By Hugh Garvey
"Batman can't kill, can't curse, and can't have sex" was the only caveat Steve Korte of DC licensed publications gave Andrew Vachss after finally convincing him to write a Batman novel. That didn't bother Vachss, whose mind was on other things—one thing in particular, actually. Lawyer and author of the bestselling Burke crime novel series, Vachss has devoted the last 20 years of his life to child advocacy. He's the first to admit his novels, short stories, comic books, speeches, and op-ed pieces are all unabashedly didactic efforts at curbing the abuse of children. So Vachss went ahead and wrote the first third of the novel. It wasn't exactly the outline they asked for, but good enough for DC to promise Vachss an unspecified amount of money and a 100,000-copy print run of the book to be published by Warner Aspect, the fantasy and science fiction imprint of Warner Books.
Two-thirds of the way into Batman: The Ultimate Evil, Bruce Wayne learns from Alfred that his mother was killed while trying to expose a Gotham police commander's ties to a child sex ring based in Udon Khai, a fictitious country in southeast Asia. Struck by the horror he witnesses upon arriving in Udon Khai, Batman supplies arms to a group of rebels who kill the kingpin of the child sex ring and attempt to overthrow the corrupt government that allows the sex trade to flourish. The novel ends with Batman back in Gotham City, more sensitive to the ultimate evil at home, only slightly appeased by this small victory.
But the book doesn't end there. The lines "The Batman is a myth, the ultimate evil is not. The truth follows ..."—with a facsimile of Vachss' signature underneath—introduce an essay on child sex tourism in Thailand. Written by David Hechler, a Fellow for Children and the News at the Columbia School of Journalism, the well-annotated essay details how the Thai government condones an industry that exploits some 200,000 children. Vachss' signature appears yet again, just before a list of organizations that readers can contact to "do [something] about the situation." Along with the addresses of Human Rights Watch and End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism, a group called Don't! Buy! Thai! is listed. Co-founded by Vachss, Don't! Buy! Thai! is calling for a complete boycott of Thailand. [Note: The boycott ended 12/20/00. For the complete story, click here.]
Don't think Vachss didn't know what he was doing when he secured the book deal before introducing Udon Khai into the plot. "Make no mistake, Udon Khai is Thailand," Vachss told me on the phone recently. "And it's no secret that Time Warner does business in Thailand." In addition to servicing Thailand with HBO and American movies, Time Warner owns DC Comics, which owns Batman. The irony of Vachss choosing Batman as the medium for his message wasn't missed by Time Warner execs. They asked DC to make it clear that Vachss was calling for the boycott, and not Time Warner and no mention of the Thailand boycott appears on any of the press material accompanying Batman: The Ultimate Evil. When I asked Korte why Vachss had to sign the essay, he very carefully phrased his answer: "You can't have Batman calling for a boycott, Batman can't be a political figure." Korte and the president of DC felt very strongly about the project and thought the signatures were a small concession to make to get the book out there. DC is behind Batman: The Ultimate Evil as much as it can be; they'll be bringing out a comic book version of the novel, complete with the essay, early next year.
Though neither DC nor Time Warner are taking part in the boycott, Korte says he has immense respect for those who do, including Dark Horse Comics, a company that publishes Vachss' Cross comic book series. Dark Horse has added a boycott Thailand clause to their boilerplate contract. Though Warner Books publicity says they're not sending Vachss on a Batman book tour because he just finished one promoting his most recent Burke novel for Knopf, Vachss will be going on tour for Dark Horse, and they'll be sending copies of the Batman book along with him. Not often in the publishing trade do you see a company publicizing a competitor's product. When I asked Vachss if he saw any parallels between himself and the caped crusader, he answered, "No, I consider myself a soldier. Crusader's the wrong word, there's a connotation there that a crusader has one goal, and that it's attainable. My battles will never be finished."
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