Spikes of Death
Adam West’s Batman TV series debuted on January 12, 1966—the network it ran on was ABC. Over the course of a little more than 2 years, 120 delightful episodes (!) were produced showcasing West’s brilliantly deadpan comedic timing, a gallery of colorful and mentally deranged villains, and some unspecified number of celebrity cameos as the “Dynamic Duo” scaled the side of that one apartment building. It was the perfect crystallization of a certain brand of camp humor that has still never been equaled on television.
The arrival of the show ushered in ample opportunities for promotion, and one of the best artifacts celebrating the program was the Topps line of Batman trading cards painted by Norman Saunders. There were parallel lines of Batman trading cards using still photographs, but I’m not talking about those, just the Saunders paintings. Topps actually had several lines of Saunders’ Batman cards, known by collectors as the “black,” “blue,” and “red” series based on the color of the bat logo bearing the card’s heart-palpitating caption.
Born in North Dakota in 1907, Saunders broke into pulp graphics in the 1930s, when he got paid $150 a pop to do covers for classic Western tales with titles like The Lead-Slingers and Too Hot For Hell. His most famous work is likely his legendary 1962 Mars Attacks! cards that inspired Tim Burton’s 1996 movie of that name.
One of Saunders’ abiding beliefs that helps his work resonate so profoundly was his notion that effective art required a tangible real-life referent. As he told the Gannet Westchester Rockland newspaper chain (which produced my hometown Citizen Register during that era) in 1983:
If you do something from life, something that is really true that you see, the truthfulness and honesty in the picture comes through. I learned that. You got to paint a picture of a person, you get a person. You got to paint a picture of a dog, you get a dog. Even if you have to tack him up on the wall to see what he looks like.”
One of the best things about Batman as a mythic character, from the perspective of 2018, is a pleasing unity in terms of Batman’s station in life. Batman’s domain is unquestionably Gotham City, and that’s been true for the Burton movies and the Nolan movies, not to mention any number of AAA video games—and even though they are incredibly different in tone it’s also true of the original 1966 series as well. Batman fights for the people of Gotham, period. Batman isn’t some hero you can just drop into a swamp willy-nilly and make him tussle with an alligator, you know?
Grappling a Gator
Saunders never seemed to get the memo on that particular topic, and one particularly delightful aspect of his cards is that Batman is depicted doing so many “un-Batman” things, like participating in a rodeo, dealing with a ghostly baddie out of Scooby-Doo and….. yup, tussling with an alligator. (Of course, there’s a parallel lineage from the Silver Age in which escaping from deadly water traps miles away from Gotham was exactly the kind of thing Batman did.)
The cards are (obviously) prized by collectors—just a few weeks ago a single card from this set went for $599! But they’re available for far less than that as well.
Gassed by a Geranium
Many more of these delightful Batman cards after the jump…....