3 out of 5
Death and the Maidens, though in process for a while before its 2003 / 2004 serialization, was far from being Rucka’s first comic work, for DC or otherwise, but it sure doesn’t read like a book from a dude with, by that point, several years of comics under his belt.
Knowing that Greg was a novel writer before crossing over into comics sheds some light on the book’s mercurial structure, but again, its not like he was new to the game.
In other words, in short: Death and the Maidens is incredibly underwhelming, in part due to a somewhat needlessly obfuscated structure, but also because… it’s just underwhelming. The latter realization prompts a possible explanation: You love comics, and you’re given the opportunity to write a standalone Batman story. Not something that will crossover with Detective Comics; not something billed as Elseworlds. Images of Killing Joke, of Dark Knight inevitably flutter through your mind; this is a way to make a sincere lasting impact on the comic world.
And on the one hand, Greg did, by giving us Ra’s Al Ghul’s other daughter, Nyssa. However, the temptation / desire to fiddle with the Batman mythos is almost a curse; in Death and the Maidens we have an overwrought attempt to reexamine the ‘reason’ for Bats’ crusade as juxtaposed with Ra’s relationship with his daughters, and the spurned daughter – Nyssa’s – unslaked thirst for vengeance against pops for the way she was raised. On paper, this is a pretty appealing deal, and one that lends itself to outlines and sweeping character arcs. On newsprint, drawn between rubber-suit wearing supers, it misses the mark, relating interesting aspects of those characters and its story while never congealing into anything really page-turning.
One of the main criticisms I’ve read in other reviews is that the series requires too much knowledge on Ra’s to work as a standalone. My first read of the series was at a point when I wad just rejoining comics, and I never owned much Batman as a kid. But Ra’s was never a barrier to entry. It’s clear from the story that he uses something to extend his age – Lazarus Pits – and that Batman has a habit of destroying those pits. He comes to Bats, or actually Bruce Wayne (whose dual identity is known to Ra’s) a frail old man, offering Bruce a rare opportunity in exchange for access to the last of his pits.
But thus isn’t where our story starts. Interspersed with this is our actual A plot: Nyssa’s history, chopped up into flashbacks dating back to the late 1700s. This is also where the story fails to build any momentum. While these bits and pieces add up to a cohesive, and interesting, whole, as presented it’s difficult to discern the point of any given interaction, sort of ruining the whole juxtaposition of Nyssa / Ra’s with Bats and his family. The split focus also, unfortunately, opens more questions that don’t have space to get resolved, such as digging a bit more into why Nyssa was important to Ra’s, or why Bruce makes the decisions (regarding the deal with Ra’s) he does. Both of these get spoken to, but it’s in passing, almost between the panels, as though further context was lost in the edits. …And part of Nyssa’s machinations seem woefully campy given the literary tone. If i had to guess, the bait and switch she pulls seems like a concession to remind people their reading a superhero book.
This seems like a lot of criticism for three stars, but there are some definite positive takeaways: While the interweaving of the narratives is ineffective, the writing is, at no point, lacking in precision. At all points in his career, Rucka has dipped into melodrama, and he surprisingly (appropriately) avoids it in Death and the Maidens, dealing, as he does, with three rather cold characters. His exploration of Bruce’s motivations are actually well-considered and make a better case for how and why he continues to do what he does than almost any other take on the concept. Nyssa’s story, when pieced together, is sweeping and sad, and manages to wrap itself through grievous moments in history without seeming exploitative. And I don’t know if I’ve ever read a more concise and logical villain explanation than Al Ghul’s from the book.
So it balances out: Some really fantastic character work and a smart idea that just doesn’t work well in a serialized comic, rearranged for cliffhangers and 22 pages, and a grounded setting that butts up against reminders of the spandex universe in which it takes place.
Lastly, some words about the art: Klaus Janson is a weird-ass dude. The 2004 collected edition of this series packs in several pages of the artist’s unused pages, and you can see how fantastic Janson’s grasp of page flow and emotion is. And yet, the finished pages… sometimes look sloppy as shit, amateurish, even. I’d first think maybe things go wrong with his inks, but the extras show inked pages alongside pencils, and those look great. Is it Steve Buccellato’s colors? Seems unlikely, and this isn’t the only instance of Janson’s finished art where I’ve felt this way. Whatever the cause, the end result is, as stated, some of the book just doesn’t look great, and though Klaus’ 80s-esque style (Miller, Aparo) is a good match for the book’s unflashy tone, bad art is bad art and it definitely affects the ability to take the read seriously at points.
Death and the Maidens is not Rucka’s smoothest outing. It was not fated to be one of the classic Batman stories. But although its overall impact is incredibly watered down by its wandering – and overly complex – structure, dotted throughout are some truly worthwhile character moments that allows one to stand back and realize that it’s a pretty solid story. Just not a great one.