02nd May2017

Catching Up with the Classics: ‘Batman The Long Halloween’

by Dan Clark

Written by Jeph Loeb | Art by Tim Sale | Colorist Gregory Wright | Published by DC Comics

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Synopis: Taking place during Batman’s early days of crime fighting, this new edition of the classic mystery tells the story of a mysterious killer who murders his prey only on holidays. Working with District Attorney Harvey Dent and Lieutenant James Gordon, Batman races against the calendar as he tries to discover who Holiday is before he claims his next victim each month. A mystery that has the reader continually guessing the identity of the killer, this story also ties into the events that transform Harvey Dent into Batman’s deadly enemy, Two-Face.

My Background:

Some may stop reading right now but I have not read a lot of Batman comics. I have read nearly all of Sndyer’s run along with everything Rebirth, but some of his most iconic stories I have yet to fully read in their entirety. Before you start to get your pitchforks I have watched all of the Batman the Animated Series, Justice League, along with any of the recent DC Animated films. One of the biggest reasons I started this series was to catch up with some of his notable stories that I have failed to read.

When I hear people mention the greatest Batman stories the ones that tend to first come up are The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke (which I have read), and Batman: Year One. This tends to be mentioned in the second tier right below those three. Rarely do I see it rank as the best Batman story ever but rarely do I see people complain it is overrated.

I do have some experience with both Jeph Loeb’s previously work for Marvel. In my experience, he is extremely hit and miss…and more often miss than hit. For example, I disliked nearly everything about his run on Hulk and his run on Wolverine had some potential but eventually devolved into a pretty ridiculous interpretation of Wolverine’s true origins.

Outside of that I did read Batman: Hush by Loeb as well. I ended up not having nearly the same admiration for it as some did. I think Jim Lee’s art made up for what was an otherwise problematic story that sacrificed cohesive storytelling for great moments, which gets to my overall issues with Loeb as a writer. He gets overly caught up in the moment and does not often think about how a certain event will impact the general story or future of the character. Him having the Hulk punch The Watcher ranks as one of the lowest points in my comic reading career. So walking into this book my expectations were tempered.

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My Thoughts:

What is immediately apparent reading this now is how much the current state of Batman has moved away from its noir routes. Whether it was the success of the Nolan’s Batman movies or a destined change of the times Batman no longer comes off as a character born from the crime genre. He is, by all means, a superhero living in a fantastic world.

Readers are free to choose their preference, and as someone who loves classic noir, I loved reading a Batman story in this tone again. It is easy to replicate the generic sense of a noir film. Make it consistently dark and gloomy with a moody voice over that consists of a couple of well-timed quips and you are pretty much there. Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale, and colorist Gregory Wright all work to make it more than window dressing.

Right from the beginning, Loeb begins taking influence from some of the most notable crime films of all time. Taking a page from The Godfather the story opens with the wedding of a mob bosses family member. It was like watching the Godfather all over again but this time Bruce Wayne had been cast. Influences from those films go deeper as well. The Godfather depicted the massive change the American mob society was undergoing. The Long Halloween does something similar. What the story is built on is belief and how it is earned and given. How the idea of being a made man was disspearing. No longer were titles enough to ensure safety.

Considering Batman is the least trusting person in history it is a poignant theme to build you story around. Loeb approaches it from all sides as Gotham is undergoing a major transition in all facets. Not only is Batman cementing himself as the savior of Gotham the world of Gotham itself is evolving to something different than before as well. Whether that evolution will bring the city back into the light or bring about its delayed destruction is the key stake in this entire book.

At the center of this two-sided race is not Batman, not Bruce Wayne, but Harvey Dent the young up and coming District Attorney. Joker may be Batman’s ultimate arch nemesis, but I long argue that Two-Face is by far is more complex and personal rogue. Here a man is going around Gotham killing someone every Holiday. Each murder is marked by a special themed trinket the killer leaves behind. The mystery of who the Holiday killer’s identity runs throughout the book. This year-long chase is pushing the city to the brink and eating away at the sole of Harvey Dent.

Morality is muddled through this entire story. Some wonder if Dent is in fact the Holiday killer himself as the victims are the same people he is going after. Commissioner Gordon, Batman, and Dent have formed a triad built upon the promise of riding the city of these mobsters. They too argue over the actions of the Holiday killer and if he should be stopped or supported. The normal means tend to not work for those so well connected as these mobsters. Holiday’s method may be the only way they will ever receive any form a true punishment.

This is where as a writer Loeb succeeds best. By deconstructing the common trope of good vs evil he deludes the black and white notion of what a true hero is considered. Add to this the character of Two-Face/Dent that forces all of society and choice into a very binary worldview you have a conflict that is far more satisfying than simply stopping a mystery killer. Loeb does not forget to bring the fun as well. Many of Batman’s most infamous rogues do show up to tussle with the Dark Knight. This keeps the pacing moving despite a rather dragged out narrative.

Concerns for New Readers:

With the way origins are told and retold it is hard to remember exactly when certain pieces of a character’s lore were established. Some may read this and think Loeb adds very little to the story of Two-Face, but in reality, much of what he depicted was never seen before. He made Dent’s decent into madness more gradually and heartbreaking. We get to see the man long before he turns into the monster.

Another piece is knowing how much of this timeline relates to Frank Millar’s Batman: Year One. Nearly all of the major characters in the different crime families come from that story. In addition, this tory takes place before Batman was a seasoned veteran in the crime fighting world. I know many Batman fans dislike it when he fails no matter the reason or the cause. So if you are one of those people be warned Batman makes a lot of rookie like mistakes in this. For one it takes him nearly a year to solve all these murders. Today’s Batman would probably have it solved before lunch on the first day.

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Worth the Hype?

Based on my experience reading Batman titles some may argue I am not qualified to answer that question. Perhaps they are right. I will say that based on all the Batman stories that I have read this was one of my favorites in large part due to my love of the noir genre.

While there is a lot to admire in Loeb’s story it is Tim Sale and Gregory Wright who take this to another level. Wright’s choice of color palate adds to the thematic notion of cloudy morality. His subtle adjustments in color highlight key sequences that depict these competing worlds of Gotham. This cloud is hanging over the city and he sums it perfectly by painting the right colored picture.

Add to that Tim Sale’s artwork and you have a remarkably looking book. Sale may, in fact, draw my favorite incarnation of The Joker, especially when you compare his sporadic, edgy, and lanky figure to the distinct angular form of Batman. He also knows where exactly to place the viewer’s eye to achieve the most dramatic effect possible. If there were ever to make The Maltese Falcon (,please don’t) Sale should be on set to show them exactly where to place the camera.

While this overall story is far superior to Batman: Hush, I do think it’s artistic beauty makes it easy to overlook some pretty glaring story concerns. The biggest issue is a byproduct of the concept of a yearlong story that has each issue just depicting a specific day. That is quite the challenge when you consider all that needs to happen in each issue. Not only do we need a setup and follow through of each killing all the connecting pieces of the story have to take place within that day as well. If a story piece is picked up an issue or issues later you are left wondering why it would take so long for them to follow up on that information. This leads to a lot of force sequences and information left to be filled in.

The best example of this is the relationship between Batman and Harvey Dent. Batman is going through this struggle over if he should truly trust Dent or not. He questions that he is allowing his friendship to overshadow his belief if Dent is guilty. The issue is that friendship is never showed in any true form. We are never given a reason to believe Batman would have this conflict. Maybe they get together on the Weekends that do not have holidays. If that is the case it is not hinted at or shown in any way.

Loeb does fall victim to his need to sacrifice storytelling to capture standout moments once again. This is evident when the book concludes and all the pieces begin to somewhat fall into play. In true noir fashion, this story is overly convoluted with all the different crime families, Batman, his normal rogues, Gotham City PD, Dent, and the Holiday killer. It is easy to get lost in the minutia of it all.

Part of me wonders if Loeb himself got lost. The best example of this is Catwoman, who has always been a character that acts for her mysterious reasons, yet her final choice here lacks a great deal of logic and motivation. Sure it is a surprise, but a surprise for how much it goes against everything that had happened in the story prior. Not much is given to explain her choice rather than a throwaway line that comes off as a cheap excuse for one last final story twist.

All this is being said to point out that Batman: The Long Halloween has some major nits to pick. If you are not into the noir genre a great deal or enjoy Sale’s artwork as much as me this may not come off as one of Batman’s best stories. I for one appreciated the ambition even if the ambition led to some pitfalls. Greatness is very rarely free of failure. A statement that is true for works of art, people, and as this story shows us the people of Gotham.

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