Monday, July 20, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Bat Lash

(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 a series like "Bat Lash", which never got the chance it deserved, a little time to shine.


hilker said...

I'm going to have to dispute the premise of your fifth paragraph. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the highest-grossing movie of 1969, and Support Your Local Sheriff! did well enough the same year to warrant a sequel of sorts. And Once Upon a Time in the West, Sergio Leone's last great western of the decade, was a box-office flop in '68.

Nate said...

To Hilker's list: I'd add Cat Ballou (1965) and Paint Your Wagon (1969) both of which found larger audiences than the new gritty westerns of Leone and Peckinpah. I'm not sure that our picture of the 1960s as the time when Westerns "grew up" is historically viable.

Anonymous said...

I always thought Bat Lash failed because it was essentially a rip-off of the classic tv show Maverick.

I disagree with Hilker and Nate. Those parodies worked because westerns were so popular. But you're right, tastes change and westerns died fast. In 1965-1968 tv was filled with westerns - Gunsmoke, Bonanza, A Man Called Shenandoah Cast, Laredo, Loner, Here Come the Brides, Lancer, The Guns of Will Sonnett, Custer, Dundee and Culhane, Hondo, The Road West, Iron Horse, The Virginian, Branded, Wild Wild West, The Big Valley, F Troop - well you get the point. By 1970, only the long-term survivors Gunsmoke, Bonanzo and The Virginian were still on the air and The Virginian went off in 1971.

New westerns weren't exactly popping up to fill the slots. There was Alias Smith and Jones, a Butch Cassidy rip-off, I mean homage. There was Kung Fu, a western with a difference. Little House on the Prairie, which could be more seen as a period piece rather than a classic western. Western movies also saw a sharp drop-off.

The Support Your movies were essentially Maverick comedies with James Garner playing a variation on his Maverick character. Movies like the Wild Bunch, High Plains Drifter, Sam Peckinpaugh's Billy the Kid were darker, more violent than earlier westersn. Both the Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy were about the end of the west and men who outlived their times. They all die bloody.

So tastes do change. I imagine there will be a time when people talk about the superhero era in movies. But also Bat Lash was a Maverick clone. (Amazing how often that show comes up when talking about western satires.)