Reviews of Batman Novels

Batman: Knightfall
(1994) by Dennis O'Neil, pub. by Bantam Books (in both hardcover and paperback)

A novelization of an epic plotline chronicled in the comic books, Batman meets and is crippled by the villain Bane. This forces him to recruit an untried substitute to don the Bat-costume in his stead, unaware that this new Batman isn't the stablest of people. While Batman, as Bruce Wayne, tries to heal (and investigates a cosmopolitan criminal scheme involving his physiotherapist), the "new" Batman spirals dangerously out of control.

Like The Death and Life of Superman (reviewed on my main Novels page), the appeal of this book is its big,  sprawling story, interweaving various plot threads.

It's written by Denny O'Neil, who wrote his first Batman comic thirty years ago, and in recent years has been editor of the entire Batman line at DC Comics. Which is odd, since the biggest weakness with Knightfall is the handling of the characters, particularly Batman. And Dick Grayson -- the  former Robin -- doesn't crop uup at all (don't ya think that if your mentor was crippled, you'd at least send a Get Well card?)

A blurb on the back of the book says it's written like a whirling dervish, and it is. It's fast-paced, extremely easy to read...but missing any genuine emotional connection. The story should be rife with emotion -- Batman gets crippled, must deal with his (temporary) disability, falls in love, etc., but at the end of the day, the story is kind of cold and insubstantial.

A climax that's a character confrontation between the two Batmen rather than physical seems to imply O'Neil was going for something more thoughtful than an action piece (though since the faux Batman has his own comic these days as Azrael, perhaps it has more to do with the mercenary fact that DC didn't want Batman kicking the butt of a character soon to star in his own comic). But an early scene, where Commissioner Gordon informs Batman of the discovery of a bunch of murdered prostitutes, and Batman queries why Gordon is bothering him with the case, is disturbing in a potentially misogynistic way.

The Batman Murders
(1990) by Craig Shaw Gardner, pub. by Warner Books

This was an ingratiating, appealing read. Gardner apparently wrote the novelization of the 1989 Batman movie, but happily this is clearly based on the comic book version of the character; no Bat-armour, outlandish pyrotechnics, or other Tim Burton affectations. Dick Grayson, the former Robin, shows up and the story is set shortly following the death of Jason Todd (the second Robin).

The body of a dead man is found at a crime scene...dressed as Batman; stranger still, he thought he really was Batman. This leads Batman, Commissioner Gordon and Dick Grayson to investigate a twisted scheme involving pseudo-Batmen, kidnappings, and a local religious cult, all masterminded by...well, Gardner doesn't answer that until a third of the way through, so I won't say (though the back cover does).

What's appealing about this book is that there's a kind of free-flowing structure to it; by that I don't mean it's rambling or unfocused, but unlike some such books, it's not building to a pre-ordained climax that forbids the story deviating from a set course. Gardner allows things to happen as they will, meaning you can't predict the outcome of most of the scenes before they happen. That's delightfully... refreshing. And it means the story is actually - gasp - exciting in spots. And the revelation of the villain's lair is clever.

Like a lot of these novels, the prose could have been better, and Gardner has a bit of trouble with Batman. Gardner wants to explore the emotional fall out from the death of Jason Todd, but he does a better job with Dick than Batman. Curiously, that's a complaint I levelled at Batman: Knightfall. For some reason, authors have trouble really getting inside Batman's cowl. Not great literature, the Batman Murders is nonetheless entertaining.

The Further Adventures of Batman
(1989) edited by Martin H. Greenberg, pub. Bantam Books

An agreeable read, overall. However, I don't know if it's a sign of the current state of literature, or how little respect these authors have for their material and readership, but even though this features some well-known writers, few of the stories are anything more than O.K. in either plot, or style.

The nature of the 14 stories are left to the authors, most of whom, one suspects, are only vaguely familiar with the Caped Crusader. The stories are set in different (20th Century) time periods, and adhere to the comic book mythos with varying degrees of fidelity. Isaac Asimov's is the most far afield, and smacks a little of Asimov just having a story lying around he hastily doctored to sell to this anthology, it has so little to do with the character.

The best piece is "The Batman Memos" by Stuart Kaminsky, a clever story that starts out seeming as a novelty, told entirely in memos passed back and forth at a Hollywood studio circa the '40s, as studio executives contemplate making a movie about this mysterious figure that has appeared on the Gotham scene. But as the memos progress, Kaminsky subtly works in a case that Batman has to solve.

"Subway Jack" boasts some interesting stylistic techniques that work better than I'd have thought, but still suffers from a thin plot, and horrormeister Joe Lansdale overdoes the gore (as does Robert Sheckley in "Death of the Dreammaster"). While "Batman in Nighttown" is in the odd position of messing with Batman mythos...but in such a way that authors Karen Haber and Robert Silverberg obviously seem to know something about it.

Most of the stories aren't particularly clever in story or style, nor very deep as far as emotion goes, all this despite some being quite long, even novelettes. I didn't dislike this book -- it's passably entertaining -- but it seems almost intended to reinforcce the notion that comic books are mindless fluff, by making any reader think "heck, if even 'real' author's can't write a superhero story better than this, then an actual comic book must be total crap."

And that just ain't true, folks.

Back to Reviews of Comic Book Novels

Back to