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Batman: Haunted Knight

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. It’s a match made in nerdy comic book heaven. Of course, the duo made their name by working together on The Long Halloween and its direct follow-up Dark Victory and have both had a huge influence on the two Nolan Batman films, but before they completed that grand sweeping arc that tied together the early years of the Caped Crusader’s career, they first teamed up on three Halloween Specials through the mid-1990s. Why is it that Halloween Specials are so much better than Christmas Specials? Think about it, you have The Simpsons’ Halloween Special in one corner and the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special in the other. Still, that’s a discussion for another day.

Because you wouldn't read a Batman Christmas Special...

Because you wouldn't read a Batman Christmas Special...

Both Loeb and Sale have worked on Batman seperately to varying degrees of praise, but there’s no denying that when this writer-artist team gets together the result is generally dynamite. This ‘graphic novel’ is pretty much just an anthology collection. Three stories linked by the theme of Halloween and published in special editions in October 1993, 1994 and 1995. It’s interesting to note that the page count of each story gets small and smaller, but we’ll come to that.

Haunted Knight tends to be forgotten among their trilogy of work on the character. It is overshadowed by the two massive arcs that they drafted together which contribute an extremely large amount to the mythos surrounding the character. That’s not to say that this collection doesn’t have anything interesting to say on Batman, but that it has very little new to say about the character – (almost) every notion and idea in this book has been treaded before. What makes the difference for most of them is the skill involved – Loeb and Sale do these ideas more than justice.

The collection is an anthology, so it’s understandably disjointed, but the guys hit on several themes which resonate throughout the entire collection of their work on the character (even into the stories they do separately). These stories sit (for the most part) quite comfortably with The Long Halloween and Dark Victory and Nolan’s franchise. For example, the pair reign in most of the more fanciful elements of the characters and give them a firm grounding. Despite these being Halloween stories there are no supernatural elements, just gothic horror. The boys scale down most of the outrageous fanciful elements (the Mad Hatter’s mind control devices are conveniently ignored and this helps the pair tell a more efficient story) – in fact, problems begin when they stray from this grim and gritty look at Gotham. A scene in the third story featuring the Penguin escaping by jetpack (!) jars with what had up until then been a reasonably grounded portrayal of Batman and his rogues.

It’s also interesting to see the two look at Gotham itself. It’s still as filthy and corrupt as it would be portrayed in The Long Halloween, rotten to the core – though it never strays into the fascist fantasy that would define Burton’s portrayal of the city. However, it would appear that Sale and Loeb hadn’t decided to look at the corruption stemming from a central source (the crime families) at this early stage of their partnership, but instead paint it as an evil at the core of Gotham itself. As though the city were mad. Throughout the first two stories we are fed little snippets of information about horribly tragedies that have occurred in Gotham involving children – from Gordon’s memory of two richplayboys kidnapping a six-year-old to the story of two children lost in a hedge maze. These are stories that could occur in any given metropolis, but at the same time make it seem like Gotham itself is evil and corrupt and sick. It’s a nice horror theme echoing over from Poe and one that arguably Morrison would tackle better in Arkham Asylum, but it resonates quite well with the corruption we see further along the line in Sale and Loeb’s collaberations.

It’s also somewhat refreshing to see the pair (at least in the first two stories) focus a bit on Martha’s influence on her son, given the disproportionate influence that Thomas Wayne seems to hold over his son’s life. Here we get a flashback which explains Bruce’s latent guilt about their deaths (he convinced her to wear the pearls that the mugger wanted) and we also get a nice mommy-son moment with the pair reading Alice in Wonderland together. It’s also nice to see that Sale and Loeb don’t point Wayne’s childhood as sunshine and lollypops before the death of his parents – his father is borderline neglectful – implying that Bruce’s isolation and loneliness had its seeds sown long before that fateful night. There’s also a nice little continuity shoutout in young Bruce’s Halloween costume.

As with any anthology, the whole succeeds or fails based on its own contents. Two of the stories here are winners. One is a loser. The first two stories (Fear and Madness) take a look at two of Batman’s creepier rogues: the Scarecrow and the Mad Hatter. These are undeniably simple stories, but they are well-told simple stories.

Apparently the Scarecrow engaging in a Halloween crime spree was the last straw...

Apparently the Scarecrow engaging in a Halloween crime spree was the last straw...

Fears follows Batman’s pursuit of the Scarecrow as he terrorises Gotham over Halloween week (I guess that would make it… a long Holloween… no?), turning off the power and looting in the dark. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne finds himself falling head-over-heels for a strange woman at one of his parties. The story is as much about Bruce Wayne’s pursuit of happiness as it is Batman’s pursuit of the Scarecrow. Loeb and Sale give us a determined Batman (one who doesn’t sleep while on the case, nor does he shave), and one who refuses any helped offered from his contact in the police ranks.

The story is the longest of the three and probably the best told, all-in-all. The space allows the writer and artist room to hit on a wide variety of themes and to manage a romantic sublot relatively well. The story obviously takes place early in Batman’s career and while these stories don’t continue the ‘decline of the crime families’ arc that Loeb and Sale inherited from Frank Miller’s Year One, they deal quite well with an early Gordon-Batman relationship. There’s a sweet moment in the first few pages where Gordon invites Batman to a charity masquerade ball and scoffs at himself for reaching out like that.

The second story, Madness, is shorter than the first but longer than the third. It explores (as the name would imply) the madness of the Mad Hatter. The Mad Hatter is an interesting rogue in Batman’s gallery, because of his wide variety of portrayals and how easily he alternates between laughably ineffective to bone-chillingly creepy. In case you needed a hand, this story falls in the latter category. Eschewing the early antics of the character – hat-themed crimes, bad jokes and mind control – and focusing in a modern modern take on the character (which probably originated from Morrison’s Arkham Asylum) as creepily fixated with children. Watching him kidnap children and take them to the sight of a brutal child murder to reenact his Alice in Wonderland fantasies is creepy and disturbing (made even moreso by Batman’s suggestion that this is not where his fixation ends).

The story is shorter and a lot faster, with no room for Bruce Wayne. Instead we get a nice portrait of James Gordon, successful police officer and struggling father. It fits nicely with the version of the character that we encounter in Miller’s stories. Gordon is a good man who sometimes doesn’t know quite what to do or say to make things right. He also has a firm and almost inexplicable belief and trust in Batman, though he clearly appreciates how lonely a life it must be.

Safety tip #1: Kids, don't trust men with oversized dickie-bows and hats...

Safety tip #1: Kids, don't trust men with oversized dickie-bows and hats...

The story plays well as an interlude and effectively rejuvinates a character who was never really that compelling a villain. There are some lovely moments in the story for Sale’s artwork – most notably a clever play on the familiar Batman-crashing-through-window scene. We also get a slight hint of Gotham’s state of decay through the eyes of Dr. Leslie Thompson and a nice glimpse at Bruce’s childhood as well. It’s not groundbreaking or earth-shattering, but it’s a solid read.

The third story lets the side down quite a bit. I pondered abve whether there was a reason that Holloween Specials were better than Christmas Specials, and maybe there is. Maybe the themes and notions of Halloween remain relatively fresh (as the true celebration of the holiday as a holiday has only really started in the past forty-or-so years), whereas Christmas has completely permeated the market to the point where we know all the stories and the beats and the messages.

Ghosts is Batman filtered through A Christmas Carol with a rocket-power jetback-wearing Penguin thrown in for no good reason in a story already too compact. The story hits on a simple and common theme of how Batman and Bruce must learn to coexist. It’s a familiar story, and a theme that has been dealt with much better within this same volume. It’s redundant to tell us (or Bruce) that Batman is dominating his life. The notion the Bruce’s obsessiveness about his ‘work’ is inhereted from his father – who would be so committed to his surgery he missed Halloween – is one that echoes throughout the Batman mythos (for example, in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, he refers to himself as a surgeon removing a cancer while taking out a thug) and even gets a mention again in the first story collected herein.

The story is also far too short (not helped when you waste several pages on an almost pointless introduction), with the three ghosts limited to maybe four pages at a go. The images are strong, but not so strong that we believe they would deter a determined Bruce. Maybe if we had seen a little bit more. I imagine a lot of this story ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Still, that alone would not go so far as to save the mess, bt it might make it better. There are good ideas here – they’re just handled horribly in a trite and cliché manner. There are some important moments in bruce’s life here – both before and ater Batman – but they aren’t given space to breath. The story is far too deriviative and stereotypical and far too compact to tell the story in a way that is deep, involving or interesting. The message of the story (and Bruce’s epiphany) are important and arguably key to the character, but it seems cheap to arrive at it by knocking off (or paying homage to) Charles Dickens.

All-in-all though it is an interesting colelction and worth a look. I’d suggest checking out the pair’s other work on the character before reading this collection, as it seems like more of a companion than an introduction. That’s not to say it isn’t a good or important collection, just not the best or most important collection. These are the kind of stories that influence Nolan’s movie series (in particular the firt two stories, so I wouldn’t hold out for a jetpack-wearing Penguin), with several direct quote lifts from the first story to the movie (“Doctor Crane isn’t here right now… but if you’d like to leave a message…”) and even a couple of subtly character traits that remain united through Loeb and Sales’ work on particular characters (the speaking patterns and styles of the Scarecrow and the Mad Hatter, Jonathon Crane’s fixation on his mother).

It’s a nice anthology which tells two good stories and one not-so-good one. It would appear that Halloween Specials are a good idea after all, at least for the Dark Knight.

This is the first 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:

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