A strange conspiracy is overtaking Gotham, where criminals seem to be under someone else's thrall and vigilantism from ordinary citizens is on the rise. The murky trail seems like it's leading back all the way to Thomas Wayne, the saintly patriarch whose death was the catalyst for Bruce becoming Batman. And as Batman seeks to discover the clues behind this, he just might discover some dark secrets in his family past.
It's a really intriguing idea, and written by one of the authors of The Death Gate Cycle
, an old fantasy favorite of mine, so I was excited to see how it would play out.
This was my reaction:
To start, there is no real basis in any of the Batman canons. I don't mind this, because Batman is a character given to many interpretations. People entranced by Ryan Sook's gorgeous cover and expecting something set in the comic's vast universe might want keep themselves from disappointment. There are a few winks and nods to the comic fans when he brings in some of Batman's varied menagerie of villains, but they are ultimately just a bone thrown to comic readers as they don't affect the plot at all. The one saving grace would be the Joker appearance, which might have been the closest thing to a fun scene in this dreary mess. It was enough to earn a star on its own.
As for the rest of it, it was very disappointing. I went into it thinking that this would be a completely different world since this is the one where Thomas Wayne might have had some underhanded dealings to bring all this calamity down on Bruce's head. However
, there are ways you can have Batman be too out of character to enjoy a story. And Hickman's Batman has some glaring missteps.1. There is no consuming drive to protect the innocent.
Sure, we see Batman in a few fights, but when the city is going to ruin he's barely concerned about Jim Gordon being brainwashed into believing Batman killed Barbara Gordon (who is still paralyzed in this version but no word of Batgirl or Oracle). The fact that Gordon, still brainwashed and uncured, is allowed on duty is kind of baffling from a logistics standpoint, but their relationship being written as two rivals sniping at each other is worse. There's also the scene in the tunnels where Joker has taken control of all the trains and Batman's reaction to it is "oh he couldn't find one loaded with people." He doesn't worry for one second about major collateral damage, even when he almost crashes into one train and sees the engineer panicking. The good thing about writing for an established character is sometimes you don't have to explain the motivations, but they should still be felt, and this Batman's guardianship of Gotham seems more chore than raison d'être
. 2. Batman is a dick.
But wait, you say, he's often a dick in other stories! To which I reply, yes he is. But his unerring dickishness comes from control freak behavior and Not Putting Up With Your Shit And Sometimes Fun. It is a dickishness that, at its heart, is about protecting people and being a broken soul who cannot ever stray from his guardianship, even at the cost of his own happiness. This Batman is a whiny dick. He whines to Alfred about not wanting to be called Master Bruce, he enjoys playing pranks on paparazzi by dressing up with a fake beard and shades and letting Alfred cart him in a wheelchair on the grounds, he talks about feeding his hatred and rage going to the Dark Side. He says lines like this: "No, Alfred! Master Bruce does not
want his cookies or his milk! Master Bruce does not want to be coddled or put to bed!"3. Did I mention his relationship with Alfred in this one is terrible?
Alfred, the steady, stalwart and loyal butler who is Bruce's surrogate father? Yeah, they're not close anymore. Apparently it's because Bruce put him as his press secretary while he went full on recluse, which doesn't make sense and still doesn't justify the fact that both of them are completely stupid about lying to each other. The part where Alfred knew all about the conspiracy behind Thomas Wayne's misdeeds and hid it from Bruce for all of his life could be managed, but is terribly executed here. This is the major unforgivable point for Wayne of Gotham
, because even Christopher Nolan and Frank Miller knew how important Alfred was to Batman, and Hickman doesn't even bother to lay the groundwork to fraying loyalties of two friends. They don't talk, their conversations even at the start were mostly passive aggressive sniping, so when Bruce fires Alfred after years of service, it seems like two petulant children instead of a grave and deep seated betrayal.
So, let's say you ignore this divergence from Batman mythos and focus it as a completely new story. Does it hold up? Well...partially. As I said before, the groundwork is interesting, even if there are many set ups that are ignored or simply unresolved at the end of the story. Thomas Wayne's parts flowed seamlessly while Bruce was investigating which was both a benefit and a drawback. Benefit, because we see how all the pieces fit in a very straightforward fashion that keeps pace and guides the reader between the past and present so they uncover the mystery as Batman does. Drawback, because it makes Batman look very stupid at times, such as not knowing about a rash of vigilante murders in Gotham during the late 50's called the Apocalypse, being taunted by Gordon about it, and then first finding out about it through Wikipedia
The World's Greatest Detective, ladies and gents.
Character-wise, the cast set in the 50's would be where Hickman had the most freedom, but they come off as simplistic too. Thomas should have been compelling in his history as a man trying to make himself into something different while finding a way out from his father's shadow. Unfortunately, he mostly reveals himself to be a passive character who has most of his decisions thrust upon him, with Nice Guy tendencies towards Martha (and their relationship is never touched on except to say the start of it was a sham). When things go awry, he gets in over his head and has to let Jarvis, Alfred's father, take care of his messes and that conflict is resolved off page. Jarvis himself is given almost nothing to work with. The closest thing to a truly sympathetic character might have been Lew Moxton, whose character arc was a mob heir trying to go straight and then falling into the family business when things go wrong. I would have wanted to read about his story moreso than Thomas Wayne's.
The ending is likewise aggravating, because it subverts the Batman mythos in a very unsatisfying way and often tries too hard to parallel Thomas's mistakes with Bruce's attempts at atonement; however, it doesn't make sense in doing so. The big confusion being that Thomas was responsible for contracting his own killing by Joe Chill because he might have carried the Richter virus. If he was the one responsible testing for the virus, why on earth would he not pay attention to its appearance in his family? There is a lot of tension built with little regard for how it works. The fact that the mastermind behind everything can do things like sneak up on Bruce unawares in his own home, knock him over the head and dress him in his father's tuxedo to try and kill him in the alley where his parents died is poetic, but completely unaddressed by how it could have conceivably happened. Very publicized events in the 50's flashbacks are completely new for Batman, even though we know he's obsessed with his parents.
At the end of it you feel like someone was trying to craft a great work of symbolism and dramatic weight, where the sins of the father revisit the son. However, they do this at the expense of the son's personality, his relationships with trusted friends, and his competence for researching the very history that is plaguing him. For some people that would make it a worthy novel to read, to see the parallels and foreshadowing play out, but for me I have to care about the characters to be invested, and Wayne of Gotham
's are only shared characteristic is by their name.