Batman: Nightwalker review

There have been multiple retellings of Batman’s origin over the years.  Some are considered “definitive” or “canonical,” like Year One and Zero Year.

Others may have been attempts to shore up years of continuity that, while entertaining, are remembered more for their endearing weirdness than anything else.  I’m looking at you, Untold Legend of the Batman.

And then there are origins that are adapted to a particular medium, those that are more suited to the story being told rather than striving to be authoritative.  Changes were made for Batman Begins, for instance, that made it work with the plot of that movie.  And say what you want about Gotham, but it certainly stuck to its guns with the adjustments it made.

That’s why books like Marie Lu’s Batman: Nightcrawler can be really interesting reads.  The novel– directed at young adult readers– focused on a time in Bruce Wayne’s life that is often skipped over: his late teens.  As part of the DC Ink imprint, the novel has been adapted as a graphic novel by writer Stuart Moore, artists Chris Wildgoose and Cam Smith, colorist Laura Trinder, and letterer Troy Peteri.  Not having read the source material, I can’t speak to how faithful the adaptation is, but I can speak to how it works as a comic.

And it’s… actually pretty decent.

It’s also kind of strange, and takes quite a few liberties with Bruce’s life.  There are original characters that don’t have analogues in popular canon, and some familiar faces that– while welcome– serve a different role than we’re used to.

The “Nightwalker” subtitle comes from a group of Robin Hood-like criminals who use technology and weaponry to target the rich.  To be frank, the group really isn’t that interesting, at least here in the graphic novel.  They may have been fleshed out more in the book, but here they’re relatively bland, and their arc is pretty predictable as well.  The head of the group is fairly menacing and despicable late in the proceedings, but even still it’s obvious how the whole story is going to play out pretty early on.

Thankfully, even if it’s a slightly different take on Bruce, his characterization is pretty strong, and I liked some of the adjustments that were made to his teenage life.  Frankly, it’s a time period that’s remained relatively untapped over the history of the character, so the field is wide open to tell some stories in this timeframe.  Here, Bruce is eighteen-years-old, nearing the end of his high school career and poised to become the world’s youngest billionaire.  While he is a tad impulsive early on, he’s still a pretty well-adjusted kid.

Who just, you know, happens to be a billionaire.

He’s bright, of course, and has quite a bit of interest in using his wealth and industry to help protect Gotham’s citizens.  He has a small but close-knit circle of friends (including Harvey Dent, who, other than having name recognition and a penchant for flipping a coin, doesn’t leave much of an impression), and has some clear aspirations for what he wants to do after graduating.

Naturally, this is what ends up getting him in a bit of trouble, and why the Nightwalkers eventually set their sights on him.

The overall story is pretty basic: Bruce inherits his fortune, and gets himself involved in a high-speed chase involving the GCPD and several members of the Nightwalkers.  Assigned to community service, Bruce serves at Arkham Asylum, where he meets a young girl who fascinates him.  As expected, she is part of the Nightwalkers, and the two play a dangerous, flirtatious game that leads to Bruce having a target on his back and results in more than one double-cross.

I actually quite liked some of the repartee between Bruce and Madeleine, the young inmate.  It’s a fairly predictable relationship, sure, and there are certain elements that, when introduced, are obviously plants of the “Chekhov’s gun” variety.  But it’s the way Bruce interacts with someone who isn’t necessarily smarter than him, but who is decidedly more ruthless and cunning, that gives the book some of its best scenes.  I particularly liked a scene late in the story where Bruce finally figures out how Madeleine was communicating with Nightwalkers on the outside, in one of the story’s more subtle bits of characterization.

The whole story is gorgeously illustrated, too, with expressive work from Chris Wildgoose, Cam Smith, and Laura Trinder.  Given that this is story about Bruce Wayne, not Batman, it’s not surprising that there isn’t a lot of action.  Not to say there isn’t any at all, though, as the story proper effectively begins with a dynamic chase through the streets of Gotham.  The final act has quite a few set-pieces as well, and is a pretty good study in tension to boot.  Since the book is largely dialogue-driven, it could have easily been slow going and a chore to get through, but Wildgoose’s visual storytelling honestly made the pages fly by.  In all it took me just about two hours to read through the whole book, and that was with a few stops to take care of other matters before returning to the story.  The limited color palette that’s become something of a trademark with these books complements Wildgoose’s clean, expressive pencils and keeps the pace moving at a fast clip.

Despite the fact that I enjoyed the story well enough, it still doesn’t totally feel like a Batman book.  Bruce is characterized well, and there are other familiar names and faces throughout, but it still feels a bit like Lu had an idea for a young adult novel and was given clearance to utilize Batman to help sell it.  I don’t mean that in a cynical way either, or at least I don’t intend to.  Like I said, I haven’t read the novel, so character motivations and various plot points may have been fleshed out in more detail in the prose.  Still, the elements Bruce proposes to help protect Gotham are a little on the nose, and having him “suit up” at the end is kind of corny.  His outfit doesn’t even look like it could be a prototype of the eventual Batsuit, so it’s more a curiosity than anything.  I mean, had it incorporated “ears” on the helmet or some sort of bat facsimile on the chest piece would have been just as corny, but at least it would have been Batman.

Even so, there isn’t anything about this book that I genuinely disliked, as even the questionable elements worked well enough in context.  I didn’t outright love many of the elements of the story, but it was still an interesting, entertaining read.

Closing out the book is a sneak preview of Wonder Woman: Warbringer, adapted from Leigh Bardugo’s novel of the same name.  Illustrated by Kit Seaton, it has the same limited color palette as the Nightwalker story, and it looks positively stunning.  Perhaps the best part of it all, though, is that the adaptation was written by the inimitable Louise Simonson.  You know, creator of Apocalypse and the Power Pack, along with being one of the defining voices of Superman in the Nineties.

It looks to be a retelling of Wonder Woman’s origin, specifically her participation in the Themysciran games.  While the writing is strong and Diana has a great voice, it’s the art that really sells this preview.  Seaton’s figures and backgrounds are great, and the black and white artwork with splashes of pale blues, greens, and purples is simply stunning.  It’s that subdued visual aesthetic that makes a shipwreck in the closing pages all the more striking, with a bright red fire standing out even more against the cooler colors.

Overall: Batman: Nightwalker is an enjoyable take on the Batman mythos, and one of the stronger DC Ink books to date.  The story is fairly boilerplate, but there’s quite a bit of good character work here, and it’s visually stunning from beginning to end.  It stands on its own well enough, and piques my curiosity to the point that I want to check out the novel it’s based on as well.

SCORE: 7/10