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Absolute Batman: The Long Halloween (Review)

Say what you will about the Caped Crusader, as well as having the finest rogues gallery in comicdom, he also gets most of the best storylines and plots. The Long Halloween is widely considered a classic, a true Batman story for the ages and a perfect companion to Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. In many ways, both stories heavily influence the two Christopher Nolan Batman movies (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) to the point where the notoriously shy-about-his-work Nolan actually provides the introduction to this collection. There’s a mark of quality right there. The story is so highly regarded for a reason, and has helped define one of the most enduring depictions of the Batman.

Batman might not be able to leap buildings in a single bound, but that won't stop him trying...

Batman might not be able to leap buildings in a single bound, but that won't stop him trying...

The wonderful thing about comic books as a medium is that they are so dynamic. Batman has run for seventy years and (despite recent stunts) will likely run another seventy. In such time tastes have obviously evolved and changed. They have undoubtedly become more complex. One need only look at the cheap detective noir stories that the character originated from and compare them to the modern portrayal.

Characters and villains originated as simple two-dimensional foils, gimmicks to be thwarted in twenty four pages or less. Nobody seemed to notice that Gotham didn’t seem to really have an ordinary criminal underworld, and nobody seemed to really wonder why. Eventually, over time, these characters evolve. Take Batman himself. In 1939, he was a character who decided within a page to dress up like a bat an fight injustice. It was treated as nothing too out of the ordinary (it was a comic book after all). Eventually people began to ask that question ‘why?’, pulling at the thread. In 1987, Frank Miller sought to offer a fuller and more complex explanation of ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ – treating Batman and his world as if they were actual literary characters rather than simply four-colour creations. He gave us Batman: Year One. And things haven’t been the same since.

New facts about Batman come to light...

Take Two Face, a very relevent example for the novel we’re discussing. Originally lawyer Harvey Kent (later changed to avoid confusion with Superman), he was a one-note villain with a fascination in duality and an obsession with the number ‘two’ who made all his decisions by flipping a coin. Over the years, writers began to explore and dig beneath the surface, asking who Harvey Dent (as he became) was before he was Two Face. Surely there was some tragedy to be tapped in that life before a life of crime?

Similar things happened when discussing the “freeeaks” that came to inhabit Gotham. How did they become the dominent criminals in the city? How come Gotham doesn’t have an organised crime problem to the same extent of the New York it is based upon? These are all reasonable and legitimate questions that had been ignored as the price of the suspension of disbelief. Gradually writers began to believe that the answers to these questions might be interesting in their own right.

It takes two to tango...

It was by asking these questions that writers began to form a bridge linking the everyday world back to the world as depicted in comics. Many films that have followed in recent years have used that bridge to ground themselves. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are just the most successful examples. So, how does this tie back to The Long Halloween?

The Long Halloween is that bridge that I am talking about.

It is a fairly crucial piece of any jigsaw piece trying to ground Batman in reality. And, given the character’s status as a superhero without superpowers, that grounding is fairly key to the character. Part mob epic, part Greek tragedy, the novel doesn’t subscribe to what a Batman comic book should be. Instead it takes its cues from other sources. As a work in the visual medium, Loeb seems to appreciate that he has the opportunity to draw heavily from the world of both cinema and literature. Seldom a page goes by without a reference to The Godfather (down to small things like a character recommending the veal) or Goodfellas (a character has the nickname “Two Times” because he says things… two times).

It’s a drama about the decline and fall of dynasties and monarchies. The families that defined Gotham are all tied together in blood, and it seems that they can only be separated by bloodshed. Things change and decay – particularly when people don’t play by the rules. Batman doesn’t play by the rules and it’s hinted Gordon blames (maybe that’s too strong a word) him for the state of the city at the moment. Dent himself is repeatedly shown to be indifferent to the systems and the ways that things work (suggesting the police should let the gangs wipe each other out rather than trying to stop it), and we all know what happens to him.

It's nice that Batman gets to spend Christmas with friends and family...

It's nice that Batman gets to spend Christmas with friends and family...

Loeb shows us the saga of the freaks creeping in from the outside. Indeed, when Dent is first deformed, he seeks refuge in the sewers along with another monster – the first that we encountered. Barring Catwoman (who was introduced in Year One by Miller), the familiar rogues are gradually introduced by Leob and Sale, in an array of stunning designs. Most actually begin the series ‘under control’ – the Joker escapes from Arkham, per usual, and the Calendar Man, The Scarecrow and The Mad Hatter have already been imprisoned in Arkham by the time the story starts. One-by-one, the freaks are loosed by the terrified mobsters – drawn into their world in a vane attempt to harness them and exploit them. Of course, madness is a force so primal and elemental that it can’t be controlled.

While in one way the story is that of Gotham, in another it is the saga of Harvey Dent. Loeb gives us a good man – but a deeply flawed one. He fights for justice, but he is shown to flout the rules when it suits him (burning Maroni’s cash, for example). He’s shown as indifferent to the suffering of those he deems criminal, but clearly loves his wife very much. He wants to make Gotham a safer place, but feels powerless to do so. His breakdown and decline are cleverly mapped out from his initial appearances and the story does belong to him. Indeed, the character arc is arguably the one area where the story pays off completely.

Putting a dent in Dent...

Two sides at war. It’s a powerful image. The old Gotham and the new Gotham. Harvey and Two Face. Bruce and Batman. It’s one that underpins the novel and a theme that works well. Two Face is a fascinating rogue, and I think this might be the most fascinating treatment of a Batman rogue that I’ve read.

Unfortunately, it isn’t all as perfect as it would seem. For all Loeb’s strength with characters and themes, he has never really been able to tie things up well. When I first read the book, I thought it might be a quirky gimmick, but it is one that crops up too often in Loeb’s work – Dark Victory and Hush, for example – to be a quirky gimmick. It seems more like a flaw. As such, the resolution to the main storyline may feel a tad weak. However, this isn’t a book you read for the storyline. Read it for the exploration of a city on the tipping point, or for a truly emotional exploration of an iconic rogue. Don’t read it as a murder mystery, as it doesn’t quite satisfy on those grounds.

The catsuit looks good on her...

I am of two minds about the artwork of Tim Sale. On one hand, it looks very classical and unique – quite unlike anything you’ve ever really seen – but, on the other, some of it doesn’t seem to gel. On the whole, there’s more than a bit of genius here – my favourite being the portrayal of the Joker with crooked piano keys for teeth. It just works, for some reason. His Two-Face is also stunning – one of the more grizzly portrayals of the character I have ever seen… and I like it.

Being an Absolute Edition, there are all manner of treats included. Befitting the duality that runs through the story, most of the extras are conversations between Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, for example, or an interview with Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb. There are some nice insights here, looking at why the novel was so ground breaking and just how big an influence it had on the modern cinematic take on the character (answer: big). The oversized artwork looks amazing, though the included extra scenes don’t really add anything to the story (except maybe confusion).

The service here is a joke...

Still, it’s a vital part of the evolution of an iconic character who has just been named the best superhero ever. And deservedly so. If you have an interest in the Dark Knight, this is the book to pick up.

This is the second in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s “Batman” trilogy,a collaboration between the writer and artist exploring the character’s early years (although both have worked separately on the character as well). Check out our reviews of the other entries:

2 Responses

  1. I don’t know If I said it already but …Excellent site, keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read..Tony Brown

  2. The Long Halloween is the most overrated Batman story ever. It shouldn’t even be on a top 20 list. And why do Dark Victory and Hush need to exist? Clearly Loeb felt like he needed to tell the same story 3 times.

    I’m sorry Darren but Jeph Loeb is not a good writer. Between his Batman “epics” and his screwing up of the Ultimate Universe, he leans far more towards bad.

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