I thought I’d take a moment to talk about one of my favorite minor rogues in the Batman canon. It’s not Clock King, it’s not Condiment King, it’s not even Killer Moth…
This is A.S. Scarlet, AKA The Bookworm, a character that was introduced in the 1966 Adam West TV series. The creators came up with the idea for him in honor of National Reading week, so no points for guessing what his shtick is. But it’s the details that makes me really love him.
First of all, the costume and gadgets. I love this costume so much—it hits the sweet spot between goofy and kind of awesome. The brown pleather jacket is meant to echo “rare old book bindings” (because books are bound with leather…?) and while it looks more than a bit uncomfortable (it seriously creaks whenever he moves!), the tailoring on it is great. Plus it manages to look rather dapper.
The reading lamp on the fedora is pretty neat, but what I really love are the glasses. When he turns a knob on the side of the left frame, it opens a radio frequency that allows him to communicate with his henchmen. A few years later, the Green Hornet TV show would come up with a similar device, but I love the fact that a one-off Batman villain came up with it first.
Second of all, the henchmen themselves. Typically the henchmen on the ‘66 show, even moreso than in modern Batman media, were big dumb galoots who had to be led around by their nose to obvious answers by their bosses. But these guys didn’t really fit that stereotype. Yeah, they were crappy fighters and got their butts handed to them by Batman easily, but they were miles more intelligent than your average goons. They were articulate, kind of snobby, and always thinking on the same wavelength as their boss. That, and they were efficient—every scheme they wanted to pull went off without a hitch. Plus they’ve got some awesome codenames (Pressman, Typesetter, and my favorite, Printer’s Devil).
And of course, there was the moll—Lydia Limpet (Francine York). Most of the time the ‘66 molls were there just to be empty-headed eye-candy, but not this girl. Not only does she have some genuinely adorable chemistry with Bookworm—
(I ship these two like freaking FedEx.)
–but she is also darn intelligent in her own right. When she’s taken into the Batcave and hypnotized to try to weasel out her boss’s ultimate plan, she immediately twigs to the fact that the Dynamic Duo know more than they should and feeds them false information. She also tricks Robin into gassing himself into unconsciousness. All while literally having her hands tied. She also has quite a bit in common with Bookworm, sharing his love of literature. And then at the end, while most molls try to weasel their way out by pleading with Batman and claiming they were just innocent girls who tangled with the wrong crowd, Lydia accepts her fate and allows herself to be arrested. She’s completely unapologetic about the entire scheme, and I love that about her.
And third of all, the character of the Bookworm himself. He’s played by one of the great character actors, Roddy McDowall—
(whom you might know better as this little scamp)
–who makes Bookworm into much more than a one-note baddie. He’s intelligent, certainly, with high standards and an eidetic memory; and he’s also very theatrical and cheerfully practically in a Riddler sort of way. But he’s also freaking scary. Most of the time, he has a very genteel, calm demeanor with this constant smile of slight “you poor simple fools”-style amusement on his face. But when things don’t go his way, or when someone even says a wrong thing, he completely flips his gourd. In the beginning of his two-parter, Lydia asks him why, with his brain and enthusiasm, he hasn’t written his own book. And he blows up at her, admitting that for all his brilliance he doesn’t actually have any originality, resorting to “stolen plots” from other books, and accuses her of insulting him further. He then picks up the heaviest book in his lair and attempts to bash her brains in with it…all over an honest mistake.
Of course, he’s back in perfect control within minutes, but for the rest of the episode you’re on edge every time he so much as snaps at anyone. And it’s not the only time he flies off the handle like that, either—after Batman and Robin escape one of his deathtraps, he has another brief freakout before getting back to business. He’s a fascinating character to watch and played by a fantastic actor to boot.
The two-part 1966 episode he’s in is a wild ride from start to finish, including a possible assassination attempt, the first window cameo ever, and some truly outrageous and convoluted deathtraps (appropriate for a rogue who “like any struggling novelist, overcomplicates the plot!”). One of which involves a giant cookbook. I am not making that up. All the expected ‘60s weird is there, but it’s still a lot of fun.
Unfortunately, that was the only appearance he made in Batman media for a long time. McDowall wanted to come back for another two-parter, but his busy schedule got in the way. He didn’t show up again until a 1989 Huntress arc that gave him a new grim ‘n’ gritty backstory.
“A victim of child abuse, his mother would lock him in a closet while she worked on puzzles. (Alexander) Wyvern once started a fire in the closet in a desperate attempt to get his mother to release him – only to wind up badly burned and, after he got his mother’s attention, badly beaten. Psychologically damaged, the boy grew into a serial killer. Though the violent character bore little resemblance to the literature-obsessed felon of the 1960s, this version did still leave Riddler-style clues for the police to hunt him down. Bookworm ultimately met his demise when he set a deadly trap for the Huntress. Huntress dressed as his mother, frightening him into running away and tripping his own contraption, killing him.”
(From the Batman wiki)
It was lame, and we don’t talk about it anymore.
He made a few cameos in Deathstroke the Terminators and Teen Titans comics in the 90s, as well as a itty bitty nonspeaking appearance in Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
But in 2013 he made a glorious debut to comics in 2013 in the Batman ’66 line, setting new deathtraps and dropping new literary hints. In one of his best appearances, he sets himself up as an adversary to Batgirl, which is just perfect. Who better to oppose Barbara Gordon, a librarian, than a book-themed supervillain?
(Yes, that is a giant bug demon. Long story.)
And in 2014 he reappeared in Gotham Academy, this time as the school’s English and theater professor, which is even more perfect.
He’s a good teacher, if strict and a bit overdramatic. And let’s be honest, what isn’t cool about having an ex-supervillain as a professor?
Also, this scene. This scene is awesome.
Yes, that is Egghead as played by Vincent Price. Gotham Academy is just the best.
TL;DR, the Bookworm is an awesome, oft-overlooked Batman baddie whom I highly recommend every fan check out. You won’t regret it!
Here’s a link to an episode of the Batcave Podcast discussing his ’66 two-parter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2P3k0o_-Zvk
(All images courtesy of Google Stock.)