Wayne of Gotham: a Batman novel by Tracy Hickman
Although I’m an avid comic book fan who is usually willing to give even the worst movie adaptations a shot, I typically avoid superhero novels like the plague. And really, I couldn’t even tell you why. I have an old paperback around here somewhere that’s an anthology of short stories about The Joker, but I’ve never even read it. The simple ownership of that book is the closest I’ve ever come to engaging my beloved comic characters in a picture-free format. Wait, I take that back. I also had a “choose your own adventure” style Batman book when I was a kid, and I most certainly did read that. Probably cheating my way through like I always did. But that, I assure you, is the last time I made the leap. Until, that is, a few weeks ago, on a trip to my favorite local library. There in the new releases section sat an attractive looking hardcover entitled Wayne of Gotham, a Batman novel written by Tracy Hickman.
So why did I pick it up? Well, like most nerds of a certain age, I have an established relationship with the work of Tracy Hickman. In 1984, along with co-author Margaret Weis, Hickman launched a little series entitled Dragonlance. For those of you not in the know, Dragonlance was kind of a big deal for a while. It pretty much filled that gigantic gap between J.R.R. Tolkein inventing modern fantasy and J.K. Rowling making it cool for everyone to read. Inspired heavily by tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons, the Dragonlance brand eventually grew to include almost 200 novels. But, as any self-respecting geek knew, the “best” ones were the few written by Weis and Hickman. I put the word “best” in quotations because, in hindsight, none of them were all that great. Several months back I actually unpacked my stash of a dozen or so Dragonlance books and thought it might be fun to read through them again. A few chapters later they were all back in a box and bound for Half Price Books. I used to love them though, there’s no denying that. That paragraph was a fairly roundabout method of saying that I picked up Hickman’s foray into Gotham City because of nostalgia. Always blame nostalgia.
Right from the outset, I knew I was in for a long read. The book transitions between two timelines, the late 1950’s and “Present Day”. The protagonist of the flashback sequences is none other than Thomas Wayne: doctor, philanthropist, and Bruce Wayne’s ill-fated father. Batman, of course, takes center stage in the present. Or so you would think! No, the real hero of this book is the Batmobile, which has evolved into a literal deus ex machina on wheels (or on rails, sometimes!). The Batmobile, it seems, now benefits from a complete Wayne Enterprises retrofit of the entire Gotham City underground: sewers, power conduits, subway tunnels, you name it. The entire Gotham infrastructure has been secretly altered to allow Batman’s car to traverse any surface above or below ground, to the point where Val Kilmer driving the car up a wall in Batman Forever now looks entirely reasonable. Hickman spends page after page elaborating on how Batman is finally unhindered by traffic: an issue which I honestly, as a lifelong Batman fan, never really worried about. Hickman, however, is so concerned about bridge-related congestion that he has conceived of a device underneath the car which latches onto the power conduits running along the underside. If that weren’t enough, the exterior of the vehicle can also expand, contract, and alter its appearance to blend with its surroundings.
If you can get past all that and be comfortable with Batman playing second fiddle to his wheels, prepare to be further devastated. He’s still nothing at all without his Batsuit, now a complex and impossible mess of gadgets, circuitry, and an exomuscular support structure. Hickman could have easily substituted the term “+10 Magic Armor” for every description of the suit, and saved himself about a dozen pages of text in the process. Inside the +10 Magic Armor Bruce Wayne has deteriorated into an aging and shattered mess, which he himself underlines via internal monologue every time he does something remotely stressful. Picking up an unconscious girl? “Couldn’t do this without the Batsuit”. Punching out some goon? “That was…that was a long time ago”. I’m okay with Batman being a little busted up, I really am. I honestly picture him as someone who needs to stay moving, like a shark. The second he takes a break, I’m sure muscles cramp, joints lock up, etc. Really though, if you’re intent on writing a Batman story where he’s a useless heap outside the suit, and constantly reminds himself of this notion, not writing the book is a pretty valid option.
The Thomas Wayne sections are a little more palatable, at least up until the point where he uses his vast wealth and medical knowledge to become a mad scientist enabler who’s cool with human experimentation. Or the part where it turns out most of his humanitarian efforts later in life were just his way of atoning for all the crimes against nature he committed in his quest to impress the irresponsible drunken wreck that was Batman’s future mom, who apparently was the 1950’s Gotham City version of Lindsay Lohan. Okay, so it’s all pretty bad. Really the only apt comparison is the Star Wars Prequels, where we learned that everything we thought we knew about most of the characters was a complete sham, and where there’s a blood test for potential Jedi. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, the book conveniently explains why Gotham City has super-criminals. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s because of science.
Hickman does drag out a few established characters from the Batman mythos, but before you can even be excited about seeing a familiar name on the page he will manage to ruin it. Almost everyone in the “Present Day” Gotham has fallen victim to varying degrees of mind control (seriously), the endgame of which is to allow the author to name-drop without having to actually know anything about the characters. Commissioner Gordon, The Joker, Harley Quinn, Scarface, etc all drift in and out of the story without managing to impact it in any meaningful way. Pretty much the only character who is in full control of his faculties is Alfred, and he spends most of the book keeping secrets and driving wedges between himself and Bruce for no reason other than to make a single moment work much later in the story.
So that’s it. Sort of the first, and probably the last, superhero novel I will ever read. If you’re still thinking about trying it out for yourself, and nothing I’ve said so far has changed your mind, let me try one last time. Here is an excerpt in which Batman attempts to look up some information via the voice-controlled computer in his ridiculous magic car.
Batman spoke out loud. “Kronos: new search. Circa 1958, Gotham, Apocalypse.”
The display opened to his right in midair. Much to his dismay, the first item coming up was from Wikipedia. He touched with with his gloved finger, and the page opened.
I won’t even go into the display needing to be in midair vs. a screen when in a confined space anyway, but what really kills me is that Batman is dismayed by Wikipedia, but can’t even be bothered to glance at, say, the second result. It’s also worth noting that what seems to be a thinly veiled jab at Wikipedia is followed up by a faux Wikipedia entry that is actually entirely accurate and gives Batman all the information he needs to carry on with his investigation. So now who’s an unreliable source, Hickman?