Nobody knew what to think when Batman stepped out of the shadows for the first time. “Who was this guy who tried to look like a bat?” asked Alexander Knox, a reporter with the Gotham Globe. “Was he a renegade cop? A criminal? Some kind of vigilante? Or a total nut case?” Maybe he was all of the above.
But Batman wasn’t the only nut case who called Gotham City his home. There was also a white-faced clown with green hair and a maniacal laugh making a whole bunch of trouble. His name was the Joker, and he was, by his own admission, “the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist.”
Before Batman and the Joker showed up, the words “Gotham City” were already synonymous with violent crime. But now, the city was a total crap mess. “Decent people shouldn’t live here,” said the Joker in a rare instance of clarity. “They’d be happier someplace else.” Like Metropolis, perhaps.
Batman is, of course, the novelization of the 1989 movie directed by Tim Burton, and starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. It is the movie that arguably paved the way for the blockbuster superhero films we see today.
But was the movie any good? Meh. Despite the visuals and over-the-top performances, Batman was a hollow noisy thing with a cheap twist. “I made you,” said Batman to the Joker in the story’s climatic scene, “but you made me first.” How extraordinarily tidy! A fine example of Hollywood scriptwriting 101.
The movie’s dialog, mostly retained in this novelization, gives the Joker plenty of opportunities to crack wise. As such, he says a lot of quotable things. “This city needs an enema!” he screeches at one point. And later he says, “I’ve got a mind to make some mayhem.” But none of his witty (?) bon mots are half as clever or memorable as three simple words taken from 2008’s The Dark Knight. As we all remember, the Joker stuck a knife in the face of a rival crime boss and asked a simple question, “Why so serious?” It was a perfect, and insane, moment of self-awareness. It is a quote that will stick with the character like glue for the rest of his existence.
And this brings up the novel’s fatal flaw. The original material from which it is indebted is simply not very good. Burton’s movie excelled on a visual level and it scored big at the box office. But in every other regard, it was a dud. At the end of the movie/book, after the Joker has been dispatched, Batman sends a letter to the citizens of Gotham City. “You’ve earned a rest from crime,” the note reads. “But if the forces of evil should rise again to cast a shadow on the heart of the city, call me.” Thank goodness Gotham City is still a crime-infested nest of vipers. It continues to provide endless opportunities for Batman to return to the multiplex to redeem himself.
[Batman / By Craig Shaw Gardner / First Printing: June 1989 / ISBN: 9780446354875]