GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Batman - L, page 2

Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying 1990 (SC TPB) 120 pgs.

Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying - cover by George PerezWritten by Marv Wolfman (co-plotter George Perez). Pencils by Jim Aparo, Tom Grummett (layouts by Perez). Inks by Mike DeCarlo, Bob McLeod.
Colours: Adrienne Roy. Letters: John Constanza. Editors: Denny O'Neil, Mike Carlin, Jonathan Peterson, Dan Raspler.

Reprinting: Batman #440-442, The New Titans #60-61

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

This collects the storyline that introduced Tim Drake, the third character to adopt the identity of Robin. The story has Batman playing cat-and-mouse with one of his arch foes (I won't say who, since that's played as a mystery for the first chapter), while Nightwing (Dick Grayson...the original Robin) is summoned to help his old mentor by an enigmatic, precocious boy, Timothy Drake, who feels Batman hasn't been up to fighting the good fight since the death of Robin II (Jason Todd).

The story starts out well. It's moody, with a couple of shadowy figures plotting various, unknown schemes. But very quickly who the players are, and what they're variously up to, is revealed. The main adventure plot, with Batman's foe plotting to kill him, is, well, pretty lame. I mean, whatever happened to the idea of a villain with some grand scheme that only coincidentally involved the hero? It leaves little room for the sense of a plot unfolding, or for twists and surprises to arise. On the other hand, though it opens with Batman tackling a murderer, overall it's surprisingly tame. No one gets killed, allowing the death traps and machinations to have a kind of old school charm.

Marv Wolfman's writing is uneven, but sometimes genuinely effective: a chapter of Dick returning to his boyhood circus is oddly engrossing as a human drama. But it loses it with the introduction of a crime plot line because, like the main plot, the crime story is trite and dull. Wolfman (and co-plotter George Perez) really haven't strained themselves in the plot department. Also, curiously, Batman is a less-realized character than Dick, or Alfred, or even Tim. (The presence of the Teen Titans is basically in some extended cameos).

The Jim Aparo/Mike DeCarlo pairing is better than I expected given other Batman issues I'd read from that period (the same is true of Wolfman who had turned in some pretty mediocre stories around that time). Aparo's art isn't as tight as in his heyday in the '70s, but he still has an eye for composition that's hard to beat. The Perez/Grummett/McLeod team was less effective, but O.K.

And then there's Tim. I had troubled entirely getting behind Tim because he seemed a little too contrived. In the lexicon of fan fiction (specifically Star Trek fan fiction) Tim is a Mary Jane character -- someone too much intended to representt the fans. Robin had always been acknowledged as an attempt to give the younger readers someone to identify with, but Wolfman and co. have taken that to the nth degree. Tim shows up out of the blue, knowing the intimacies of our heroes trials and tribs, acknowledges Batman and Robin are his heroes, and spouts dialogue no doubt lifted verbatim from the letters pages about how Batman needs a Robin.

Maybe if I was younger, or in a less cynical mood, I might have taken to the conceit of such a character, but all it did was distance me, as if Marv Wolfman had written himself into the story to save the day.

Bat-fans who missed it the first time around might be eager to pick up this repackaging of Robin III's origin...but, as an origin, it's kind of weak. By the end of the storyline, you know little about Tim (stuff presumably explored in later issues) and his intrusion into the story is, as I said, less organic, less of a developed introduction than had been, for instance, the original, pre-Crisis Jason Todd's, whose story unfolded over a number of issues of Batman and Detective (the "new", post-Crisis Jason's origin was pretty lame).

There's also an ethical problem, if taken too seriously. The idea of Batman having a juvenile sidekick, given the sort of nasty foes he tackles, has always been problematic. But here it's put squarely on the basis that Batman needs Robin, Batman needs a partner. To say the adult's needs supersede his responsibility to protect a minor from a dangerous lifestyle is...disquieting. But, as I said, that's if you take it too literally, which you probably shouldn't.

Ultimately, A Lonely Place of Dying, is enjoyable, though not the great drama the intention (or the pretentious title) promises. It's a bit long, a bit thin, but harmless fun and certainly worth the modest cover price of the TPB (it's printed, I assume, on newsprint paper).

It was first published as a crossover between the regular format Batman and the almost twice-as-expensive New Titans -- one of those mercenary moves that led so many to grow cynical about the business side of comics.

This is a review of the stories originally serialized in DC Comics comic books.

Cover price: $4.95 CDN./$3.95 USA.


Batman: The Long Halloween 1998 (HC and SC TPB) 376 pages

cover by Tim SaleWritten by Jeph Loeb. Art by Time Sale.
Colours: Gregory Wright. Letters: Richard Starkings & Comicraft. Editor: Archie Goodwin.

Reprinting: Batman: The Long Halloween 1-13 (1996-1997)

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

Number of readings: 2

Additional notes: intro by Loeb; behind-the-scenes notes, including outlines for "lost" scenes.

I posted this review after a first reading and, now, having read it twice, I've left the original review (more or less) as it was, but added a post-script at the end of the review.

Set early in Batman's career, this chronicles a year-long case as a killer dubbed Holiday strikes once a month, killing assorted mobsters on various holidays. Batman, Captain Jim Gordon, and DA Harvey Dent (who will become Two-Face) work to figure out who the killer is, with suspects ranging from chief mobster, Carmine "The Roman" Falcone, to Dent himself. Along the way, Batman has a flirtatious relationship with Catwoman, and various others in his rogues gallery crop up.

The Long Halloween is a highly regarded Batman saga which helped establish Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale as an IT pairing in comicdom. Mixing brooding psychological insight, with film noire archetypes of gangsters, plus various super villains, while also re-telling the tragic origin of Two-Face, The Long Halloween is regarded as something of a modern classic.

If only it were so.

In my review of Loeb's much later Batman: Hush (which I review here), I comment that it's kind of stupid, but fun on its own level. Not having read The Long Halloween first, I didn't realize how similar the two epics were in style and structure. Maybe because I read Hush first, I actually found I liked the Long Halloween less.

Why mince words? The Long Halloween is a thinly plotted, occasionally illogical, exercise in style over substance, where even the "characterization" is wanting. Stranger still, it's a mystery which, like with Hush, doesn't make a whole lot of sense, offers almost no clues, and which, when resolved, leaves you more puzzled than you were to begin with.

It's a "mystery" in which Batman and his colleagues seem to do almost no actual investigating -- there are no clues to be sifted, no alibis to be verified. Mid-way through the series the characters recap what they know -- and you realize there's been almost no progression since the first issue! As well, Loeb just seems to pick things up and drop them willy nilly. The Riddler appears in an issue and sees something, then disappears from the story. Next to nothing is said about him for the next few issues, until Batman suddenly tracks him down in a bar, determined he saw something relevant. Huh? If the Riddler had a relevant clue, why didn't Batman track him down earlier -- why wait 4 chapters (and, in Batman's time, four whole months!) before pursuing the matter? Worse...the Riddler doesn't offer much that was relevant -- save a cryptic line that, perhaps, Loeb saw as a clue. But in order for it to work, we need to believe in it, we need to understand how the Riddler knew -- or inferred -- what he knew. There's another sequence -- irrelevant to the main case -- where the Roman hires some super villains to knock over a bank and Batman instantly concludes the Roman is behind it -- but why?

Another example of illogical plotting is a sub-plot wherein Harvey Dent suspects Bruce Wayne is connected to the Roman, and pursues it to the point where Bruce is actually arrested and put on trial -- except it's never explained with what "crime" Bruce is being charged! It's preposterous!!! Of course, comics writers have long been notorious for their inability to understand the law. (And, as if Loeb himself realized it made no sense, after threading it through a number of issues, he drops it with just a single line!)

When you get to the end of the saga, I'll admit Loeb surprised me a little bit...but partly that's because Loeb, well, cheats. It's impossible to anticipate who Holiday is because even by the end it's unclear. In the final chapter, no less than three people are identified as Holiday, and it's unclear if one or more is lying, or which murders the various Holidays committed -- since even the confessions require the confessors to infer things of which they have no direct knowledge. Though maybe that was deliberate, as Loeb and Sale did a sequel mini-series, Dark Victory, and so maybe they wanted a deliberately vague ending.

If some of this sounds familiar, it's because Loeb pulled something similar in Hush. In fact, Loeb even uses a similar red herring to throw us off one of the alleged killers.

Loeb also fails to realize his reality -- which is a Gotham almost completely under the thumb of the Roman. Maybe because this was intended as a sequel to Batman: Year One, Loeb felt he didn't need to re-establish that premise. But here we see the Roman involved in very little criminal activity, making the heroes' driving obsession with bringing him down without context. In fact it's ironic that the story is meant to follow on the heels of Batman: Year One (in which the Roman was introduced), yet in other ways doesn't gel with it -- in Year One, Selina Kyle (Catwoman) was a prostitute, here she's a society debutante; in Year One, Gotham was rife with police corruption, here, there's barely a hint of that.

And as for character? Well, there's not a lot. Batman isn't a man -- a complex, three dimensional human -- in a bat suit, he's "Batman", a grim super hero, with about as many character nuances as a brick. Likewise, Jim Gordon is pretty thinly drawn, as are the mobsters (mobster Maroni's motivation is particularly inconsistent). I sort of liked Loeb's take on Catwoman as more a playful, happy-go-lucky figure (though I'm not sure that gels with the usual take on her), but even her motivation seems muddy as Batman frequently asks why she's doing what she's doing or whose side is she on and she responds with some coyly ambiguous quip. I've like Loeb's dialogue before (moreso than his plotting which is often thin and illogical) but here, some of the lines are meant to be heavy on portentousness, as the dialogue is driven by the themes and scenes, not by the characters. In fact, occasionally Loeb throws in lines that frequently hint at something to come...that never does come.

Which leaves Harvey Dent, who's transformation into Two-Face is re-told here. And even he isn't particularly well defined. He's supposed to be obsessively determined to end crime, but we get no insight into why, what drives him, nor is it even consistent (in one scene, an aide comes to him with information, and Harvey brushes him off, saying it'll wait until morning...not quite the actions of a man driving himself to the edge with his obsessive crime busting, is it?) Loeb even ignores dramatizing key scenes...like the moment Harvey starts using his coin to make decisions.

Just a few years before this, Two-Face's origin was re-imagined by Andrew Helfer in Batman Annual #14. Re-reading it recently it's a much better, much smarter, much more character driven, much more plausible story than this 360 page leviathan.

Considering the art in The Long Halloween: I've liked Sale's work before, with his eclectic use of heavy shadow, and his somewhat cartoony figures that are nonetheless vivid and expressive. And it is frequently striking and effective. But Sale loves to indulge in big panels -- frequent splash pages or two page spreads -- of Batman or Catwoman flying through the air. And, you know what? He probably shouldn't. Because I'm not sure Sale really has a firm enough grasp of anatomy to indulge in such extravagances, as his limbs can kind of seem awkward, and he crams in muscle lines that I'm not sure conform to any actual human muscle.

Of course Sale's indulgence in big panels, and Loeb's tendency to write minimally, often with just a few words per panel, results in a book that reads a lot quicker than it should. In fact, in some reviews of the series, fans gushed about how fast it flew by. Well, duh!

I haven't even commented on Loeb's tendency to throw in super villains (as in Hush) but without bothering to really write plots for them. They crop up, Batman beats them up. Period. Nor have I mentioned how Loeb likes to borrow ideas from other sources -- such as a Godfather-like opening at a mob wedding, to Batman consulting an incarcerated Calendar Man for insight into the killer ala Silence of the Lambs (though when did the Calendar Man, who I thought was just a second string villain, became yet another sinister psychopath?).

As I mentioned near the beginning of this, many of these flaws were inherent in Hush, but I still kind of liked Hush. And having conducted a (written) interview with Loeb (here) I'm reluctant to be too harsh (it's hard to diss a comic when the writer is more than just a name on a page, but an actual person). Oh, sure, I know I can be harsh after just one reading, and a second reading might soften my opinion. But when the mystery plot is thin and illogical, when the super hero adventures are barely more than occasional fight scenes, and when the characters seem poorly defined and developed, I don't know what to say.

There are some comics where I'll review it by saying it makes me glad I still read comics...unfortunately, The Long Halloween -- precisely because it's so well regarded by "serious" comics fans (even spawning the sequel, Batman: Dark Victory) and is considered the peak to which the medium should aspire -- actually makes me wonder why I still bother with comics. Ouch. Now that's harsh.

Okay: reassessment-after-a-second-reading time: As often happens, my initial snide passion has defused somewhat. This time I read it almost entirely in one day -- which on one hand, is a compliment to it, on the other hand, reinforces my point about how the big panels and frugality of words makes it a quick read, when you can breeze through a 360 page comic in just a few hours! Little of my above criticisms have changed -- some were even reinforced (even knowing the "solution", I didn't find much in the way of hidden clues or character nuances I missed the first time) -- but, as I did with Hush, if I take it as just a big, dumb, comic book extravaganza where the emphasis is more on the opulent visuals and moody colours, rather than as some serious whodunnit? or profound human drama, it can be more enjoyable. I've given it an extra half star rating and, who knows, maybe after a third or fourth reading I'll boost it again. But it remains frustratingly vapid and insubstantial.

Still, I can always re-read Batman Annual #14.

Cover price: $30.95 CDN./ $19.95 USA.



coverBatman: Lovers & Madmen 2008 (SC TPB) 150 pages.

Written by Michael Green. Pencils by Denys Cowan. Inks by John Floyd.
Colours: I.L.L. Letters: Travis Lanham, Ken Lopez. Editor: Mike Carlin.

Reprinting: Batman: Confidential #7-12 (2007)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed July 22, 2009

Additional notes: intro by Brad Meltzer; covers

Modern (mainstream) comics are a contradictory mix of obsessive continuity on one hand....and stories that seem to disregard any past mythos. In the case of Lovers & Madmen, yet another telling of the Joker's origin, I have no idea whether this is an apocryphal, read-it-for-its-own-sake story, or whether this is meant to be the new, "official" Joker origin. It doesn't really adhere to previous tellings of the tale (such as The Killing Joke)...although it does seem to borrow some inspiration from the 1989 motion picture in that the Joker starts out as a mob gunman named Jack (writer Michael Green's background is in TV, not comics).

Reprinted from Batman Confidential (which replaced Legends of the Dark Knight as the series telling isolated, self-contained Bat-arcs), the premise is that Batman is feeling oddly...content. His war on crime is going well, the streets of Gotham are liveable -- he even has time to indulge in a romance with Lorna, a museum curator. He thinks he's mastered the psychology of the criminal. But when a sociopathic criminal named Jack blows into town, it catches Batman off guard. Thrown off his game, Batman makes a deal to eliminate the new criminal that results in turning the already deadly Jack into the full blown crazy Joker. Along the way, there are minor cameoes for Jonathan Crane (the Scarecrow) and a psych student we can infer is Harley Quinn, both before their own criminal careers.

And the result...is mixed.

It starts well, with an opening scene as Batman reflects on the difference between "silence" and "quiet" (and is echoed at the end of the story). Batman as the hyper rationalist not prepared for a criminal who is illogical is a good idea (and has been touched on before). Though Green's background is in screen writing, he makes good use of the voice over captions of comics. And though I've had mixed feelings about artist Denys Cowan, in the right context I've found his art quite effective, such as The Question. As well, Cowan drew one of my all time favourite Batman stories, Blind Justice (also by a Hollywood screenwriter slumming in the four colour medium). Cowan's style has become even more scratchy and rough over the years, so there's a deliberately raw, ugliness to it at times. When Batman's in costume his features are often quite distorted. The result is I liked aspects of the art, and disliked others (and Cowan's occasionally playing around with panel arrangements can be confusing).

However it used to be that a six issue comic book epic would be just that...an epic. Something you could re-read later and find all sorts of scenes and even sub-plots you'd forgotten about. But Lovers & Madmen is pretty straightforward and simple. Even Lorna, the love interest for Bruce, is mainly a plot device.

Maybe that's why my enthusiasm waned as it unfolds in a fairly straightforward, predictable manner -- ironic, given the theme is about a villain who is supposed to be unpredictable. A whole issue is largely devoted to the obligatory scene at the chemical plant where Jack transforms into the Joker. Nor can the story really build to a grand climax where some master plan reaches a crescendo since, well, if the Joker had a master plan, he wouldn't be crazy, would he? So we just get a sequence of extended, mindless violence.

Green does offer a few potentially interesting ideas, like suggesting Jack's ruthlessness is tied up in a suicidal impulse. But when Jack says he can't kill himself as it's against religious teaching, you're kind of thinking...um...I really think we need more detail on this. He's a crazed killer...but believes in God enough to be incapable of suicide? Like so many Joker stories, we actually get very little insight into his background (other than one comment suggesting his mother beat him).

Though I've read Joker stories before (it's hard to avoid them) and enjoyed some, I'm not a big fan of the character. In his introduction, fellow scribe Brad Meltzer states that eveyone "wants to write the Joker". Not me. Two-Face? Yeah. Clayface (III)? Sure. The Joker? Not so much. And my ambivalence stems precisely from what others' think is sooooo cool about him: that he's a motiveless, irrational killer.

Which leads us to the weightier themes and character exploration. Stuff that helps raise the story a notch above just being this month's slugfest, even as Green doesn't fully pull it off.

I could be snarky and say that the fact that Meltzer praises its sophistication kind of sends up warning flags by itself, Meltzer having written, among other things, Identity Crisis which had plot and logical holes you could drive the Batmobile through. Meltzer gushes about the title: Madmen, plural. And you think, sure, it's clever suggesting Batman is, in his way, as crazy as those he fights...almost as clever as the bazillion other times writers have suggested it, Brad!

But Green's story maybe has an unavoidable flaw, which is the whole kickoff to the events is that Jack is a crazy villain...yet he also needs to be restrained enough that when he transforms into the Joker, he can be even worse. But the result is, Jack doesn't really seem like that big a deal...certainly not enough for Batman to panic and lose his perspective (Green throws in that Lorna gets critically wounded by Jack, presumably as a fall back to suggest that that plays a part in Batman's motivation).

As well, the problem with a lot of modern comics (Batman inparticular) is that in their desire to provide a sophisticated spin on "goofy" old comics, they're just viewing the world through a myopic comic book perspective. I mean...c'mon. How can we seriously believe this guy spent his life training to fight crime...and never realized there were sick, crazy people out there? As well, it's a bit awkward when you have comics like this (and Arkham Asylum, The Killing Joke, etc.), supposedly "dealing" "seriously" with madness and criminal insanity...when you don't for a minute believe the writers have any insight into mental illness or even so much as consulted a psychiatrist while drafting their plot.

Midway through the story Batman takes a certain course that outraged a lot of fans (judging by some internet comments). And, in this jaded day and age, it's kind of nice fans would insist it was out-of-character. And it is supposed to be out-of-character, and Batman repents his actions. (And yes, I'm trying to be vague so as not to provide a spoiler). But no matter how Green wanted to rationalize it, it's awkward. As mentioned, you just don't really believe Jack was proving himself so unstoppable at that point. And in the climax of the story, Batman takes a diametrically opposed action, which would be great, a character arc ...except it wasn't clear why he changed.

It's also awkward because this story has Batman be far more directly responsible for the creation of the Joker than he was in any other version of the story. That's why I started out this review saying I was unsure whether it was apocryphal or not, because, logically, it would have reverberations throughout all future Batman-Joker confrontations, completely altering the dynamics of the conflict. As well, it kind of runs counter to the very themes Green was trying to establish: the logical, up-right Batman against the irrational, amoral Joker.

There are also a lot of minor flaws. Batman isn't particularly clever, even relying on the bat-computer to make deductions, or where Batman only confronts the Joker in the climax because the Joker summoned him. Yeah, this is supposed to be a young Batman...but does he have to be quite so ineffective? Jack/Joker pulls capers and sets up death traps that it would seem impossible for one man to arrange by himself. The story doesn't fully deliver on the key moments, at least viscerally. For that matter, how come when the Joker first starts his killing/crime spree Alfred instantly seems to know it's Jack?

That's minor nitpicking. But they build up.

I started out enjoying the story. Not perhaps riveted as it's a bit thin and straightforward -- but nonetheless enjoying it. But once you get into the second half, though still not bad, per se, my enthusiasm waned, Green is so focused on the climactic confrontation, that nothing that interesting occurs to get us there. The result is a six issue arc that started out "pretty good", became "good", and ended as "um, it was alright".

And I'll still say the definitive Batman-Joker tale is Going Sane.

It's also worth noting the mores of comic books, and whether something is "mature readers" or not. The story is gritty and violent, but not perhaps unusually so for a Batman-Joker tale. But there's also an explicit (albeit PG) scene where Bruce sleeps with Lorna. Just so's ya know.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$14.99 USA.

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