Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Wayne of Gotham by Tracy Hickman

Wayne of Gotham
by Tracy Hickman

Can a novelized version of a comic book character be any good? That was my question when I said yes to reviewing Tracy Hickman's Wayne of Gotham. I am not a frequent reader of superhero comics, but I will gladly watch most all of the movies. Especially Batman. Friends, I even paid theater price for Batman and Robin when it came out (though, theater price then was something like $4 for a matinee). Yes, I mocked that movie mercilessly, as you do, but if you put out something having to do with Batman, chances are I will at least perk up my ears.



Turns out that Wayne of Gotham is actually quite good, once I readjusted some of my expectations. I had to remember that certain over-dramatic language is traditional comic book storytelling and, well, Batman's a dramatic dude. As a child, he witnessed his parents being killed, then went round the bend, only with money and a babysitter — er, caretaker, Alfred. Wayne of Gotham deals with his family history and provides new details about that event and of Bruce Wayne's father's past.

Thomas Wayne was a doctor uninterested in the Wayne family business, who grew up with a drunken, violent father, Patrick. Distracting himself, he'd go out with Martha Kane, the wild and rich neighbor girl, and her various seedy friends. Of course, Thomas endlessly pines for her, and she thinks he's so nice, especially for getting her home when she's blackout drunk. These are Bruce's eventual parents.

The story switches back and forth between Thomas in the late '50s and Bruce/Batman during the present day. The proper nouns are very clear — when Bruce puts on the Batsuit, he ceases to be Bruce. Bruce Wayne is in recluse mode, shying away from interviews and public appearances, and occasionally he has Alfred push him around in a wheelchair to give false impressions to the press. The 'why' of this, I don't fully remember, and it is assumed that readers of the book will know that back-story. He continues to be Batman.

It is only when a mysterious guest turns up at Wayne Manor that his "regular" life is shaken. A woman claims to have information behind his parents' murders, and what she does provide leads both Bruce and Batman on an information hunt, where it seems that old villains are the only ones who know what he's looking for. And strangely, Alfred seems to know as well.

Alfred had been with him from the beginning. Every relationship has its strains. He and Alfred had been through it all together for as long as Bruce could remember. Sometimes it was easy and sometimes it was hard. Of late, the warm relationship between the retainer and the master had cooled somewhat and the silences between them had lengthened. Even so, Bruce believed Alfred Pennyworth had been steadfastly honest in his service.

But now Alfred was reacting contrary to Bruce's direct orders because of a woman he obviously knew — one who had somehow managed to slip undetected onto the grounds.

Gadget and tech nerds who have always wondered about how Bruce manages to become Batman will find plenty to love, as Hickman goes into great detail about the Batsuit's capabilities, the in-car navigation and information systems, and just about anything else he uses to do his job. While sometimes I found the endless specs rundown a bit tedious, I did appreciate the description of the Batsuit, as I've always wondered how he moves around so well in that thing.

Batman settled lower into his crouch. The Batsuit was new, and he was pleased at the response. It was essentially a form of power armor, although its ability to deflect damage had yet to be field tested. The exterior of the Batsuit still used a light variation of the Nomex/Kevlar weave, but gratefully much of the weight had been shed by dropping the armor plating. In its place now was a complex set of exomusculature beneath the the exterior weave. It was his "muscle" Batsuit, one that could artificially enhance his nature movements and strength. The bidirectional neurofeedback loop maintained a dynamic stability that was tied at once into both the voluntary and involuntary neural responses from his body. That he could use the arrectores pilorum on his body hair as a neural source for control was all the more convenient. The electroactive polymers were liquid bound ionic EAPs, which kept the voltage low throughout the Batsuit and the heat generation to a minimum. Kevlar was always passive; this Batsuit had an active defense, a blast-ion charge reacting to force trauma. The downside was that the Batsuit could bleed if it did not react quickly enough.

The Batsuit could die on me.

I could die in the Batsuit.

A smile played on his lips at the thought.

What a wonderful symmetry.

Later in this early chapter, there are descriptions of the cape and cowl's abilities as well. So, yes, it's nice to know, but at a certain point, I thought, I am not your audience with all this... detail.

The story is really more about Bruce and Thomas' inner state rather than a typical "fight the baddies" tale, and I liked that. Sure, the villains all do their best to further drive these men crazy, and the Arkham Asylum is the setting for some of that struggle. It seems that the whole point of Batman is to illustrate that there's a very fine line between himself and the people that he's fighting.

I don't know enough about the Canon of Batman to say how well Tracy Hickman incorporates previously established history and storylines, and I'm sure there are references that I didn't notice that a more studious reader of the character would. Still, I have major respect for anyone who takes on such a long-established, mythic character and adds their own contribution to that history. Fans of superhero comics are highly likely to enjoy Wayne of Gotham, but more casual fans will find plenty to appreciate as well. While I wouldn't necessarily say that this motivates me to find more novelized adaptations of comics, I certainly won't be so quick to dismiss them, either. In some ways, the book reminds me how much can be shown by an excellent artist, and how the right stroke of ink can convey certain moments far better than words.

Full Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy from !t Books. I thank them for the gesture and will continue to be fair in my reviews.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

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