Sunday, February 12, 2012

Batman: No Man's Land

by Greg Rucka
(New York: Pocket Books, 2000)
Hardcover, 430 Pages, Fiction

“All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here. GOTHAM CITY: a dark, twisted reflection of urban America. Overcrowded, overbuilt, and overshadowed by a continuous air of menace, this gothic nightmare is a breeding ground for the depraved, the indifferent, and the criminally insane. It’s also the object of one man’s obsession. Forever scarred as a child from witnessing the brutal murder of his parents, Bruce Wayne has dedicated his life to protecting this city from its many predators, taking a form to inspire hope in the innocent … and fear in the guilty. He is the masked vigilante knows as the Batman. With Police Commissioner James Gordon, these two men have always fought to preserve law and order, side-by-side, struggling against a pervasive and relentless criminal element, working together to hold the line. Until now. Leveled by a massive earthquake that has left thousands dead and millions more wounded, Gotham City has been completely cut off from outside aid, transformed into a lawless battleground—a No Man’s Land—where the survivors are turning against one another, and where the city’s protectors are torn by a crisis that may consume them all.  Gotham now teeters at the edge of the abyss … and Batman is missing.”

So, after returning to school in 2005, spending four years getting my bachelor’s degree in literary studies, and then two very intense years getting my master’s in the same field … it has been a long time since I was able to read a book solely for the pleasure of it. Books have been read to be analyzed and written about, and I’ve made a pretty good “living” during my academic years doing this, and hope to parlay all of this into a PhD and eventually a career teaching English at a college or university somewhere. However, for the time being, I am between gigs (so to speak) and since I am unemployed, I have quite a bit of time on my hands. This is why I decided that it was time to retire Bryan’s Book Blog and start Reading Past My Bedtime, so that I could gain some perspective on reading and learn how to read and write about books in a non-academic way once again. There was a false start, but after some time (and a rebalancing of my medication and shedding some emotional baggage) I’ve decided to try it all again.

With books, though, it’s been harder to turn that off. I was originally intending to make the re-inaugural review of Stephen King’s most recent book 11/22/63. However, every time I started the book I only got a handful of pages into it, before I stalled and had to put it down. (I think I’ve been too traumatized and disappointed by King in the last decade (Lisey’s StoryDuma KeyJust After SunsetFull Dark, No StarsUnder the DomeMile 81) that I was extremely reluctant to dive back into a Stephen King story. It was as if I had a mental block of some kind. So I tried to move on to a book I knew I liked, The Shining, but after doing so much academic work (and basing a number of papers, including a stalled thesis) on this story, I simply couldn’t turn off my analytical brain. So, I decided to pluck a book off of the library shelf that I wanted to read for a very very long time … well, at least for the past eight or ten years or so: Batman: No Man’s Land.

Beside trying to use this to jump-start relearning how to read for pleasure, my six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter are really in to Batman and so it felt like a good thing to read (if only to backfill my spotty knowledge of the BatMythos). So, imagine my surprise when what I found was a great book. I guess I expected to read a half-assed adaptation of the comic book run of the No Man’s Land storyline that was really lacking because it was missing the visual element of the comic books. However, as I said, this was not the case, in fact No Man’s Land is a great story and Rucka really sells it, though considering he was one of the writers on the No Man’s Land arc in the Batman comics, it comes as no surprise.

What I loved most about this book and in particular the story as it fits into the overall BatMythos is the way in which the characters of both James Gordon and Barbara Gordon (here in her Oracle guise) are extremely well rounded and very much humanized.  As two of the characters in the comics who are very much vested in Batman, his disappearance from at least the first third to half of the story pushes these two characters well beyond their comfort zone. Commissioner Gordon must begin to take back his city on his own, without the help of the Bat, based on his own not inconsiderable intelligence and ability as a police officer. That he fails at times and that Rucka allows him to be angry with himself and others and even lash out at times helps the Reader to see further into Gordon’s mind and his personality. It turns Gordon into the main protagonist, whereas it would otherwise be Batman. As for Barbara Gordon, her role as Oracle (a kind of Batgirl-cum-Big Brother (Sister?) after being paralyzed by the Joker) allows Rucka to tell stories that one might otherwise miss in the chaos and aftermath of the earthquake. As with her father, the disappearance of Batman allows Barbara Gordon to vent her own anger and frustration and her own humanity, especially since she is trapped in her apartment (given that she is confined to a wheelchair and the power is out in her building, so no elevator). In this way, Barbara Gordon becomes our all-seeing Narrator, standing in for yet another role that would normally be filled by Batman.

Even when Batman finally does reemerge and begins to take back Gotham City, this does not push the Gordons to the second tier. James Gordon still stays the chief protagonist (after all it is his city that he is fighting for, and he has the biggest stake in it) and Barbara Gordon fully takes up the role of Oracle once more and it is her knowledge that continues to drive the action, and once the whole Bat Family is reunited with Tim Drake/Robin and Dick Grayson/Nightwing returning, and Cassandra Cain taking up the mantle of Batgirl and even Huntress being brought into the fold, the action really does drive to a rather climactic and sobering conclusion. Add to the mix some of the best villains in Batman’s Rogue Gallery, including Two-Face, The Penguin, assassin David Cain, Bane, and the Joker and Harley Quinn (who was brought into the DC comics canon from the Batman animated cartoon in this story arc) as well as Superman heavies Lex Luthor and Mercy Graves (who also made the jump from the animated Superman cartoon to the DC comic book canon in this story arc) and it really makes for one hell of a story. My favorite scenes … the ones where Batman menaces Lex Luthor; absolute gold!

All of this aside, if I did have one complaint about the book it is actually two things. First and foremost, while the story as a whole works, and while the various points of the plot are all necessary given that the story arc in the comics ran across nine months in nearly 100 issues spanning sixteen different titles … a 430 page novel doesn’t really cover it all, and a lot of it—especially in the middle—feels rushed (I’m looking at you Bane and David Cain plot points). In the end, though, Rucka does make up for it by finishing with one of the most intense and emotional climaxes I have ever read (though I think it hit me especially hard being a husband and a father). My one other “complaint” is that No Man’s Land is not a good gateway story into the Batman Universe. Not that it is meant to be or even should be, but as one of the only novel adaptations of the Batman comic books, it stands as an entryway whether or not it wants to be, but if these are the only real faults that I can find in this book, then it’s got a lot more going for it than it has against it.

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