The Reread Reviews — Batman: The Long Halloween
A modern “classic” that inspired some of the key elements in The Dark Knight… well, maybe I agree, maybe I don’t. You’ll have to read to see. There will be spoilers.
This week, I’ll be looking at Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale and, as always, let’s begin with my initial thoughts on the book:
It was competent and did the job, but didn’t really go above and beyond. I’m sure that this was one book that read better monthly in singles where the whole “Who is Holiday?” mystery could keep up the interest. In trade-form, though, it all goes by so fast that it isn’t nearly as engrossing as it should be. As well, the story is so sprawling as far as a cast goes, you never really get a chance to latch onto anyone. We’re supposed to feel for the Dents and I did — but just not as much as I feel I was supposed to. I’ve always thought that mystery stories work best when the narrative perspective is focused on one character — and Batman narrates the story, but we also get scenes that he didn’t witness. Imagine if, during one of Raymond Chandler’s novels, we suddenly got some scenes thrown in that Marlowe wasn’t present for. It would fuck up the story. Now, Loeb does do it consistently enough that it doesn’t become too much of a problem, but it took me out of the story at times. Tim Sale’s art is great and I loved the pages where Harvey Dent is knocked out and Sale’s layout on those pages.
Getting this also gave me a chance to read Steve [Higgins]’s essay on the identity of Holiday, and he makes a really strong case — one I’d have to agree with — but, as I’ve said before, I’m not the type to care about the solution to a mystery, which could be another reason why this book didn’t wow me. Where other mystery writers can engross you without making the solution of the mystery the only reason to keep reading, I’m not sure Loeb did that. He tried, but didn’t succeed for me.
Steve Higgins, for those who don’t know, is an old friend who began GraphiContent with and we continue to share the blog. Steve is a bit of a Long Halloween fan — at least, big enough of one to have a website devoted to it. There are detailed issue-by-issue plot summaries and notes, plus some essays about the true identity of Holiday, which is left ambiguous purposefully in the book.
I don’t disagree with my comments above; in fact, I’d probably go a bit further after this reading. If this is considered one of the better Batman stories available, then it confirms what I’ve long thought: the major superhero icons may have stuck around for decades, but they have few truly great stories told about them. The Long Halloween is, I’ll grant you, entertaining — in that mindless way where a mediocre mystery is drawn out over 13 issues, filled with smaller stories that mostly go nowhere.
I’ll begin with the Holiday killings since they are at the heart of the premise. I agree with Steve in thinking that Alberto Falcone committed them all and Gilda’s confession is crap. Even though Two-Face says there were two killers and Calendar Man’s switching between gender specific pronouns when discussing Holiday point to Gilda and Alberto being the killers, it doesn’t make sense logically. If Alberto didn’t do the first few killings, why would he suddenly assume the identity of Holiday? There’s no logic there.
Loeb and Sale have never revealed the truth — and that could be, as they say, because they prefer to leave it open for interpretation. Or, it could be, because they spend so much time leaving red herrings that to reveal the truth would mean explaining away all of the loose ends that pop up throughout the comic in an effort to keep a mystery with relatively few clues exciting. Hell, even if you believe the Gilda/Alberto theory, what do you make of Harvey’s hair being wet on New Year’s Eve despite his hat?
The entire story is like that: one mess of “clues” that mostly go nowhere, thrown in just to throw readers off the track. It doesn’t hold together and is sloppy. Over at my blog, I sometimes do a post where I apply Raymond Chandler’s essay “Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story” to comic book mysteries in an effort to see how they hold up to one the 20th century’s greatest mystery/detective fiction writers’ standards. Here’s part of the third note (bolding mine):
It must be honest with the reader. This is always said, but the implications are not realized. Important facts not only must not be concealed, they must not be distorted by false emphasis. Unimportant facts must not be projected in such a way as to make them portentous. (This creation of red herrings and false menace out of trick camera work and mood shots if the typical Hollywood mystery picture cheat.) Inferences from the facts are the detective’s stock in trade; but he should disclose enough to keep the reader’s mind working.
Chandler says it best: what Loeb and Sale do is a cheat. I get the impression that they either had no idea who Holiday was meant to be or they changed their minds partway through — or saw that people were guessing right and decided to throw a few curve balls. Is that the reality? I don’t know and I don’t care, because that’s how it reads. Every goddamn killing is nothing more than trick angles so the identity of the killer is hidden and it gets old. How about when the Riddler sees who Holiday is — but conveniently doesn’t tell anyone?
I could forgive all of these small cheats if the final solution were something spectacular or had that sense of the inevitable that Chandler discusses (that once the murderer is revealed, the reader should smack their heads and shout “Of course! It’s all so obvious now!) and… well, that doesn’t happen here. Granted, that’s a very, very difficult effect to pull off, probably the hardest if you’re also very concerned with keeping as many readers as possible in the dark concerning the murderer’s identity. That focus on the identity of the killer is a major reason why The Long Halloween fails. Yes, you want the mystery to hold until the end, but if you need to pull bullshit swerves and plant false clues to do it, then you’ve lost sight of what matters. And you’re also shit at writing mysteries.
The sad thing is that there is so little to go on with this mystery that the only way to solve it ahead of time is through a lucky guess. The only clues: who is killed. That’s it. There isn’t much else to go on most of the time and it lacks any real sense of drama/interest. I am sure it worked better when serialised monthly, but, as a whole, it falls apart.
The narrative problems really bug me. The manner in which comic stories are told really bug me. If you’re using a first-person narrator, actually write the story in the first person! Writers want to write Batman from the perspective of Batman, but also want to show scenes beyond Batman, and that doesn’t always work. There are no rules, of course, and no one should be limited for the sake of “that’s how things are done,” but this style is so convenient and lazy. It’s one thing if you’re using both first- and third-person perspectives for a specific effect, but Loeb isn’t doing that here. He just wants to be able to write Batman’s narrative captions and show whatever else he feels like. It’s sloppy. (The worst offender I’ve ever seen in this regard is Brad Meltzer in Identity Crisis where he goes through a revolving door of first-person captions for no reason other than just because.)
Detective stories (which this is) work best when written in the first-person. That’s the way it is, because the detective is the main character and who you want your readers to have a connection with. To make the reader interested in the mystery, it helps to show the detective struggling with it — we learn what the detective learns and we feel like we are integral to solving the mystery. Showing events that detective doesn’t witness breaks that connection and turns the story into something else. Now, The Long Halloween is more than a detective story, but its primary function is a mystery. It may be about other things, but the core of it is the mystery — that’s the central event in each issue and what drives the story forward. And the manner in which Loeb writes this series robs it of its power. Say what you will about Brian Azzarello’s Broken City, but it works twenty times better as a detective story because we never leave Batman. It’s written in the first-person, so we only learn information through Batman. Writers think that because comics also have pictures that that doesn’t mean the same rules apply (films have the same problem often), but that’s crap. First-person is first-person is first-person.
So that leads me to ask: why does Batman narrate certain scenes at all? Is it necessary? We learn information about characters and events that way, and provides some insight into his mind, but… is any of that essential? If you rewrote scenes to get rid of his captions, would the book work just as well? I don’t know, but these are questions I can’t help but ask.
There’s a single panel where it becomes blatantly obvious that Loeb has no idea what he’s doing. It’s the single panel in all 13 issues where a thought balloon appears. One panel. One instance. In the entire story. Does that make sense to any of you?
On page 12 of issue four (page 118 of the trade), the Roman is at a New Year’s party and thinks,
WHAT A LOVELY NEST OF VIPERS I’VE SURROUNDED MYSELF WITH…
…IF IT WEREN’T FOR ALBERTO THERE’D BE NOBODY I COULD TRUST…
Part of me wants to give this panel a certain power, to elevate it as an example of brilliance, that, somehow, standing alone, it suggests something more than it really does. But, really, what it suggests is that Jeph Loeb fucked up. One thought balloon in 13 issues. Never used before this panel, never used after. It delivers no useful information other than possibly working later to prove that the Roman and his son thought up the Holiday killings together, but, if so, what does that tell us about Loeb’s skills as a writer that he has to plant that clue in an horribly obvious, blatant manner? This panel stands out. It stopped me dead when I was reading this again. It’s the only panel that stands out to me since it’s an anomaly, something that should not be — it’s a goddamn mistake that points to the shoddy, haphazard construction of this entire book. It’s not a “mistake” that actually makes this work of art better in some way, it’s just an easy-to-point-to example of Loeb’s command of his craft — which is lacking.
Beyond the narrative voice, the story is constructed in a manner that also doesn’t work. The idea of a holiday killer is a good one, but since each issue coincides with one of those killings, the plot stops and starts weeks apart. This wouldn’t be a problem if Loeb would have events happen off-panel, but he refuses to do so. When Dent and Gordon begin suspecting Wayne of being connected to the Falcones around New Year’s, they seem gung-ho on nailing this rich prick, but, because of the story, they don’t actually do anything until Valentine’s Day. They wait a month and a half to even question Wayne? Really?
One positive about the story construction is that Loeb does fill issues with smaller self-contained plots that fit into the larger picture. It becomes a bit too much of a “parade of Batman villains,” but works well, for the most part.
The Long Halloween is more than a mystery story, showing how Gotham shifted from regular corruption to a town run by freaks. Or does it? With Batman and Catwoman in full force at the beginning of the story, and the only Rogue we see for the first time here being Two-Face, where does the shift actually happen? It’s, no doubt, meant to be subtle, but does it actually happen at all here? (Also, if I recall correctly, it was dealt with more explicitly in Dark Victory.) There is a comment or two about the Roman hiring “freaks,” but they’re there from the beginning, so…
One of the main narrative arcs is the story of Harvey Dent and how he eventually becomes Two-Face. While I’ve read criticisms of The Long Halloween, this subplot is rarely the target of any negativity and I’m not sure how I feel about it yet. I’ll begin talking it through and we’ll see where I end up, okay?
First, the friendship between Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent. It’s talked about, it’s hinted at, we see them work together, we see them get close to socialising outside of the office, but… do we ever really see any strong proof that these two guys are buddies? Does that pose a problem? Being close at work isn’t the same as being friends, even with two workaholics like these guys. It may be the closest either gets, but is that the same thing? I remember a line or two at the beginning of Dark Victory as Gordon takes Dent’s turn hard, discussing their friendship, except the examples he gives are never shown here. Beyond that, there’s the relationship between Dent and Batman — where Dent and Bruce Wayne are at odds for some lovely dramatic irony (he said, voice dripping with sarcasm). Together with Gordon, they all agree to take down the Falcones, and work together early on in the series, but they grow apart quickly.
There’s Harvey Dent and his wife’s relationship, which is very typical “husband works too much, wife is lonely,” but with hints that something just isn’t right with Gilda. We don’t get a whole lot of this, though. Actually, that’s a big problem with this series in general: we don’t get a whole lot of any subplot. Loeb tries to do a bit of everything and accomplishes nothing in the process. There’s so much he wants to squeeze in that there’s no room for it all except in the briefest of scenes. Now, if he was better at pulling those scenes off or pacing, that wouldn’t be a problem, but it’s all vague suggestions and characters telling us how things are rather than showing us. The emotional core of this book just isn’t there for me.
What really strikes me as odd is how little growth there is in Batman over the, what, 16 months this story covers. He’s still very new at this and he’s the same old Batman we know from now. Not too many rookie mistakes, very confident, very modern model of perfection. This story takes place very much at the beginning of his crime fighting career and it doesn’t show. Despite his role as central character and narrator, he’s also a bit of a cipher. He believes in Gotham, Harvey Dent, etc. He’s haunted by his parents’ deaths. He’s got the surface elements we know make up Batman, but no depth. I honestly can’t tell you anything about this Batman that sets him apart from how he is in other books.
While I’m thinking of it… when Poison Ivy takes over Bruce Wayne for a month (Valentine’s Day to St. Patrick’s Day), where is Alfred? Does she discover that he’s Batman? Christ, what a fucking mess.
Tim Sale draws quite well. Except for his Batman. His Batman is just awful. He can’t draw muscles in a convincing manner and it stands out. Other than that, some great work. He’s a very suggestive artist, only using the amount of lines necessary to get the point across. Very excellent use of light and shadows. He draws regular people better than anyone in a costume. Actually, I’m not a fan of any of his non-regular people depictions. I do think that one of the problems in the writing stems from Loeb writing far too much towards providing Sale with opportunities to draw big, beautiful pages — which I don’t understand since Sale is clearly capable of doing more intricate work. While the first issue is a solid read, each successive issue seems quicker and less detailed story-wise as panels-per-page counts fall. Really, though, I love Sale’s work here most of the time.
I want to keep going, to point out all that I find wrong in this story… but why bother? It will just be more of the same. How is this story considered one of the better Batman stories? Is the character so lacking in truly great stories? Or are readers just suckers for third-rate mysteries, noirish art, and rewritten Godfather scenes?
Maybe I’m being too hard on this book. That’s certainly possible. You can write this off as another case of some asshole online hating on Jeph Loeb if that makes you feel better. I didn’t set out with the intention of tearing the book apart when I reread it. I didn’t go out of my way to spot these faults. They jumped out at me.
Next week, something I like hopefully.