“People take on the shapes of the songs and the stories that surround them…” – Anansi, in Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys.
Adam West has died. He was 88 and had been battling Leukemia. Adam West has died. He was Batman. He was the first Batman I knew. He was the Batman I’d measure all other Batmen against, and against whom those others would always fall short.
Variety led the report of West’s passing by noting that he often felt constrained by the role of Batman as he was never able to outgrow it. It was a part he played for only three seasons in the 1960s and he was, despite efforts to shed typecasting, forever Batman. It can’t be easy for any artist to be defined by three years of their creative output and West was deeply affected by society’s inability to see him as anything but Batman. This struggle led to struggles with many personal demons, from depression to alcoholism, but West eventually came, not only to accept, but to embrace his fate as Batman.
Truth is, it wasn’t him who couldn’t outgrow it. It was us. Those he touched and whose lives he impacted never outgrew his influence and, even though he paid a high price, the profound effect he had on the culture is of the kind for which we should all strive.
As a child, I would watch his Batman religiously. The show was already a relic of the past by then. It had had its run and been cancelled but by that time―the late 70s―it was picked up for re-run syndication in many markets, including channel 11 in New York where I grew up. The double feature of Batman and Star Trek was my after school ritual. It was my daily clinic on dealing with adversity. While Shatner’s Kirk oozed subterfuge in the face of conflict, West’s Batman taught me in the simplest, clearest way possible, that evil existed and that good men stood up to it. West’s Batman taught me that explaining away evil was impossible and that regardless of the reasons for its existence, it must be fought. His Batman, constantly able to escape certain doom by using his mind, taught me to keep my head and wits about me as others lost theirs and to look for solutions, no matter how improbable they seemed.
In the same way that Kipling’s “If” has fallen into disrepute in the light of the Howl generation’s werltangst, and is given sidelong glances by a more cynical and nuanced society, West’s Batman was also eventually relegated to Kitsch by a society that had, seemingly, outgrown it. But I’m glad for having lived in that brief time with him before satire, snark, irony, and cynicism.
Children need sincerity. Introducing them to satire and irony too early is expelling them from the garden before they’re ready. It robs them of the wonder, the simplicity and the certainty that children need in order to find an anchor in the world and learn about basic morality and the existential understanding that will serve as their rudder in world. Without the sincere, without a guide, the world is a chaotic jumble of moral ambiguity and confusion.
As a father, I’ve struggled with this. On the one hand relishing the precocious―beaming at every bit of irony my son begins to understand, while simultaneously reminding myself “It’s too early.” Entertaining though it may be to have kids with the kind of intellectual prowess that permits them to trade barbs and snide with the adults, it’s not great for the kids. Snark and cynicism at too young an age, the kind we’re seeing and inculcating in our children via media and the culture at large, deprives children of that moral rudder they need to feel secure in the world and it develops nihilistic adults―adults who won’t know what evil is, much less have the resolve to fight it.
Batman was designed to be campy, and to world weary adults it may have been. But to children, the earnestness of Adam West’s portrayal made the show as serious and mythical as any Norse Saga. It was the epic writ large on the small screen every afternoon after school.
In the past few years we have lost many creators of the pop culture that defined my generation. When Bowie and Prince died, we mourned the loss of musical genius and an iconoclasm that knew no bounds―things we came to appreciate as young adults. With West, the mourning and self reflection, at least in my case, is deeper and more profound. Adam West’s passing evokes a reminiscence filled with childhood earnestness and wide eyed innocence that, despite years of living with a cultivated generational cynicism has not been dislodged. It still sits at the center of our generation’s zeitgeist.
By the time I was a teenager, other Batmen had come along. They were darker, brooding, and more tragic. These were Batmen whose inner lives reflected the introspection and self-indulgent preoccupation with psychological archaeology that would come define future generations. And it was only then that I realized Adam West’s Batman could be seen as tongue in cheek and comedic. Until that point, I’d taken him at face value and considered him earnest and sincere―even if mythical―and, of course, full of import. I’d imagine most kids of my generation did.
Adam West’s gift, whether by design or accident, was the gift of sincerity. Despite all the growing up and growing old we’ve done, when we look back, we can remember the lessons he taught so well and simply. Evil exists, it must be fought, and you can do it. Goodnight Caped Crusader and Godspeed.