In 1993, DC comics asked Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale to create a Halloween special issue for their Legend Of The Dark Knight series. The pairing of this creative team would go on to create The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, two of my favorite Batman stories. Haunted Knight is a precursor to those storylines. While it's not as tight a narrative as the other two collections, it does feature some plot points that will come up later.
The major problem I have about this collection is that it's set up in the order that the specials were released, which doesn't appear to be the order that the stories take place. So, while I don't suggest reading the collection manga style, I do recommend reading the third chapter in this collection, Ghosts, first. My reason being that I believe this collection should be read as 48 hours in the life of Batman, not three different years on Halloween.
Ghosts starts the night before at a banquet where The Penguin makes his first appearance, interrupting one of Bruce Wayne's shindigs. Batman captures the villain, retrieving a medallion Penguin stole from Lucius Fox. The medallion features either an exact mock up of the Wayne family door knockers, or else Bruce's father's face. Either way, the charm induces a sort of hypnosis on Bruce, and the story turns into a Halloween retelling of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, with Thomas Wayne as Jacob Marley, Poison Ivy as The Ghost Of Christmas Past, The Joker as The Ghost Of Christmas Present, and a grim reaper as The Ghost Of Christmas Future. Among the memories is a primer as to how Lucius Fox got into Wayne's life, as well as unintentional foreshadowing to Final Crisis and Blackest Night.
Next up is chapter two: Madness. In it, The Mad Hatter kidnaps Jim Gordon's niece, Barbara, who he's just adopted. Adoption is a bit of a theme in this book, as we are also introduced to Leslie Thompkins, a doctor who helped Alfred raise Bruce after (brace yourselves, new info here) his parents were killed. (Note: If you want to turn this website into a drinking game, sip a beer every time I make a joke at the expense of Grant Morrison, and a shot every time I have to mention that (spoiler alert) Bruce's parents were killed.) This story also injects Alice In Wonderland into the Batman mythos. I grew up loving the book, but I find its saturation in comics, particularly Batman, a bit overwrought. This story is not one of the finest examples of working the book in subtly. The "through the looking glass" line hurt to read, but the rest of the story is pretty solid.
The first chapter, Fears, takes us back to another Wayne Halloween party. While Ghosts and Madness could happen in the same timeframe, this party and the party from Ghosts can't really be the same party, so let's say, for argument's sake, Wayne scheduled a second party due to his guilt over the first one being crashed by The Penguin. This party is slightly more successful, as none of the rogues gallery interrupts, but a woman named Jillian Maxwell attempts to seduce Bruce, much to the disdain of Alfred. Alfred does his own detective work while Batman is off dealing with The Scarecrow, and discovers Jillian is a black widow who serially marries and then murders rich husbands under a variety of names.
While all three of these stories are very good, the highlight of this collection is Tim Sale and Gregory Wright's art. The panel layouts are effortlessly complex. Despite their nontraditional placement, there's never any doubt where the eye should go next. And Wright's colors are an integral part of the story. I especially love his greyscaled pages with the lightly colored narrative boxes.
Story 4/5, Art 5/5
One of my friends majored in Media Studies. His homework included watching as much popular television as he could find time for and study how it worked its way into the lexicon. He already had experience with a lot of the shows that make up today's established pop culture: Lost, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Futurama, The Office, Scrubs, American Gladiators 2007. But, surprisingly, he had no experience with Buffy/Angel or Doctor Who.
That's not entirely true, he'd seen parts of a few Buffy episodes when we were roommates. He'd scoffed at scenes that he had no context for, and after a few months, he treated walking into the room while I was watching Buffy with the horror most people would reserve for walking in on their grandmother naked with a jar of banana marmalade and an underage squirrel monkey.
Two years later, he would call me to discuss the finer points of season six, and how much he appreciated Jonathan's story arc.
When he realized it was time to tackle Doctor Who, he didn't just pick up with Christopher Eccleston, he went all the way back to the pilot episode and watched the entire series. When discussing the Russel T Davies era Dr. Who, he talked about how, whenever there was an event, Mr. Davies "throws a lot of Daleks at the plot until it cowers in fear at the corner of the episode".
A lot of lesser comic writers, when they are asked to helm an event "throw a lot of Daleks at the plot." Super-villain team ups are generally a nifty idea that doesn't pan out. Villains don't work well together, they're villains. And often their schemes cross purposes.
In The Long Halloween, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale manage to include a majority of the major villains in the Batman pantheon without making them feel superfluous.
It helps that the costumed villains aren't the focus of the book, rather this is a return to the crime families from Frank Miller's Year One. The story opens at a wedding ceremony for one of the members of the Falcone family. Bruce Wayne has been invited, in hopes that he will help them in their quest to be financially supported by Gotham City Bank, which Bruce is a trustee for.
Meanwhile nosey district attorney, Harvey Dent, is in the event's parking garage taking down license plate numbers. He gets jumped by Falcone's men.
Later on in the evening Batman interrupts Catwoman breaking into Falcone's safe while Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon discuss their differing methods in gathering evidence.
A lot of what makes The Long Halloween work as a story is that it's one of the few modern era Batman stories that's actually a self-contained mystery. In 2010, Grant Morrison has been writing Batman and Detective as a long running mystery but it, if not requires, is greatly assisted by knowing all seventy years of Batman continuity. The Long Halloween requires only that you read The Long Halloween. Tim Sale litters the book with clues that you can piece together to solve the core mystery: Who is Holiday?
At the end of the first chapter, two members of The Falcone family are killed by an unseen assassin. Harvey Dent is also targeted, and he and his wife are believed dead.
Chapter two throws Solomon Grundy (born on a Monday) into the mix, and a whole nother mess of Falcone men are slaughtered at a Thanksgiving dinner.
The third issue focuses on an insanely jealous Joker who feels that Holiday is stealing his spotlight, and he pursues Holiday's identity as vigorously as Batman, Gordon, and Dent (albeit with very different methods). And while Batman is foiling Joker's New Year's Eve Massacre plans, Falcone's own son is murdered by Holiday.
The fourth chapter opens with Gordon and Dent going after their prime suspect in the Holiday case: Bruce Wayne. There's an excellent scene where the two of them are turned away by a deftly devious Alfred who politely inquires as to whether they've remembered to get their wives Valentine's Day presents. Holiday wreaks absolute havok on Falcone's business while Poison Ivy gets thrown into the mix.
Ivy has had a tryst or two with Batman before, but this time she's targeting Bruce Wayne for the Falcones. Their plot is foiled when Catwoman comes to Bruce's rescue.
Catwoman's dubious relationship with Batman (mirrored by Selina Kyle's relationship with Bruce Wayne) is one of the intricacies that makes this story work. This isn't just a hodgepodge of villains gathered to take down Batman. Villains are working purely for their own selfish reasons, they just happen to occasionally overlap. The exchanges between The Scarecrow and The Mad Hatter that take place in chapters nine and ten, where The Scarecrow speaks only in nursery rhyme, and The Mad Hatter speaks only in Lewis Carrol verse are fantastic.
By the time we get to chapter eleven, Roman Holiday, we've seen The Riddler, The Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, and The Calendar Man join the fray. More Falcones keep dying, and both Batman and The Riddler are forced to throw out theory after theory as to who Hoilday is. After his own father is killed, Sal Maroni, Falcone's chief rival turns himself in to Harvey Dent under the ruse of bringing down Falcone. But when it comes to give his testimony he throws acid at Dent's face, and, voila, we have the origin of Two Face.
Two Face rounds up all the villains from the story (plus The Penguin) to confront, and ultimately kill Falcone, thereby ending the old school mob rule in Gotham, and bring forth an age of super villains.
In the end we have a couple of surprise reveals regarding Holiday. Both of them much cooler than the usual suspects (sorry Grant Morrison fans, it's not The Joker). Often when you get a last chapter reveal it's either glaringly obvious or else it contradicts an important aspect of a character. Both reveals regarding Holiday caught me by surprise the first time I read the book, despite one of them being telegraphed by both Loeb's dialog and several panel clues by Tim Sale.
The art in any Batman story is as important a character as any villain. Whether it's Miller's television paneled layouts in The Dark Knight Returns or Dave McKean's creepily shadowed Arkham Asylum. Gregory Wright's muted colors are a key player in The Long Halloween. Apart from some vibrant reds when The Joker is involved, the art is intentionally flat, and occasionally just grays. Whenever I see the art from this book I think of Boyz II Men videos. Their director always tweaked the colors, sometimes washing out their bright red suit jackets, other times shooting in black and white, and then coloring in blue jeans.
I doubt it's an intentional metaphor, but the lack of backgrounds throughout most of the panels really drew me into the action. Sometimes a busy background distracts me from the story as my eyes vacuum in all the extraneous details. Everything Sale has drawn into this story is purposeful. It provides the perfect pacing for Loeb's story.
There isn't really a flaw anywhere in this collection. The only drawback to it from the perspective of putting together this Bat-chronology, is that it's a year long story. Each chapter taking place on a holiday (Halloween bookending the year). A lot of the books that will follow take place during The Long Halloween. Were I attempting the absolutely insane project of trying to do the chronology by issues instead of trades, I would space this collection out amongst some of the other stories.
Story 5/5, Art 5/5
It's been teased at the end of several collections. Ads for The Flying Graysons in newspapers, Circus billboards, Bruce discussing taking dates to the circus. Finally, in Dark Victory, Dick Grayson debuts. But, uh, not just yet.
The volume opens with the new DA (who replaces Harvey "Don't Call Me Harvey Anymore I'm Two Face Now" Dent) catching us up with one of the villains from The Long Halloween (which was also created by Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale, and Gregory Wright): Holiday. The crux of this story is the rise and fall of the next generation of Maronis and Falcones, Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni having been killed during The Long Halloween. Carmine's daughter, Sofia, who was paralyzed after plunging out of a building makes a deal with Sal's sons to go after Harvey Dent.
The plan is to cause chaos at Arkham Asylum by freeing assorted villains, including Solomon Grundy (born on a Monday), Calendar Man, and Poison Ivy. Holiday, Alberto Falcone, chooses to stay behind, earning him an early release with the help of the new DA. But during the madness, instead of killing Two Face, they allow him to escape.
The main theme of this book is improving reputations. Mario Falcone returns from Italy to try and clean up his family business, going as far as locking out Sofia when he learns of her criminal plans. Jim Gordon tries to get back together with his wife Barbara who left him and took custody of his children. Bruce Wayne tries to establish a solid romantic relationship with Selina Kyle. Catwoman tries to earn Batman's trust. And Two Face tries to clear his name when a new serial killer, The Hangman tries to improve The Gotham City Police Department's reputation by killing a corrupt cop on every major holiday.
Once again, Loeb and Sale throw in pretty much every major villain that's been introduced: the Joker, The Penguin, Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, The Mad Hatter, and The Scarecrow all end up in the mix. But, as in The Long Halloween, their individual motives flow logically into the story.
In the midst of the story, Bruce finally ends up at the much teased circus, and watches as The Flying Graysons plummet to their deaths when a Maroni underling named Anthony Zucco frays the wires for their trapeze act.
Bruce Wayne adopts Dick Grayson, but it's Batman who sees Grayson outside one night, prowling for clues. Batman and Grayson run into each other again when Grayson goes to the circus to research his parents' killer. The boy is badly beaten, and Batman takes him to the Batcave to care for him, and reveals that Batman and Bruce Wayne are the same person.
I don't want to ruin the end of this for you. Yes, you do get to see Grayson don the original, short pants Robin outfit. You also get a great wrap up of a storyline that began with Year One. but there are still some loose ends, including the fact that Two Face is still missing.
I can't stress enough that Sale's pencils and inks, and Wright's colors are an integral part of Loeb's script. The combination of visual narrative and dialog is what takes the Loeb/Sale/Wright trilogy from great Batman story to Classic Work Of Art.
Story 5/5, Art 5/5
Chuck Dixon picks up the dangling threads from Dark Victory for Robin: Year One. We get to see how Robin is perceived by a befuddled Jim Gordon, an ambivalent Batman, a loyal Alfred, and the angry criminals of Gotham. There's honor in being taken down by the Dark Knight, but a little kid in pixie boots, short pants, and a yellow cape? That's gotta hurt.
After busting some small time criminals, Robin finds himself entwined with The Mad Hatter's scheme to kidnap and brainwash some young girls (his usual M.O.) and sell them to a diplomat named The Generalissimo. In a startling development for a Batman story, it turns out Robin knows one of the victims from school (Jenny Noblesse), and she has a crush on him.
Robin ends up saving the day with some help from bumbling millionaire Bruce Wayne, who happens to be on The Generalissimo's yacht for a cruise.
The next villain up to be taken down by The Boy Wonder is The Killer Moth, whose story takes up a whopping seven pages before Robin takes him down. There's also a three page battle with Blockbuster (who will end up being one of Dick Grayson's major villains years later) before we get to the main villain in the story: Two Face, who's been on the run since the end of Dark Victory.
Two Face has decided that the easiest way to bring down Batman is to take out his new sidekick. He also decides to enact revenge on the judge who presided over his trial during The Long Halloween. While Batman and Robin are on the case, Jim Gordon expresses his concern that Batman has taken on such a young sidekick. And when Two-Face later tells Gordon that he's killed Robin (Spoiler alert: he hasn't. After taking a beating, Batman takes him to Leslie Thompkins's clinic to heal.), Gordon convinces Batman to retire him. Grayson isn't too keen on retiring from being Robin (poor kid got forty years in pre-Crisis continuity, and he's barely five comic issues into being Robin in modern continuity, and he's already being let go), and when Mr. Freeze steals the blood supply from the hospital where Grayson is being rehabilitated, he throws on his mask (but not the rest of the outfit) and goes out to take Mr. Freeze down.
Once Grayson foils the Freeze plot, he sees a TV report that Two Face has escaped from police custody, and debates how to handle it when he's jumped by a group of junior assassins run by one of Ra's Al Ghul's assassins, Shrike. Grayson decides to infiltrate the gang to get back on Batman's good sign, as well as learn new fighting techniques. After a successful mission to determine Robin's loyalty, the junior assassins are sent to kill Two Face. Given the opportunity, Robin opts to let Two Face live, and ends up battling Shrike, who falls on his sword and dies. During the battle, Two Face escapes.
One of the details Dixon works into this collection is the relationship between Alfred and Grayson. Alfred taking care of Bruce after his parents died was noble, but could be attributed to his loyalty to the Wayne family. There are a couple of occasions in Robin Year One, and will be many more in the future where Alfred puts Grayson's health and feelings over his loyalty to Bruce. Dixon will revisit the importance of this relationship several times in the Robin ongoing series, and even Nightwing.
Story 5/5, Art 4/5