This is a very difficult prose novel to write about. I don't know if ultimately I will decide I liked it or loathed it. I have very mixed feelings about it. I had been looking forward to it ever since I'd seen it announced, and rather than avail myself of the cheaper SFBC edition as I usually do these kinds of things, or even wait until a cheaper paperback edition appeared, I ended up paying virtually full cover price – a whopping $26.99 (I find hardcover prose book prices even harder to swallow, oddly enough, than graphic novel prices in which you objectively get far less story. But I also recognize that there are significantly different economic realities underlying the two genres) less a membership discount at Books-a-Million. But then I found it a very hard book to get through. In fact, I put it aside a couple of times for rather lengthy periods and ended up being almost six weeks from start to finish. And then have let it sit for some time before deciding I have to write something and get it off my back. So here it is – most likely even more than typically rambling.
The overall plot is a parallel story of Bruce Wayne in the present discovering horrible things about his own, his parents', and Gotham City's past with Thomas Wayne in the past participating in a rather dubious secret program of medical experimentation, “Project Elysium,” with the aim of reforming criminals into model citizens via behavioral engineering by means of viral-borne DNA modification that goes grotesquely wrong and ultimately results in his own and his wife's deaths and the creation of the Batman. Of course, those long-buried events are now having repercussions in the present leading Batman to confront the reality of a father who was far less than the paragon he always believed him to be. And along the way Martha Wayne doesn't come off much better. I'm conflicted in how to feel about this. To a real degree it cheapens the ideal for which Batman has always fought, but the reality is that he only saw his parents through the eyes of a child who witnessed the center of his life ripped away from him in a moment of violence and to believe that his memories of perfection were but an idealization is reasonable. But for almost three hundred pages this book rubs the reader's nose in it, from a very off-putting opening with a repulsive depiction of the abuse that young Thomas suffered at the hands of his own father to the revelation that in a real sense Thomas Wayne contracted his own murder!
And it's carried off very inconsistently. On the “cool” side, Hickman very effectively depicts Batman's technology, his ever-evolving equipment and constant upgrades, and at first glance seems to use a lot of canon in this tale of an aging Batman who is now feeling the effects of a lifetime of crime-fighting. At first glance it seems very much a post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint continuity, perhaps set in the future. The “present” is not specified, although 9/11 is more than a decade in the past (p. 31). Seemingly hard dates are established for the past sequences, but there is considerable inconsistency – Thomas Wayne is said to have been born on 26 November 1935 (p. 293), but in the second paragraph of the prologue, set on 21 September 1953, reference is made to “his fifteen years of life” (p. 1); the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne are dated at 15 August 1971 (pp. 292-293) and 26 June 1974 (pp. 43-44). (Along the same lines of sloppy editing, I noticed several instances of bad word usage, although I only jotted a reference to one – p. 214, “site” for “sight.”) Regardless, Bruce's own birth is placed in 1963, which would necessarily put him in the range of fiftyish years of age at the unspecified “present” date.
There is considerable use of the rich Batman mythology with regard to the Rogues Gallery – a wide range of villains appear or are referred to in the course of this story – but there is nary a mention of any of Batman's many allies and proteges, under either their “civilian” or heroic identities. The closest is Bruce's spur-of-the-moment use of the name “Gerald Grayson” when he needs a quick alias. He is truly alone here. The geography of Gotham City is, as far as I can tell, pretty consistent with the map established around the time of No Man's Land – although I don't think that cataclysmic story was ever referenced – with frequent mention of the various streets, avenues, parks, and so forth named after the many creators of the Batman mythos over the past seventy years such as has been common, I think, in the past decade's comic stories (e.g., Moldoff Avenue, Robinson Park, Wayne Manor is in Burnley just across the river to the north of the island on which is built Gotham City, and so forth). So what you have here is a mixture of what seems very familiar but distorted so that it's almost unrecognizable as if seen through in a funhouse mirror, especially the relationship between Bruce and Alfred as a result of the latter's vigorous efforts to maintain a cover-up that was begun by his father to keep knowledge of Thomas Wayne's actions secret from the world and most importantly from his son. And we are asked to believe that it was so effective that Batman knew nothing of a period of intense chaos in Gotham City that resulted from those same actions – a reign of terror on the underworld carried out by a group of mutant super-humans called “The Apocalypse” – the misbegotten progeny of Project Elysium.
Sitting down and trying to write something about this book has not helped me to come to my own consensus, either, and I'm ready to give up on it. The reviewers on Amazon.com seem to be as a whole conflicted as well. Probably the best review I've found of it is by one Eric Garneau at The Mind Hut and I might as well refer you there and be done with it. It's not a book I can recommend.
Thanks for reading.