I picked up this novel because, well, it's Batman. I've read dozens of graphic novels and was going through other non-graphic novels like Fear Itself and No Man's Land. After finishing this I have to wonder, did John Shirley ever pick up a Batman book and/or movie before? Did he even know who the character was? Perhaps he only knew of the Adam West television series and thought he was doing a more serious version of that? I don't know how else to explain not only the blatant disregard for the character but also the poor quality of the story.
First of all, this is not like any other version of Batman. I could understand if they were trying to put a different spin on the character we know and love (Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth has a terrific version of Bats that is vastly different than usual) but they have to keep it true to the spirit. This is not true nor is it who we Batfans know and love. He doubts himself, openly chats and jokes with everyone including villains, has problems defeating a single steroid-pumped thug, lets people die without even attempting to save them, serious considers quitting for a woman (who has no other history with him outside this book and has no personality whatsoever in it), and forgets why he fights crime occasionally. My jaw literally dropped when Batman did something in the finale that, in the real world, would have killed or seriously injured the person. And it went lower when they did the lousy Saturday morning cartoon show thing of having the guy come out of it perfectly okay. In the hands of someone like Jeph Loeb or Frank Miller such changes could have been incredibly compelling. But there should have been no more than just one of these aspects here since Shirley doesn't get Batman like they do. Worst of all, Batman often acts as open as Clooney's version. He walks around in broad daylight surrounded by police and FBI. At one point he even takes the Batmobile to drop someone off at the airport for no reason other than to basically say "I got your back." I was dumbfounded at the audacity to do something so out of character like that. I pity the poor fool who uses this book as his introduction to the Batmythos.
Shirley also seems confused as to which part in Bathistory this takes place. On the one hand, characters bluntly state that he's just emerged. On the other, pretty much everyone has seen him and he doesn't bother to hide, the police no longer bother trying to capture him except for the racist double agents, and he has super advance technology for every occasion. All of which point to later career Bats. What kind of character progression can there possibly be when after his first few months when the President wants to deputize him, he's got a holographic cloaking device on his car, and when Homeland Security is following the Batwing?
There's really only two other Batcharacters in the book: Gordon and Alfred. Gordon is fine, mostly because he's in such a minimal role. But Alfred also got the shaft. He's portrayed as this annoying know-it-all who goes off on rants over the littlest things (think Cliff Clavin from Cheers). He too has little to do, but what he does is quite memorable for the wrong reasons. The rest are all original characters, and all lack interesting personalities. Cormac Sullivan and his son Gary are the biggest characters who don't have their names in the title. But they seem to have a greater number of pages dedicated to them than The Dark Knight does. If anything, of the three main stories, Bats is given the least amount of time. Anyways, Cormac and Gary have somewhat of an interesting story, except that it really has nothing to do with the main story. Cormac starts off involved in the whole White Supremacist thing, but detracts from the story for the whole middle half (meaning Shirley keeps going back to him even though nothing he does has anything to do with anything else and could be cut out without any problem), and comes back for the finale pathetically trying to tie it all back together. Seriously, the reason they come back into the main story is flimsy at best.
There's also little to no Gotham City. Again, if it was done well it would interesting but it isn't. I like the idea that Batman has to go out of his element and into the woods. It opens up possibilities that just aren't taken advantage of. Gotham has become a character in itself, like Star Trek and the Enterprise. Sure there have been good Batstories without much of Gotham, but the corrupted society aspect of the story lent itself to the corrupted Gotham. Instead we get boring Pennsylvanian woods.
A poor adaptation of the characters could be forgiven if they had a decent story regardless, which brings us to the next biggest problem: racists simply are not interesting. The story revolves around Bats uncovering a terrorist group of white supremacists who intend to overthrow the government and advance their own Neo-Nazi/KKK ideals. Okay, that's not such a bad idea in itself. If Bats can stop Evil President Luthor he can stop the modern Hitler. Here's the problem, the book literally spends the majority of its time focusing on any one of the many racists, more than Batman and Cormac combined. And all they do is be angry. There's absolutely no other character aspects to them, but hate, and that's not interesting. Not one of them has any backstory. They're not dynamic, just one dimensional annoyances. Perhaps if racism was just one side quirk to an actual personality this could have been an interesting examination of how racism perpetuates itself in society. But it's not. It's one note played over and over and over again overwhelming everything else, and I got sick of it by the end of the first third. The bigger problem with this is that it makes it seem as though these white men (there's only one woman in the group who turns out to be the only good, wholesome person there) are just inherently evil. As a white man myself, I take great offense to that. I've known quite a few racists and I know that there are deeper issues to it, like upbringing and economic times, and not simply being born to hate others. It also didn't help me personally that their homicidal leader shares my first name.
One thing that really took me out of the universe was the amount of product placement. Seriously, every other chapter had some brand name pop up, usually towards the end so you remembered it was in there before taking a break. There is something to be said for including some products for realism, but I don't need to unnecessarily read about Geico or Home Depot. These names were thrown in for the heck of it, without any other need. One chapter features Bruce and Alfred talking about the racists while watching the news, and ends with a quick paragraph going to a commercial for Geico. No reason at all other than to throw the name in.
The novel is certainly darker than it needs to be, and not in a "Batman is a brooding character" kind of way. In fact, Bats seems like jolly ol' Santa Claus compared to the rest of the book. There's a lot of swearing and many, many derogatory terms for black, gay, and Jewish people thrown in every paragraph in the racists' sections. Many sections deal with heavy drug usage. It's also very violent. The racists' sections are full of death, grimly described. One character reappears with a facial feature missing. Tarantino might be proud of it all, but Bob Kane would be horrified. And so am I since all of it really had little to no place in story other than to be gratuitous. Considering that the racists make up the majority of the book, that's a lot of swearing and death in addition to their less-than-charming demeanor. It's mentally exhausting to have to put up with so much of this Batcrap.
Now, I almost gave it two stars when I was reading this. It was poor but not awful. What lost that one star was the final twenty pages, the wrap up of the three storylines. Each one of these are horribly written, relying on the most overused cliches, revealing character aspects that appear literally out of no where with no basis in the story before it, and so painfully forced that I could not have been more glad to have finished it. It's like Shirley got to the end and forgot to actually finish the story so he forced these endings on us.
In the end, this book in no way seems like a Batman story. It's almost like Shirley had this whole white supremacist takeover story and then shoehorned Batman into it. Cause when the title character, especially one with an seventy-year history, is a almost a minor character in his own book you know there's problems. Who at DC Comics actually approved this, I'll never know and hope I never do. Apparently someone there fell asleep at the Batwheel.