Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Reading Comics: Batman-The Long Halloween

So, this will hopefully be the first in a long series where I review/comment on comics that I find to be worthy of note. They won't always be current, but will be works that I think are significant to the medium, and just plain good. First up: Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Batman: The Long Halloween.
Set during the Year One era, the story traces Batman's pursuit of Carmine 'The Roman' Falcone, Gotham City's untouchable crime lord. But amongst this pursuit is a serial killer dubbed 'Holiday,' who strikes on a holiday each month, killing members of either the Falcone family, or their rivals, the Maroni family. And peppered in with this are an assortment of Batman's rogues gallery, from the Joker, Scarecrow, and Riddler, to more obscure villains such as Solomon Grundy and the Calendar Man. Catwoman also plays a prominent role, but Batman (and you, the reader) can never tell whose side she's on.

I originally read the series back when it was serialized in the late '90's, and having read the series subsequent follow-ups (Batman: Dark Victory and Catwoman: When in Rome), I wanted to go back and take a fresh look at the series. My first impression was just how fast of a read it was. Loeb's writing is sharp and to the point, and Sale treats the page as a canvas, including splash pages and double spreads throughout. Is this a weakness? Not necessarily. It gives each issue a structure, with an opening splash page, and then a double spread. It also focuses our attention on the characters, who are drawn with great detail and character. This isn't to say that Sale doesn't give attention to the environment, Gotham has an excellent, retro atmosphere reminiscent of the first animated series, but the characters are the central players in the story.
My second impression from re-reading the series is that it reads well as a monthly serial, but was clearly not designed as a 'graphic novel.' Loeb does an excellent job of bringing the reader up to speed at the beginning of each issue, with narration that makes it clear who the main players are, and where we are in terms of the story. It's a technique that you don't find often in serialized comics nowadays, to the detriment of readers. But if you were to read three or four issues back-to-back, you may begin to find the writing repetitive. My advice? Give some time between chapters/issues. Granted, you'll want to keep reading, cause Loeb and Sale keep you on the edge of your seat.

But the one of the key elements in the story, and one of the things that most intrigued me about the story when I first read it, is Gotham's transition from organized crime to its cadre of psychotic super villains. One of the things that I never understood about Batman was how people like the Joker and the Penguin were equated with crime in the sense that we understand it. Okay, it's a comic and it's a fantasy, but still... their crimes never resembled anything that we would see today. They were extraordinary. But when this story opens, the mob still has control over Gotham city, people like the Scarecrow and Poison Ivy are just distractions from the main threats to Batman and the city. But by the end, the psychotic villains make a claim to take over, aided by one of Batman's former ally's, district attorney Harvey Dent, now Two-Face. It's a story element that the filmmakers of the current Batman films seem to have picked up on. And I have almost no doubt this story by Loeb and Sale has played a part.

The ending reveals the identity of Holiday, and fits in well with the Batman mythos, adding to it and enriching it. But Loeb also throws in a trick, something that you can't help but question, a loose thread that never quite gets tied up. It may infuriate some readers, but in some ways, it's the sign of a good mystery, leaving you guessing even after the end.

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