thrift store finds: the batman murders

This week, we’re going to be looking at The Batman Murders, written by Craig Shaw Gardner. Published in 1990 by Warner Books, the original retail price for this book was $4.95. I paid a quarter at the Salvation Army.

To tell you the truth, I have been looking for a copy of The Batman Murders for awhile now. Craig Shaw Gardner is a popular writer/novelist who famously (to me, anyway) wrote the novelization for the eighties Batman film. Batman-mania had such a feverish grip on America that Gardner’s take on the Caped Crusader spent over four months on the New York Times bestseller list! This was something of a rarity for a movie novelization, and I can suppose Warner commissioned The Batman Murders as an immediate follow-up on the strength of this showing.

The Batman Murders is the first of a three book series of Batman novels. These novels was unique in that the books were not straight novelizations of any existing material, but new adaptations featuring the Batman characters in situations partially derived from the comic books. On his website, Gardner opines bookstores were somewhat befuddled by the work, not knowing whether to rack it with science fiction, mystery, young adult, or media. This, according to Gardner, lead to the failure of the series.

I can’t be sure if book placement is the only reason for the lack of success of The Batman Murders, but I can attest as to how goddamn frustrating it used to be to find where bookstores had placed comics and comic-related collections in the 1990’s. While collecting comics in trade format has exploded in recent years, the practice wasn’t all that common back in the day. The few comic collections which were on offer were, in my local Waldenbooks, shelved with Garfield and Peanuts… or shoved in between the Dungeons and Dragons manuals.

Again, I don’t know if this is solely the reason why this experiment in original Batman prose failed… but I can back Gardner up on his observation.

Before we even get into the book itself, I must point out the gorgeous Dave Dorman painted cover. Dorman’s long been a painter I’ve been a great fan of; his work on the Aliens franchise pretty much set the tone for my imaginative impressions of those monsters. Dorman painted all three covers for the series, but the one above is absolutely my favorite.

I was all set to get my hate on with The Batman Murders because it has one of the most overwritten introductions I’ve ever read in any book. Here’s the first page.

Phrases like “It brought crime into the city like a roach” are so overwrought they almost distract you from how clumsy the repetition of “There was no moon in Gotham City.” It’s like every bad impulse a writer ever had when it comes to writing a shitty Batman monologue made its way into the prologue and I’m going to be honest with you, boys and girls. I was ready to throw in the towel on this thing. I’m glad I didn’t though, because Gardner plays a great trick on his readers when it’s revealed the person who is thinking this dialogue is NOT Batman… it’s an overweight banker masquerading as Batman for reasons yet undetermined.

I have to wonder if Gardner was playing on reader expectations with this reveal, but I felt the thing worked quite well.

The prologue effectively sets the stakes – there are random crimes being committed throughout Gotham City and, at the scenes of those crimes, a murdered citizen is discovered, dressed as the Dark Knight. Batman works both with the police and his own support team to stop these crimes, committed by (surprise) his archenemy The Joker.

The scenes with Batman and the police are sort of awesome when you view them through the characterization of the character in 2012 as an obsessed loner, growling out one syllable responses to criminals. The Batman in The Batman Murders happily wanders through police headquarters in the middle of the day and is on a first-name basis with most of the staff at the Gotham City mortuary. I could see this being a problem for some readers, but I did this friendlier, more easy-going version of ol’ Bats.

The Batman presented here is firmly rooted in the mythology and plot lines occurring in the Batman comic books published by DC Comics at the time. One of the crucial background details to the novel involves Batman/Bruce Wayne grieving over the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd. Todd was killed in the controversial Death in the Family storyline wherein The Joker beat Robin to death. It was a dark story and The Batman Murders seems takes place only months after Todd’s death.

I think it’s ambitious as hell, hooking these books up to the comic books… especially since, due to a weird scheduling snafu, some of the actual Batman comic books didn’t even get around to acknowledging Jason’s death until almost a year after the fact.

Other tie-ins to the comics include the character of Dick Grayson/Nightwing, the original Robin having long since taken on a new heroic identity. Grayson’s supporting role in The Batman Murders is pretty important and Gardner does not skip on the details. Numerous references are made not only to Grayson/Nightwing’s role as leader of The Teen Titans, but to more specific character details, like his relationship with Titans’ founding member Starfire. I was a little surprised to see these seemingly complicated elements worked into the characterization of Nightwing. Gardner does a fine job filling in the blanks and admirably pulls back on some of the more fantastic elements presented here; Starfire is referred to by her first name (Koriand’r) but the author doesn’t get into the whole “She’s an alien princess with superpowers” stuff. This was a good choice on Gardner’s part.

Unfortunately, the Nightwing stuff falls flat due to the demands of the story. What I mean is, Gardner needs Dick to be a little less competent than I know the character to normally be portrayed in the comics in order for certain pieces of his novel to fall into place. At various times, Dick seems to do three or four exceedingly dumb things in a row in order to advance the plot! It’s a real weakness in the overall story and a shame, since Gardner does do an admirable job elsewhere of taking cues from the source material.

Take for example, this paragraph detailing one of The Joker’s henchmen, a psychologist employed to turn average citizens into fodder for the villain’s scheme:

This is a clever allusion to A Death in the Family, since much of the action involving The Joker places the character in Iran. The comics go so far as to have Ayatollah Khomeini offer him a position in the Iranian government! That’s a pretty specific detail right there.

The Batman Murders is a decent Batman novel. Like I said, there are some aspects of the story that don’t exactly hold up under scrutiny, but Gardner’s characterizations of Batman and The Joker are pretty well done.

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