Saturday, 19 May 2012

Batman: Cataclysm - recommended reading

Recently I've been re-reading some of the older graphic novels and TPBs collecting dust on my book shelf and, given how difficult it can be to find the better books among all the chaff out there, I thought it might be an idea to jot down my thoughts on some of those I'd be happy to recommend.

I'm starting with Batman: Cataclysm not because it's necessarily the best, but simply because it happens to be one of the first I've re-read.  And, of course, because it's good!

What's it all about?

Essentially, this is the scene-setter for the No Man's Land maxi-series. Most of the book tells the story of a massive earthquake (measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale) hitting Gotham City, what each member of the extended Bat-family are doing when it hits, and how they respond to the challenges thrown up in the immediate aftermath.

The final couple of chapters follow a more typical path as Batman attempts to track down the book's principal villain (don't worry - no spoilers!)

Writing and art

This is a book clearly designed by DC's editorial committee.  It does not have a single guiding hand behind it, it isn't the brainchild of a single creator, and virtually every chapter has a different team of writers and artists. This means that the quality of both the writing and the artwork is variable and the styles are varied. Some chapters are startlingly realistic, others are superheroically dramatic and yet others are more simplistic.

Being a fan of the graphic novel as a form of novel, I generally find that the hotchpotch of different styles you get with this kind of approach can seriously detract from the enjoyment of the overall story. But, whilst I can't pretend that I think stylised artwork suits a mainstream superhero story, in Cataclysm it bothers me far less than in many other TPBs. In fact, it could be argued - particularly during the opening chapters - that switching between art styles actually serves to underline the fragmented nature of events as the city is quite literally torn apart.

Tearing down the house

As the story opens Batman is absent, trapped in the flooded tunnels beneath the ruins of a collapsed Wayne Manor. Dick Grayson comes running from his day-job in Bludhaven. With her father missing, Barbara Gordon begins to coordinate rescue efforts from the GCPD. Out on the streets, strange alliances are formed: the cynical Huntress finds herself working alongside the idealistic Spoiler; and vigilante-resenting cop Harvey Bullock is briefly and grudgingly allied with Anarky.  Catwoman and even Penguin are persuaded to help the emergency services rescue survivors.

Wherever you look, familiar characters are being dropped into unfamiliar situations, and this is at the heart of what puts Batman: Cataclysm on my recommended reading list.

Having to pit Batman and his allies not against a super-powered villain but against the ferocity of nature itself, means the writers aren't able to send the heroes into action glibly quipping one-liners or yelling the hackneyed battle cries they've used a hundred times before. Instead, they're forced to think about the dialogue they put into the characters' mouths, to come up with something more realistic, something that actually fits the circumstances.

Similarly, having destroyed so many of the familiar Gothic buildings and rooftops which have so long dominated the Gotham skyline, the writers and artists have had to re-think how the characters move, how they stand, what vehicles can be used, which pieces of equipment will be useful, which will not, and which can be repurposed. This is not just another retread of the well-worn Good Guy beats up Bad Guy story, and even some of the least satisfying pages (well, there are some, inevitably!) show signs of creators exercising imaginative muscles they probably haven't used since they first started writing for the Big Two.

Now with added topicality

When Batman: Cataclysm was first published in 1998, the terrorist atrocity of 9/11 hadn't happened.  When I read it back then, it struck me as a very powerful piece of work, the whole being so much more than the sum of the individual creators' respective parts.  Re-reading it again now, I was struck also by just how topical the events of 9/11 have made it.

It's often been noted that Batman is not super-powered. What is less often remarked upon, is that neither are the other members of the Bat-family. Robin, Nightwing, Catwoman and Huntress may wear costumes but, underneath, they're all human beings. James Gordon, Harvey Bullock and Oracle don't even have any particular athletic prowess. And yet, here they all are - pulling survivors out from under mountains of rubble, rescuing people from burning buildings, desperately trying to help in any way they can as the world they thought they knew is going to Hell around them.  Ordinary people performing acts of extraordinary heroism.

I have to admit I found the "official" attempts by DC and Marvel to align their fictional superheroes alongside the real-world heroes of 9/11 rather awkward. No matter how well-intentioned they were, it almost seemed as if the publishers were somehow trying to usurp the heroism shown by the ordinary men and women who were really there. In contrast, despite being about an entirely fictitious event, Batman: Cataclysm is a powerful tribute to the courage of ordinary people and, as I re-read it this time, I found myself reminded of 9/11 time and time again.

Read it to whet your appetite for the bigger story of No Man's Land, or read it as a stand-alone story in its own right. Either way, this is a superhero story like very few others. For that reason alone, it deserves to be read.

11 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting this! It brings back a lot of my own memories of reading Batman (and generally DC Comics) during this time. It was actually around the time of No Man's Land that I stopped reading them regularly. Not because of the lacking quality of the stories - I remember really liking them, even though I quite disliked some artists, such as Scott McDaniel, if I remember his name correctly (the one who drew the pic next to your "writing and art" paragraph) - but because of some publishing hick-ups between the imports I used to read and the German versions that were just starting, and which were considerably cheaper. So, switching to the German ones made me miss a few - and I never quite got around to (re)reading them all in proper sequence later. Anyway, I still remember some of the comics published during this period fondly. The period I remember MOST fondly, though, was when Graham Nolan and Kelley Jones were working on the Batman monthlies, which was a few years before No Man's Land. It might have more to do with my discovering this wealth of comics back then, rather than the actual quality of the comics (even though I'm still certain that Kelley Jones' portrayal of Batman and especially some of his rogues gallery was absolutely fantastic).

    This whole comment was probably one long digression :D

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  2. Digressions are always welcome! ;-)

    It sounds like you stopped reading DC comics at about the same time as I was getting back into them (although not through the monthlies!)

    Having seen it name-checked so often in reviews of Tim Burton's Batman, I'd started with The Dark Knight Returns, and I was so impressed with that I went on the hunt for other graphic novels. If I remember rightly, No Man's Land was the next thing I tackled (which taught me the difference between "true" graphic novels and TPBs!) and, from that, I went backwards and discovered Cataclysm.

    I agree about Scott McDaniel's artwork. I can imagine there are comic subjects it would be suited to but, as I said in the blog, for the most part individualistic, stylised art just isn't well suited to mainstream superhero comics. For the same reason, I'm not a big fan of Darwyn Cooke, Bill Sienkiewicz or Frank Quitely. Some of their art is fantastic but, in superhero work, I find it detracts from rather than enhances the story.

    Anyway, as and when I get around to re-reading them, I plan to jot down my thoughts on some of the other books I've acquired over the years, so maybe I'll be jogging more of your memories again soon!

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  3. Yes, I'm looking forward to reading more of your reviews!

    I'd always had an interest in all sorts of comics, but I only really started reading superhero comics in the mid-90s (when I was around 15 years old) - mainly because they weren't really available in Germany (there were some exceptions, but the fact that these WERE exceptions was part of the problem). In the mid-90s, German publishers started to faithfully translate and publish some major DC monthlies. The first title was actually Batman Adventures - of course, I was a huge fan of the animated series, and having a comic published that was much like the series was a dream come true for me. The book was pretty successful, so they started branching out and published the Batman monthlies, then Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and so on. And these books have been around since then - it's a veritable Golden Age for German superhero comic fans!

    Long story short, this wasn't a time for me to "come back" to comics, but to really discover a niche I had mostly been unfamiliar with before.

    As for the mainstream Batman comics, one of my first books was Knightfall, and that was my entry into the main DC continuity. I pretty much read all of the important comics until No Man's Land, and since then, I read them more or less sporadically.

    I had just missed "The Death of Superman", but I read some of the repercussions of that sprawling saga (such as some parts of the about Lex Luthor's red-haired, bearded clone, which at some point physically deteriorated and laid waste to Metropolis - so the city would die with him. It happened in the oversized Action Comics #700 ( http://dc.wikia.com/wiki/Action_Comics_Vol_1_700 ), and that was one particular Superman book I enjoyed a whole lot, also because I loved Jackson Guice's classic, quite realistic and extremely detailed drawings).

    Some of the Hal-Jordan-as-Parallax stuff fell into that era as well - I especially remember "Zero Hour" and "Final Night", the latter being one of the few mainstream crossover events that worked for me. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Final_Night

    "DC One Million" also fell into this period, but this was one of the first Grant Morrison comics I expressively disliked (and more were to come, with his recent Batman comics and Infinite Crisis...).

    During that time, I also read several of the US mainstream classics, such as The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen.

    So much for my own intimate history with DC :P

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    1. See, being an oldie, my first brush with DC comics was in the early/mid-Sixties, slap-bang in the middle of (what we now call) the Silver Age. The stories were mostly self-contained, often ridiculous and - since I was under ten - eagerly devoured! Hal Jordan was GL, Barry Allen was Flash, Supergirl had a whole menagerie of silly super-pets and crossovers were limited to the pages of World's Finest and the JLA.

      In my early teens (c.1970 onwards) I had a friend who was into Marvel comics and so I saw a few of those, but I'd already reached the age where I considered them kids' stuff!

      By the time I discovered DKR, therefore, I hadn't touched a comic for nearly 30 years. The level of sophistication I found in that was such a surprise that I immediately went on the hunt for more of the same. Of course, I didn't realise back then that the quality of DKR was something of an exception, so I found it quite disheartening to see just how little subsequent writers had learned from that.

      Anyway, consider our "intimate histories" with DC duly exchanged!

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  4. As for the "stylized artwork" discussion - I think we agree on McDaniel's artwork for different reasons. For instance, I absolutely love Darwyn Cooke's, Bill Sienkiewicz's and Frank Quitely's artwork on superhero books. In fact, they're some of my favorite superhero artists ever. The reason why I don't like McDaniel's artwork is quite simple: I find it aesthetically displeasing :-) It's jagged, too busy and quite ugly in my eyes. I think it looks a lot like someone who has never properly learned how to draw - whereas the three others we mentioned obviously went from a "proper" understanding of art to a stylization.

    Anyway, if you started reading DC comics when I (not really) stopped reading them, I guess what you could help me with is get a systematic overview of what happened after No Man's Land. What, in your opinion, are important landmarks in Batman continuity since then?

    For instance, I think that the period I outlined above, from Knightfall to No Man's Land, had a pretty systematic and streamlined continuity, and reading these comics felt very satisfying to me. They dealt with the fallout of Batman's absence and return, Azrael's history post-Knightsend, Bane's eventually teaming up with Ra's al Ghul (which led to the "Contagion" and "Legacy" and eventually into "Cataclysm"), and general clean-up of Arkham escapees etc.

    Similar with Superman: I began reading shortly after Superman's return (when he had the long hair), when Conduit was introduced as a new villain. The Conduit storyline ran for a while, with some standalone stories (and the Luthor storyline I mentioned) inbetween - again, there's a fantastic climax to it in Action Comics #711, pencilled by Guice :-) - then the Superman titles changed pretty radically with new writers and artists (one of whom was Ed McGuiness), and I started losing interest, because the storyline threads seemed increasingly random and/or non-existent. That was around the time of "Emperor Joker"... there was another huge new cosmic villain introduced around that time too, with a Kirby-ish look, but I can't remember his name. It was all about cosmic threats and parallel universes which I couldn't have cared less about...

    I should also mention Grant Morrison's JLA, which fell into this period, and which also helped fuel my enthusiasm - it had a sense of grandeur, both with its fantastic line-up and the scope of its stories (and artwork).

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    1. Separate post on the continuity issue below ...

      As for stylised artwork, I think it has its place. Darwyn Cooke's style, for example, is perfectly suited to The New Frontier (although, as I think you know, I have issues with the writing in that!), but it wouldn't - in my view - suit something more mainstream like Batman: Cataclysm, DKR or Trinity.

      Bill Sienkiewicz is one of those artists where I can look at an individual page of his art and be completely awestruck. But, try reading Elektra: Assassin, for example, and half the time you can't tell what's supposed to be happening in the narrative. Dave McKean's art in Arkham Asylum is the same - beautiful to look at, but too often guilty of getting in the way of the story.

      But that's just my opinion!

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    2. I can see what you're getting at with Sienkiewicz and McKean (although I've never found the former's artwork as distracting from the narrative as the latter's - then again, I haven't read Elektra: Assassin yet).

      But I still disagree regarding Cooke - he's done wonders for the Catwoman monthly, for instance! Now, I'd readily grant that he probably wouldn't suit every mainstream title (although I have yet to see an example for that) - but that applies to the majority of artists out there. I can envision mainstream titles like Cataclysm being handled by Cooke. DKR is a bit of an unfair example, since it's neither mainstream, nor can it really be disconnected from Miller's idiosyncratic visuals.

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    3. You're right. I withdraw my DKR example! ;-)

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  5. Sorry, I don't think I'll be able to help you with the main events in Batman's "official" continuity since NML. Even after getting "back into" mainstream comics, I never followed the monthlies. I'd wait for TPBs and, even then, I'd selectively buy only those I'd read good things about the run they were collecting, or if they'd sparked a particularly heated controversy.

    In between those titles, I'd read collections of comics from the early 1940s to see how the medium had started, and the big titles from the 1980s (Watchmen, obviously, but also things like Crisis on Infinite Earths, The Death of Superman, A Killing Joke, A Death in the Family etc) to play catch up.

    Of the newer stuff (or the stuff that was "newer" then!), I particularly enjoyed Identity Crisis and the Gotham Central series (expect to see reviews of those eventually!), but I also read a lot of very mediocre TPBs.

    Back on the subject of continuity, the launch of the New 52 seems to have left everyone confused. As far as I can tell, DC has decided to cherry-pick certain events it wants to keep and jettison others. It all seems very arbitrary. Barbara Gordon, for example, was shot in the spine and crippled, but is now cured and back as Batgirl (having never been Oracle). Where that leaves Steph Brown or Cassie Cain is anyone's guess!

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    1. Ah, nevermind, then :-) Seems we've been picking DC comics similarly selectively. For instance, I read all of the recent "crisis" titles (Identity~, Infinite~, Final~), but Identity Crisis was the only one I liked. Infinite Crisis was a huge convoluted story that offered little of interest to me, and Final Crisis was the usual Grant Morrison nonsense I've come to expect from him.

      I haven't read Gotham Central though... I've been reading mixed reviews, and there were enough other Brubaker titles to read anyway :-)

      The New 52 TPs are just starting to come out, so I'll finally be able to figure out for myself whether they're any good. The first one I read was Catwoman, which I thought was surprsingly good. Next up on my list is "Batman - Court of Owls".

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    2. I didn't bother with Final Crisis but I agree with you about Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis. Hopefully when I've done my review, you'll give Gotham Central a try!

      As for the new 52 titles, through a friend of a friend of a friend, I've had access to the new monthlies for Catwoman, Batgirl and Wonder Woman. I agree Catwoman is much better than I expected. Batgirl isn't bad but seems to be trying too hard to establish her as a character independent of Batman. New villains etc keep sprouting up all over the place and - since she's in Gotham - you can't help but think: there's just no way Batman wouldn't be all over this himself! It's not bad, though. The biggest problem is that - like a US TV show - it keeps hinting at a bigger story (i.e. how Barbara Gordon was cured) without actually moving it forward enough.

      Wonder Woman, on the other hand, is just irredeemably bad. A perfect example of everything that's wrong with mainstream US comics today! Read at your own peril!

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