Friday, May 10, 2013

Recommended Reading for 5/10: Wayne of Gotham

Novels based on popular comic book properties vary in quality as widely as the comics themselves. Many of them are fairly simple stories, not really trying to reinvent the wheel, and just trying to capture the feel of the comics; these can be well written, but aren't doing anything special. What I feel these writers miss is the simple fact that the novel is a different format, and thus plays by different rules. Without the visual component, a novel has to be more introspective, allowing the reader more inside the character. Also, with the novels taking place outside continuity, writers have more latitude to make changes and take characters down different paths. There have been some very successful comic book novels; Peter David's Incredible Hulk: What Savage Beast comes to mind, exploring plots I felt he had wanted to work into his comic run but would have changed the Hulk too greatly. Author Tracy Hickman's Wayne of Gotham is another interesting comic book character novel, and one I feel succeeds in the main.

Wayne of Gotham is set in the present, but casts Batman's origins firmly in a specific time, with the death of his parents happening in 1971, thus establishing this Batman as the aging crusader. This isn't the always young crusader, but an aging man who is hanging onto his quest. The novel was released early last year, shortly before The Dark Knight Rises, and I wonder how much that movie influenced the decision to publish a novel that is another last Bruce Wayne story, although it ends in a very different manner than the film. There are distinct similarities between the two: Bruce is a recluse in both pieces, having hidden from Gotham. But in Hickman's world, this is to dedicate more time to his crusade as Batman, versus Nolan's where he seems to have given up.

Hickman's Bruce Wayne is a man who has decided that the world doesn't need Bruce Wayne. He spends all his time refining his crime fighting equipment and hasn't been seen outside the Manor in years. His relationship with Alfred has grown strained as well, with Bruce feeling like the loyal retainer is more judgemental than he has right to be, and as the novel progresses this strain grows as Bruce feels that Alfred is hiding something from him. I feel like Batman's one, inviolate relationship is the one he has with Alfred, that he is Bruce's father figure, and that their trust is something that cannot break. But I realize this isn't the DC Universe, and that showing the splintering is a good indicator of how far Bruce has gone, and how much he has changed.

The highlight of the novel for me was the fact that it is as much the story of Thomas Wayne as it is of his son. The novel flashes between the present, as Batman investigates strange crimes that seem connected to his father's past, and to 1958, when a young Thomas Wayne returns to Gotham from medical school and his own crusades, as well as his relationship with Martha Kane, the girl who lives in the next mansion over. The Waynes have rarely been given much of a personality; they serve instead as an ideal in the mind of their son. The relationship between fathers and their children, and how we look at the generation before us, is one of the central themes of the novel: Bruce learning about the humanity of his father; Thomas's tenuous relationship with his father, Patrick; Lew Moxon, the young man who wants out of "the family business" and his father, Gotham mobster Julius Moxon, Alfred and his father Jarvis, and one final relationship that only becomes clear at the end of the novel.

The actual case Batman in investigating is a very interesting mystery. Hickman understands that Batman is the world's greatest detective, and provides a trail of clues and false leads for Batman to follow throughout. Respected Gotham citizens are suddenly committing crimes; the supercriminals of Gotham are acting out of character; and someone seems to know that Bruce Wayne is Batman. A mysterious woman appears on the grounds of Wayne Manor, seeming to know something about Thomas Wayne's past. It's a dizzying maze of a case that happily plays out in a logical manner.

Hickman's knowledge of the Batman universe is vast. He's either a fan on par with someone like, well, me, or did a tremendous amount of research. He uses villains as obscure as Spellbinder and Ventriloquist right next to classic foes like The Joker and Scarecrow. When he uses the Moxon's, it includes appearances by Mallory Moxon, the daughter of silver age villain Lew, who was created by Ed Brubaker in the early 00s. There are even references to Thomas Wayne's two sons, which references the apocryphal Boomerang Killer story that evolved into the twist at the end of Scott Snyder's Court of Owls storyline. The universe is an interesting combination of both comic and movie, as it does feature a Joker far more resembling Heath Ledger's take on the character, with makeup and long hair, as well as his personality as the avatar of chaos. While these are different takes on the universe, Hickman merges them into a coherent world of his own craft.

Part of the novel that gave me pause was the idea that there was more to the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne than simply a mugging gone wrong. This is an idea that has worked its way into many different incarnations of the Batman mythos, and the use of Lew Moxon, the man who hired Joe Chill to kill Thomas Wayne in pre-Crisis DC continuity immediately tosses up red flags that we're in for this sort of revision. In the "real" DC Comics universe, I prefer the killings to be just random murders; it gives Batman's quest that quixotic drive, that crime itself is what he is fighting, not one man. But here, it works and makes sense with the history that Hickman has built.

The book isn't without its flaws. Part of Hickman's interpretation of Batman is as the "gadget god" as he was described under Grant Morrison. While Batman has his gadgets, and they're an integral part of who he is and what he does, this Batman seems to rely on them as a crutch at times. The long descriptions of how his night vision, reactive armor bat suit, and sonar devices feel a bit superfluous, but that is my biggest complaint, so that's a minor quibble in a good book.

In the end, Wayne of Gotham is about Batman, his father, and his city. It's about what we leave behind, and how we must atone for what we have done in the past. It's a story that has rsonance for anyone who has ever had to learn a harsh truth about a family member you thought you knew. It's smart, well written, and embraces everything Batman.

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