The first appearance of Batman was in Detective Comics in the Spring of 1939, making 2019 the character’s 80th anniversary. Batman is a sharp contrast to most “superheroes” in that he possesses no “super” powers. His prowess, whether physical or intellectual, comes from rigorous training and study. He patrols the fictional metropolis of Gotham City, an urban center so rife with criminal proceedings that law enforcement simply cannot stem the tide of illegal activities. While Batman has the tacit endorsement of the local police force, through his unauthorized partnership with Police Commissioner James Gordon, he is, ultimately, a vigilante working outside of the legitimate legal system to combat crime.
Now imagine Batman’s circumstances in a real city like Chicago in the 1980s. Imagine a dark figure is ferreting out criminals and dispensing his own brand of vigilante justice. When discovered, the criminals are regularly found battered and near death or dead. Some Chicago citizens see him as a crime fighting avenger. Others see him as a menace, a renegade taking the law into his own hands and dispensing lethal, or near lethal, retribution acting solely as judge, jury and executioner. He MAY be working with an ambitious police officer, one who is rising through the ranks of the department faster than would normally seem possible. An enterprising journalist begins to document the actions of the vigilante and report on his exploits. He gives him a name: the Kingfisher.
Suddenly, he is gone. The Chicago Police Department claims that he died. The city of Chicago holds a funeral that is attended by thousands. Crime explodes and runs rampant through the streets without the fear of the Kingfisher to impede it.
Thirty years later, a terrorist wearing a mask posts a video anonymously on the web. He claims that the CPD faked the death of the Kingfisher and demands that they release proof that the Kingfisher is still alive. Unless they do that, the hostages that he has taken will die, one by one.
In The Reign of the Kingfisher, debut author T.J. Martinson takes the basic elements of Batman’s mythos and spins from them a markedly more realistic and darker crime thriller. While it is nearly impossible not to see the parallels between the characters in Martinson’s tale and those of the Batman, it is those parallels that make this story so compelling. The stakes raised in the premise are high. Very early in the story, it becomes clear that the terrorist is more than willing to kill his hostages. And the longer it takes to answer the questions regarding the fate of the Kingfisher, the more people will die. This sounds very much like the set-up for a Batman story. Readers who have seen Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight will remember a somewhat similar circumstance with equally dire consequences but a much more idealized resolution. Despite marked efforts by writers and artists in recent years to make comics grimmer and more realistic, it may be that graphic novels, simply by being a partnership of text and graphic representations, may always be at least a step away from the reality that can be conveyed in text. Martinson’s removal of the most overt of the comic trappings ratchets up the tension and makes the story that much more immediate, compelling and believable. There are no clear cut answers to any of the questions posed and nothing is so simply defined as being black or white, right or wrong. Everything and everyone in this story falls somewhere on a spectrum of grey and, by the end of the story, readers may feel the need to adjust where they initially placed the characters on that spectrum. Interestingly, in a book that clearly takes its genesis from comic book literature, there are NO comic book heroes in this story. There are, however, heroes that are far more believable, with real foibles and a tremendous amount to lose, which makes them all the more admirable as the story progresses.
The Reign of the Kingfisher is a tremendous debut novel.