Comic strips and graphic novels readily make the leap to other visual media to reach out to fresh audiences. They are ready-made storyboards and, as Frank Miller’s Sin City showed, even original frames including pencil and ink can be incorporated into film scenes, blurring the line between print and screen. But some comic book universes are so large, and cast such a long shadow over popular culture, that they can afford to be radically retro. The Batman franchise has had a hugely successful run at the box office and in graphic novels like Jeff Loeb and Tim Sale’s classic, The Long Halloween (DC Comics, 1998). Now, it has regressed back to pristine print — text on paper, no brooding pictures — with a series of three original novels set in the Batman universe. This is professionally produced fanfic, smoothly written and competently edited, which takes storylines beyond the pages of the comics. They are for grown-ups, as the covers indicate. Bipolar oils with palette knife work are certainly not child-friendly.
The Killing Joke, the first title in the series, appeared in the US in September, 2018. Written by Christa Faust (known for adaptations of A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Twilight Zone) and Gary Phillips, it provides a back story for the Joker, the first Batman supervillain who survives to the present day. Batman was created at a time when New York City was a hub of organised crime, and his first opponents were mobsters like the Falcone family, Tony Zucco (who murdered Robin’s parents) and Joe Chill (ditto for Bruce Wayne’s parents), who form the backdrop. They were just working stiffs compared to malevolent geniuses like the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler and Two-Face, who have kept the Batman story going.
But The Killing Joke is not entirely original. It is a text version of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 graphic novel of the same title, which was a New York Times bestseller and was reprinted several times. Faust and Phillips retain the setting, placing the story in the late Eighties, with police blimps patrolling the skies of Gotham. The second title, Mad Love, is written by Hugo-winning science-fiction author Pat Cadigan with Paul Dini, one of the creators of the character Harley Quinn. This is also not wholly original, but based on an earlier comic by Dini and Bruce Timm which won an Eisner award in 1994. But the third, The Court of Owls, appears to be a completely new work by Star Trek novel writer Greg Cox. Of all the Batman comics, the Owls series was perhaps the most metaphysical, and therefore the story most likely to flower in a prose narrative.
Lee Falk’s Phantom and Mandrake were among the illustrious heroes who influenced Bob Kane and Bill Finger (the original Batman writer, now sadly forgotten, who named Bruce Wayne after Robert the Bruce) in the creation of the caped crusader. In fact, the Phantom and Batman had somewhat parallel trajectories in their leap out of the pages of comic books. Both appeared in serials in the 1940s (the better-known Batman TV series featuring Adam West is from the 1960s). The mystique of comic art was insufficiently captured in those early days short on special effects, when superheroes appeared in ill-fitting costumes of woven fabric. The musculature so loving delineated by comic artists was lost in their clothing and like Growltiger, they were frequently “baggy at the knees”.
Batman took a head start in the novel format. While his peer in the Deep Woods was still wasting his life water-skiing with the dolphins Solomon and Nefertiti, Batman appeared in two novels by Winston Lyon in 1966. Eleven years later, he reappeared in Challengers of the Unknown by the science fiction writer Ron Goulart, who represents another link with the Phantom. In 1973, writing under the name of Frank S Shawn, Goulart had published The Veiled Lady, the first of a long line of Phantom novels which he ghostwrote for Lee Falk.
Falk had ventured into prose in 1972 with The Story of the Phantom: The Ghost who Walks. But after that, he wrote only four of the 15 Phantom paperback novels which were published by Avon Books at breakneck speed in the course of only three years. Most of the others were written by Goulart, under the pseudonym of Frank S Shawn. As far as I recall, only one of them, The Hydra Monster (1973), reached Indian bookstores. Unlike the Batman books, which have been sporadically in print for decades, the Phantom novels appeared like a supernova and collapsed, as supernovas do, into a black hole.
The three novels recently published by Titan Books in collaboration with DC Comics go out on a progressive limb from the family tree of the Batman novels. The authors are carefully chosen, the writing is crisp and the audience is exclusively adult — The Court of Owls opens with a horrific scene involving a Talon, a minion of the Owls; putting it behind you involves a stiff drink. But one side of Batman’s evolutionary history is missing in action in the new series.
In the middle of the 20th century, Batman and Robin were often wisecracking, slapsticky characters armed with superbly cheesy puns in their pursuit of malevolent clowns. Later, an evolved Batman walked alone in pursuit of the darkest evil, brooding on darkness visible. I think the story located at the turning point is The Demon of Gothos Mansion (Batman #227, December 1, 1970), which rightly features in the only structured history of the character, E Nelson Bridwell’s Batman: From the 30s to the 70s (Crown Publishers, June 1971).The trend towards darkness climaxes in the deeply psychological Owl series, and the best of the Titan books is its latest offering. But one does hope that in future stories, Titan finds space for the other branch of Batman’s phylogeny, which is just good, clean fun. Before filmmakers and novelists got in on the act, Batman was a comic.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 27, 2019 under the title ‘The Cape of Justice’.