20 December 2009

Weekly Robin Holiday Edition: Someone Laid an Egg

A while back, a Twitter posting from author Neil Gaiman sent me to this academic analysis of the following immortal verse:

Jingle bells!
Batman smells!
Robin laid an egg!
The Batmobile
Has lost a wheel,
And the Joker got away!
The analysis appears on the Children and Youth in History website, created at George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, which I quite admire. I even have the tote bag and flash drive from last spring’s Organization of American Historians conference to show that.

I therefore regret that the essay is deficient in Batman history. It states, “it is certain that ‘Batman Smells’ has been sung continuously by generations of children (and adults) since the first Batman comic appeared in 1939.” Robin and the Joker first appeared in 1940, and the term “Batmobile” in 1941. (Detective Comics, #48, as long as we’re being scholarly about things.)

I do appreciate the author’s mention of alternative versions of the verse that use less daring rhymes than “egg/away.” Namely, “And the Commiss’ner broke his leg,” and something about “ballet.” And it’s useful to see the words “grosslore” and “fartlore” used in their natural setting.

Nonetheless, there’s something missing here, and it’s a matter of context. I shared the link with author M. T. Anderson, who alluded to this verse in an email to me last year. He responded thusly:
When I was a kid, I remember my friends singing this song not so much as a Bakhtinian (Jokerian?) inversion of adult marketing per se, but as a specific attack on a DC character who had a washed-up television series that seemed, to the blunt elementary-school minds of the late ’70s, “badly acted” and “kind of weird.”

I was always a sole voice for DC (and Batman) among friends who showed off by embracing the more morally chaotic world of Marvel’s heroes. To many kids, as I remember it, Batman seemed the perfect example of a hero who was too ethically safe, too incorruptible, too uncomplicated ... and the fact that the live-action Batman show's brilliant camp was incomprehensible to us kids—and read merely as outdated—underscored that assessment. I’m sure that this is why DC reinvented the character in the ’80s, accentuating his outsider status, etc.
The wheels really did come off the Batmobile for a while, it seems, in terms of connecting with the character’s target audience, and this rhyme might have been a sign of that breakdown.

Since then, of course, the Batman mythos has resurged. At some point it has swallowed up this verse without suffering the least indigestion, and what was once needling parody of an American icon has become as harmlessly institutionalized as “Be kind to our web-footed friends…” The first couplet has even been used in the title of a Junie B. Jones book.

Certain characters make much the same argument about “Jingle bells! Batman smells!” in the “Batman and Sons” parody webcomic. Click on the panels for the whole page.


Richard said...

Also note the story "Jingle Bells" by Patton Oswalt and Bob Fingerman in the Bizarro World anthology from 2005. It may not reach the heights of the same author's brilliant Justice League comic Welcome to the Working Week, but it does offer a plausible reason for why Batman smells.

J. L. Bell said...

An excellent illustration of the intellectual property subsuming its own parodic offspring. Thanks!