I grew up in the age of the excellent Batman: The Animated Series and the dark, gritty world of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. These interpretations pushed me into the complex comic lore, endless T-shirts, an undying worship of Heath Ledger, and even a surprisingly interesting Batman and Philosophy book I stumbled onto at Barnes & Noble. My love of Bruce/Batsy runs deep. There’s a reason why the movie industry keeps returning to this iconic superhero and creating new franchises and media around him. A great origin story, a repertoire of unique villains, and some seriously fun gadgets and gear are just a few of the reasons I love Bruce Wayne, so you can imagine my utter delight when I found out that Marie Lu would be the next artist to dive into Batman’s world with Batman: Nightwalker.
In this incarnation, Bruce is on the cusp of his eighteenth birthday and has just gotten into his first bit of Batman-esque trouble. After deciding to “assist” the police in their pursuit of a suspected Nightwalker criminal via a typical car chase, Bruce is forced to complete community service hours at Gotham’s favorite fun-time facility, Arkham Asylum. During his time there, Bruce meets the elusive yet alluring Madeleine Wallace, an inmate with a past just as complicated as Bruce’s, and whose intimate knowledge of the Nightwalkers suggests that she may be one of them.
I savored this book, and not just because it is about Batman before he was Batman. Marie Lu evokes the fraught and dangerous conversations between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs each time Bruce and Madeleine interact, and it’s always fun to watch Bruce Wayne deal with the feels. But Lu goes beyond the page and lore with her important commentary on privilege, diversity, and her suggestion that even the broodiest of superheroes needs friends.
Check Your Privilege, Batsy
Stories about the fictional city of Gotham, regardless of medium, have always had undercurrents of rich versus poor running through them. Bruce Wayne’s access to billions of dollars and the most advanced technology in existence is one of the prime reasons behind his success as a vigilante, and his persona as a rich snob helps keep the citizens of Gotham blind to his nightly crime-fighting.
Marie Lu deliberately expands on Bruce’s privilege in life by underscoring another aspect of it: his privilege as a white man. After Bruce gets in trouble with the police, his mentor Lucius Fox reminds him in a sharp, almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line that if he “didn’t look the way [he] did, the police might have shot [him] dead for pulling a stunt like that.” Bruce is immediately awash in guilt and shame, and realizes that “his pale skin may have saved his life.”
Lu didn’t have to include this piece of dialogue, but her decision to do so highlights her intentions as a storyteller. Batman: Nightwalker isn’t set in some alternate universe. It’s set in our universe, where innocent black men are shot and killed for holding objects that would never be mistaken for guns in the hands of white men, and where white teens suffer from affluenza and can’t be held accountable for their actions. Reading this brief but powerful scene reflects a calculated move on Lu’s part: she wants her readers to understand privilege, even if it’s just an acknowledgement of its existence.
I attended a wedding a few weeks ago in Atlanta, and because I am who I am, I got into an in-depth conversation about books with one of the groomsmen at the after party. In our conversation, I mentioned that I was writing a novel, and the groomsman gushed, “That’s amazing! You get to build a whole world.” The awe on his face was obvious, and while I explained to him that my genre of choice wasn’t science fiction or fantasy, I quickly realized that he was absolutely right. All fiction writers, regardless of specific genre, build worlds and fill them with interesting characters.
In the world of Batman: Nightwalker, Lu purposefully populates Gotham with people of color. She describes the skin color of every major character in this novel in a way that doesn’t distract the reader, because she doesn’t want you to assume that everyone is white. She very easily could have relied on the mostly white world of Batman lore that we’ve experienced before, but it’s clear that she cares about depicting a diverse cast of individuals. Sure, characters like Bruce, Alfred, Lucius, and Harvey Dent stay true to what we’ve seen before, but Bruce’s non-canonical best friend Dianne Garcia is Filipina, and two of the women Bruce meets during his community service are brown women of color as well.
I love that Lu does this. It’s 2018, and either you care about diversity in books, or you don’t. Lu does, and the world of Gotham has never seemed more real.
Broody but Not Solitary, because BATMAN DESERVES HAPPINESS, OKAY?
The world of comics, Hollywood, and literature have long lauded broody male characters. You know who I’m talking about. Mr. Darcy, Severus Snape, and a good 75% of the heterosexual male leads in my favorite romance novels fit this bill. These men wallow alone in their intense oceans of pain while not understanding how to articulate their deep feelings, and in our heteronormative culture, we have been conditioned to really dig them because of their broodiness.
Batman is the epitome of broody angst in the comic book world, which is one of the reasons he’s still so popular, even after eighty years of heists and mayhem. So when you combine Bruce’s innately somber outlook on life with the often angsty YA genre, you would expect more of what we’ve seen already: a kid who is just always alone, haunted by his parents’ gruesome deaths, determined to make a difference. Thankfully, Lu continues her agenda of quietly subverting our expectations in this area as well, because Bruce has friends! He has always had Alfred and Lucius in his life, but seeing future-Batman interact with friends his age was a surprising delight. He’s certainly broody as hell, but the fact that he’s not utterly isolated from his peers made my heart happy. Young Bruce Wayne deserves happiness, because he has got a world of hurt headed his way.
Batman: Nightwalker is an indulgent, important read, and it is the Batman story the world needs right now. Marie Lu’s take on one of the world’s most famous superheroes has everything I want as a modern reader: diverse characters, real-world commentary on race and privilege, and a hero I really want to root for. Go get this book, y’all.