it to be the absolute bane of their existence. Because of the TV show, a generation of comic fans had to deal with the general public thinking their hobby was a joke and exclusively the domain of kids. This was all because Batman producer William Dozier hated comic books.

Well, that’s how the story goes, at least. A more serious, action oriented Batman was planned, but Dozier thought there was no way such an adaptation would be taken seriously. So, he turned up the camp factor, cast actor Adam West—with a number of films to his name—as Batman, and comic fans were forced to deal with “Holy Fill-In-The-Blank, Batman,” the Batusi, and more POWS! BIFFS! and WHAMMS! than you can shake a stick at.

Whether Dozier’s instincts were right or not, the show became a smash hit. It aired twice a week, on Wednesdays and Thursdays . True to the film serial, the Wednesday show would end on a cliffhanger that would be resolved on the Thursday show.

As the show became a cultural phenomenon, it drew big name stars to act as villains on the show. The actors who played the main four reoccurring villains—Cesar Romero as the Joker, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, and Julie Newmar as Catwoman—all had successful film careers behind them. Romero played the “Latin Lover” in a number of films from the 1930s to the 1950s. Meredith starred in a number of films, most notably as George in 1939’s Of Mice and Men and as WWII correspondent Ernie Pyle in The Story of G.I. Joe. Gorshin, known primarily as a stand-up comedian, had roles in a number of B-movies and Newmar, a trained dancer, appeared in film adapatations of stage musicals such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Li’l Abner.

But that wasn’t the end of the film stars to join the cast. As a matter of fact, there were guest stars on the series who won Oscars before their appearance on the show (Anne Baxter, Shelley Winters and George Sanders), won Oscars after their appearance (Art Carney, Cliff Robertson), those that were nominated prior (Carolyn Jones, Terry Moore, Victor Buono, Glynis Johns, and Otto Preminger [for directing]) and those that received nominations afterward (Meredith, Seymour Cassel, Lesley Gore [for Best Song] and John Astin [for Best Short]).

Dozier originally wanted to jump start the TV series the same way Adventures of Superman was introduced—by having a theatrical film as the ipso facto pilot. Cost concerns put the kibosh on a movie before the TV series aired, but the film eventually was made and Batman made its theatrical debut in 1966, between the first and second seasons of the TV show.

The film features Joker, Penguin, Riddler and Catwoman as villains, with Lee Meriwether stepping in for Julie Newmar, who was tied up with another project.  It featured such classic gags as “Bat Shark Repellent Spray” and Batman running around a crowded pier trying to safely dispose of an oversized explosive device. “Sometimes you just can’t get rid of a bomb,” says Batman.

The series only lasted two and a half years (the popularity waned as the plots started to get repetitive) but had a lasting effect on the world of the comic book film. Whether Dozier really was on to something or people were inspired by his example, camp became a part of many a comic book film. The Superman franchise of the 1970s-1980s and the Batman franchise in the 1980s-1990s both slid into camp towards the end of their run, and the devotion to a camp ethos might have killed Howard the Duck before it ever got going. It has taken decades for the comic book film to escape the campy shadow of the Batman TV show, if it even has.

Next time, we’ll bring you some tales from the crypt—delivered decades apart!

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About William Gatevackes 1933 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.

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