For those growing up, the world of superheroes is one of myth and magic, of lies and loyalty, one they can seek refuge in. The rules in these worlds are simple enough: superheroes are good and villains are bad. Villains take on the role of larger-than-life figures, evil for the sake of evil, each one working on some ridiculous scheme that enables the superhero to conveniently save the innocent public from. It’s a world where evil isn’t systematic and deeply-rooted into society but is random and sporadic. As much as it’s something that’s easy to believe, that evil things are just caused by evil people, it’s not a belief that can be applied to the real world. In Batman: The Ultimate Evil, Andrew Vachss mundanely attempts to takes on the true root of what society considers “evil” and the way evilness reincarnates itself.
Through alleyways littered with criminals, through streets crowded with the homeless, the Caped Crusader stalks Gotham city under the moonlight. Gracefully swooping onto the scene of the crime, Batman saves a grateful public from a city with a history of criminal activity. Still, a dark cloud of doubt hangs over him because, no matter what he does, crime continues to plague his home. It isn’t until wealthy socialite Bruce Wayne, Batman’s true identity, meets social worker Debra Kane from Child Protective Services, that he really understands the real reason for continuous crime: the abuse of children. With this, he immerses himself in the world of human trafficking, slowly coming to unravel an industry profiting off of the powerless and innocent. Accompanying Kane on trips to the homes of these troubled children, Batman soon wanders into a repulsive underground world that lurks deep beneath the petty crime of Gotham.
Batman is not just any character, but one that wanders through the imaginations of his younger fans. He’s someone who stares the malicious straight in the eye, who doesn’t falter, who doesn’t wait. He’s a hero. It’s because of this that Vachss’s novel is so brave. He forces Batman to face the same sinister behavior his fans do. He forces Batman to come eye-to-eye with the people who take advantage of his fans, with the people who cause inexplicable horror.
Vachss’s experience as a child protection consultant and lawyer who defends the traumatized children who he writes about shows. Batman: The Ultimate Evil doesn’t only use child predators as villains but, more importantly, demonstrates how childhood trauma can seep into the very way children grow into adults, disallowing them to become who they truly are. Because of the actions of these predators, these children lose the chance at a life where they wouldn’t be constantly haunted with memories they never wanted. Interestingly, Batman’s descent into the underground world of human trafficking brings him closer to coming to terms with himself. Behind the mask, the cape, and the sharp-edged gadgets, simply stands a man who wants to fix the world.
Even so, Vachss’s portrayal of Batman’s humanity still doesn’t make up for writing that comes short of capturing more fragile moments throughout the novel. He tries to construct the glistening city of Gotham with nothing but severely technical language that harshly clashes with the thrilling world he is at least attempting to build. When Vachss seems to want to create an almost poetic effect, the words sound cliched on the page, failing to fully capture the grief of Batman. It’s this very grief that Vachss neglects, that is fundamental to realizing why Batman is who he is. Page after page, Vachss fails to fully grasp the poignancy and simply ends up repeating previous sentences. Words like “shadowy” and “mysterious” will appear in a chapter so many times that they seem to lose their meaning.With the robotic writing, Batman’s inner battle with his childhood and trauma is irrevocably lost.
In times of writing that comes off as stoic and severe, moving dialogue can often be a saving grace. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in Batman: The Ultimate Evil. Vachss’s writing stays true to the style of dialogue that pops up in white bubbles above characters’ heads in comic books. It’s not a foreign sight in the novel to see Batman “musing” dark and angsty quotes, which often incorporates him asking probing questions to no one. Often times, Batman will talk as though he dramatically pauses every two seconds, with ellipses nestled between every few words. Maybe it’s supposed to be mystifying, but it comes off like he has to clear his throat from speaking in such an unnaturally deep voice. Even criminals will be caught saying things like “‘I needed a smoke,’” which is a line that would be comfortingly familiar if it wasn’t so overused. Although Vachss brings Batman into the real world, it’s dialogue like this that brings him back to a world full of Jokers and Penguins.
The childhood hero of many, Batman’s place is not thought to be in a world ridden with war, with deep corruption, with irresponsible people in power. He’s supposed to be found in between the pages of comic books, where the people cry turquoise tears in the face of tragedy and the Caped Crusader stands tall no matter what. However, the arrival of Batman into the real world, a place filled with problems that many of his own fans deal with, actually humanizes him. Batman, much like the people who hold his adventures in their hearts, cries, suffers, and still carries his childhood with him. Maybe that’s what makes Vachss’s novel admirable. Vachss recognizes that Batman is human. The child within him who lost his parents still grieves, still feels their loss. All he can do is save these children and hope for a new day, a day in which he defeats the ultimate evil.
Ashita Wagh is a pop culture critic for Oswego East’s online news magazine the Howl