If you’ve noticed that Batman appears in this column more than other superheroes do, you should know it’s not an accident. Batman is and always has been my favorite of the mainstream comics characters, and whenever I’m asked why, I always launch into a speech about how it takes a commitment to be Batman. He’s not endowed with something special. He has to build it. He has to train for it. When something extraordinary happens, he has to summon an extraordinary response with little more than willpower (and, admittedly, the billions of dollars don’t hurt). There are a lot of things wrong with ’90s Batman stories like Cataclysm (and its massive yearlong successor No Man’s Land), but I maintain a steadfast admiration for them in part because in many ways they showcase Batman’s commitment to being Batman more than any other stories in the character’s lifetime.
I spent a period of several months last year reading everything from the Contagion arc of ’96 all the way through the end of No Man’s Land in ’99. They’re bombastic and filled with over the top ’90s excess, but beneath all that there’s an ambition, a sense of doing something big that doesn’t have to fall into the realm of reality-bending crossover. The best Batman stories are almost always the stories when he’s faced with a massive, but thoroughly plausible, crisis, and forced to fight his way out of it. Cataclysm was the beginning of the ultimate plausible crisis. Batman’s city, his lover, his Gotham, is shaken to its core, and he’s forced to grapple with it.
Part of the intoxicating fun of Cataclysm is its sense of potential. It’s almost a literal wiping clean of the Gotham City slate that had become so crowded with characters in the early ’90s. Those characters remain, but now everything they know is changing. Roles switch, characters find new purposes, heroes and villains fall into gray areas. The malleable landscape of No Man’s Land begins here, and though the payoff wasn’t always successful, the introduction of the principle in this story is too effective to ignore.
Cataclysm is one of those stories that’s been buried under more prestigious Batman tales, but it’s worth a second look. It’s not life-changing, but it’s Batman fighting a natural disaster, and what’s not fun about that?