As you can imagine, I was heartbroken to read yesterday that Adam West passed away at age eighty-eight. People who know me from Twitter might recall that I’ve been using a low-res avatar of Adam West as Batman since forever, and in fact for many years I used West’s picture on nearly every social network. There wasn’t a specific day when I formally decided to sport that picture so consistently; I think I just picked it for lack of a better image back in the AOL Instant Messenger days and, keeping to the dictum that “people will remember you better if you always wear the same outfit,” I’ve more or less stuck to it ever since.
The fact that I don’t have a great story for that avatar belies the fact that, maybe more than I knew or cared to admit, Adam West’s portrayal of Batman meant a lot to me. I remember being fascinated by reruns of the 1966-1968 television show as a very young kid, even as the masks and outlandish costumes frightened me. When I was in grade school in suburban Washington, D.C., I remember trying vainly to tweak our TV’s antenna in order to pull in a stronger signal from a Baltimore television station that ran episodes on weekday afternoons. Baltimore was the next market over so I could just barely get a very snowy picture, but it was enough for me just to be able to soak up every episode that I could.
Some Batman fans look back with embarrassment at that television show, but in my mind it made the imaginary world of comics so vivid and exciting. I really loved it. The camp satire was lost on me at the time, but the earnestness of West’s portrayal of that character was perfect for me. He took this idea of a ridiculously attired, overgrown boy scout completely seriously, and even if I did notice him stealing a knowing glance at the camera for the benefit of grown-ups, it never felt dishonest to me. West was just as serious about the comic book conceits as he was about the camp, which is why when you watch those episodes today, they’re still enormously entertaining. I find them delightful, packed with cleverness and, more importantly, lovingly made.
In retrospect, I realize now that “Batman” was also surprisingly graphical; each episode was rife with strikingly bold colors, dramatic camera angles, those unforgettable “WHAM! BOFF! POW!” fight graphics, hand-lettered signage throughout (as warmly documented over at batlabels.tumblr.com, to my endless delight), and a marvelous translation of the comic aesthetic in the opening credits.
There’s also the matter of the opportunistic and quickly made feature film that was made from the show—essentially a ninety-minute episode. I watched it yesterday with my kids as a kind of remembrance of West on the occasion of his passing. It was the first time I’d seen it in decades after having watched it endlessly as a kid, and when it started I almost wondered if perhaps the movie hadn’t had its title sequence updated, so contemporary was this image:
In fact, the rest of the opening title sequence is terrific in its compositions and typography. You’ll have to indulge me as I share screen captures here, because I think their bold use of spotlighting, key colors and Franklin Gothic are my favorite thing this month.
I don’t want to make too much of the idea that West essentially inspired me to become a designer, even though there’s a direct line to be drawn between what I enjoyed so much about that show and how I would make my career later in life. I wouldn’t even want to overemphasize how much West contributed to my lifelong fascination with the Batman character—maybe the most elastic and adaptable of our contemporary myths. In the end, I think the greatest thing that West did was he gave me—maybe you, too?—something to love as a kid, something entirely engrossing and captivating, and something that turned out to be wonderfully durable when we grew up. I don’t make it a habit of watching those old episodes, but once in a while when I see them, I’m so grateful that they were made with so much respect for both children and adults, and at the center of all of that was Adam West’s timeless portrayal of the character. I’ll be forever thankful to him for that, and I wish him a peaceful rest.+