From the Bookshelf...
by Nicolas Juzda
A Lonely Place Of Dying
Seeing as this is my first review written after learning of Fanzing's impending end, I thought it appropriate to choose a story centered around such themes as the necessity of realizing that time moves on and all good things must come to an end, but that there are always new beginnings. Such a work is Batman: A Lonely Place Of Dying.
It also happens to be a personal favourite of mine. Indeed, I was leant it by a friend either immediately before or soon after I began collecting comics myself, and for my first few years in the hobby it stood as my very favourite story. Consider that fair warning that I may be even more biased than usual in this review.
Collected in this book is the five part story originally printed in three issues of Batman and two of The New Titans. Original covers are included at a slightly reduced size, and there is a three page introduction by editor Denny O'Neil explaining the genesis of the work. You can't really ask for more to be put into the package than that. All this for a mere five bucks Canadian, four in the United States, or at least such was the case when I purchased my copy a decade ago. Prices may have gone up, but a dollar per issue is hard to complain about.
On the other hand, the paper quality is abysmal. This was right at the start of the trade paperback reprint surge, and DC was producing a few of its books (this, A Death In The Family, Green Lantern: Emerald Dawn, etc.) in "Standard Format", meaning I think that the paper was no better than in a standard (ie low end) comic of the period. In this case, since The New Titans was in Baxter Format at the time, two of the chapters are actually given worse quality here than in their original serialized form.
The book was written by Marv Wolfman. Wolfman is a somewhat variable author. When he's on form, as in his work on Crisis On Infinite Earths, The New Teen Titans (first series), or Tomb of Dracula, he's one of the best mainstream writers around. When he's not, as in his work during his final years on the Titans franchise, he can be pretty bad.
Fortunately, the good Wolfman is the one who showed up for this book. Perhaps it's because George Perez co-plotted four of the five parts, and the two work very well together.
The first three chapters of A Lonely Place Of Dying function well enough as stand-alone stories. Batman solves several minor crimes and realizes who is behind them in the first, Dick Grayson figures out who has been sabotaging Haly's Circus in the second, and Batman foils a kidnapping plot in the third. In their original serialized form this was a good choice; Wolfman harkens back to a time when comics guaranteed a story in each issue purchased. But the collected version shows that these five issues were meant to form a single larger tale.
The primary plot of A Lonely Place Of Dying involves Batman's ongoing struggle with Two-Face. Meanwhile, in a subplot that ties Dick's adventure into Batman's, a young boy named Tim Drake has realized that Batman has not been the same since the second Robin, Jason Todd, died, and has sought out Dick, the original Boy Wonder. Dick is on leave from his position as leader of the Titans, visiting the circus where he grew up. Tim attempts to convince Dick to give up his current identity as Nightwing in order to become Robin once again, but only succeeds in securing Nightwing's aid for Batman in the hunt for Two-Face. Finally, Tim himself assumes the identity of Robin, and Batman grudgingly accepts this development after the three of them defeat Two-Face.
I suppose that I've spoiled one of the book's surprises in revealing that the villain is Two-Face, but I was only following the lead of the collection's back cover. However, Chapter One presents this as a fair play mystery. The cover and beginning of the part don't say who the foe is, and the story is littered with references to twos and twins and such until the Batman (and any audience members who haven't caught on) finally realize it's been staring him in the face. I wonder how many readers at the time put it together before the Dark Knight did?
Oddly, Chapter Two is more overtly structured as a mystery, but it is not a fair play mystery (or, if it is, then I'm too dumb to spot how so). The clues that Dick spots are simply not available to the reader.
Perhaps this was meant to manipulate the audience's impression of the characters. Batman in the first chapter is meant to seem off his game, ignoring the obvious. Dick in the second is supposed to be awe-inspiring, seeing beneath the easy explanations to find the hidden truth everyone else misses. By having readers able to out-think the Batman but unable to be ahead of Dick, is the intent to have the audience share Tim's view of them both?
I can't say for certain, but as I have a dislike of mysteries that don't play fair, I'll simply opine that intended or not, the result is a detriment to part two.
Also, amusingly, one of the clues that Dick spots is that a flask Tim found doesn't have Dick's fingerprints on it. But when he gets it from Tim, he clearly holds it in his bare hand. Ah well. And while I'm nitpicking, the explanation of how the "IV" on the map in Chapter Four was constructed makes no sense, since the two points of the I are also somehow listed as half the V.
The use of Haly's Circus to drive home the point that Dick cannot return to the past (be it as a trapeze artist or Boy Wonder) is hardly subtle, but still useful. And, as it is where Tim Drake first takes centre stage, it is also a historically appropriate touch to connect the third Robin with his predecessor.
The most interestingly written section of the story is the third chapter, which features several sequences in which Batman and Two-Face follow parallel thought processes (mirrored in the art) as they attempt to outwit the other. Though occasionally stretching credibility in how closely the interior monologues correspond ("Not jewelry. Not banks. Not drugs," thinks Two-Face, while the Batman's own thoughts are, "Not the jewelry mart. Banks won't cooperate. No drugs.") this trick largely works quite well.
It's also quite entertaining for another reason. The highlight of the book for me is reading Two-Face attempt to figure out a crime that fits his modus operandi. How often do writers gloss over the tortuous process the Batman's foes must go through in order to figure out some appropriately themed crime? From the initial free associate of things that go with two, to attempts to connect those with possible crimes, to considerations of whether there's enough profit and how risky they'd be, it's a completely believable look at what it must be like to be one of Gotham's loony criminals.
In the final two chapters, Dick Grayson is reunited with Batman at last, though still in the guise of Nightwing. The team-up is simultaneously an exercise in nostalgia and a reminder that things have changed. Despite Tim's pleas, Dick Grayson is no longer Robin.
That time marches on, for good and for ill, is the obvious theme of the story, as I mentioned when I began this review. Dick's return to his circus roots is bittersweet; the place both is and is not as Dick remembers, and he cannot help but realize that he has changed at least as much. When he joins up with Batman, he faces the same lesson. The Dark Knight is more stubborn, refusing to see that he can no longer order his former ward about, but it's obvious that while they will always be bound to each other, they are no longer the Dynamic Duo of old.
Perhaps ironically, the opposite message is inherent in Tim's joining Batman because the identity of Robin must be made to endure. If Batman without Robin is a poorer crime-fighter, not to mention a less stable man, then that is one change that cannot be allowed to occur.
But it must be a new Robin.
Perhaps the true message is not simply that the past cannot be returned to, but that it nevertheless continues to bear upon the present. Neither the circus nor the Batcave are Dick's current home, but they are still a part of him. Batman cannot force Dick to become subservient to him again, but he can recognize the good that Dick did him and try to find it elsewhere. Jason Todd is dead and Dick Grayson has moved on, but Tim Drake can continue the legend of Robin.
A secondary (or perhaps I'm at tertiary by this point) theme of the work is a bit ahead of its time. Batman at the story's beginning is a violent and reactive character. As Alfred tells him, he no longer heeds his own advice to "think with [his] head, not with [his] fists." Later, Batman is forced to admit that his butler was right (answering his own mental question "What were you thinking with?" by silently looking at his clenched hands). Later still, Bruce has it driven home to him by Alfred, Dick, and Tim that he needs the optimism and human contact and connection of Robin to ground him, or he will surrender to darkness and brutality. Several years later, stories such as Kingdom Come would deliver similar messages on the state of the super-hero in comic books, and likewise affirm that optimism and humanity must be at the core of even the darkest of characters if they are to deserve the term "hero".
The use made in A Lonely Place Of Dying of the members of the Titans (other than Nightwing) is appropriate. Since two chapters of the book are from their title, it is only fair that they should be involved. Moreover, their presence serves to reinforce the idea that Dick Grayson has his own place now, and it is no longer by Batman's side. But if they had appeared too much, their sheer number of members could have distracted from the central characters of this story, and the power they collectively wield would quickly have rendered Two-Face unworkable as a viable antagonist.
Instead, we see the Titans only for a few pages at the start of the even numbered chapters. The first occasion allows them to investigate the disappearance of Dick Grayson, thus providing a convenient though somewhat unnecessary lead-in to the main events of that part. The second has the team relay a message from Batman to Nightwing, which involves more substantial effort on their part and effects the plot to a greater degree, but doesn't draw them into the battle. Both appearances allow some of the Titans to show their abilities (not to mention demonstrate personality) but neither intrudes overmuch upon the main narrative.
A Lonely Place Of Dying isn't really a showcase for artists with splashy styles. This is an old-school book, where the job of the art was to tell the story, and for that job was assembled a creative team well up to handling compact storytelling while retaining dynamic action, expressive character depiction, and attention to detail.
Look, I warned you this book was a personal favourite, didn't I? But I think that, my enthusiasm aside, it's not hyperbole to say that the art team on A Lonely Place Of Dying were three gentlemen of undeniable talent.
The art is handled by Jim Aparo on the first, third, and fifth parts, and by Tom Grummett over George Perez layouts on the second and fourth. George Perez drew the five original covers reproduced here, as well as the compilation's new cover.
I'm a big fan of all of these gentlemen. Frankly, it's hard to imagine a trio I'd rather have seen do this job.
George Perez is almost certainly the most popular of the three. Perez's attention to detail and unrivalled ability to make characters look both immensely heroic and undeniably real at the same time have earned him plenty of acclaim. That his artistic contribution to this work is limited to a half-dozen covers and some inventive layouts for the even-numbered parts is unfortunate, but his fellow pencillers are almost as good in their own ways.
Jim Aparo seems to be too much the omnipresent old workhorse to have managed to become a fan favourite. But to me, he will always be the definitive Batman artist. His work has graced various books featuring the Dark Knight for decades, and probably molded many fans' mental image of Batman and his friends and foes more than they realize. From such peripheral Batman books as the Silver Age The Brave And The Bold and the early years of Batman And The Outsiders to work on the core titles that included such classic stories as Ten Nights Of The Beast and A Death In The Family and even the sequence in Knightfall where Bane actually broke Bruce's back, he has been there to give Batman a consistent visual identity.
Let's just say that if there's a Batman comic to be drawn, Jim Aparo ain't a bad choice to do it.
Tom Grummett is, I think, heading towards a sort of cult popularity. Best known for allying himself with writers with a Silver Age bent (Karl Kesel and Kurt Busiek), Grummett's art has a wholesome and nostalgic look that contrasts with many other contemporary pencillers. He does draw Starfire's eyes as being very round, but other than that I've got no complaints about his work here.
The most memorable artistic moments are probably the sequence in part three where Batman and Two-Face hold parallel interior monologues that I discussed above and a splash in the fourth part of Batman crashing through a window. But I'm also fond of the quieter bits, particularly the ability of Aparo to capture the concern of Alfred, the emotional wounds of Bruce, or the discomfort of Dick through their faces.
I highly recommend A Lonely Place of Dying to any fan of Batman, the current Robin, or Nightwing. The paper quality may be poor, but it's darn cheap, a good read, well-drawn, and a turning point for all three characters. Even if you aren't a Batman fan, it may be worth a look.
Fiction editor Nicolas Juzda
is currently studying law in Saskatchewan. He fills the void that was left in
his soul by contributing to Fanzing. He has twice been among the winners in
the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing.
All characters are DC Comics
This piece is © 2002 by Nicolas Juzda
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All DC Comics characters, trademarks and images (where used) are DC Comics, Inc.
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