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Fatman and slobbin'

The book is set in 1989, days before director Tim Burton´s brooding Batman arrives in theaters. Charlie counts the days until its release, insisting to anyone who will listen that it´s "my movie" -- as though it´s a documentary about Charlie Duffy, not a movie starring Michael Keaton. Charlie´s fantasy life is indulged by his landlord, his boss, and his neighbors, who tolerate Charlie because he is sweet, a cherub who clings to a childhood daydream. But in the end, the harmless fantasy becomes a violent reality: Charlie replaces the benevolent Batman of his youth with the "mean" version depicted in the film, and he discovers how easily a superhero bleeds.

Sniegoski and Golden´s original pitch to Helfer wasn´t nearly as endearing. At first, they envisioned a book in which a madman believes himself to be Batman. Donning the costume gave the character the "right" to go out and commit murder, in the name of good. Much of the book was to take place in an asylum, and it ended with a sick, gruesome twist (which they will not talk about on the record, since it may yet appear in another title they´re working on). The team pitched their story as a Taxi Driver riff, and DC, of course, scoffed at the concept of a serial killer idolizing Batman.

"After a long, long conversation with Andy, the idea came up to skew it toward a more sympathetic character," says Golden, whose novel Strangewood also deals with the concept of how thin is the line separating reality and fiction. "We talked about how the neighborhood would react to this other guy, and we asked each other, 'What if it was someone more innocent, and what if we played off the innocence of the pre-Jack Nicholson and pre-Michael Keaton era?´ And also, Tom knew a guy growing up like Charlie, who was mildly retarded and pretended he was a policeman. If you look at most of Charlie´s dialogue, it´s a riff on the kinds of things this guy would say."

Na-na-na-na-na-na: Charlie Duffy, the "Batman" of DC Comics' RealWorlds series
Na-na-na-na-na-na: Charlie Duffy, the "Batman" of DC Comics' RealWorlds series

Batman has been both celebrated and derided in the comics industry trades. Some find it "oddly touching"; others insist it takes place in an after-school-special world where resolutions are quick and tidy. And not a few have insisted that Charlie Duffy is meant to represent the comic fan as mentally stunted boor -- "The Caped Retard," as one character in the book refers to Charlie. One would think the audience for the Batman title would almost hate the idea of its existence: Imagine being mocked by the very company to which you´ve devoted a good hunk of your allowance and your life.

In the February 4 issue of Comics Buyer´s Guide, the industry´s weekly bible, one rather sensitive critic insisted Batman reduced the comic fan to nothing but a stereotype, "the social misfit" who never grew up and "envisions [himself] as incarnations of comic-book heroes in the real world." Helfer, Golden, and Sniegoski scoff at the criticism, insisting Charlie is nothing but a stand-in for Sniegoski´s childhood friend -- a fictional, sympathetic character, and no more.

"The reviewer thought by our choosing to make Charlie retarded, the implication was people who like comics must be retarded," Golden says. "I thought that was the silliest, most reactionary, paranoid comment I´d ever read. I am 32 years old and read many comics every month, and I am not implying that I am retarded."

The RealWorlds series debuts at a time when the comic-book industry limps along like Superman dosed by kryptonite. Kids can´t be bothered with comics anymore, not when they can burn their two bucks at a Blockbuster, renting PlayStation or N64 games, instead of burning brain cells by...what´s that word? Oh, yeah. Reading. Last year, the comic-book business brought in $575 million, according to industry trade publications. Video games, says the Interactive Digital Software Association, were a $6.1 billion industry in 1999. Even a monkey could do the math: Syphon Filter is kicking Superman´s tired old ass.

Just four years ago, the mighty Marvel Comics, home of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and so many other neurotic do-gooders, declared bankruptcy; only the X-Men could save it. The company still staggers along like some wounded, two-dimensional warrior. In 1993, Marvel dominated the comics market; now, its titles account for less than a quarter of all books sold. Stan Lee, legendary writer-editor at Marvel, has even packed up and taken his shop to the Internet. And just last week, Lee announced he would be doing a series for none other than DC, in which Lee offers his interpretations of Superman, Batman, and other DC icons. Perhaps they will be printed on the white flag of surrender.

DC Comics, on the other hand, has more than doubled its once-puny market share since 1993 -- mostly by deciding the best way to sell its wares is by going upscale, mainstream, and retro. Now, you can find comics in a Borders Books & Music near you. Farewell, teen geeks and rickety racks full of pulp fiction. How-do, coffee bars and yup-scale readers willing to dispose of a few dollars for a quick hit of glossy nostalgia. That´s the audience for which RealWorlds is intended: These are comic books for people who no longer read them. With the $5.95 price and retro covers (Batman features the logo from the TV series, the first time it has ever appeared on a comic book), DC intends these comics to be read by adults who gave up comics for a life but maintain a nostalgic fondness for the icons of their youth.

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