Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, comic books were the target of an anti-juvenile delinquency campaign that inspired book burnings, attempts from local governments to prohibit sales, and a nationally televised Congressional hearing. In the end, comics were never officially banned. But the general cultural hysteria and still looming threat of legislation were too much for industry leaders, who finally consented to self-censorship in 1955. Within two years, horror and crime comics disappeared, leaving behind nothing but superheroes, who, despite their earnest patriotism, still had to be cleaned up in compliance with the newly adopted Comics Code. Batman, who had been the object of a particularly pointed attack, underwent the most dramatic transformation. Psychologists had accused him of living out a homosexual fantasy with his ward/sidekick Robin, so throughout the late 1950s, publishers worked to distance Batman from this supposedly sordid past. Paradoxically, the resulting character was so innocent and outlandish that when ABC bought the title in 1965, all the producers saw in him was camp. Hoping to attract an adult audience, they decided to use ironic distance to exaggerate these sensibilities even further. In the process, they created a subtext more subversive than anything in the original books.
In this clip, Adam West matches Batman’s excessive innocence with an equally overstated seriousness, accepting his OJ—the “Batman special”—with masculine confidence. But the bat-dance that follows is more playful and suggestive. Similarly, while the gender reversal in the next scene knowingly references Robin’s alleged sexual deviance, the show delights in the moment, getting at a pleasure that would have been impossible on network TV had the tone been more straightforward.
For some fans, ABC’s Batman borders on the profane. Its frivolous aesthetic constitutes a blot on the character’s past. Others, who decry the current incarnation as too serious, celebrate it as a camp classic. Either way, it's impossible to deny the constitutive role played by censorship. Had the anti-comics campaign been more effective, comics would have disappeared entirely. Had the crusade been less effective, horror might have continued to overshadow superheroes, and we might never have seen the Silver Age, not to mention a Batman TV series. And had the industry not capitulated to self-censorship, (or had intellectuals not argued that it was their public responsibility to do so), we might never have gotten a campy Batman who exaggerated everything he was trying to deny. While nobody’s proud of our history of book banning, our culture would look vastly different if these practices hadn’t pushed and pulled creative expression in unexpected directions.