Well, that was short-lived. Such was my reaction at reading the second, and apparently final, volume of Batten. There’s little more depressing than reading something you have a furtive sidelong liking for despite all its flaws, and then seeing it get sliced off at the knees before it ever has a chance to come into full flower. Maybe it was inevitable: for all its quirks, the series never really seemed to achieve liftoff.
It wasn’t just that there was no lift. It was that there was also plenty of drag. By the middle of the second volume, we see a pattern—but it’s not a starting point from which bigger things grow. It’s closed-ended. Problem manifests, hero—Seijurō—comes in and straightens everything out, everyone goes back home to regroup. The only time Seijurō remotely approaches putting his own neck in danger is at the end of this book—fitting place for it, right when things have to be sewn up anyway—and all it really costs him is a couple of cuts on either side of his mouth. There’s never a sense of anything at risk on his part.
© Tōya Ataka
When nothing’s ever really at risk, what’s the point?
The only one really at risk here is the samurai character also from the first book, the henpecked and perennially dismayed Kanbei, working his butt off to make sure his daughter doesn’t end up in that era’s version of sexual slavery. He goes through one misadventure after another in this volume, from being stiffed when he tries to make cricket cages to ending up as domestic help in a household where the daughter of the family can whip him soundly with a naginata. (She does, too.) Fine, except he gets bailed out often enough that we can count on that to happen. By the time he’s stepped up and started to direct his own destiny a bit, it’s already too late—for both us and the story.
When a story falls short, you can sometimes end up with a lesson about why. Not all that long ago someone directed me towards a single-volume graphic novel named it’s a bird..., about a comic author tapped to work on the Superman franchise. He turns it down, much to the astonishment of everyone around him. Why? Because Superman has no dramatic tension in his soul, he argues. He’s invulnerable, thus he can do most anything the writers need to have him do. What story can possibly be told about such a man, especially someone so far removed from his own, decidedly mortal, situation? Then he digs down inside himself and realizes how he and Superman have a lot more in common that he realized. He’s alone (it’s not called the Fortress of Solitude for nothing); he’s an outsider in a world that can only get so close to him; he’s flawed in a way that requires a little sensitivity and thought to see.
I wouldn’t normally have compared this story and it’s a bird..., but doing so made it clear what the problem is. Nothing’s really at stake here, and the story hasn’t been put together in a way to make that possible except in the most token fashion. Maybe they thought Seijurō himself was all the risk-taking they needed to employ to make this work. They were wrong.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind