Devin Grayson, Inheritance (Warner Books, 2006)

One interesting point about Devin Grayson's contribution to the DC Universe collection of novels is in the Foreword at the beginning of her book. In it, she mentions that one of the countries mentioned in the novel, Qurac, is not, despite being a recently-bombed Middle Eastern country, based in any way on Iraq or any of the political problems derived thereof. The funny part of this Foreword isn't only the fact that Qurac is already a fictional nation in the DC Universe and thus blameless for any comparisons people might make between it and Iraq, but that the storyline involving the Quraci characters is really only a flimsy narrative thread to hold together a novel that is essentially a character study.

That narrative, such as it is, concerns Hatim, the president of Qurac, and his troubled teenage son Dabir, who are visiting Gotham in order to seal some political ties with the United States. DC mainstays Batman, Aquaman, and Green Arrow jump into action when super-powered assassin Deathstroke attempts to murder Dabir and misses. Of course, while the three spearhead the investigation into who was hired to assassinate the teen, the book's focus isn't really on them either. The requisite action scenes between the superheroes and a horde of disposable cronies, henchmen, and thugs are just the glue that holds the subplots of the sidekicks together.

Yes, that's right, the sidekicks -- the former wards of Batman, Aquaman, and Green Arrow. No longer going under the names of Robin, Aqualad, and Speedy, they are fully-fledged heroes with monikers of their own: Nightwing, Tempest, and Arsenal. Along with their own powers and abilities, their time spent under varying degrees of super-supervision has saddled them with considerable emotional baggage. Description of such baggage is what fuels the novel, and part of what makes Inheritance a stylistic step-up from Alan Grant's timid Last Sons book.

The structure of the novel is simply this -- while the main heroes and their former sidekicks perform their various functions in discovering the truth behind the assassination attempt, these scenes are interspersed with several flashbacks concerning the sidekicks‚ emotional abuse at the oblivious, careless, or downright negligent hands of their mentors.

Arsenal's tale is told first, and is the most interesting. Unlike Last Sons, in which Alan Grant's refusal to paint any sorts of flaws into Superman made him a saintly cardboard non-entity, Green Arrow's selfish treatment of Speedy is not explained away. Devin Grayson makes it clear early on that the only reason Green Arrow wanted a ward was because Batman had one, and like a thoughtless kid who begs for a puppy for Christmas, once he gets what he wants he promptly fails to take care of it. Green Arrow's laissez-faire strategy eventually pushes Arsenal away from heroics and into heroin addiction, and then later into a romantic relationship with an international terrorist (who, coincidentally, was the one who bombed Dabir's country). Nightwing and Tempest also get their due, one as a boy desperate for his hero's need and approval, the other for his mentor's faith and trust, and how both came away feeling like they were never given enough.

Such explorations of the dirty capes of popular superheroes makes for compelling reading, except for the fact that Devin Grayson relies on a melodramatic writing style that would have worked more in a comic book then in a more subdued novel. Nightwing's eyes are always a "blazing," "smouldering," or "unusually bright" blue, for instance. It seems that to make up for humanizing the iconic characters‚ psychological traits, Grayson lays it on very thick when it comes to their physical descriptions and emotional reactions.

Playing with a consistent theme throughout the novel -- that of a mentor's failure regarding his ward -- Grayson's Inheritance marks an interesting contrast to Last Sons. The action scenes are throw-away, most of the effort being put into the heroes‚ flippant dialogue. The plot, such as it is, is merely a way to move the narrative forward while the focus is on flashbacks and the disappointments of the past.

Needless to say, while Inheritance is bogged down by a juvenile writing style, the story is a much-needed departure from the worshipful adaptations presented by other novels. Not willing to simply churn out another high-flyin' adventure for a few of DC's immortal characters, Grayson makes an admirable attempt to wiggle under the spandex and explore the complicated rhythms of the heart of a sidekick.

[Elizabeth Vail]