An Answered Prayer, Part I
From Dream Project to Dark Knight-mare, As Told in Two Parts
By Bill Kunkel
PART ONE: THE DREAM
They say there is an ancient Chinese curse that condemns its victim to attain their heart's desire.
Truman Capote explored a similar subject in his years-in-the-writing final work, "Answered Prayers." In that book, Capote related the stories of his fabulously famous and wonderfully wealthy friends, all of whom had seen their wildest dreams far surpassed, only to be left empty and miserable by the experience.
We humans are goal-oriented creatures, after all. Most of us grow up wanting to "be" something – a cowboy, a soldier, a ballet dancer, a movie star, a cop or a crook. And even if we wind up as plumbers or businessmen or doctors, there will always be a part of us that yearns, even in retrospect, for that childhood prayer to be answered.
Me, I wanted to be The Batman.
You know who The Batman is, of course (hell, if it weren't for videogame ads, DC and Marvel would've gone out of business by the mid-90s). They let the "The" part of the Darknight Detective's name slide for a few decades but Caped Crusader editor and scribe Denny O'Neil fixed all that in the early 70s when most of the classic DC characters were given long-overdue makeovers. With the aid of artist Neal Adams, and a string of brilliant stories such as "Night of the Reaper" and "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge", "Batman" once again became "THE Batman" and would not require further cosmetic surgery until Frank Miller picked up the scalpel almost two decades later.
I hail, however, from an earlier time period. I became a comic book fan around the age of nine, which would have been 1959. You may remember this time period if you ever watch "Leave It to Beaver" or "Happy Days" reruns. It was a time so primitive that Marvel Comics hadn't even been invented yet and Stan Lee (nee Lieber) was writing terrible romance stories and monster comics with titles like "Blarghh! The Thing That Ate With Its Hands!"
As for superheroes, they all lived in mythical, unrealistic-looking urban areas with names like "Metropolis" and "Central City". And all I knew for absolute certain was that I wished to join their ranks. Even blatantly second-rate super teams commanded my interest (you have to want to wear the mantle of superhero pretty badly to yearn after membership in the "Legion of Substitute Heroes," the inadvertent inspiration for "Mystery Men" and dozens of other superhero goofball squads).
But as I enumerated the various difficulties I faced on the road to joining the long underwear crowd, they seemed more formidable than I had first considered. First off, there was that matter of my not having any super power. Forget The Flash – I was closer to the slowest kid in my class than the fastest. Also I couldn't fly, see through women's clothing or even cloud men's minds. The list of superguys upon whom I might model myself grew increasingly thin. It began to look as if the only way I would ever acquire a super power was via one of those inexplicable lab accidents that allow the lucky victim thereafter to burst into flame at will, read minds or see through women's clothes.
But in The Batman, I found a physically normal human being who relied upon his mind as well as his fists to Fight Evil. True, Bruce Wayne had several advantages over me. For one thing, his parents had been brutally gunned down before his terrified teenage eyes, giving him the motivation to lift all those weights and invent all those utility belt weapons. For another, those same dead parents were absurdly wealthy, giving Bruce his very own Stately Manor (complete with Batcave – and I bet that was never mentioned in the real estate specs) in which to give birth to his new persona.
Nonetheless, the Caped Crusader was my dawg, as they say. I didn't just read his comics, I studied them, as if each saga were part of a larger manual on the subject of How to Be the Batman.
Time passed and – let me end the suspense right now – I never did become The Batman. I did, however, become a comic book writer, working at DC (writing Lois Lane, The Private Life of Clark Kent, Vigilante, romance stories, horror stories and Jor-El only knows what all else), Marvel (where I got to script Spiderman, Captain America, The Falcon, Wonder Man, Dr. Strange and some fill-in stories that may still be sitting in the office files) and Harvey (where I spent a year writing Richie Rich).
But never Batman. There were several near-misses, but even then, all the writers enjoyed scripting Batman because, as a mortal human, he was far more interesting than that invulnerable Boy Scout, Superman (and, for those pre-Wolverine times, Bats was pretty damned psycho, as well). By the time my opportunity at the Cowl would arrive, I was gone from DC, writing the continuity pages for the European editions of Marvel Comics. I had actually begged Denny O'Neil to give me a recommendation for a tryout at Marvel, where a talented and generous man named Archie Goodwin did just that and hired me.
But that's another story. Two years later, I was splitting my time between Richie Rich and writing about electronic games for Video magazine. It looked like my shot at Batman was going to be a regret I would carry with me into old age.
Fast forward to 1989 and the arrival of "Batman" on the big screen. As with any fanboy, I had my gripes with the storyline. Making the Joker the killer of Batman's parents is not only gratuitous; it seems to put closure on Bruce's crimefighting career. Then there was the improbable casting of Michael Keaton and all, but still, it was a pretty good comic book movie.
Word filtered out soon thereafter that a sequel, "Batman Returns" was being planned for release in 1992. Burton at the helm again; bigger budget, the whole sequel trip. Konami picked up the computer game rights and the development job was assigned to Park Place. I knew the people at Park Place very well – it was a hot development group with several hit sports games in its resume. And someone, somewhere, decided that it might be a good idea to bring in actual game designers on this project. My background as a comic book writer helped Subway Software (Arnie Katz, Joyce Worley and me) score the gig.
In fact, this was not even Subway Software's first comic book project. When Arnie, Joyce and I branched out into game design in the mid-80s, we churned out design documents on a monthly basis for a Brit software firm called Tynesoft. Somehow, Tynesoft acquired the rights to produce a computer game based on Superman (called Superman, Man of Steel and later published in the US by Capstone) and again, given my history, I took the lead in creating the design. And while the C64 version is an unplayable mess, I will tell you that the Atari ST and Amiga versions are among the finest design work Subway Software ever produced.
And now I was getting my shot at Batman! At THE Batman! The rest of the process was a marvelous blur, full of contract signings, fat checks, and even a trip to the Hollywood studio where the film was being made. It was during my visit to the vast soundstage that I got to walk across the wintry rooftops of Tim Burton's ultra-noir Gotham City. Of course, this being Hollywood, the rooftops were constructed about a foot-and-a-half off the ground, but still, it just… looked… great!
I stood atop a vaulted cathedral ceiling and stared up into the black rigging and raised a silent fist to the stars.
My long-time prayer was being answered – I was going to design the greatest Batman game the world had ever seen! We would take an entirely different approach, let the player become the Caped Crusader as never before!
And it didn't even require that my parents be brutally slain before my horrified eyes.
And I guess that's when the super villains started to show up…
In Part II, the inevitable tragedy begins to unfold as our hero receives the film script, gets "helpful input" from Warner's movie minds and Park Place fades away before our eyes. Be here next time out for the sadder-but-wiser conclusion to Bill Kunkel's "Answered Prayer".
Part II of the story is available online, right here!