Batman: The Long Halloween

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Collects: Batman: The Long Halloween 1-13

Writer: Jeph Loeb

Penciler: Tim Sale

Inker: Tim Sale

Colorist: Gregory Wright

Letterer(s): Richard Starkings, Comicraft

Year(s): 1996-1997

Buy it here

 

You know the system doesn’t work. That justice can be decided like the flip of a coin.

The Long Halloween is a perfect Batman book for someone new to comics. You don’t need to know anything – just that Bruce Wayne is a rich guy who dresses up in a bat-suit to fight criminals. Part of what’s great about this book is how accessible it is. It helps that the story is wholly engrossing and exciting; there’s a reason The Long Halloween is touted as one of Batman’s most enduing and popular tales.

So, what’s it about? Well, The Long Halloween takes place early in Batman’s career, shortly after the events of Year One. He’s already tangled with a number of nutty foes, like the Joker, Poison Ivy, and the Riddler. Mostly, though, his war on crime still concerns mobsters that have infected Gotham City for decades. Namely, Carmine Falcone, Sal Maroni, and their respective families. A good portion of the book’s drama surrounds them, and it’s here the story begins.

The Long Halloween covers a lot of ground. Batman’s alliance with Captain Jim Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent. His relationship with Catwoman. Gotham City crime families falling out as costumed crazies start to take over. Then there’s the tragic heart of the story: Harvey Dent’s fall from grace. We see Harvey as a driven lawyer set on ending organized crime and corruption. He shares with Batman and Gordon the belief that justice in Gotham often exists outside the law. Following closely Harvey’s crusade alongside these two men makes his transformation at the end of the book all the more heartbreaking. And believable.

But all of this – the mobsters, the rogues, Dent – is secondary to the story’s main mystery: a killer known as Holiday carrying out murders on Halloween, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, etc. Across 13 issues, the mystery unfolds masterfully. As I mentioned, a lot is packed into this story, but writer Jeph Loeb crafts a cohesive, yet undeniably epic, crime drama. The resolution is both surprising and satisfying.

Batman himself gets some great moments here. One of the scenes that sticks with me is the first meeting between Gordon, Dent, and Batman on the GCPD roof. After Batman darts off into the night, the other two find Falcone’s ledger just sitting there. Harvey looks stunned, and Gordon says, “Don’t ask.” It’s great. I also love the conversation Bruce has with Alfred about his father in the Father’s Day issue.

Even though I love this book, I have some problems with it. First, the Godfather references can be a bit much. It gets to a point where Loeb basically rips off scenes from the movie. I get that he’s writing a gangster crime drama, but The Godfather is low-hanging fruit and Loeb snags all he can without abandon. I also think too many of Batman’s rogues are in the book. It’s cool to see them, sure, but their roles are tangential at best – it feels like Loeb was padding out the pages, only including them because of their popularity.

Finally, a word on Tim Sale’s art. People either love it or hate it. I hear words like “beautiful” and “expressive” as much as “ugly” and “disfigured” when his name comes up. I’m somewhere in the middle. I usually like Sale’s style, but sometimes it doesn’t work for me. His Joker, for instance, I find ridiculously exaggerated. The huge toothy grin and pencil thin figure look way too cartoony for the grounded crime drama Loeb and Sale are going for. The Joker can still be scary with normal human features.

I’ll say this though: Sale’s Batman looks amazing. A supremely tall man, all muscled and grizzled, with a flowing, Gothic cape and long bat-ears – this is what I see when I think of Batman. I also have to mention the coloring by Gregory Wright. His stark, muted tones give this book a wonderful noir feel. Some panels have just two or three colors with lots of shadow. One of my favorites features Gordon, glasses in hand, looking out of his office window on a rainy night.

It’s easy to see why The Long Halloween is so popular. It’s a grounded, accessible take on Batman wrapped up in a fantastic mystery. I’d read it once before, and reading it again, knowing what happens, I couldn’t put it down. It’s a page-turner if there ever was one. Along with Year One, this is the Batman book I’d recommend for someone new to his stories. And even if you’re a longtime reader, it has lots to love.

 

Next: Loeb and Sale follow up their acclaimed story with Dark Victory.

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Batman: Four of a Kind

Cover for the Batman: Four of a Kind Trade Paperback

Collects: Batman: Shadow of the Bat Annual 3, Detective Comics Annual 8, Batman Annual 19, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Annual 5

Writer(s): Alan Grant, Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench

Penciler(s): Brian Apthorp, Kieron Dwyer, Bret Blevins, Enrique Alcatena

Inker(s): Stan Woch, Kieron Dwyer, Mike Manley, Enrique Alcatena

Colorist(s): Linda Medley, Richmond Lewis, Stuart Chaifetz, Digital Chameleon

Letterer(s): Ken Lopez, Albert DeGuzman, Willie Schubert

Year(s): 1995

Buy it here (out of print)

 

In 1995, DC released themed Annual issues across its four Batman titles. After Crisis on Infinite Earths rebooted the DC Universe ten years earlier, some Batman villains hadn’t yet been given origins in the new continuity, at least definitively. Hence, the 1995 Annuals recounted Batman’s first encounters with four villains: Poison Ivy, Riddler, Scarecrow, and Man-Bat.

Frankly, I find it hard to believe this many “colorful” villains were around in Batman’s early days. Hugo Strange and the Joker, sure. But Poison Ivy, Riddler, Scarecrow, and Man-Bat, all showing up just after a year? I don’t buy it. I guess Batman fighting mobsters and everyday thieves gets boring after a while, so I understand the narrative reasoning. Then there’s the argument that Batman (unintentionally) inspires the crazies, which is interesting to think about. But I’m probably looking into it too much. Batman has some fantastic villains, so I shouldn’t be complaining about when they show up in a fictional timeline. It’s just that I’ve become attached to this character and his world, so it’s natural for me to make logical sense of it all.

But let’s talk about this book. It’s a decent read, but nothing essential. Only one of the four issues is really good. The focus is certainly on the villains, but seeing Batman react to them and figure out how to overcome their deadly quirks is fun to see. I can imagine  encountering a woman who controls plants and a guy dressed as a scarecrow would shake most people up something fierce – but Batman, naturally, takes it all in stride.

Poison Ivy (Shadow of the Bat Annual 3). So I’m not the biggest Poison Ivy fan. I usually find her silly, and this issue didn’t really change my perception of her. Maybe that’s because it’s written in an intentionally Silver Age style, replete with campy, exclamation point-dialogue and 60s-style art. I like the callbacks to her pre-Crisis origin in Batman 181: the society party with Silken Spider, Dragonfly, and Tiger Moth, and Poison Ivy’s scheme to steal money from guests. But I wouldn’t say this issue is good by any means. It’s endearingly goofy, and that’s about it.

Riddler (Detective Comics Annual 8). This issue was better. I like Riddler a lot, but wasn’t familiar with his origin. Edward Nigma was a precocious child, always asking questions – and after he won a puzzle book at school, he was determined to be a “guy with all the answers.” I actually enjoyed seeing his progression from neglected boy to criminal mastermind. Writer Chuck Dixon does a good job of showing how Riddler really does view his riddles as performance, to prove his cleverness. The framing of the issue is also solid: Riddler in Arkham Asylum, telling his life’s story but getting distracted and angry whenever he mentions Batman.

Scarecrow (Batman Annual 19). It’s become apparent to me that Doug Moench is not a good writer. I thought the dialogue was bad in Prey, but this is a new low. Scarecrow’s not a bad villain, but Moench manages to make him intolerable here. Jonathan Crane studying “crane-style” kung fu, kicking over scarecrow heads? Inspired by Ichabod Crane? Moench probably didn’t mean for this issue to be so silly, but I almost didn’t finish it because of just how bad it was.

Man-Bat (Legends of the Dark Knight Annual 5). This was hands down the best story in the collection. Man-Bat has become one of my favorite Batman characters, especially from his early appearances. He’s sometimes a hero and sometimes a villain, which is why he’s compelling. Here, Dixon retells his debut from Detective 400, adding bits from subsequent appearances. Kirk Langstrom tests himself with a genetic formula, slowly transforming into Man-Bat; he stumbles upon Batman fighting a criminal group, helping to stop them; they have a tense final encounter in the bat-cave, where Batman saves Kirk, determined to cure him. Dixon makes Kirk sympathetic and believable. His relationship with Francie especially feels real. I also love the art in this issue by Enrique Alcatena – the scenes of Man-Bat flying through the sky are fantastic. If you read one issue from Four of a Kind, make it this one.

 

Next: One of Batman’s most famous stories, the epic crime drama of The Long Halloween.

Batman: Prey

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Collects: Legends of the Dark Knight 11-15, 137-141

Writer: Doug Moench

Penciler: Paul Gulancy

Inker(s): Terry Austin, Jimmy Palmiotti

Colorist(s): Steve Oliff, James Sinclair

Letterer(s): John Costanza. Kurt Hathaway

Year(s): 1990-1991, 2001

Buy it here

 

“Prey” is the third entry in Legends of the Dark Knight, an anthology series launched in 1989 to tell stories of (mostly) Batman’s early days. Featuring Hugo Strange obsessively working to smear Batman’s name while unraveling his secret identity, “Prey” serves as a sequel of sorts to Batman and the Monster Men, which highlighted Batman’s first encounter with the mad professor. But is it any good? Not really.

The premise of this story – Hugo Strange’s fascination/obsession with Batman and campaign to undo him – is fine, and consistent with Strange’s character development in Monster Men. I like that he’s simultaneously envious and resentful of Batman. But the book is full of unintentionally silly scenes and cringe-worthy dialogue that make it unreadable in parts. Literally so, in the case of Batman’s narration, which is written in flowery cursive that had me squinting my eyes every time. I guess Legends of the Dark Knight stories are supposed to come from Bruce Wayne’s journal, but that doesn’t mean his narration text has to be illegible.

Anyway, Strange recruits (read: forces) GCPD Sgt. Max Cort into his campaign against the Dark Knight. He hypnotizes Cort to become Night-Scourge, a brutal vigilante to rival Batman. Later, Cort dons a bat costume to confuse the GCPD into thinking Batman kills. Yeah, this just didn’t work for me at all. I mean, Night-Scourge? It’s kind of ridiculous. Then there’s the stuff with Strange dressing up and talking with his mannequin, the fact that he knows Bruce Wayne is Batman but doesn’t tell anyone even though that’s exactly what he’s after… Strange has never been a favorite villain of mine, and “Prey” didn’t do anything to change that.

Along with “Prey”, this trade paperback includes the five-part sequel, “Terror”, by the same writer and artist. It’s even worse. Scarecrow is the main villain, overtaking Strange after the latter springs him out of Arkham Asylum. Scarecrow’s origin is recounted here and it’s laughably bad. The climax wasn’t scary and didn’t stick the landing it was going for. And the dialogue here is awful; I pretty much forgot this story the moment I finished it.

It’s not all bad. I liked seeing the inner workings of the GCPD, specifically the drama surrounding Gordon’s relationship to Batman, and the reactive nature of his colleagues and Mayor Wilson Klass. The cops are split on how to handle Batman, and that tension is shown fairly well here, right down to the controversy over the newly erected bat-signal. I also appreciate that writer Doug Moench gives Catwoman a major role in “Terror”. She’s in the early stages of her criminal career, running into Batman more and more frequently. But, again, her dialogue is full of eye-rolls that ruins any and all character moments.

“Prey” and “Terror” are inessential, poorly written entries in the Batman canon. I still like seeing Batman in his early days, working out the kinks and dealing with crazy foes for the first time. There’s some compelling GCPD stuff, and a few interesting psychological scenes for Batman. Plus the art isn’t bad. But unless you’re a completist or a die-hard Hugo Strange fan, give this one a pass.

 

Next: Batman meets some early foes in Four of a Kind!

Batman: The Man Who Laughs

Cover

Writer: Ed Brubaker

Penciler: Doug Mahnke

Inker: Doug Mahnke

Colorist: David Baron

Letterer: Rob Leigh

Year: 2005

Buy it here

 

I never prepared for this. I planned for the killers, the muggers, the rapists. Desperate people doing desperate things. But I never imagined something like the Joker.

He comes without warning, but the clues are there.

Who is responsible for the dozen dead bodies, their mouths mangled in a devilish grin, rotting in an abandoned warehouse? Captain Gordon has never seen anything like it. Batman is just as stunned when he arrives at the scene. But when a guy dressed in a dapper suit with green hair and white skin hijacks a TV broadcast and sends a deathly message to Gotham City, they see for the first time just who they’re dealing with…

The Man Who Laughs is Ed Brubaker’s superb retelling of the Joker’s debut from Batman 1. It’s the first time the Clown Prince of Crime meets the Dark Knight, challenging him like he’s never been challenged before during his first year as Batman. This is an unhinged lunatic murdering victims with seemingly no motive. He’s insane and smart. The Joker is Batman greatest, most lasting villain, and this story makes a great case for why.

Brubaker’s writing is tense, creepy, and thrilling. Batman is in prime detective mode here, clearly thrown for a loop with this Joker guy. I like how Brubaker ties in the Red Hood origin, and gives Batman a peek into the Joker’s mind. It’s all so well done.

Doug Mahnke’s art matches the script. His Gotham City looks dark and seedy, especially in the opening scene with the grinning victims that sends a chill down my spine. Mahnke draws the Joker as a cunning madman, all laughing and twisted. His Joker looks really scary!

I don’t have much else to say, except that this is one of the best Joker stories out there. A fantastic comic for new and old fans alike.

 

Next: Hugo Strange returns in Batman: Prey.

Batman and the Mad Monk

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Collects: Batman and the Mad Monk 1-6

Writer: Matt Wagner

Penciler: Matt Wagner

Inker: Matt Wagner

Colorist: Dave Stewart

Letterer: Rob Leigh

Year(s): 2006-2007

Buy it here (out of print, sadly)

 

What the hell is happening to this city?

On a rainy night in Gotham, Captain Gordon takes Batman to the morgue to look at a pair of dead bodies. The first, found in the East River, has bite marks on the neck. Batman says they must be from something in the water. But after Gordon shows him the second body, discovered in a warehouse and featuring identical marks, he starts to think differently. Hmmm… what’s going on here?

Batman and the Mad Monk, the second book in Matt Wagner’s “Dark Moon Rising” duology, is a step down from the first. Mad Monk is a vampire, and this book is basically Batman fighting vampires. I like the idea in theory. Unfortunately, Wagner’s story left me shrugging my shoulders, because it felt safe and not all that exciting.

Like Batman and the Monster Men, this book takes place early in Batman’s career and features one of his oldest foes. It serves to retell the first Mad Monk story from Detective Comics 31-32, where Batman pursues the villain and saves Julie Madison from his clutches. Gerry Conway and Gene Colan revived the character to great effect in the 1980s, and Wagner’s version is yet another reinvention. This time, Mad Monk leads a cult for whom he promises immortality, snatching Gotham transients whose blood he uses for sustenance. Because vampires.

There’s a lot going in these six issues. We have the main storyline, plus at least three side plots. First, Julie’s dad, Norman, copes with his increasing paranoia about Batman. He feels guilty for dealing with mobster Sal Maroni and his boss, Carmine Falcone, who themselves are trying to stabilize a heroin drug trade. Meanwhile, Harvey Dent is on their trail. If that wasn’t enough, Gordon routinely clashes with other cops regarding his relationship with Batman. Wagner writes inner monologues for six different people, making the story feel very cluttered. Narration makes sense for Batman, Gordon, and Julie – the main characters – but monologues for side characters seem excessive.

While I’m complaining, it’s frustrating how long it takes Batman to realize he’s dealing with vampires. Yes, he hasn’t come across supernatural stuff at this point in his career, but the signs are so obvious.

The ending was actually pretty good. Julie and her father’s story is resolved quite well, and Bruce’s final monologue (along with the last panel) was a nice touch. Plus Wagner’s action scenes, as in Monster Men, are great.

But this is far from an essential book. Mad Monk isn’t all that interesting, even with an updated origin – I liked the Conway and Colan’s voodoo-inspired backstory much better. The gothic atmosphere is cool, I guess, but the overall story isn’t too memorable. Oh well. Can’t win ’em all.

 

Next: Batman meets his greatest foe in The Man Who Laughs.

Batman and the Monster Men

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Collects: Batman and the Monster Men 1-6

Writer: Matt Wagner

Penciler: Matt Wagner

Inker: Matt Wagner

Colorist: Dave Stewart

Letterer: Rob Leigh

Year: 2006

Buy it here

 

Published in 2006 but taking place just after the events of Year One, Matt Wagner’s Batman and the Monster Men recounts the Dark Knight’s encounter with early recurring villain Hugo Strange. At this time, Batman is still duking it out with mobsters and street crooks, but Strange is his first foe with a more colorful flair. I mean, the guy creates hulking monsters from genetic experiments after all.

This is a fun read that ties nicely into Year One. Wagner takes one of Batman’s first ever villains (Strange debuted in 1940) and situates his origin in post-Crisis continuity. Another early character, Julie Madison, plays a large role in the story. Julie was Bruce’s one-time fiance in the Golden Age, and she’s recast here as a girlfriend. As for Batman himself, he’s still feeling out his friendship with Gordon, his role as Gotham’s guardian, and seems to have partially constructed the batcave and finished the batmobile (it looks awesome).

There are plenty of nods to Year One: Batman’s suit, the bat-glider, Gordon’s “World’s Greatest Dad” mug, Commisioner Grogan taking over for Loeb. Letterer Rob Leigh even employs the same narration text for Batman and Gordon. Part of the fun of this book is picking up these Easter eggs.

Speaking of which, I like that Wagner sprinkles little hints at what’s to come, such as the newspaper article detailing an incident with Batman and Red Hood at a chemical plant, or Sal Maroni voicing his hatred of Harvey Dent (“…one of these days, I’m gonna get that guy!”). We also witness the beginning of Strange’s obsession with Batman, a trait for which he’s widely known that leads to even more dastardly schemes. Wagner had the advantage of hindsight when writing this book, which I think is why it fits snugly into the continuity of Year One and other early Batman stories.

I can see Wagner’s art being hit or miss for some people. I kind of love it. His style is cartoony, and less refined than, say, Neal Adams or David Mazzucchelli. But the layouts and action shots are exciting, and with all the panels of Batman front and center, you can tell Wagner loves drawing the character.

I have some quibbles with Batman and the Monster Men. Hugo Strange is not exactly my favorite villain, and he comes across as the cliched “shunned mad scientist out for revenge.” The side-plot with Julie Madison didn’t interest me either. It felt like Wagner was padding out the pages here.

Still, this is a perfectly fine Batman story that’s good for a quick afternoon read. I read it in one sitting and was pretty entertained throughout. It’s predictable and not exactly high stakes, but still a good time. I like seeing Batman in his early days – honing his skills and facing new challenges. Hugo Strange is a unique one, and a harbinger of more to come.

 

Next: Wagner’s follow-up, Batman and the Mad Monk!

 

Batman: Year One

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Collects: Batman 404-407

Writer(s): Frank Miller

Penciler: David Mazzucchelli

Inker: David Mazzucchelli

Colorist: Richmond Lewis

Letterer: Todd Klein

Year: 1987

Buy it here

 

Without warning it comes… crashing through the window of your study… and mine… I have seen it before… somewhere… it frightened me… as a boy… frightened me… Yes, father. I shall become a bat.

When I first read Batman: Year One several years ago, I didn’t love it. Sure, it was cool to see Bruce Wayne don the cape and cowl for this first time, making mistakes as he comes into his own as Batman. But the story felt slight to me and I was left wanting more. Reading it now, after gorging myself on older Batman comics for the past five months? All I can say is: wow.

This book is downright masterful. As a revamp of Batman’s origin after Crisis on Infinite Earths, you couldn’t ask for a better distillation. From the framing, to the art, to the pitch-perfect dialogue… Year One is THE Batman origin.

This is a 25-year-old Bruce Wayne returning to Gotham after a decade of training his body and mind with the singular goal of warring on criminals. He’s ready. But he still doesn’t know exactly how to go about his crusade. After a failed attempt in civilian clothes leaves him battered and near death, an omen in the form of a bat crashes through the window and suddenly everything falls into place. The Batman is born.

Like The Dark Knight Returns, Year One is is so iconic at this point that it’s pretty much impossible to say anything new about it. So I’m not going to try. I’ll just offer a few thoughts and leave it at that.

What struck me this time around is that the story is as much Gordon’s as Bruce’s, if not more so. This makes sense, I think, for two reasons. One, Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon are inextricably linked; they both appear on the first page of Detective Comics 27, after all. And two, they both want the same thing – criminal justice in Gotham – but just go about it in different ways. The framing of Batman’s early days through the eyes of a young Gordon, new to Gotham, is fantastic. Naturally, he’s wary about this guy in a bat suit at first, but soon realizes that he’s on the right side of justice. In essence, this book is about two driven men learning from their mistakes as they work to upend crime and corruption in the city they call home.

David Mazzucchelli’s art is superb. It’s not flashy and doesn’t need to be. His noir tone effortlessly matches Miller’s grizzled narration and dialogue. The coloring by Richmond Lewis makes Gotham look dirty, grimy, and, frankly, like a real place (she recolored the issues for all collected edition). Her shading makes this book look like a pure piece of pulp fiction – take a look at the beautiful silent panel of Batman’s first outing on Gotham rooftops, deep blues saturating the sky at dusk. What else is there to say? This is comic book art of the highest order.

Year One is a classic, deservedly so. At a humble four issues, it doesn’t leave room for filler and gets right to the point. But it’s packed with nuance, emotion, and pure awesome moments that leave a huge impression. Miller took Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s two-page origin from way back in Detective Comics 33 and expanded it into an epic.

If this review seems a little all over the place, it’s because I find it hard to coherently review things that are great. And Year One, without a doubt, is a great book.

Ladies. Gentlemen. You have eaten well. You’ve eaten Gotham’s wealth. Its spirit. Your feast is nearly over. From this moment on — none of you are safe.

 

Next: Batman’s post-Crisis early days continue in Batman and the Monster Men!