While reading Tracy Hickman's new Batman novel Wayne of Gotham, one question is likely to run through your mind again and again: "What?" Perhaps we can narrow that down and ask a more interesting version: "Who is Wayne of Gotham for?"
Before we get to that, let's explain the plot. Wayne of Gotham is set in the present day, but it takes place at least a decade after any of the Batman stories we're all familiar with. For the last ten years, Bruce Wayne has become a hermit holed up his mansion; he's convinced the press that he's some kind of crazy person and has let Alfred take over his business operations. Why? To better fight his war on crime. Alas, Bruce is getting old, and fighting bad guys doesn't come as easily as it used to. He can't trust his body anymore and has had to put more time into developing technology to help his battle. You might see shades of the animated Batman Beyond here, but abandon those notions. Anyway, as the novel opens a mysterious figure from the Wayne family's past has come back to make Bruce pay for the sins of his father. In doing so, she's going to make Bruce realize that his dad wasn't the hero he was assumed to be.
It's a popular Batman trope for writers to mine Bruce Wayne's past for story ideas; lately, Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder have done a great job of it over in the monthly Batman comic books. But while both have suggested a darkness to Thomas Wayne (Bruce's dad), neither has gone quite as far as Hickman. This leads to some relatively uncomfortable and seemingly out-of-character moments. Minor spoiler: we learn that, as a young doctor, Bruce's dad was interested in using drugs to literally rewrite criminals' minds and make them not bad guys any more. And no point until after we see the negative side effects does anyone stop to think "hey, maybe this isn't ethical." For a celebrated graduate of Harvard's medical school, this seems like a giant oversite—doctors have to learn about ethics, right? That's problem number one.
Problem number two is a scene, albeit a tiny one, where Thomas brings his would-be date Martha home after a wild night on the town. Martha has friend-zoned him in favor of a smoother guy, but Thomas is her go-to designated driver. When Thomas takes a passed-out Martha back to her place, we get about a page of narration in which Thomas wrestles with whether or not to undress this girl and feel her up while she's zoned out on her bed. Look, no cows are sacred, and comic book mythologies are up for rewriting. This is understood. But to take Bruce Wayne's dad from saint to almost-sexual assaulter in your first work on Batman seems far too bold.
As much as he doesn't quite seem to grasp Thomas, Hickman also has a tough time with Bruce. This story hinges on the notion that Thomas' misdeeds created four super-powered beings who roamed Gotham killing other criminals in the 1960s. Everyone knew about them; they were even written up in the paper and shown on TV. But Bruce has never heard of them 'til this book. Um, what? Not every writer may like the idea that Bruce knows everything about Gotham (this really has been the crux of Snyder's work with the character), but you think he'd know about all the supervillains who ever publicly operated in his city, right? The fact that he's ignorant of things that were mass media darlings really stretches the boundaries of what we've come to expect in a Batman story.
And then there's the ending, in which Hickman goes totally off the rails. We won't say what happens here because it's a major spoiler, but in his last two chapters, Hickman essentially closes the Batman toybox. He bookends the universe. This story could not continue, and if it were an in-continuity Batman story, it would be the last one. At a time when we're anticipating a major motion picture starring the character, and when his monthly comics are critically and commercially doing better than they have in years, it doesn’t really seem like a good idea to throw out another version of the Batman story that exists in a foreign medium and offers no possibilities to expand the character, does it?
There are a few nice things to be said about Hickman's writing. The story alternates between the present and the past, and it does so in a way that we see events unfold for Thomas and Bruce in a parallel fashion; one timeline colors the other. It's a common device, but Hickman uses it well. Also, he's very good at creating tension in his scenes; even though we're used to seeing Batman, not just reading about him, the action here is propulsive and exciting. In another book, it could've been great.
But this isn't another book, and so we must return to our original question: who is Wayne of Gotham for? The answer seems to be "not really anybody." Unless you've only seen the first half of Batman Begins and have no idea where else to read about this character, nothing in this book will really make sense. It's like a version of Batman that exists in a world just a bit ajar from any we've ever seen him in. It's not a world that would be very fun to visit again. D