Wayne of Gotham (Tracy Hickman)
A standalone novel intended to tell an alternate history of Batman's iconic city and the family who runs it, Wayne of Gotham features a fresh take on Bruce's parents, Thomas and Martha, and his motivations as a crimefighter. Although this novel tends to play it safe in many crucial areas like atmosphere and pacing, the chances taken on adding to the Wayne's robust history and altering the dynamic between two of the franchise's most important characters makes this book a thoroughly engaging read, even if some of the changes don't pan out. The two stories told here succeed in totally different ways, and although not every Batman fan will enjoy this book, it certainly has an appeal beyond the usual base.
The main story of this book is Batman tracking down clues to find the culprit behind a new threat to Gotham, manifesting itself as mind control and delusions among many of its citizens, causing them to act violently towards those with supposed negative qualities and sometimes behaving as if they were a different person in a different time. Batman gets the usual clues (calling cards, letters, mysterious visitors) to help get the ball rolling, and as the pieces begin to come together he finds himself in increasingly dangerous situations. There are many of the usual sequences where he battles goons in his batsuit, and faces environment hazards, but there are also scenes where he goes outside of the suit to conduct his investigations. This leads to a great moment where he is forced to improvise and disguise himself to survive in the Joker's territory. Overall Batman's side of the story is a grim and gritty tale that we've seen many times before, told well enough and with a few extra frills to make it an entertaining experience, but not a unique one for Batman fans. Luckily the other story, that of Thomas Wayne's endeavors set roughly fifty years prior, does give us a much different take on Gotham.
As for Thomas Wayne's side of the story, it is a bit more self contained and even darker than Batman's. The scene that kicks off the book is Thomas in the bat cave (when it was literally just that) being forced to shoot the inhabitants at the demands of his overbearing father. From there, we learn about his unfortunate connections to the seedy side of Gotham and his early and somewhat unruly relationship with his future wife, Martha. This is certainly more negative than most stories featuring the character, and things only heat up when he becomes connected to a former Nazi scientist and current eugenics enthusiast. The two concoct a well meaning but ultimately doomed to fail experiment to try to rid crime and evil from the world, and watching Thomas try to deal with his life slowly falling apart due to this failure makes for incredibly tragic scenes as he is forced to face what he has created. Even though having Thomas as a flawed character does somewhat taint the symbolism in his death (a revelation concerning Joe Chill's motives also helps to mitigate this imagery, in addition to being a totally useless and tacked on plot point) it is worth it just for the compelling character drama that results.
The Batman of this book is more Dark Knight Returns than Year One. In his early fifties, this Bruce Wayne struggles with his increasing age while also trying to grapple with the dire truth about his parents' past. As a result, he seems to be more than a little grumpy. His manner towards Alfred, his only true friend in this book (apparently there isn't any Bat-family in this continuity) is quite obnoxious and totally unlike what we have come to expect between the two. This surprising tension only multiples when Bruce begins to point the finger at Alfred as a potential suspect, leading to a further breakdown in communication between the two. A more suspicious, fragmented dynamic between the two was certainly an interesting spin on the tale, and it isn't like he is wildly out of character, though it certainly takes some getting used to at first. Most importantly, the ending very much redeems much of what comes before and manages to paint this friction as more of a temporary result of stress than as a long decline in the two's friendship. The other defining feature of Batman in this book is his relationship with his father. As he slowly uncovers Thomas' checkered past, Batman is forced to come to terms with the fact that the man he knew was more an idea than an actual human, and that even his heroes can have flaws. It is a very sobering moment for Bruce, even at his comparatively advanced age, and while the idea of a hidden past for the Wayne family is trite and overused, novel format does allow for a more in-depth exploration into the emotions behind such revelations.
While any Batman story tends to rely heavily on having a strong antagonist, usually one of the infamous rogues like Joker, Poison Ivy, or Bane, this book actually manages to do a credible job of introducing a new threat. While the new villain is only truly revealed towards the very end of the book, their handiwork colors this book and is reasonably well thought out. This villain is something of a mix between the Riddler and Talia Al Ghul from The Dark Knight Rises, blending in among Bruce's many acquaintances while teasing him with one more piece to the puzzle of his father's life at a time, though of course they are ultimately neither as consequential nor as interesting as those two. Thomas Wayne goes up against the Apocalypse, a group of righteous warriors dedicated to purging evil from the world. Although they aren't as mentally intimidating, this group is far more violent and physically capable, providing a solid counterpoint to the more intellectual threat presented in Batman's tale. As for those classic villains, a few of them do show up and in relatively important scenes. Joker leads his gang on an exciting chase after Batman finds himself trapped behind enemy lines without his powered suit, and Harley Quinn tries to wreck havoc with Batman in an abandoned building. Scarface also shows up in a few scenes, and there are mentions of other famous rogues too, like Scarecrow and the Riddler. This book does feature a major revelation about the motivations behind many of Gotham's super criminals, but it comes across as not only dubious pseudoscience but also entirely pointless. Ascribing a universal underlying cause to Gotham's criminal elite cheapens their rich back stories and existing motivations, and reducing all of these characters into being something created in part by science instead of through their own twisted personas is a totally unneeded exercise in re-writing history.
There are a few well written elements that manage to transcend the rest of the otherwise dull prose. For one, the author does a great job handling the contrast between 1950s Gotham and modern day Gotham. '50s Gotham reminds me of something like Bioshock, with its medical experimentation gone horribly wrong, ostensibly well meaning characters with dark histories, and seemingly inviting locales tinged with a hint of evil around the edges. Modern Gotham is more of the city we have all come to know and love: totally dark, seemingly hopeless, with only Batman to protect the city from itself. On its own this regard, Modern Gotham is a bit bland, but by contrasting it with its markedly different past, the city takes on a whole different feel. There is also a nice feel for the culture, technology, and jargon of the 1950s that further help these segments to seem like an important part of the book and not just some tacked on gimmick.
On the other hand, there are a lot of pointless details that help to derail some of the more interesting sequences. There are long winded explanatory passages on many of Bruce's gadgets and vehicles, something which the more tech-minded of Batman's fans may appreciate, but for people who like the more grounded take on the character that emphasizes his intelligence and deductive skills over intricate devices, this will be a very disappointing and unwelcome addition to the flow of the writing. Further adding to the choppy feel of many of the passages are the random bits of information that pop up during otherwise brisk sequences. Chase scenes will be totally thrown off rhythm by a few sentences detailing the type of car Batman is being pursued by, or slower scenes will be needlessly elongated by complex details about the surroundings that only serve to confuse the reader. Despite the few criticisms, this is by no means a bad book to read and there are plenty of things to like about it, like dialogue and the stellar climactic action scene.
Wayne of Gotham isn't a book for every Batman fan out there, but it is one that most will be able to appreciate on some level or another. Fans of elseworld tales will certainly want to pick this up, as will people who like the older and more grizzled hermit like figure free of the responsibly of the Bat-family/Batman Incorporated. Even though it makes some unsavory changes to some of the core tenets of Batman lore, this book manages to deliver a compelling enough tale, complete with two sympathetic protagonists and surprisingly solid original antagonists, to be worth consideration.