(or "Right Story, Wrong Reality")
Looking back over "Bat Lash", as it's presented in the latest "Showcase Presents" volume, one has to wonder exactly what went wrong. It's clear something must not have worked in setting up the elements that go into a long-running series, because "Showcase Presents: Bat Lash" is only 240 pages long, less than half the length of a usual volume. What was it that made "Bat Lash" so short-lived? Was it a lack of a good protagonist? A poor setting? Weak supporting characters? Uninteresting antagonists?
Clearly, it wasn't a bad creative team. Sergio Aragones and Denny O'Neil are two legendary writers, and Nick Cardy's art is genuinely spectacular. This really is a book with some of the best in the business in it, doing stellar work. But maybe if we look a little closer at Bat Lash's storytelling engine, we'll get more of a hint.
Bat Lash, star of the series, is a comedy Western character (no big surprise, coming from the pen of comic genius Aragones.) He's presented as a sensitive dandy, a poetic rogue with an eye for beauty who's entirely out of place in the Wild West...except that honestly, he's deceiving everyone with that act, himself included. Bat's actually a thief, a scoundrel, a con artist, and a deadly fighter to boot. (The opening story, where he tries to get a beautiful lady to cook him dinner in a town being taken over by bandits, is a comedy masterpiece.)
This is, fundamentally, a satire of Westerns...and given that Aragones and Mark Evanier managed to make a satire of sword-and-sorcery epics last over a hundred issues of continuous publication, it's no stretch to think that Aragones and O'Neil could think up enough Bat Lash stories to last a similar length of time. After all, there are just as many Western tropes to satirize as there are barbarian hero tropes to mock.
But unfortunately, the types of Westerns that were popular in the late 60s, when Bat Lash was created, were not the light-hearted Westerns of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. By this era, the only Westerns that managed to retain an audience in a distinctly sci-fi age were the grimmer, darker spaghetti Westerns that Clint Eastwood made famous, leaving very little place for a Western hero who plucks flowers for his hat and has a taste for pheasant in aspic. The last two issues of the series emphasized his tragic past, perhaps in an effort to reposition the character for that audience, but it was too little, too late.
Which is, sometimes, the unfortunate truth about creating a storytelling engine. Sometimes, even when you've created a good, solid, well-crafted status quo that can generate hundreds of stories...the audience just isn't there for them. Tastes can change, and sometimes you're just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thankfully, we live in an age where it seems like just about everything's being archived...giving a series like "Bat Lash", which never got the chance it deserved, a little time to shine.