Biggest Warhol-Batman Shocker!

Thanks to all who responded to the Batman-Warhol-Postmodernism post. Above, Warhol and superstar Nico from a 1967 Esquire magazine photo shoot. Nico is Batman, and Andy is Robin.

Now take a deep breath. Would you believe that Andy Warhol was once portrayed on American TV by portly Hollywood character actor Walter Slezak? Well kind of… It’s been brought to my attention that there’s an earlier Batman episode that references Warhol more directly than the two I wrote about. In “The Clock King’s Crazy Crimes” (aired Oct. 12, 1966) Batman and Robin follow a crime trail to a Gotham City art gallery installing its first exhibition of pop art. That in itself is notable: How often does a mass-audience TV show mention a then-contemporary art movement?

One of the fictional gallery’s artists, Progress Pigment, is the villainous Clock King (Slezak) in disguise. Slezak’s artist get-up may not register until you realize that the sunglasses, trench coat, and tie are lifted directly from the group of blue-background self-portaits Warhol did c. 1964. They’re not the most familiar Warhol self-portraits now, but they may have been then. This being network TV, the costume folks added a beret.

“I am Progress Pigment,” Slezak declaims, “the king of pop art and apostle of its culture.” The savvier Nielsen families would have known that the media had crowned Warhol the “Pope of Pop Art.” Slezak/Pigment denounces the gallery’s pop art offerings as “Inferior!” A target of his ire is a painting of Batman. There is a well-known pop art painting of Batman… by Andy Warhol.

“The Clock King’s Crazy Crimes” was written by Bill Finger, co-creator of the comics’ Batman character with Bob Kane. (Kane conceived a feathered Birdman; Finger countered with a bat motif.) The TV episode’s anti-popism populism is similar to that of the Joker-as-artist tale. Contemporary artists are impostors, and pop art is a scam. Here too, the poseur-crook-kook is out to steal the really valuable art: the older stuff. Slezak lusts over a blue-chip modern piece, a school-of-Salvador Dalí Landscape With Big Telephone.

“The Clock King’s Crazy Crimes” (in three linked segments) is a PNFO click away. Try to figure out how a Ibram Lassaw sculpture got into a pop show! Watch Batman go all L.H.O.O.Q. on a picture of Walter Slezak!!!


In case you’re wondering how much Batman‘s “Baby Jane” Towser resembled the real “Baby Jane” Holzer, one web essay, “The Case of the Campy Caped Crusader,” offers this impressive face-off. Despite the high ambient cheesiness of production values, the Batman folks did try to get Holzer and Warhol right, for a national audience that mostly wouldn’t care.

Q. Guess who played Batman in Warhol’s 1964 film Batman Dracula?

A. Performance artist/filmmaker Jack Smith, of Flaming Creatures fame.

Batman Dracula isn’t well known because Warhol never licensed the DC Comics character. That allegedly made it impossible to release, and dicey even to show in a gallery or museum. Segments of Batman Dracula are on YouTube. It seems relatively innocuous by post-Lessig copyright standards. You would’t know it was about Batman if “Batman” hadn’t been in the title. Dig the Velvet Underground music and (in the second linked segment) “Baby Jane” Holzer as the second-trippiest Catwoman ever. Sorry, Eartha Kitt has #1 on lock.

Some web sources claim that Warhol’s underground film inspired the camp/ironic/postmodern slant of the Batman TV series. The comic book, and earlier Hollywood interpretations, were strictly Boy Scout. My first reaction was, no way. Since when does Hollywood pay attention to a film no one’s seen?

More to the point: A cheapjack 1943 Batman serial had become a so-bad-its-good goof on college campuses. “Batman and Robin have recently been rehabilitated into high-camp folk heroes,” Time magazine declared in Nov. 1965. The ABC TV show premiered in January 1966. Batman was already a punch line, for reasons that had nothing to do with Warhol.

Nonetheless the TV show’s producers welcomed links to the pop art movement. The Batman people invited Warhol to an A-list screening party for the TV series. It’s no surprise that Warhol went to a party; more notable is that Roy Lichtenstein did a TV Guide cover featuring Batman (March 26, 1966). The publisher must have insisted on a photo of actor Adam West—no Ben-Day dots, please.

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