25 December 2008

The Further Adventures of Batman

The Further Adventures of Batman (1989)
Edited by Martin H. Greenberg

Here’s an original anthology that’s sat unread on my shelf for years. Like most comic book characters, Batman isn’t a figure I associate with a non-visual medium like prose fiction, but I decided to see what interesting variations the top-tier group of writers in the Table of Contents could bring to the Dark Knight.

The Further Adventures of Batman was released in 1989 to tie-in with the insane Bat-mania surrounding Tim Burton’s Batman. I look at it as akin to the DVD release of Batman: Gotham Knight, a compilation of anime shorts about the Bat—only in literary form. Two further volumes were released to coincide with Batman Returns in 1992, one featuring all-Penguin stories, the other all-Catwoman stories.

Batman doesn’t translate well into these fourteen prose stories, and overall the volume is disappointing. Some stories go for standard Batman-adventure fare, while others take experimental tacks; neither tend to work, with the exception of a few pieces.

“Death of the Dreammaster” by Robert Sheckley: The first and longest story in the collection is a novella that presents a straightforward adventure taking place in a near future when most of Batman’s enemies and allies have died. At first the story promises to be about the Joker, as Batman thinks he sees his dead adversary walking about the streets. But this is only a blind for a story about Batman investigating a suspicious military contract. It reads well, but is unremarkable considering the intriguing possibilities presented at the beginning. This sort of let-down will occur throughout the volume.

“Bats” by Henry Slesar: Alfred narrates, via his diary, this tale of a time that Batman appeared to have a complete mental breakdown. Slesar has Alfred’s voice down perfectly, and it provides a pleasant angle on what would have otherwise been a standard “Batman pulls a switcheroo” story.

“Subway Jack” by Joe R. Lansdale: I eagerly anticipated a Batman story from Lansdale, and he doesn’t disappoint. This is a genuine “weird story,” with Batman facing an other-dimensional serial killer known as the God of the Razor. The grotesque entity possesses a hapless college student who has peered too far into the unknown. The narrative is told in fragments from different points of view and styles, including descriptions of comic books panels. This would have collapsed into pretension with a less skilled writer; Lansdale makes it seem like the only way to tell the story.

“The Sound of One Hand Clapping” by Max Allan Collins: A crime story and comic strip author, Collins seems a natural fit for Batman. He delivers a basic adventure with a light tone that feels like a script for the future animated series. The Joker falls for another costumed criminal called the Mime, whose make-up reads like a preparation for the animated series’ Harley Quinn invented a few years later. Robin also features in this fast and fun piece.

“Neutral Ground” by Mike Resnick: This short piece takes a humorous look at how both heroes and villains equip themselves. Apparently they all go to the same fellow. Convenient. Since I recently wore a Riddler costume for Halloween that required many purple question marks sewn onto it, I can understand the real villain’s concern about getting just the right number affixed to his costume.

“Batman in Nighttown” by Karen Haber and Robert Silverberg: Bruce Wayne chases a thief in a Batman costume from a charity ball at the manor, and the pursuit eventually leads to the house of his “Aunt” Chilton for an unusual confrontation. But not an exciting one. The novelty of Bruce Wayne doing heroics out of the Batman costume is the only interesting part.

“The Batman Memos” by Stuart R. Kaminsky: A series of Memos from and to movie mogul David O. Selznick detail an attempt to make a Batman film in a world where Batman is real. While Selznick tries to negotiate a deal with Batman through his representative Bruce Wayne, the studio is also concerned with the vanishing of one of their young female stars, who may be a victim of kidnap and blackmail. A lot of great old Hollywood names get trotted out (Douglas Fairbaks Jr. as Batman? Hmmmm…) and this is generally an enjoyable take on Batman in a different world from the comic books. The end is a touch confusion; even after reading over the last few letters, I’m still uncertain what happened.

“Wise Men of Gotham” by Edward Wellen: The Riddler returns, and he’s targeting the “Wise Men of Gotham” based on an old legend about the original Gotham in Nottinghamshire. Batman has one pun-filled poem after another to deduce to stop the Riddler’s assassinations. It’s a regulation Riddler story, and never that suspenseful. Far too much time concentrates on poem-deconstruction, but it does mean we see more of the “detective” part of the World’s Greatest Detective.

“Northwestward” by Isaac Asimov: Here we have the big author name in the anthology, but his entry isn’t a Batman story at all except through tenuous connection. It’s instead a parlor room mystery, where a group men reason through a problem and ultimately come to a solution without leaving the dinner table. “Batman” is actually Bruce Wayne, an elderly millionaire who served as the model for the comic book character decades ago. There’s no more twist than that; the rest of the story has his dinner companions, “The Black Widowers,” help him figure out a concern he has about his butler Cecil Pennyworth, Alfred’s nephew, possibly trying to steal from his Bat-memorabilia collection. As mysteries goes, the solution is moderately clever, but I expected something juicer from Asimov.

“Daddy’s Girl” by William F. Nolan: In one of the better stories, Robin finds himself imprisoned in his Dick Grayson identity in a mansion with a girl who has never gone outside the confines of this prison made by her “Father”—the Joker. The emotional content of the story makes it rise above many of the others, even if its declarations of love don’t strike true to the characters. The punishment that the Joker inflicts on his pseudo-daughter is the perfect kind of dark-comic nastiness that he loves.

“Command Performance” by Howard Goldmith: Robin is again the star character in this long—overlong—novella where the Boy Wonder goes into investigative reporter mode to track a ring of teenage thieves induced into crime through hypnosis and drugs. Dick Grayson’s quest to find the villain known as The Man (clever) leads him to a long cul-de-sac with a washed-up carnival hypnotist and his fun house. The finale isn’t much more interesting, and the novella is a pedestrian mystery-suspense that doesn’t even need Batman’s presence.

“The Pirates of Millionaire’s Cove” by Edward D. Hoch: Actual pirates—complete with classic accoutrements—start attacking wealthy yachts in Gotham, and Bruce Wayne puts his own ship out as bait. The story moves fast, has an outlandish conclusion, and provides standard meat n’ potatoes Batman fare.

“The Origin of the Polarizer” by George Alec Effinger: This is the other story I felt most excited about reading, based on its description on the front page blurb. It visits a period in Batman history usually ignored, the science-fiction era of the late 1950s. Batman finishes constructing the BATIVAC, the new vacuum-tube crime-fighting computer made with state-of-the-art 1957 technology. But a mad criminal calling himself The Polarizer finds a way to sabotage the BATIVAC and Batman and Robin’s equipment. Egads, what a horrific situation for our dynamic duo! The Polarizer wears silly villain duds and spouts megalomaniacal boasts, just as he should for the time period. Effinger has a blast playing with the decade and its expectations, and even gives the Polarizer the ultimate getaway vehicle: an Edsel! Batman makes a moralizing stump speech for the conclusion. Perfect stuff, all around.

“Idol” by Ed Gorman: The name “Batman” never appears in this brief story, told in clipped paragraphs and principally through dialogue. A deranged man believes he is Batman, and the real one is an impostor, and finally snaps and decides to do something about it. Excellent writing, but like many of the stories in this collection, the pay-off is tepid.