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.