Batman: Fear Itself (Michael Reaves)
Batman: Fear Itself, one of a trio of novels to spin-off of the Christopher Nolan film trilogy, takes us on a self-contained adventure as the Dark Knight and friends try to put a stop to a new type of fear toxin that has been manifesting itself on the pages of acclaimed horror author Gray Berwald's novels. Fear is one of the more prevalent themes in the Batman universe, but this book seems to have a fairly unique take on it. Does this first impression hold up, or is Fear Itself just another uninspired paint-by-numbers story that fails to make use of its status as a rare Batman prose novel?
The first portion of this book is a bit on the slow side. There is a lot of time spent with character development and adding some depth to the various mysteries that this plot provides, but there isn't a ton of action and it is mostly just Batman and Alfred doing research and talking to people. The characters aren't that great, so we are very lucky that there is a significant amount of intrigue to hold reader interest during such a slow build-up. Fear Itself is actually a reasonably well constructed mystery, doing a great job with misdirection and red herrings that help distract from the emotionally flat nature of the storytelling. Batman is written as being a bit underpowered, because this never feels like the kind of thing that should challenge him so mightily, but from the reader's perspective, there are enough possible solutions and intriguing threads of information to earn some kind of investment in the climax.
Towards the end of the book, things start to heat up. The plot gains some momentum, there is a more defined sense of urgency, and the central villain reveals himself. Here we discard the methodical sleuthing that has defined the book to this point in favor of Batman beating up lots of people and running around town like a madman. This more frantic ending, complete with a climax that takes place in a creepy mansion filled with horror movie props, is a great way to balance the first half of the book and a generally enjoyable conclusion to a decent story. Any time you have a book about villains spraying fear toxin on to the pages of horror novels, it is going to be a bit hard to take seriously, and this book certainly isn't one of Batman's most hard boiled adventures, but taken for what it is, Fear Itself is a fun adventure that could easily pass as an episode from The Animated Series.
Batman and Alfred are the only pre-established heroes to show up in this book, but with all the new characters to develop and a general focus on the plot and the various mysteries in play, this isn't a much of a character study for either man. Bruce is more subdued here, he doesn't do much developing and this is more of an episodic treatment than a character defining one. There is a bit of exploration into his dual lives, with plenty of time being spent in both his Caped Crusader and playboy billionaire personas. Reaves does a very good job of showing the strain these two competing lifestyles place on him, but for the most part Bruce is solely focused on solving the mystery. Alfred on the other hand functions in his usual caretaker role and gets off quite a few snappy one liners concerning Bruce's condition and motivations. He is the dutiful friend and caring partner in this book, and his often comedic rapport with Batman provides a solid counterpoint to the otherwise glum proceedings. Longtime support character Lucius also plays a prominent role in this book, helping Bruce develop new technology and functioning in the exact same role that he played in Nolan's Batman trilogy. This book clearly had that particular characterization in mind, and it manages to pull it off quite spectacularly. Lucius may not have a huge role in this book, but you can definitely imagine Morgan Freeman's character speaking the lines and performing the actions seen in Fear Itself. Gordon also makes an appearance, but it is his standard role as face of the Gotham City Police and he doesn't do anything memorable and makes no impression as a character. Scarecrow plays an important role in the book on the villains side, and he is in fact the only major villain to make an appearance. Fans of the character should be at least content with the way he is handled, although this is far from a defining moment for the master of fear. In fact, the most enduring moment of this book is probably when he begs Grey to teach him more about fear, which really made no sense at all and reeked of trying to empower a character without basis to do so.
There is a rather large cast of original characters here, though for the most part they fail to impress. First up is the character most central to the story, Grey Berwald. Berwald is a bit of a mystery, with relatively shadowy motivations and a disarming skill in conversation. The character doesn't have any staying power, but as a complement to an A-list villain, he does a decent job. Maggie Tollyer Is the only woman with a significant role in this book, but unfortunately she is typecast pretty substantially as a feisty damsel in distress. Like so many of Bruce's brief romantic interests, Tollyer is big on sass and crucial to whatever story she ends up appearing in, but has very little personality or lasting impact on the Dark Knight. She is here to fill a role, and nothing more. Finally, we have Cutter, a henchman to the main villain that gives us a solid look into the underbelly of Gotham. Through him, we learn more about Gotham after the quake (apparently No Man's Land is a part of this particular continuity) and we get a taste of the criminal element through someone who is relatively close to an average thug. His perspective is more memorable than his actual character arc, as he is given a pretty standard redemption treatment and offers very little in the way of personality.
For the most part, Fear Itself is a competently written, well told story. There are the usual descriptions illuminating just how run down and hopeless Gotham is, though these are a bit more effective in the comics where the decay can actually be demonstrated. There's also plenty of entertaining dialogue that loosens up the otherwise serious book. Fans more enamored with the idea of a technologically apt Batman will really like this book, as a large part of it concerns efforts to upgrade Batman's arsenal to contend with the new threats. These passages tend to be a bit heavy on pseudo-technical jargon, but seeing a few more gadgets in action never hurt anybody and their uses are explained well enough. Another quirk are the scenes in which Batman and Alfred surf the Internet for information on Berwald. This may just be a 2013 reader talking, but these parts of the book read like something written in about 1998. The author's method of discussing things such as blogs, Wikipedia, and links seems a bit too formal given the scenario, and it almost seems like he either had to research these things in order to implement them in this novel, or assumed his readers were incredibly challenged with technology. This book came out in 2007, which isn't long ago at all to me, so to see sentences like "The weblog-Maggings, by name-was well designed, with attractive if rather somber colors," was a bit jarring. Here I was thinking that weblog was a word that had fallen out of use in about 2001. Batman in general probably translates better to the visual medium of comic books, but for as something off the beaten path when it comes to defining this iconic character and his environment, Fear Itself does a nice job for the most part.
One interesting area that this book has to contend with are the passages from Grey Berwald's horror novels. With the way that every single character in this book reacts to Berwald's writing, from Bruce Wayne's grudging admiration to the Scarecrow's extremely bizarre, laughable worship, it has to come across as actually good or else these characters are going to look like fools. Unfortunately, the author doesn't do a particularly great job of writing these horror scenes. They aren't what you would call bad, but any time you have the Scarecrow bowing at your feet because of your literary prowess, there is an expectation that the passages will actually be evocative of something more than mild disinterest. It was probably a mistake to use actual excerpts in this context when simply summarizing a character's reaction would've been far more mysterious and convincing.
Despite an extremely slow opening act and somewhat weak original characters, Fear Itself manages to provide a decent, albeit far-fetched, mystery with enough red herrings to keep the reader guessing. Throw in an iconic villain, a fantastic climax, and the usual Bat-brooding, and you have a recipe for a good, though not quite great, Batman novel that manages to keep enough cards close to its chest to maintain some mystery to the slow burning plot. Probably something fans of Batman will want to at least look at.