Weekend Aside: The Further Adventures of Batman
In the continuing theme of “Stuff Found While Cleaning Out My Old Room”, this entry deals with part of the post-Tim Burton Batman movie merchandising boom, a short story collection that hit shelves during what DC took to calling the “Summer of Batman.” And darned if they weren’t right, at least from a merchandising perspective. When you’re selling action figures of “Bob the Goon”, you know you’ve got a hot product on your hands.
This, however, actually had a bit of quality to it.
There were quite a few superhero short story collections on the shelves during the 90s – I also have a Spider-Man collection that has a very good revised origin by Peter David – but the trend’s sadly died out a bit. This, apparently, was the first of three such Batman collections, with two more featuring Catwoman and Penguin released around the time of Batman Returns (big shock there). While a book of Catwoman short stories may be interesting, I can’t imagine sitting through fourteen straight Penguin stories.
This first volume, however, was an interesting experiment. I obviously consumed this voraciously, as my copy looks as though it’ll fall apart if you breathe on it funny. However, given the timing of the book being on shelves shortly after Burton’s movie dropped, it’s somewhat obvious that most of these writers aren’t working from the more distilled version of Batman that became common knowledge after the movie (and then was practically codified when B:TAS made its debut three years later). Individual writers appear to have been influenced by everything from The Dark Knight Returns to having seen a couple episodes of the 60s show and nothing more. It’s certainly an interesting look at various ways to interpret Batman, and at the very least it does prove the point that Batman’s one of the most adaptable characters in fiction.
Since it’s unavoidable, here’s a quick discussion of each story:
- “Death of the Dreammaster”, by Robert Sheckley – The book kicks off with what’s certainly a bit of a different take on Batman. No doubt inspired by DKR, Sheckley tells the story of an aged Batman still dealing with the trauma of Robin’s death (remember, Jason Todd had been killed off in the comic a couple years before this), but still at the peak of his game, who encounters visions of the Joker… who’s also dead. That sets Batman off into a techno-thriller type of mystery, with a lot of equipment description but not much of a plot. On the other hand, you do get plenty of information about Bruce Wayne’s operations, which is always neat.
- “Bats”, by Henry Slesar – Told from Alfred’s perspective, this would classify as a story from the “Batman is a dick” era, as Alfred struggles to deal with the fact that Batman is apparently going insane and seeing a therapist.
- “Subway Jack”, by Joe R. Lansdale – Lansdale, a frequent DCAU contributor later in his career (he’s probably most notable for “Perchance to Dream”), comes up with my favourite story in the book. It’s pretty clear that he was much more into the headspace of the modern Batman than many of his co-contributors, as this story reads like a modern Batman story, albeit with a supernatural twist as Batman attempts to take on a spirit that it’s implied was responsible for most of history’s most terrifying murders. Lansdale alternates between straight text and describing the action in the form of a full comic script, and the technique really works.
- “The Sound of One Hand Clapping”, by Max Allan Collins – Collins, who had a brief and generally unloved tenure as a Batman writer, riffs on the 60s-era Joker here in a story that features Joker courting a new female villainess, but it actually isn’t too bad. Although the idea works better with a comedic foil than the rather flat character of “The Mime.”
- “Neutral Ground”, by Mike Resnick – One of those stories that works because it answers a question that you don’t think to ask. In this case, it’s “where does everyone in Gotham get their costumes and equipment?” Sure, there’s certainly cooler answers to the question than the all-purpose back-alley store presented here – Batman going to a superhero haberdashery is a bit strange after Batman Begins – but the story has a couple of good lines and some vivid descriptions. Of course, the idea of a tailor-to-the-stars in a comic city isn’t uncommon by any means; the most famous one is probably Paul Giambi.
- “Batman in Nighttown”, by Karen Haber and Robert Silverberg – I’ve referred to this story before, with a costumed Bruce Wayne stalking an erstaz Batman through Gotham’s seedy nightclub district. It’s a quick read, but a good one. The only down note is that it seemingly gritties up a character from the 60s show without good reason, but beyond that it’s very good.
- “The Batman Memos”, by Stuart Kaminsky – Another more experimental story, told in the form of a series of memos from Warner Brothers in the 1940s detailing their attempts to make a Batman movie, which wind up in a kidnapping and the real Batman making an appearance. As odd as it sounds.
- “Wise Men of Gotham”, by William F. Nolan – One of the more straightforward stories in the book sees Bruce Wayne caught up in a Riddler scheme to murder several prominent Gothamites. Riddler works better in text form than most comic characters because of his gimmick, and that’s true here. The only down note is that Nolan decides to have Batman aided by the man who killed his parents. Yeah, we know now how dumb an idea that is, but people can be forgiven for it back in 1989….
- “Northwestward”, by Issac Asimov (um… do you really need a Wiki link for him?) – Yes, Issac Asimov wrote a Batman story. Well… kinda. This is a story that actually fits in his Black Widowers series (it wound up being reprinted in the final collection of said stories), and tells the story of a man named Bruce Wayne coming to the Widowers to solve a problem involving his valet. Of course, it’s not the “real” Bruce Wayne, and therefore isn’t a Batman story as a result, but it’s a neat little story nevertheless.
- “Daddy’s Girl”, by William F. Nolan – Nolan’s second story in the collection is more of a Robin showcase, as an inopportune fall while chasing the Joker leads to him being nursed back to health by a beautiful girl who’s led a sheltered life. It’s still a bit rooted in the 60s-era Batman, but another effective tale, even if the revelation of Sue-Ellen’s parentage is a bit obvious.
- “Command Performance”, by Howard Goldsmith – The only author on the list that doesn’t have a wiki entry, Goldsmith’s story actually stars Dick Grayson as he investigates a series of hypnosis-related thefts. Almost painfully generic.
- “The Pirate of Millionaire’s Cove”, by Edward D. Hoch – Whereas this one is generic, but in a good way; the idea would have made for a perfect early-years B:TAS episode, as Bruce sets up a sting operation to catch a gang of thieves who have been raiding yachts while dressed as pirates.
- “The Origin of the Polarizer”, by George Alec Effinger – Another time-displaced story, this time to the 50s, sees Batman and Robin fighting off a menace of the master of vacuum tubes; this one REALLY seems to be from the camp era. Notably, this is Viki Vale’s only appearance in these stories, which is emblematic of her role in the comics of the time, but not her leading role in the movie.
- “Idol”, by Ed Gorman – A very weird story about a boy obsessed with Batman. Notable for being very adult in tone, but it’s told from the disturbed subject’s perspective and therefore is a bit of a tough read.
All in all, it’s a solid collection of stories, if hampered by the fact that some of the authors have a different perception of Batman than anyone born after, oh, 1980 or so would. As much as we can chuckle at the 60s show in modern times, it did do a lot of damage to the character. That’s not necessarily a BAD thing, but a lot of the visual charm that makes the campier, 60s-style Batman work are lost when put in text form.
There’s plenty of used copies of this floating around, and it’s worth picking up if you happen across it.