Review by Frank Plowright
At one time the characters from DC’s Vertigo line were kept scrupulously separate from their mainstream superheroes, but A Wolf in Gotham should make us thankful that policy has changed.
Batman we all know, but Bigby will be unknown to all but readers of Fables, the series in which the characters from fairy tales live in New York, given rich and plausible real life personalities. He’s the incarnation of the Big Bad Wolf, with both a human form and that of a giant wolf. It’s the latter that attracts Batman’s attention when it seems a large wolf is murdering people in Gotham. Is it just coincidence that Bigby’s also there?
A Wolf in Gotham is written by Fables creator Bill Willingham, who previously also had a spell writing Robin, so the characters ought to be consistent even if some aspects show this is an alternate Gotham, not the mainstream DC universe. Batman, for instance, has Dick Grayson training multiple Robins. Bigby and another character from Fables who’s initially concealed, are in Gotham looking for a powerful book. Willingham also shows a bunch of people somehow connected with books, but looking like ordinary people from all walks of life, not the standard Gotham criminals, and thus the stage is set.
Brian Level is a very good artist who puts a lot of effort into fully detailed panels on gloriously laid out pages, but he also over-renders and exaggerates his characters too much. Exaggeration is almost always essential to superhero art, so that’s no problem, but Level’s scenes of ordinary people are also greatly posed. The 1990s art of Kelley Jones seems an influence on all but Batman, who’s modelled on one of the 1990s artists who drew the character with permanently gritted teeth. Level’s giant wolf is phenomenal, scary through scale alone when compared with ordinary people, but terrifying in feral mode.
It’s a while until the chief villain is named as Bookworm, but he’s seen very early, so that’s no spoiler. Willingham takes the deliberately satirical criminal from the 1960s Batman TV show and bolsters his credentials, keeping the mystery of what Bookworm’s up to nicely, while misdirection has Batman and Bigby at each other’s throats. This isn’t handled as well, with the antipathy artificially prolonged, although that does give Willingham the opportunity to show Batman well equipped to deal with giant wolves. Willingham filches a visual trick from Harry Potter, but it’s a minor moment, so homage rather than lack of originality.
Strangely for Willingham, there are places where the dialogue doesn’t read well, attempts at humour falling flat, and the reveal and ending will make far more sense to Fables readers. It also seems forced, as if a nod was needed, but there’s no great motivation. Notwithstanding that, A Wolf in Gotham works most of the way through as a better than average thriller, and for the most part it’s not necessary to have read Fables (although you should).