03 October 2011

"Batman: Haunted Knight" by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

Batman: Haunted Knight
Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale - Storytellers
Gregory Wright - Colorist
Todd Klein - Letterer
Android Images - Separations (Chapters Two and Three)
Batman created by Bob Kane
Trade paperback published: 1 September 1996
Third Printing
Cover Price: $14.95
192 pages

This trade paperback collects the three Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Specials published annually in 1993, 1994 and 1995; each written by Jeph Loeb and illustrated by Tim Sale.

Originally published as Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special No. 1 (1993)

I'll never forget how excited I was when this was first published.  In those days, I made a point to pick up Direct Currents each month when I went to The Great Escape; it was a free circular from DC Comics that gave a checklist of that month's publications, including on-sale date, cover price and synopsis.  Being a passionate LOTDK reader, I was stoked that there would be a Halloween Special.  Batman versus Scarecrow.  A prestige format special so special it spanned 84 pages, its cover price was $6.95...and it still sold out during its first week!  The Great Escape had none on their shelves by the time I got there on Saturday morning after it had gone on sale.  I was crestfallen.  Then, I managed to snag a copy at a local flea market and all was right with the world.

It's a simple enough premise: Scarecrow is going around Gotham City attacking power plants, plunging the city into darkness while he and his men loot.  Batman has been in pursuit three days, to no avail, but he's getting closer.  Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is hosting a charity fundraiser at home, where he meets Jillian Maxwell...who rouses the attention of Bruce and the suspicion of Alfred.

I loved this story in 1993 and I love it now.  Jeph Loeb's Scarecrow quotes from fairy tales and nursery rhymes throughout the story, which imbues him with an unsettling personality.  This is a guy who delights in conflating the innocent with the dangerous; it is a psychological drama, rather than an action piece.  I expected nothing less.  After all, they went to the trouble of branding this "A Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special."  In those days, LOTDK meant stories that were a little more cerebral than standard Bat-fare.  Loeb did not disappoint; though some of the story's plot does bear a striking resemblance to that of the animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which hit theaters two months after this special was published.  When reading it last night, I frequently kept hearing Shirley Walker's score from Phantasm; I don't recall now if I originally heard Danny Elfman's work, or any music at all.  Now, though, this story and that score are entangled in my mind.

Tim Sale's art was just as integral.  I often sort of take comic book art for granted, but I was struck last night by Sale's art.  Splash pages appear entirely too often for my taste in contemporary comics (see my review of Batwoman #1), but Sale's sparing use makes them awfully dramatic.  There's no better example than the opening of the second act.  We see Batman atop a gargoyle, perched in silhouette...and then we turn the page to see lightning illuminate our hero as well as the Gotham skyline.  It's stunning.  Sale's Alfred features wonderfully droll facial expressions, and I can't help but think Vincent Schiavelli was his model.  What a fine casting choice that would have made!  (Alas, Schiavelli was instead the Organ Grinder in Batman Returns.)

This first Halloween Special remains one of my favorite Batman stories, and even though I now own the Haunted Knight collection, I still treasure my original LOTDK Halloween Special No. 1.

Note: Strangely enough, inside the original issue, it is titled, Legends of the Dark Knight: Choices - A Tale of Halloween in Gotham City; in the Haunted Knight collected edition, it is titled, Fears.  I have no idea why.

Inspired by the works of Lewis Carroll & John Tenniel
Originally published as Batman: Madness - A Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special (1994)

Just before Halloween, young Barbara Gordon arrives from Ohio to live with her uncle, Gotham City Police Captain Jim Gordon.  On the loose, however, is Jervis Tetch--the Mad Hatter, a twisted man who has built a psychotic fantasy life around Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.  At present, the Hatter has taken to kidnapping children, to be forced into partaking in his twisted tea parties.  Batman is already desperate to find the Hatter, and the stakes get higher when defiant Barbara Gordon becomes his latest victim.

I'll be honest: I've never particularly liked the Mad Hatter, in any incarnation.  The lone exception is this story, in which we learn that he gets under Batman's skin because Alice evokes fond memories of Martha Wayne, Bruce's mother.  The story gets just a little too neat by directly linking Alice with the night the Waynes were murdered; I would have preferred it remain a solitary childhood memory, though I understand the storytelling value of connecting the story with the murder.  It's the insights into Bruce Wayne that make Madness so compelling, but I confess that the Hatter is truly disturbing in this story.

One note, though.  Young Bruce complains, "What good's a book without any pictures?"  Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was, of course, originally published with some spectacular engravings by John Tenniel.  I find it very unlikely that the Waynes would own an edition that did not include his work.  I understand the point is that this is the first work of prose introduced to Bruce, but it struck me as peculiar that Martha does not reassure her son that there are some lovely pictures.

Inspired by A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Originally published as Batman: Ghosts - A Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special (1995)

I love A Christmas Carol, and I love me some Batman.  I was therefore disappointed to learn that the amalgamation didn't do much for me.  The Penguin attacks a socialite ball attended by Bruce Wayne, who of course quickly escapes to return as Batman to stop the robbery.  Once home, he is visited by the ghost of his father who informs him he needs to learn a lesson from other spirits: the Ghost of Halloween Past (Poison Ivy), Present (The Joker) and Future.

Whereas Madness took Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as a plot inspiration, Ghosts instead relies on A Christmas Carol as its template.  It reads as little more than a lazy cut and paste job, and the characterization of Bruce Wayne feels entirely off throughout this story.  He's hardly the discerning detective, instead reacting to his spirit guides with confused deference.  It all feels hurried, as though Loeb had exhausted his interest after committing to the idea.  Sale's art is in fine form, though, particularly the splash page reveal of The Joker, which may be two of the best looking pages in the entire collected edition.

I suppose one could describe Haunted Knight as an example of the law of diminishing returns; Choices/Fears is outstanding, Madness is solid and Ghosts is simply weak.  There's no continuity from one story to the next, so if you happen upon the original, individual issues there's no reason not to read them as you acquire them.  There is, however, a running theme of getting a peek into Bruce Wayne's head each Halloween and if you accept that as the principle thread of Haunted Knight, then I suppose Ghosts may have more meaning.

These three tales are quite accessible to new or casual readers; you're not asked to know about any part of Bat-continuity beyond what is discussed in these pages (though the nature of the Gordon family structure is a little hazy) and as far as I'm aware, there's nothing here that conflicts with the The New 52 continuity so if you're new to Batman comics, there's absolutely no reason you can't sit down with this collected edition and simply enjoy it.