My son and I have been reading bedtime stories together since he was a baby, so we were excited when we had a chance to increase our personal library with a pile of “Big Little Books” from my parent’s attic. Big Little Books in the late 60’s and early 70’s were a type of pulp reader for young readers which were characterized by being small (only about 4″ square) but thick (several hundred pages) and they usually had an illustration on every page. The Big Little Books I had in the 1970’s were all based around established television and cartoon characters and weren’t exactly Shakespeare. But they had colorful covers and easy-to-read words and my son was immediately drawn to them.
I remember reading them by the dim glow of a night light at the foot of my bed, trying not to wake my little brother who was sleeping just a few feet away. I read them over and over as a kid, but after 30 years I didn’t remember much about the stories themselves.
So when my son and I started reading through my Big Little Book collection for bedtime it was a fun adventure for both of us. We’re big Disney fans so we read through all the Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse adventures first, and then we moved on to a few Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck stories.
We were near the end of our collection before we decided to read the one superhero book we had, Batman The Cheetah Caper. Batman, more than many other literary characters, is a product of his time. This particular story was written by a science fiction and television script writer named George S. Elrick in 1969. The campy Batman TV show debuted in 1968 which means the resulting Big Little book is a professional treatment of an awful TV show written in a book meant for children.
Yeah, it is awful. Really awful. It is so bad that it is almost laughably enjoyable. Almost.
The characters in the story are modeled after the actors in the Batman TV show. Batman doesn’t resemble a world-class athlete as much as he resembles the guy who operates the forklift at your local Costco. Robin runs around in his underwear just as your remember him. Commissioner Gordon is a man with white hair and glasses. Minorities do not exist. Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are just like Adam West and Burt Ward but more lame, more square and even less likable.
The Cheetah is a criminal mastermind who is seeking revenge on Commissioner Gordon by releasing animals from the zoo. Batman and Robin have to deal with the pandemonium that ensues when a herd of lions are allowed to roam through the streets of Gotham City (not much). The Cheetah, lacking the foresight to think that someone might actually visit the zoo, hides out among the animals. The Cheetah needs to eat peanut butter for energy, so he hides a whole case of it at the zoo and regularly leaves empty peanut butter jars wherever he commits crimes. There’s also a running joke where Dick Grayson is doing homework and has to try to figure out “the square root of infinity.”
Oh dear god, this was an awful affront to the English language. Every sentence reads like something that would be written by a science fiction writer hacking away at a TV script in 1969… because it was. The pages are filled with with awkward exposition. Bruce Wayne has to verbally remind Dick Grayson to “act like a normal all-American high school student” more than once. Robin exclaims, “Gleeps!” which sounds about as natural as it looks on the page. Instead of “running” Batman often “lopes” around Gotham City. Elrick also has the annoying habit of tossing out words and phrases that could only be created by thumbing through a thesaurus so there are entire pages in the book that read as though they’ve been run back and forth through Google translate a few times. Elrick also constantly used pseudonyms for “Batman” at least every other page. He did it so often that more than once my son asked me, “Who’s that?” when Elrick was referring to Batman with a clever moniker. How clever? Take a look for yourself…
Pseudonyms for Batman
Here’s a listing of all the ways Elrick refers to Batman in this one Big Little book:
- Cloaked Crusader
- World’s Greatest Detective
- Masked Manhunter
- Cowled Crusader
- King of Sleuths
- Knockout King
- The Underworld’s Greatest Foe
- Caped Crusader
- Master Sleuth
- Masked Marvel
- Terror of the Underworld
- Muscular Sleuth
- Grim-faced Giant
- Caped Crime Hunter
- Brawny Manhunter
- Square-jawed Sleuth
Robin gets the same treatment, but with much less frequency:
- Robin the Boy Wonder
- Teen-age Thunderbolt
- Boy Wonder
- High School Thunderball
- Master Acrobat
There was, as far as I can tell, there was only one Batman Big Little book ever published and it’s pretty easy to see why. You can still pick up Batman The Cheetah Caper on Amazon or eBay for a few bucks and if you’re into reading your kids campy bed time stories then this fits the bill nicely. George S. Elrick was an accomplished science fiction writer, but the Batman of the late 1960’s was such an over-the-top goofy and unrealistic character that it was nearly impossible to create anything other than campy over-written fiction.
At the end of the day my son still seemed to enjoy the story, despite all its flaws. I hope that one day he can sit down with his own son at bedtime and read the stories that grandpa read to him. I’m sure that’s exactly what Bruce Wayne and his dad would do as well, right?
Oh, Gleeps!… Sorry, Bruce!