By Marie Lu
Random House, 2018
In the great hierarchy of book genres, the media tie-in novel occupies a tier decidedly close to the bottom: higher than coloring books or street maps, but lower than, say, Jesus, Life Coach. All the worse when the corporate property in question in DC Comics’ Batman, a character whose appeal (whether in the comic books of his origin or the movies and TV shows that followed) has always depended in no small measure on the striking imagery of visual media. Seen in the four-color panels of Detective Comics, a man leaping rooftops in a bat suit reaches heights of the sublime. Described in typeset prose, he seems merely ridiculous.
This is half the challenge facing veteran YA novelist Marie Lu in Batman: Nightwalker, the latest in a new series of young adult novels based on the early adventures of DC comics characters. The other half of the challenge is posed by the novel’s chronological setting: telling the story of an 18-year-old Bruce Wayne, still grappling with the trauma of his parents’ murder and just beginning to engage in combat against the forces of crime in Gotham City, Nightwalker is a Batman story without a Batman. Lu’s corporate-mandated task is to give us a Bruce Wayne who walks the line between two world and two genres: insecure and troubled, as befits a bad-boy YA protagonist, but foreshadowing the toughened, experienced pulp hero we know he will someday become.
Lu begins her story in medias res, both in the life of Bruce and in the plot itself, as the novel opens on the young, crime-fighting billionaire in hot pursuit of the titular Nightwalkers, a mysterious terrorist gang targeting the wealthiest and most prominent citizens of Gotham. Bruce’s superhero-ing career is still in its infancy, and when his initial attempt to hunt down the gang goes awry, he finds himself given a brief stint of community service at the notorious Arkham Asylum, home of Gotham’s criminally insane. There, he encounters Madeleine Wallace, a teenage girl accused of murder to whom Bruce finds himself strongly and inexplicably drawn. Lu’s depiction of Madeleine owes as much to the troubled-teen-romance genre as to any hard-boiled detective novels of yore:
Unlike everyone else else in the prison, she was as calm as death, and there was nothing about her that hinted at anything criminal underneath. In this fortress of the violent and broken, she seemed starkly out of place.
And yet. There was something off about her gaze...something that sent a shiver down his spine.
The girl’s slender eyes shifted. She looked at him without moving her head.
Bruce startled, taking a step back from the window. Those eyes. They didn’t just appear dark -- there was something more in those depths, something lurking and guarded, calculating. They were the windows into an intelligent mind, and right now they were analyzing Bruce. He had the strange sensation that she was analyzing everything about him, that she could read his thoughts.
It will come as no surprise to readers with a passing familiarity with femme fatale fiction that even as Bruce begins bonding with Madeleine, and doubting the veracity of the charges against her, the young woman’s background turns out to be much darker and more complex than it initially seemed -- turns out, indeed, to be closely tied to those Nightwalkers and their campaign of class-war criminality. This is all fairly boilerplate as superhero (or detective, or thriller) novels go, though it’s possible the target readership for this novel will be encountering these hoary, if enduring, cliches for the first time.
Even so, Lu’s writing is steady and assured enough to keep the plot moving at an admirably brisk pace, and there are enough easter eggs here to keep veteran Bat-fans periodically amused throughout: loyal butler-cum-father-figure Alfred Pennyworth is here, as is tech-savvy Lucius Fox, and we are introduced to Bruce’s best friend Harvey, who has both a sketchy family background and a ubiquitous coin that just happens to keep on his person at all times. And while the story develops few enough surprises (at 250 pages, it barely has time set up any twists at all), Lu does occasionally allow the novel to veer into more intriguing territory, as when Madeleine reveals a motivation for the Nightwalkers’ crime spree that takes us into some zeitgeisty, and compellingly ambiguous, moral territory:
“WayneTech is going to make millions on that contract to improve Gotham City’s police forces. Isn’t it?” Madeleine's expression was grave now. “The Nightwalkers fight against obscene wealth that controls the hands of government, the shackles that imprison those too weak to defend themselves. They don’t believe anyone should have the right to that much money and power. Death to tyranny...They fight against people like you, regardless of whether or not you’ve been lumped in with the wrong crowd. They hadn’t targeted you before because you had yet to turn eighteen and come into possession of your funds. But now you’re on the radar. You have the wealth they want.” She paused. “You’re next, Bruce.”
Yet the novel never quite escapes the paradox of its origins, as a novel strung halfway between bildungsroman and superhero adventure. As a teen antihero, this version of Bruce is devoid of emotional uncertainty. We know he is young and conflicted because Lu wastes no opportunity to tell us so, yet we are reminded on nearly every page that he’s just one cape and cowl away from faultless adulthood. And as a comic book novel, it never gives readers the one thing that any superhero fan surely came to see: a Bruce Wayne who finally puts aside his torturous doubt to avenge his parents and become a bat.
Madeleine Lu is a skilled storyteller, and there is enough action and romantic tension in Batman: Nightwalker to amuse a young reader for a long evening. But fans of any age are better advised to do what generations before them have always done: stop into their local comic shop, buy an issue of Detective Comics, and leap again into the sublime.
Zach Rabiroff was an editor at Open Letters Monthly. He lives in Brooklyn and consumes books relentlessly.