Hello everybody, this is George Harvey (aka The Autistic Blogger). Welcome to another instalment of Are They Autistic? – the series where I look at characters from various forms of media and analyse whether I think they’re on the spectrum or not. It doesn’t matter if they’ve never been confirmed to have Autism; as long as they show similar traits, I’ll be talking about them. Please remember these are only my personal opinions. If you think somebody you know has the condition, it’s always best to consult a professional. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this piece.
Today we’ll be analysing a character you’ve probably never heard of before. Even if you’re a die-hard Batman fan, chances are you don’t remember this villain. He only made one notable TV appearance and a handful of cameos across other Batman media. That appearance was in the 1960s Batman series (starring Adam West), and his name was the Bookworm.
Played by Roddy McDowall, what stood out to me about Bookworm was the way his mind functioned. There have been more entertaining villains than him on the show – like my personal favourite: Frank Gorshin’s the Riddler. However, this character struck me as someone abnormally obsessed with his interests. He doesn’t just love books; they’re practically his whole life. They inspire everything he says and does. He can even quote lines from a particular piece and tell you exactly which chapter and passage they’re from – he has that strong of a memory.
In a way, it’s similar to me. When I see or hear something I enjoy, I make a mental note of it. I can then playback the memory of it with almost pinpoint accuracy. My earliest recollection of doing this was during primary school. There was a story I heard so often I could retell it, word for word, without even needing the book. I can’t do it now, but other memories have stuck with me for years – if you’ve read Into My Autistic Mind you know what I mean.
For the longest time, I assumed Bookworm’s obsessive memory was evidence that he was Autistic. However, now I’m not so sure. There are similarities between myself and Bookworm – evilness not being one of them – but does that mean he has Autism? That’s what we’re here to find out. So let’s review his two-parter: “The Bookworm Turns” / “While Gotham City Burns” (1966).
The story begins with the opening of a new bridge in Gotham City. Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson (Batman and Robin) are watching the event on TV, when Dick suddenly notices someone in the crowd: a man wearing large, goggle-like spectacles; a brown leather coat, and a hat with a lamp attached – the Bookworm. Soon after, the villain orders his minions to “begin Chapter One“, and Police Commissioner Gordon is seemingly shot dead off the bridge. Horrified, Bruce and Dick immediately jump into action as Batman and Robin.
Driving to the police station, however, everyone is relieved to discover that Commissioner Gordon is alive. He wasn’t even at the ceremony. Hilariously, one of his officers had fined him for over-parking, and he was late. Or so it seemed. It turns out, not only was there a fake commissioner at the bridge, the parking officer was an imposter too. It was all so Bookworm could lure Batman to the police station and plant a bomb in the Batmobile. Additionally, the commissioner’s parking ticket reads “A.S. Scarlett, Badge #1887” – a reference to “A Study In Scarlett” (the first Sherlock Holmes novel) published in 1887.
In these first few scenes, Bookworm’s obsessions are on full display. Like most Batman villains, his crimes and antics are based around his gimmick; in this case, books. He describes part of his plan as “Plot A“, the bomb he uses is disguised as a book, and even his henchmen have literary-based names: Pressman, Printer’s Devil, Typesetter and Lydia Limpet. However, there’s more to him than his theming – as we soon learn.
Batman is alerted to the bomb in the Batmobile and ejects it before detonation. He and Robin investigate the crime scene, only finding the charred remains of the book and its title: For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Earnest Hemmingway. At this point, Batman reveals another side of their foe’s mentality.
You see (much like the Riddler) Bookworm leaves clues for Batman and Robin, to see if they can work out his next move. While this might seem foolish, it actually ties into a philosophy several Batman villains have. It’s not enough to defeat the caped crusader. They want to out-wit him too. Batman is one of the most renowned detectives on the planet. So if they come up with a scheme not even he can deduce, it’ll prove once and for all they’re his intellectual superior. Besides that, if he does work it out, it’s still a chance to lure him into a trap. I’ll admit, sometimes I like to show off in this way too. I love giving people conundrums to see if they can work out the answers to things I’ve cleverly learned. It’s a little shameless, but I accept it.
After concluding Bookworm’s plan might be to blow up a bridge – since that’s the plot of For Whom the Bell Tolls – Batman and Robin race off to their next location. We then transition to what might be the most memorable scene of the story for me. It’s here we learn the extent of Bookworm’s knowledge and the price he has to pay for it.
In the villain’s hideout, Bookworm marvels at his collection of books. He loves the ideas they contain, the wisdom they provide; how each one is perfectly structured to relay a mountain of knowledge from the great minds who wrote them. He’s spent a lifetime memorising their plots and using them as his greatest weapon. Unfortunately, it’s also his greatest curse. When Lydia asks Bookworm why he doesn’t write a best-seller of his own, he suddenly becomes furious. The sad truth is, he can’t come up with anything original. He’s so engrossed in the works of others that he’d just be copying their ideas. That’s why his schemes are plot-based. He couldn’t make a plan of his own if he wanted to.
Hearing this for the first time, I couldn’t help drawing comparisons with myself. Being an inspiring writer, I know the challenge of coming up with original ideas. Inevitably, you start looking at other people’s work for inspiration. But sometimes you take so much you end up plagiarising. It happened so often when I was asked to write an original story, only to copy characters and plots from elsewhere. It certainly shakes your confidence somewhat, knowing you might only be good at retelling stories.
To quickly summarise the next several scenes. Bookworm manages to calm himself by reading an entire book (The Secret of Success: Self Control) in a matter of seconds. Batman and Robin arrive at their next location, but discover Bookworm has already “blown up” a bridge; he’s projected the enlarged image of one on the side of a building. The Dynamic Duo climb higher to get a better view of their surroundings – meeting Jerry Lewis along the way – before encountering Bookworm’s henchmen. After defeating them in a fight, they receive information from Lydia Limpet. However, Batman is curious about something. Robin is left to guard her, but she tricks him into opening a book filled with knockout gas: The History of the English Language – a book that would put anyone to sleep. Bookworm’s henchmen tie Robin to the clapper of a bell just as it’s about to strike midnight. Fortunately, Batman realises he’s been misled. Along with Police Chief O’Hara, they reach the clock tower (Big Benjamin) and use some elaborate science to save Robin. Our heroes then regroup in the Batcave.
I should point out at this stage that Batman’s original series was more family-friendly than its later interpretations. The lighthearted tone could even be described as “campy” at times. For example, Batman employs a pick-up service for the sole purpose of collecting discarded parachutes – which he uses in Bat-U-turns. When he and Robin climb the side of the building, he reminds his sidekick to keep “both hands on the bat-rope“. And, just before they fight Bookworm’s henchmen, he insists the minions remove their glasses first – he would never hit a man with glasses.
Speaking of which, I always loved the fight scenes on this show. Not only did they capture the spirit of the comics with their onomatopoeia (words on screen), but something about them felt strangely realistic to me. You could tell they were all choreographed. However, the action felt so spontaneous it was like the actors were improvising as they went. The directors must’ve been very skilled to make everything look seamless.
Anyway, back onto Bookworm, I was surprised to find little else to analyse about him. At least, in regards to him potentially being Autistic. He didn’t have any social or communication problems, and none of his quirks seemed ritualistic, i.e. when your mind is conditioned to make you do something a certain elaborate way. The only exception I could find was in the latter half of the story. Let me explain.
First, Bookworm enters Wayne Manor pretending to be a book salesman. He uses another knockout book (The Congressional Record March 1919) on Alfred Pennyworth and Harriet Cooper – the butler and Dick’s aunt respectively – allowing him to steal a rare text from Bruce’s collection. However, that’s not enough. He then places a giant cookbook (The Delight of Cooking) in the middle of a street, luring in Batman and Robin. It’s here Batman reveals another of Bookworm’s mindsets: his over-plotting. Either the robbery or the enlarged book would’ve gotten their attention. However, Bookworm insists on creating as big a scene as possible – much like he did with the faked assassination and “blown up” bridge.
The reason I bring all this up is that, once again, I feel Bookworm’s actions relate to me in some way. When I write, I often go overboard with what I’m describing. Sometimes I mention things that perhaps don’t need mentioning or I explain them in extensive detail. It’s hard to remember that quantity doesn’t always equal quality. But I’m so used to seeing it from other people that I’m conditioned to think that it is. Bookworm is the same. He believes the stages of his plan should be big and bold because it’s how he’s seen them in his books. It doesn’t matter if there’s a better solution or if they don’t tie into his main plot.
To finish off the story: Bookworm traps Batman and Robin inside the large cookbook, where another deathtrap awaits. He also steals the Batmobile, hoping to use its gadgets for a grand heist. Fortunately, Batman and Robin escape (thanks to some more elaborate science) and apprehend Bookworm and his henchmen. Later on, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are in Commissioner Gordan’s office, with Bruce donating money to the prison library. Bookworm is brought in just before he’s incarcerated and quotes: “They who lose today may win tomorrow.” He believes he’s quoting a poet. However, Bruce points out it’s actually from a book. He even tells Bookworm the part and the chapter. The episode ends with Bookworm wondering if Bruce Wayne is as obnoxious as Batman.
And that’s Bookworm’s two-part story. A typical set of episodes, encompassing everything the series was known for; lighthearted action, campy moral lessons, and a guest villain putting in their best performance. Roddy McDowall did a fine job.
However, I’m sure many of you are still wondering. Do I think Bookworm is Autistic? Well, as much as I’d like to think so, the argument for it isn’t very strong. Keep in mind, these episodes were written in the 60s. It was a different time back then, and Autism was nowhere near as well-known as it is now. It’d be nice to think the writer (Rik Vollaerts) had some knowledge of the condition. However, if he did, it’s not well-presented. There’s no social awkwardness in Bookworm, no learning difficulties or specific quirks. And although there are similarities between myself and him, there could be other explanations for it. For example, Bookworm’s extensive knowledge could be because he has a photographic memory. You also don’t need Autism to be abnormally obsessed with something. I had high hopes for this character when I first saw him. However, given the lack of decisive evidence, I’ve had to conclude that Bookworm isn’t Autistic. Maybe it’s still possible he is, but I can’t say for sure.
That’s all I have for this instalment. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope to bring you more in the future. Before I finish up, though, I have a special request. I’ve been writing this blog for more than five years now, and its viewership has grown immensely throughout 2020. To show my appreciation for this, I want to try something I’ve never done before: take audience requests. At the moment, I have a couple more characters lined up for this series. However, I’d like to hear your ideas too. If there’s a particular character you’ve seen or read about, and you’d like me to review whether they’re on the spectrum or not, leave me a comment about them down below. I’ll do my research and try to bring you an instalment on them in the future. Again, I’m not looking for any characters who’s Autism has already been confirmed. But instead, those you think may have it because of certain traits. I look forward to hearing your recommendations. Until then, stay tuned.
If you like my content be sure to check out my second blog site Autistic Blogger Creates (https://autisticbloggercreates.wordpress.com/blog-2/) and it’s latest posts.
Experimenting with Scriptwriting – https://autisticbloggercreates.wordpress.com/2020/09/03/experimenting-with-scriptwriting-the-nutcracker/
The Nutcracker Panto Script Extract – https://autisticbloggercreates.wordpress.com/2020/09/03/the-nutcracker-panto-script-extract/