Saturday, 6 April 2013

Batman: No Man's Land Volume 5 Review, You Were Never Really Here Review (Greg Rucka, Jonathan Ames)

Do I need to say "spoilers"? I guess so - spoilers ahead. I wrote both today and one is a hugely negative look at the final book in the Batman: No Man's Land series, Volume 5, written by Greg Rucka, and the other is a gushing, enthusiastic review of Jonathan Ames' recently published Kindle Short "You Were Never Really Here". Enjoy!

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And so we come to the end of (what is in my opinion) the worst Batman event book ever, No Man’s Land, Volume 5. 

No Man’s Land’s basic setup fails to convince me so throughout the series I’ve never really believed any of this could happen anyway: a massive earthquake destroys Gotham so the US Government abandons it, leaving the remaining citizens to fend for themselves for over a year. I know Bush 2 and FEMA abandoned those devastated by Katrina for a week but they ended up helping those people eventually and helped get Louisiana and surrounding states back on their feet. So abandoning one of the biggest (fictional) cities in America because of earthquake damage for a year never made sense to me. 

That’s the first big boo-boo - the second is that Bruce Wayne would abandon Gotham too! The Dark Knight of Gotham would just wander off and bum around Monaco while his city - HIS city - was in ruins? Makes no sense at all. But that’s how Book 5 starts off, with Bruce shooting craps in Monaco. Ok, whatever Greg Rucka. Oh and Greg Rucka is one of the most overrated writers in comics today - I’ve yet to read something of his I’ve enjoyed unreservedly and NML stands as one of his worst achievements to date. It doesn’t help that this Bruce in Monaco sequence is illustrated by the godawful Greg Land. 

But while the US government have abandoned Gotham, Lex Luthor hasn’t and he shows up doing what the government should’ve been doing on Day 1, and sets about rebuilding the wrecked city. But Lex being Lex, he’s got more sinister plans... and here’s a perfect example of why Rucka is such a piss-poor writer - his depiction of Luthor is of the cackling, hand-rubbing cartoonish villain sort that hacks resort to when they’ve got no ideas of their own. So rather than a nuanced Lex like Morrison or even Azzarello would write, we get the crappy Lex, a rather dull-witted, transparently “evil” baddie which makes the book that much more boring to read. 

Bane makes a pointless cameo and then Joker finally makes an appearance and totally fails to make an impression. Here’s a good rule of thumb when reading Batman books with Joker in - if the Joker isn’t creepy or disturbing or even interesting, then the writer is probably Greg Rucka. I mean, terrible. But yes, the same thing in my book. Joker is an amazing character and, in the right hands, can elevate the story exponentially - in the wrong hands, he’s basically playing off of his reputation rather than doing anything new. Such is the case here. His “plan” involves babies (gasp! the monster!) but he doesnt’ actually kill any, and then he kills a really minor (not in age, just relevance) character which Rucka probably thought gave this book emotional weight it doesn’t have. 

Huntress is another character who for some reason is totally out of character as well. She spends the book hanging around a nutjob who’s basically acting like a tyrant and then begins executing his men one after the other - because he’s a nutjob! And her response? Standing there, hopelessly. That isn’t Huntress. If it were, she wouldn’t be called a hero of any sort to permit such behaviour. She eventually acts but not before half a dozen men or more are dead. Useless. 

As for the ending, which basically closes with the death of a character who, even the most hardcore of Batman fans will have trouble remembering, it is disappointing and dull. It kind of ends with a shrug like “I guess it’s over? Back to normal then”. Really, what a terrible event - it was so meaningless and boring. I’m having a go at Greg Rucka (partly because I’ve read other books by him so know he’s no good in general) but I’m sure any other writer, no matter how capable, would have a dickens of a time trying to squeeze anything good out of this awful setup. 

Be warned if you’re setting off on reading this bloated, overwrought affair - NML starts off very ordinarily and quickly loses steam until all drama and tension is long gone by the end and you’re left wondering why you bothered in the first place. NML is the worst!

Batman: No Man's Land Volume 5


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If revenge is a dish best served cold, Joe (the main character of this story) is serving up some icy entrees. If this story were a person it’d be lying passed out face first on the floor of a dive bar in a puddle of various human (and some inhuman) liquids, covered in cuts and bruises and, upon hearing your approach, would stagger upright, spit out a tooth, take a double shot of whiskey and lurch outwards to pick a new fight with anyone. The shadow of death and hopeless despair hangs over this story - and I love it! 

Jonathan Ames is best known for his excellent (and cancelled long before its time) HBO series “Bored to Death”, a comedic detective series about an inept amateur sleuth and his friends solving cute and silly mysteries while stoned, in and around Manhattan. This ominously-titled story “You Were Never Really Here” is the polar opposite to that show’s tone. This story is pitch-black noir at its finest. 

Joe is a past-middle aged hitman with a troubled past. Beaten ruthlessly by a now-dead alcoholic father in his youth, he took his psychologically scarred self into the marines and got trained up to kill and fight, becoming the best. Leaving the army he went to work at the FBI and when he left he found employment working as an assassin-for-hire. Now living with his senile and deaf mother, he heads out on a case for a politician that goes pear-shaped when he realises too late the mob are involved and things aren’t as they seem. Now, Joe, a jaded and worn-out man, armed with a hammer, sets out to save an innocent girl’s life no matter what the cost to himself because he doesn’t have anything left to live for. 

A highly skilled killer with a deathwish on a mission - is there anything better to read? 

The unstoppable tough guy is a trope we’ve all read many times before, in books and comics and film, but it’s told again and again because when it’s done well, it’s compelling as hell and Ames’ writing is so good, that this story is well worth reading. The writing isn’t as lifeless and limp as Lee Child or James Patterson, though the story is similar to something both would write, but reads much more vibrantly and intelligently. It’s still exciting and dark and full of action but Joe as a character really feels like a person and Ames’ deft touch gives meat to the story which would otherwise in summary feel too straightforward to be interesting. Ames’ writing is Chandler-esque but modern - all the archetypes are here but feel updated and more visceral. 

What’s amazing too is that it’s only around 50 pages long but feels like Ames got an entire 300 page novel reduced to the bare minimum in this story. By the end, I could’ve read another 200 pages easily. I’d gotten to know Joe and wanted to see him continue his avenging mission, right to the end - here’s hoping Ames decides to develop this short story into something more substantial, and if he does, I’m there. 

If you enjoy Raymond Chandler, Michael Connelly, Frank Miller’s “The Hard Goodbye” (for Marv), Garth Ennis’ “The Punisher MAX” series, the movie “Taken”, and of course Jonathan Ames’ previous writings, this one is right up your alley. “You Were Never Really Here” is an amazing short story, well worth checking out. Read it wearing your best fedora.

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