From Darkest Day to Brightest Knight
Updated: Dec 7, 2022
Meeting my childhood heroes, part three.
I’d like to say that my adventure began with the piercing, pulsing signal of a red phone ringing in the study, answered by my faithful butler. He’d hand me the receiver, announce that “The Commissioner” was on the line and I’d be sliding into action within seconds. “To the Bat-poles!”
Yeah, I’d like that. But the reality was a little more prosaic. I’d gotten an email from my friend Andrew at the Cartoon Art Museum. He was double booked and wanted to know if I could moderate a panel at WonderCon. A new superhero film was opening, and the director would be there with a few of the stars. Including a special guest. Without hesitating, I said “yes” and flew into action. Or at least, into thrilling anticipation.
It had been three decades since I’d seriously participated in a comic book convention. As a teenager, I attended a dozen cons over three years, always in costume and often a winner, chalking up a number of celebrity encounters along the way. But my last interaction with a star, as a budding journalist for a minor metropolitan newspaper, left me feeling self-conscious about being a fan, to say the least. Life soon took me out of the convention scene for good.
It was spring 2009, and I was single again. My life had gone to pieces but I had the time and energy to put things back in order. My career in graphic design was solid, and I’d been working Hollywood-adjacent gigs in the music and film industry for awhile. So I was unfazed by the prospect of sharing the stage with a childhood hero and 20th-Century pop legend. But I was still plenty excited.
I arrived at Moscone Center an hour before the panel was scheduled to begin. I’d already watched a dvd of Super Capers, the low-budget adventure flick that was the raison d’être for today’s event. There hadn’t been too many good superhero movies over the previous 15 years, so I tried to be charitable toward this independent effort, which probably cost a little more than Iron Man’s craft services budget. Besides, I wanted to make movies too, and this was an opportunity to meet an up-and-coming director.
Ray and his wife were nice midwesterners with friendly smiles and a babe in arms—hardly a glamorous Hollywood couple, but honest and friendly. I tried not to be “that guy” in the industry who shakes your hand while scanning the room for someone more important to connect with. But the fact is, there’s someone else I wanted to meet. Not Justin, star of the film, who I recognized as Jimmy Olsen from Lois And Clark (and frankly, who acted like that industry guy to me) As we walked to the appointed ballroom, I noticed a buzz in the crowd.
There was actually a line waiting outside the room. There usually isn’t that much activity at 11:45 on a Sunday morning, but a hundred or more fans were bobbing excitedly in the hallway. Ray smiled at the sight, which seemed to lighten his mood. He had a lot riding on this, his first feature film, so a little enthusiasm went a long way. We stepped behind the curtain and saw another clutch of excited fans, which lightened my mood.
A tall man turned to face us, the hot lights glinting off his sunglasses and setting his grey-blonde hair aglow. Ray stepped forward to shake hands “Hi Adam. Glad you could make it!” I couldn’t hear what Mr. West said in return, but I took my place beside the director and offered my hand to the erstwhile Caped Crusader.
I hadn’t seen much of my hero in the forty years since Batman went off the air. Other than playing a couple of Mars astronauts, a foppish actor in a Burt Reynolds comedy, and a handful of cartoon voices, he was fixed in my memory as the campy, oh-so-sincere hero of the sixties TV show. As a child, the exploits of Batman and Robin was the subject of much playground discussion. Was the show stupid or spectacular? All I knew was I loved it, and still enjoyed the reruns from time to time.
I knew better than to gush now. My experience in college interviewing William Shatner had definitely changed my behavior. Never again would I make the mistake of revealing my deep-seated fandom. I was content to receive a firm handshake and a polite acknowledgment in that smooth, if slightly raspy voice, that I knew so well. “Hi Joe. Nice to meet you.” At 80 years of age, he was slower, more deliberate, but still debonair. Once a millionaire playboy…
We had a few minutes until the panel started, so I asked Adam if we could get a picture together. I handed off my lousy 1.2-megapixel digital camera to one of the volunteers and asked him to get the shot. Adam smiled, as we waited for the camera to focus—and waited some more—the first shot was a bust. I asked to try again, and the volunteer continued to fumble with the little device. After a minute, the star of the show asked “Maybe you need a new camera?” and I reluctantly put the balky thing in my pocket. I didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot.
Walking on stage, I raised a hand to shield myself from the atomic glare of the lights, and squinted out into the ballroom. There were now several hundred fans waiting, and the murmurs from the crowd drowned out the announcer. We took our seats and I began the introductions proper. Ray and Justin got polite applause, but I could barely say “Adam West” before the crowd erupted into a standing ovation. The object of all this attention smiled and waved with his typical reserve.
It’s funny to compare the trajectories of West and Shatner. Roughly contemporaries, they actually co-starred in a 1963 pilot for Alexander the Great, a not-so-great historical drama that was more horse opera than greek tragedy. If that show had been picked up, they might have missed the roles they were born to play, and the pop universe would have shifted gravely on its axis. Instead, they were typecast as superhero and starship captain, and would spend the next decade fighting for better jobs. Unlike Shatner, who had a more determined (and supportive) fanbase, West never matched the success he enjoyed in the ‘60s and spent much of his career calling back the past.
The past was calling again. As much as I tried to steer the conversation to Ray’s movie, the fans reserved all their questions for Adam. He had a brief cameo as a cabbie driving a familiar bat-winged conveyance, but you would have guessed his name was above the title. One by one, fans made their way to the microphone, squirming at the attention and squealing at this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As moderator, it was my job to repeat the question so everyone could hear it and give as many people as possible a chance to speak in our 45-minute block.
In this role, I got to stand outside the celebrity-fan dynamic for the first time. This unusual perspective from the stage gave me goosebumps. I could see those potent emotions rippling through the crowd of regular folks. Watching them run the gauntlet was remarkable. Speaking in public before a large audience is many people’s greatest fear—but they do it willingly, to address their hero. At least one fellow embarked on a long and convoluted story about Batman, his childhood, and several other non-sequiturs. At which point Adam put his hand over his mic, turned to me and asked “Do you know what this guy is talking about?” All I could say was “Holy Bewilderment, Batman!”
But Mr. West had been in this situation many times, and did not lose his cool. He figuratively wore the cape and cowl with respect for his fans. Asked about the recent Batman film starring Christian Bale, which took a decidedly darker view of the character, he simply smiled. “The new movie may be about the Dark Knight, but I preferred to play the “Bright Knight.” The crowd went nuts, and I was right there with them.
We left the stage, and as I followed the entourage, as the crowd seethed and surged around us. This was the moment I graduated from fan to professional. Not because I’d been on stage, but because I was able to let go of my childish impulses and accept the pure joy of the situation. Adam West is an actor, Batman is a character, and I could see them standing side-by-side. I admire the craft and poise required to carry that role—not many actors would willingly play a part mostly obscured by a mask. (Just look at how quickly today’s heroes rip off their headgear.)
And yet—Adam was still wearing his dark glasses! It seemed odd at first, even pretentious, to shield his eyes indoors. I watched him sign autographs and smile for the cameras, without ever removing the shades. Across the table, I saw dozens of fans at close range, imploring, pleading, swooning. Then it hit me: That’s why movie stars wear the glasses. To protect themselves. How exhausting it must be to face all those naked, needy souls. The lights are blinding enough—but the eye contact! It must be blinding.
I left the convention a few hours later feeling quite content. I had more than just a few blurry pictures to remember the afternoon. I had a new relationship with my heroes and with fandom. I’d built a career and connections that got me the opportunity to meet and mingle with someone who was important me—and a million others. The jealousy and longing that I’d once felt was gone, replaced with gratitude and joy.
Postscript, 2022. A few weeks ago, I was invited to a local film industry event. Swapping stories over drinks with a special effects artist I’d just met, I felt a little of that old jealousy. Colin had worked in the business for most of his career, something I wished for but never achieved. We were both fans of sci-fi and comic book movies, and the conversation turned to childhood faves. Colin told me that he almost got the chance to meet his hero when he came to town a few years ago. In fact, he'd been offered the chance to moderate a panel discussion… at WonderCon... for Super Capers. But he never got the callback.
I felt the hairs on my neck stand up. What are the chances that we’d meet? We were both professional fans, who had built careers around certain interests...Who am I kidding? It’s a pretty small pond, really. And just like that, any hint of my old jealousy was gone.
There was just one thing left. Should I admit to being the guy who shook hands with Adam West in his place?
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If you enjoyed this story, perhaps you would also enjoy my graphic memoir entitled When We Were Trekkies, now available online from Birdcage Bottom Books