Book Review: Batman: Inferno
Publication Date: October 31, 2006
Publisher: Del Rey
· Alex Irvine
by R.J. Carter
Published: November 26, 2006
There seems to be a resurgence in Batman novels of late, and so far that has been a good thing. This latest offering from Del Rey, penned by Alex Irvine, is set early in Batman's career, somewhere around the eighteen-month mark, although in exactly which line of continuity is a bit iffy. There are references made that could only come from the theatrical version, "Batman Begins", and yet we find Dr. Jonathan Crane is still running things at Arkham Asylum. Jim Gordon is still a captain on the GCPD, and Bruce Wayne relies on Lucius Fox to provide him with the latest in bleeding edge technology for his crusade on crime.
The Caped Crusader finds himself taking on two villains in this novel (although the eagle-eyed reader will doubtlessly spot the easter egg that could only mean that Solomon Grundy prowls the caverns under Gotham.) The first of them is a metahuman arsonist with a grudge against Gotham City firemen. He calls himself Enfer, and models himself after an obscure French poet (automatically qualifying him for a long stay in Arkham, if you ask me.) After his first run-in with the Dark Knight, Batman is left battered, bruised and burned, while Enfer plots the next, larger step in his grand plan:
"Quite. Well, Master Bruce. Let's get you resting, shall we? If you're to hunt down a mad arsonist who fancies himself a poet, you're going to need your strength."
You mean if Batman's going to hunt him down, Bruce thinks. Already he is itching to put the suit back on, become one more shadow in nocturnal Gotham City. Not for the first time, he has the notion that he is the costume, that Batman is more real than Bruce Wayne... that, to make a long story short, the long germination begun when Thomas and Martha Wayne lay dying in Crime Alley is now complete, and Bruce Wayne has been transformed into Batman more completely than his daily show of dissipation and profligacy can really disguise.
Bruce Wayne, for example, would be thinking right now that his legs hurt like a son of a bitch.
"Ouch," Bruce says, just to keep his mind straight. He's begun to realize over the past year that he is going to have to work to keep Batman cordoned off where he belongs: down here in the cave and on the nighttime Gotham City streets. One more exercise of will, he thinks; pain only exists when I want it to, and Batman only exists when I let him.
Enfer, it would seem, is a lonely megalomaniac. He wants a partner in crime to share the glory with him. So when his next set of fires, starting with a glorious explosion of Arkham Asylum, spell out "HAHA" in gigantic letters only visible from the sky, you can well imagine whom he's got in mind.
This adventure declares itself to be Batman's second encounter with the Joker, having been imprisoned in Arkham Asylum after having nearly poisoned the Gotham water supply with his Joker Juice. The Joker isn't sure who has sprung him, and he's not hanging around to find out. Fleeing through the basement, into an underground tunnel, and ultimately into caves under Gotham, the Clown Prince of Crime meanders blindly until -- mirabile dictu! -- he finds himself stepping out into Batman's own sanctum sanctorum, the Batcave! Giddy at his own good luck, he helps himself to a handful of bat-goodies -- including a suit and the one-and-only Batmobile. This will be the start of his greatest joke on Gotham City -- the ruination of Batman's character -- as he runs down helpless pedestrian and even kills a number of cops while disguised as Batman:
Three hours later he's feeling slightly better about his repertoire, and while certain of his favorite gags are given time to cool or mix or otherwise complete their preparation, he decides that it's really time to get serious about giving himself a Bat-name. Somewhere in the corner, under plastic sheeting, is a computer. The Joker fires it up and sets about learning a little something about the order Chiroptera -- which, it turns out, means "hand-wing" -- some of whose members were kind enough to lead him out of his subterranean post-escape travails. As it turns out, there are four families of bats native to North America: vesper, leaf-nosed, free-tailed... and ghost-faced. "Oh, my," he says with great delight. Obviously he's from the ghost-faced family, but wait. The Latin family name for ghost-faced bats is Mormoopidaie? And the genus is Mormoops? He can't even say those words out loud, can't even think them, without...
He's laughing so hard that the only thing holding his guts in is this marvelous Batsuit, or maybe he should call it a Mormoopisuit, and oh God Mormoopisuit hahahahahahahahahaha...
I have a general dislike for stories that are written in the eternal present tense, and I was initially put off it in the early chapters of this book. However, the deeper Irvine takes the reader into the story, the more it works. Chapters are each devoted to a single character's point of view, and the third-person omniscient narrator style changes mood and tone to match each character being spotlighted. The chapters are also set apart by editorials and news stories from various Gotham City publications, giving the reader an insight into the media's perspective on Batman and how that same media feeds the image the casual Gothamite has of the Caped Crusader -- whom, it seems, has turned on Gotham and become a homicidal lunatic like the ones he's so capably taken down in the past.
Overall, despite my initial aforementioned misgivings, Batman: Inferno is probably one of the better Batman original prose stories to have been published within the past twenty years, easily surpassing Batman: The Stone King and Batman: The Ultimate Evil. In fact, you'd probably have to go back to some of the novels written during the Michael Keaton Batman era, like Craig Shaw Gardner's The Batman Murders or Simon Hawke's Batman: To Stalk a Specter to come anywhere close. I'd definitely recommend it to Batman fans who enjoy an intellectual challenge with their dose of action.