GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Batman - H
 

Batman: Haunted Knight 1996 (SC & HC GN) 192 pages

Written by Jeph Loeb. Illustrated by Tim Sale.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting: Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special (1993), Batman: Madness (1994), Batman: Ghosts (1995)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Apr. 2017

Haunted Knight collects three extra long specials produced under the Legends of the Dark Knight label -- Legends of the Dark Knight being a then-monthly series ostensibly telling ambitious tales by an ever changing creative team. The theme of these stories, to some extent, was Halloween (hence "Haunted" Knight). Although to be honest, that theme can feel a bit tenuous. Other than identifying the setting as being around Halloween, and utilizing some of Batman's creepy rogues gallery (Scarecrow, The Mad Hatter), it's not like they seem any more Halloween-y than any other Scarecrow, etc. tale (it's not like they are unusual spooky or have Batman investigating a haunted house or something). And these specials were done by what many saw as a creative A-team of writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale -- the two collaborating on multiple, often critically acclaimed, projects over the years, for both Marvel and DC.

Now I'll be honest -- I've actually been kind of ambivalent about other Loeb-Sale efforts. I say this acknowledging many are critically acclaimed by comics fans, and held up as creative benchmarks. Although, equally, I was aware at one point that Loeb seemed to be losing his lustre in that regard, sometimes referred to dismissively by fans in reviews. But whether that was because fans detected a shift in his quality, or it could be blamed on fickle fandom, or that, um, well, maybe my ambivalence was just ahead of the crowd, I dunno.

The problem I find is that Loeb's stuff can seem overly pompous and pretentious -- without actually delivering the substance to justify that hubris. Indeed, his plotting can be thin and generic (sometimes, I suspect, deliberately so -- as though an "homage" to the cliches), dressed up with simple characterization, and then lathered over with broodingly introspective captions meant to make it all seem deep.

However -- I do like Sale's art.

And Sale is in good form in these stories -- maybe even his best period. Sale's has an odd style that is at once stylish and cartoony, with exaggerated heads and the like -- even as there is a genuine life and texture to his panels, full of atmosphere, strikingly rendered settings, and dynamic composition. And he's especially well suited to Batman's world, with its dark shadows and Bat's blooming cape (though that may well be because I first discovered Sale's art on a Batman tale). One might argue that Sale's style nicely captures the Gothic drama of Batman's world, but with its touch of caricature, he also lends it a welcome lightness that means it can still retain an Old School sense of fun and whimsy, even when dealing with dangerous menaces.

At times these Loeb-Sale's collaborations can seem a bit like they mainly exist to let Sale lose on the pages, and Loeb then just tries to make it seem smart and classy with his captions.

But there can be a lot of -- well, why mince words? -- vapidness.

And genericness. There's not a lot in most of these stories that doesn't just come across as yet another go-round with the Scarecrow, or the Mad Hatter, or whoever. Hardly warranting 50-70 page specials. And where Loeb does try to be original, it can feel confusing and undeveloped. So in the Scarecrow tale a sub-plot has Bruce Wayne becoming embroiled in a romance with a mysterious woman. But it's so oddly handled -- she seems kind of shifty, sneaking into Wayne Manor willy-nilly without much more than a raised eyebrow from Bruce -- that I kept assuming it would all turn out to be dream brought about by the Scarecrow's hallucinatory gas. But it wasn't. And it still feels thin.

The Mad Hatter story has the Hatter in a particularly manic mode, kidnapping Gotham children -- but again feels really thin. And again can feel like Loeb tries to spray on some pseudo-sophistication without really doing the heavy lifting. In this case we are given childhood flashbacks showing that Bruce's mother used to read him Alice in Wonderland, but after her death he couldn't stand the book -- and somehow by the end of this story he's found his way back to it. I say "somehow" because that's my point. Why on earth would fighting a creepy child kidnapper who names himself after a character from Alice in Wonderland suddenly mean you re-discover your love for the story?

The third story has Loeb trying to import A Christmas Carol (yeah, it's a Halloween-themed collection with a Christmas Carol homage) -- except it really does just feel like a generic Christmas Carol homage, rather than as if Loeb has anything interesting or clever to say or do with it -- and again it's wafer thin. Batman is visited by ghosts who look like some of his arch foes -- Poison Ivy, The Joker -- simply so he learn that he's become a bit of a stiff (The Joker sequence literally just entails the Joker showing him kids avoid trick-or-treating at Wayne Manor). But we kind of knew that about Batman -- indeed, we've been hit over the head with that theme for years! (A more effective Batman/Christmas Carol mash-up would come a few years later with Batman: Noel ~ reviewed elsewhere on this site)

I keep getting back to my point about genericness in all three tales, as if Loeb (and Sale) are just hitting the expected beats, rather than have anything new or fresh to say. So we get arch foes, we get flashbacks to the night his parents died, without finding a new angle or offering an unusual spin on any of it. The plots aren't particularly interesting or surprising, the character insight isn't especially insightful, and the execution -- despite Sale's great visuals -- is fairly straight forward. By that I mean you could have a story that is, in general, generic, but boasts some memorable scenes, or quirky moments.

Now I get back to my point of saying clearly I'm just not seeing what others see in these Loeb-Sale pairings. So if you've loved most of their other endeavours then, yeah, you'll probably like these, maybe even enjoying them for their relative brevity (despite their length, they are still shorter than the duo's mini-series). But if you haven't been a big fan, but were wondering if this might change your mind -- then I have to say that I don't think it will.

More's the pity. Because I do like Sale's art. And I like that Loeb wants to write thoughtful, profound stories.



Batman: Holy Terror
see review in Batman Elseworlds section


Batman: Hong Kong 2003 (SC & HC GN) 128 pages

coverWritten Doug Moench. Art: Tony Wong (a.k.a. Wong Yuk Long)
Colours/letters: ?

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1

After a bizarre murder is broadcast over the internet, and after failing to prevent a second such killing, Batman follows the trail to Hong Kong. There he teams up with a friend of one of the victims, who has adopted his own costumed identity, the Night-Dragon. Their pursuit of the killer embroils them in a family feud between the local police commissioner and a mobster.

The growing popularity of manga in the West -- the Asian variation of American comic books -- hasn't been ignored by American companies. The year before this, DC released Batman: Child of Dreams, written and drawn by a Japanese comics professional. One suspects it was the desire to test the waters with a few such experiments that led to Batman: Hong Kong...because, frankly, it's hard to believe creative inspiration was involved. It's drawn by a popular Hong Kong-based artist and publisher, Tony Wong (a.k.a. Wong Yuk Long), but written by American Doug Moench, no stranger to the Dark Knight Detective, having written for the character many times over the last twenty years.

If the main selling point is the art, it's hard to see what the fuss is about. Wong is certainly a capable artist, particularly if you're into manga, but there's nothing exceptional here. And if you aren't into manga, some peculiarities of the style might throw you. Like the fact that Asian characters in this Asian art form tend not to look Asian, making it odd when characters identify a blonde with aquline features as Chinese. And Batman looks as though he can fly at times. There are also aspects to the visual language that require a certain familiarity with the style. Puff balls hanging around a character's head indicating -- what? Or impact explosions that don't seem connected to any action. There are also occasional spots where the words and images clash (describing a black limo as white). Wong paints some panels, while others are coloured conventionally -- if there was a subtext to the variation, I missed it.

Part of the story concept here is Batman as a fish out of water, requiring him to find an ally in Night-Dragon. The problem is that Hong Kong doesn't seem all that foreign. That's probably the nature of modern, big cities: they're becoming homogeonous. But it may also be a fault of Moench, either not knowing enough about the place, or unable to work it into his story if he did. You never feel Batman is a stranger in a strange land. In fact, there's so much shooting and fighting, there's very little time to stop and explore the culture, period. Moench's main trick is to emphasize that Batman doesn't speak the language, but that's no impediment as he conveniently finds people to translate for him. That's a bit awkward anyway, because Batman is traditionally depicted as being multilingual.

The story would barely justify a couple of issues of a comic, and certainly not a 128 page graphic novel -- which was previously released in hardcover, yet! Things are stretched out with irrelevant fight scenes (Batman stopping a mugging, Batman stopping a hostage crisis) that are way too long (one fight was about 15 pages!) and just not very interesting. You know you're in trouble when two thirds of the way through even the heroes remark they still have no clues. To be fair, Moench did surprise me with the identity of the baddie, and he had imbedded a clue or two earlier in the story, but it doesn't much help if, while reading it, you feel that the plot seems hopelessly stalled.

The writing and dialogue is frequently rather middling, and character actions hard to credit. Commissioner Gordon is told of the web murder, even what buildings can be seen in the background of the broadcast (narrowing down the likely area the crime was committed) and still he shrugs and says there's not much he can do until the body shows up on its own! (You half expect him to say to Batman: "What -- you think the Gotham police have nothing better to do than investigate murders?")

Moench is a writer I've been ambivalent about when it came to past Bat-tales (though he did a good job cutting his teeth years ago on Marvel's Batman-wannabe, Moon Knight). But there's little doubt that Moench wants to write stories that seem to have deeper threads than just the action. Here, Batman takes a back seat as Moench plays around both with the Night-Dragon, and the rivalry between a cop and a mobster. But it remains pretty trite, undeveloped stuff. Though an interesting twist is that Night-Dragon is not an established Hong Kong hero, but one inspired by seeing Batman -- even as it seems odd that Batman would be so quick to ally himself with an amateur.

Meanwhile, Batman's failure to save the earlier victim fuels his determination. In familiar Moench fashion, it's brought around in a parallel scene in the (penultimate) climax, as Batman thinks "I can't fail again." But Moench fails to make it clear whether Batman is driven by compassion and guilt over failing to save a victim...or simply anger at himself for failing to have accomplished a set goal. This ambiguity is accentuated when, in the later scene, Batman actually deserts a potential victim in order to chase a bad guy!

As I get older, I find it's harder to separate the "gee whiz" heroics of super hero comics from their real world implications. Here, the unknown villain is targeting both the law and the mobs, forcing an uneasy collusion between the two, with Batman and Night-Dragon along as well. When you have scenes of cops, mobsters, and costumed vigilantes rampaging through the streets, beating up the "usual suspects" for information (information they don't have), you can feel a bit queasy. Isn't this the actions of a police state? What happened to human rights? To civil liberties? It could have made for an interesting story, as Batman and the cops realize they've made a deal with the Devil by allying themselves with gangsters, but that's not Moench's message. In fact, an underlining theme is that the Hong Kong police commissioner and the mob boss should bury their hatchet -- but, uh, aren't cops SUPPOSED to hunt mobsters?

Of course, the idea of Batman "investigating" simply by beating up bad guys for information has become so ingrained into the comics, no one even questions it. Aside from the immorality of it (often, as in this story, he's beating up people who turn out not to know anything), is the fact that it reflects a staggeringly lazy story telling crutch. Batman is supposed to be the "world's greatest detective", but he very rarely is depicted as "detecting" anything. And that lack of "detective" skills is very much at the heart of some of the flaws to this book, relating to why the story is so thin (there aren't a lot of clues to be uncovered or suspects to be considered) and why the fish-out-of-water concept flounders (Batman's strong arm tactics seem to translate well enough). And this lack of a credible mystery/detective story shows up in dodgy plot lapses -- like a villain who's actions are explained by the fact that he (or she) is just nuts, and it's never explained where the villain got the money to commission the elaborate web murders.

The bottom line is that it picks up a bit toward the end, but remains a rather dull, tossed together effort, with little plot or genuine human drama to it, or much sense of the "foreign" culture in which Batman finds himself.


Batman: Hush 2003 (SC & HC) 300 pages

Written by Jeph Loeb. Pencils by Jim Lee. Inks by Scott Williams
Colours: Alex Sinclair. Letters: Richard Starkings. Editor: Bob Schreck.

Reprints: Batman #608-619 (2002-2003)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Number of readings: 2
Re-reviewed Aug. 2014
(This has been collected both in "complete" editions -- but also, initially, over two TPBs. But though a single 12 issue epic, it is structured in such a way that the initial TPB reprinting the first five chapters does build to a climax and forms a bit of a story, so can be read on its own, or at least as a "sample" to see if you want to get the rest).

I read and reviewed Hush (the collaboration between Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee) when it was first collected -- back when I was doing semi-professional reviews for another website. But that site later underwent a major overhaul and dropped most of its archived reviews -- including mine. So I kept meaning to re-post my review here, but figured I should get around to re-reading it before I did -- which I've finally done, almost a decade later!

A few things have changed. I'm a different person -- obviously. I haven't been reading as many comics lately (a combination of lack money, time, and inclination). But also the context changed. When I first read Hush -- I hadn't read writer Jeph Loeb's earlier, critically acclaimed Bat-epic, The Long Halloween, and so I hadn't realized just how much Hush borrows from and is arguably derivative of that other saga.

Rereading my initial Hush review, I had kind of liked it in a guilty pleasure sort of way. In fact the comment that stuck out for me is that I described it as: "deeply stupid and relentlessly unclever. But it's also kind of refreshing and...fun." A kind of backhanded compliment. And re-reading the story, I can kind of see both points.

Hush is an epic 12-part story in which many of Batman's key foes crop up, but he suspects they are being manipulated by -- or otherwise in cahoots with -- some mysterious mastermind. Along the way, many of his key friends and allies lend a hand -- with Nightwing, Robin, Jim Gordon, Huntress and others appearing, usually just for an issue or two. The most consistent ally is Catwoman -- with Loeb fast-tracking a romantic relationship between the two after years of a hinted romantic tension.

Along the way, Loeb introduces other threads. A mysterious figure spying on Batman from roof tops; flashbacks to a childhood friendship Batman had, and that now adult friend re-entering his life as a successful neurosurgeon (a not wholly convincing addition to the mythos -- he seems too obviously a plot device). Plot-wise, the cup doesn't exactly runneth over, but there're enough threads to at least give us a sense of things brewing. Thirty years ago comics writers like Roy Thomas or Gerry Conway would've considered this barely enough to fill up half these pages. Times change. Still, this probably reads a lot better collected as a "graphic novel" rather than serialized over many months.

But after years of writers strangling Batman in an ultra dark n' gritty world of gang wars and twisted serial killers, here we have an epic saga with only a couple of deaths in the whole thing!

Part of the trick to assessing the saga relates to what you're expecting, and what it's trying to be. In the end, I suspect it's just meant to be a kind of fanboy indulgence. The fact that this was marketed so much as a collaboration between writer Loeb and artist Lee can make you wonder if it was Lee who was kind of driving it -- Loeb just writing the scenes (and characters) Lee wanted to draw. So we have the obligatory "Batman gets critically injured" scene (and somehow recovering from neurosurgery -- and with a full head of hair! -- in short order) and the always popular "Batman fight Superman, proving wiles trumps super powers" scene. This oft repeated "Batman psyches himself up to killing the Joker...then relents at the last minute" cliche, the "Batman duels Ra's Al Ghul in a desert" sequence, and more. Along the way, Loeb shoe horns in appearances by most of Batman's key foes and friends (including a mute guy named Harold with whom I think even a lot of fans were unfamiliar), plus scenes that require Batman to reflect back on key moments in his career -- the death of Jason Todd, etc. And there are images that seem meant to harken to past stories -- such as the mysterious villain often depicted in a trench coat and facial bandages, ala Harvey Dent in the classic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (including a panel where Batman dives after the masked villain thinking "I have to know" -- the same line from TDKR).

Arguably Hush is a kind of nostalgia tinged Valentine to the Batman mythos. A story where an unknown foe seems to have enlisted many of Batman's foes in a sinister plot against him, and where Batman's secrets are known to his adversary (also reminding me of a shorter 1981 mini-series, The Untold Legend of the Batman). You're supposed to greet the scenes with recognition, as Loeb and Lee set out to encapsulate all that is Batman in twelve issues. At least -- I assume. Truth is, I've noticed past Loeb scripts (even dating back to his first major comics work, The Challengers of the Unknown Must Die!) that blur the line between homage and simply derivative.

(Mind you, I think Hush itself may have significantly inspired the later Batman saga about The Red Hood).

With all that said, re-reading the saga, it teased my inner fan boy less than it had the first time. Because once you get past the pretty pictures (more on Lee's art in a minute) and the shamelessly simple-minded trotting out of all the old toys to be played with, you get back to my point about "deeply stupid." As mentioned, at the time, I hadn't read the Long Halloween, but I have in the interim -- and I'll admit I wasn't a big fan of it, despite it being even more critically acclaimed. In both cases Loeb sets out to concoct an epic that involves appearances by many key foes -- and in both cases, not to much satisfying effect. The individual chapters aren't cleverly well plotted adventures involving key adversaries, so much as they are just excuses for big fight scenes and a chance for the artist to draw 'em. Yet if it's not a series of interesting stand alone adventures, with a sub-plot linking them together, neither is it exactly a genuine epic novel of Byzantine plot twists.

Batman quickly becomes convinced of some grand scheme orchestrated by some unseen foe -- but based on very little actual evidence. Merely vague assertions key foes are acting out-of-character, or seem smarter than usual. Honestly, for a time I half wondered if the twist would turn out that Batman was simply succumbing to delusional paranoia.

It ultimately wants to be a mystery, teasing us with the identity of the masked foe (labelled as Hush -- though curiously he's not given that name until the end!) But like with Loeb's earlier The Long Halloween, it's a lame mystery, with few genuine clues, marked by leaps of logic the reader has no reason to make, and deliberately muddying the waters by actually having it be two masterminds working together (and, for that matter, leaving it coy with Hush never physically being unmasked). Part of the mystery is that Batman's foes are acting out-of-character, yet the solution is one of the masterminds is, himself, acting out-of-character. And a major clue throughout is that his unseen foe seems to know his dual identity -- yet it's never explained how!

And for such a drawn out mystery, it's still not hard to anticipate who Hush will be (though Loeb tries to throw us off the track with a similar trick he tried in The Long Halloween).

Don't get me wrong -- you can find yourself leaning forward a bit in your seat as the story moves into its final few chapters, and a few false revelations are thrown your way, waiting for Hush to be revealed (interestingly, one of the false reveals Loeb uses presumably struck the DC editorial board as petty nifty, and they later did it for real in a subsequent Batman arc). But I stick by my assessment of deeply stupid and relentlessly unclever.

A quasi saving grace is Loeb's desire to try and give the thing a slightly introspective spin. If the actual issue-by-issue plots are wafer thin, that's because they, and the big fight scenes, often occur under a voiceover narration by Batman, brooding and ruminating on his life. In short, Loeb wants this to be a bit of a character study. Admittedly, I have a few problems with that. I've said before that (especially since the mid-1980s and the post-Crisis reality) Batman writers have often gone overboard to try and present deeply analytic tales of Batman even as, in the same period, he has been reduced to such a one note, easily defined personality archetype, that it's heavy analysis of a two-dimensional character. As well, describing and analyzing character, whether in first person narration, or from the mouths of other characters, isn't quite the same as portraying the character and character interaction.

Case in point: a major thread in this saga is the acceleration of Batman and Catwoman's relationship, with Batman constantly harping on it in his voiceover narration, and other characters remarking on its influence on his demeanour. What's missing is too many scenes that convincingly, and effectively, portray a relationship between them! There's a lot of talk about it, but one of the more memorable "human" scenes between them is just a short interlude that I think was only added for the collections!

As with so much else, one wonders if Loeb stuck in the romance because, as a fanboy, he just wanted to finally do a story where they were a couple (something that hadn't been done since pre-Crisis continuity), more than because he really had any sense of how it should be depicted.

Or maybe he did it because artist Jim Lee, a graduate of the Good Girl Art school of comics art, just wanted an excuse to draw a pretty gal in buttock-hugging leotards -- hence the penchant for girl-girl fight scenes involving, variously, Catwoman, Huntress, Poison Ivy, Talia and Lady Shiva!

Which finally brings us to talking about Lee's art -- which was clearly a major selling point of the series, moreso than even Loeb's name on the by-line. Lee's a fan favourite, but apparently notoriously slow, and not with too many regular series (certainly featuring mainstream characters) under his belt. This was meant to be a definitive Magnum Opus as Lee tackled Batman -- hence why, as I say, the story was clearly structured to leave almost no stone (or character) unused (after this I believe he also did a Superman epic, paired with a different writer, and even returned to Batman with Frank Miller as the writer for All-Star Batman).

There's no doubt Lee's an impressive artist, delivering meticulous detail when it comes to backgrounds and city scapes, and prone to iconic postures and posing by the hunky men and glamorous women. He effectively captures a sense of Batman's noirish, gothic world of dark alleys and with his swirling cape, while still remaining firmly rooted in a super hero vein of (overly) big muscles and the like. There's an overall realism (well, idealism) which I tend to like -- no cartoony distortions or Manga influences (though I did wonder if there was a deliberate Frank Miller vibe in some of the images of Batman bounding through the air, and a penchant for big boots as though some of the characters had slightly over-sized feet).

Yet for all that, and for all that Lee is meant to be the star of the series, and I suspect more fans bought it for the visuals than the writing, I wasn't quite as blown away by it as some. The very use of detail often rendered some panels a bit cluttered, making it a bit hard to sift out the important elements (perhaps a fault of the colourist not contrasting foreground and background, and the important elements from the peripheral). The very iconism kind of bled some of the humanity out of the proceedings. This is a "super hero" saga, full of muscular men, lithe women, and with everyone often standing around in imperious poses with tight lips and locked jaws. Some artists have a knack for capturing idiosyncratic poses and expressions, for conveying mood and attitude through body language, by the way a character leans against a wall, or sits in a chair. That's not really Lee's interest.

As well, maybe the very fact that Lee is such a straight forward artist saps some of the point of unleashing him on a story drawing upon so many iconic villains. When Alex Ross first unveiled his fully painted, photo-realist art on familiar comic book characters, it was neat seeing the old characters in a brand new way. While with other artists, with more quirky or distinctive styles, it can likewise be neat to see them interpret the characters. But with Lee, his Poison Ivy looks like Poison Ivy, his Joker looks like the Joker. He deliberately re-imagines Killer Croc (making him more monstrous) but not necessarily to memorable effect.

Hush overall, is a war between the head and heart. Oh, sure, there's some attempts at character analysis, and Loeb and Lee seem to believe they're being profound (at least according to Lee's introduction in one of the collected editions). But the head remains largely convinced that it's kind of stupid, with the bones of an idea for a great story, more than the fully grown animal. But it's beautifully illustrated and steeped in the sort of fanboy affection that says, "wouldn't it be way cool to create a story involving most of Batman's foes, an' where he kisses Catwoman, an' where we get to present fleeting flashbacks to some key moments, overt homages to others, as well as reflections on Bat's childhood, an' where instead of seeming too cheesy, we dress it up with brooding captions, and moody imagery, an' we make it a mystery to boot, just not too clever a one that will bore the readers -- wouldn't that be cool?"

Hush's vice is that it's not all that profound or complex...but equally its virtue is that it maybe isn't meant to be.


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