There will be lots of spoilers in here.
Hush by Jeph Loeb.
Jeph Loeb isn't a great storyteller, but the art in this book is so absolutely stunning that I enjoyed every page; in fact I had trouble getting around to ever turning the pages. And really, Loeb did all right. There were things I really liked about the story, and I think he had some interesting ideas... he just didn't pull them together in a very interesting way. Most of what he had to say about Batman and the various villains felt just a bit trite, like the kind of "revelations" that have probably been made dozens of times in the history of the series.
So I don't know. The plot was actually pretty good, and it was well-written enough... it was just sort of typical: Batman fights villains, does detective work, reflects on past, faces own demons, sustains injuries, ultimately unveils plot, carries on. But really, it wasn't bad. I think the only reason I'm having trouble praising it is because I subsequently read another book by Jeph Loeb, Dark Victory, which was just horrible. So now I'm having trouble believing that Hush didn't suck too.
But in any case, it was worth reading for the art alone. Just gorgeous.
The Killing Joke by Alan Moore.
Well, it's Alan Moore, so of course this one was very well-written
As for the story, I enjoyed it a great deal, but... I still felt like something was ultimately missing. I loved Moore's idea, to really capture the Joker's character, to explain how he came to be what he is, and examine what he perceives himself to be; to show why madness has such a strong appeal for him, why he considers justice a joke, and why he's so fascinated by, and drawn to, Batman. He's suave and dangerous and just the right balance between charming and horrible, and his humor is just dark enough, just mean enough. And oh my god, that gun at the end, Batman's shocked expression, and then the flag -- "click click click," and, "God damn it. It's empty." Oh my god, I laughed for like a minute straight. I love you, Joker, even though you're a terrible, terrible man.
The Joker's song was pretty awesome, and his position, his "message," while flawed, was believable; and Batman's debunking of his theory, with not just Gordon but himself as (dubious) proof, was well done. I can't really say what it was that seemed to be missing from the story. A conclusion, maybe?
I mean, the Joker tells that flashlight joke, "See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum..." and the joke is funny, but then... that's it. They laugh, and the book ends right there. Ends just after a frame that sort of looks like Batman is, like... tickling the Joker, or something; like they've just become fast friends after all the unspeakable things that have just happened throughout the book. Gordon being tortured within an inch of his sanity, and Barbara being paralyzed and practically molested... Just, whoa, what?
I guess the joke was supposed to represent Batman and the Joker's relationship, how they're both crazy, and Batman, thinking himself the sane one, is trying to offer a helping hand, offering to make the Joker his friend and save him somehow -- and this is the Joker's answer, to point out that they're both far too mad for that, both too mad to even exist outside of their asylum. Least of all together. And I guess that's why Batman burst out laughing, too -- because the joke is just so appropriate, so them. But still, it was a kind of strange ending. It seemed to really demonstrate that Batman is precisely as cracked as the Joker after all, and that maybe the Joker was right. Except that there's nothing he can do to send Batman over the edge, because he already is over the edge. This is his insanity.
Anyway, like the other works of Moore's that I've read, this one left me feeling sort of ambivalent, really liking it, and yet not quite liking it as much as I feel it deserves... and not being sure whether that's my fault, or Moore's.
Dark Victory by Jeph Loeb.
This thing was so boring it was practically unreadable. Part of the problem is that the art was just horrible, flat, expressionless, with wonky proportions and ugly characters and just ugh. But even aside from that, the grammar was bad, the arrangement of the dialogue was confusing, and the story was repetitive and uninteresting. Each installment retold pieces from all the previous installments, and failed to integrate them into the story so that they would seem natural; the characters said things that should have been incorporated into the narrative, because they made no sense as dialogue... Blah.
Also Jeph Loeb seems to have a habit of trying to pack every single villain into each of his stories. Overkill much?
Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison.
Holy shit, man.
First of all, Dave McKean was the perfect choice of artist for this book. I don't even think the book could exist if it weren't for McKean. The art is thoroughly, thoroughly disturbing.
But I don't mean to discredit the amount of detail Grant Morrison put into his descriptions for every single panel, either. I've got the edition with the script printed at the back, and wow. I'm about to run out and buy stacks of books by Jung and Campbell and Crowley, because I'm completely embarrassed by how little of the genius of the book I picked up while reading it. It's just packed with visual allusions to mythology and religion and mysticism and psychology; the amount of symbolism in every page, every scene, every line, every underlying idea, is mind-boggling.
There were still things about it that seemed off to me, though. I mean, the setup was fine: asylum breakout, inmates demand to see Batman -- and knowing Batman, he would choose to go. Maybe more out of masochism than heroism, really. He was a little too confessional with Gordon, I thought, and Gordon was a bit too fatherly; their relationship felt a little off. But then, I can't think of a better way to have incorporated that uneasy comment about how going to Arkham would feel like coming home.
The Joker was fucking excellent, and I loved his reaction to, "I say we take the mask off. I want to see his real face." -- "Oh, don't be so predictable, for Christ's sake! That is his real face." Maybe that was partly just an authorial device to prevent Batman's being clobbered and unmasked by all the inmates en masse, but it was also so, so true -- and the kind of truth that the Joker would recognize better than anyone else.
I wasn't so sure about Batman's total failure at word-association. Surely this is a man who can think on his feet, and answer questions without revealing any more about himself than he wants to? I get that the point was to show how afraid Batman really is of examining his own psyche, and it’s a very interesting problem; I just don't know that his totally tripping right the fuck out over a few words quite fit.
Then things sort of degenerate into a game of hide and seek, which is a pretty good setup to pit Batman against each of his old enemies in turn, to have them each present to him some separate fear that haunts him, and let him conquer them one at a time... but it sort of... I mean, most of them come at him with accusations, revelations, insidious ideas, and he only refutes them with physical might, kicking, punching, stabbing, so that he still always comes off as somehow impotent: they confront him with internal fears, internal demons, and his only defense is an external one, destruction. Which, come to think of it, is pretty accurately representative of Batman as we know him. Here is a man who seriously cannot deal with internal problems. To the point that he would rather jab shards of glass through his hand as a distraction, apparently.
I loved Harvey, and loved how -- I think -- he actually made a choice to let Batman go at the end, without really consulting his coin. I loved his comments on the moon, expressing his outlook on the world. I didn't understand why Batman was apparently setting everyone free. I mean, it's a nice parallel for Pandora's Box, hope and all; but I'm not sure why Batman would want to open that box. I guess maybe it was his only way out?
Anyway, Arkham Asylum is definitely my favorite of the books so far. It kind of seems like an entirely different medium, almost an entirely different genre, an exploration and analysis of the entire Batman mythos rather than an actual story about Batman. It felt...
Well, it felt not like something that actually happened, but like a vivid depiction of the sum of Batman's nightmares. Thanks to McKean, the thing really does have the feel of a nightmare, everything shifting and vague and somehow utterly terrifying in its shapelessness; there are all these dark hallways and abandoned rooms, and of course a house is representative of the self or the mind in dreams anyway, and all these lurking demons, and... the way Batman talks, to Gordon, to the inmates, to the psychoanalysts, feels disjointed and dreamlike; his thoughts are muddled; he seems to be jumping at shadows. The Hatter says, "Sometimes I think the asylum is a head. We're inside a huge head that dreams us all into being. Perhaps it's your head, Batman." And clearly... yes.
And if it is intended as a nightmare, then it is significant that he conquers them by force, one at a time: a hero archetype would have to. His inability to play the word game would fit with a nightmare sequence, too. And Harvey's role: in Batman's mind, there's still hope for him. So yes -- if the book was intended to be a glimpse inside of Batman’s mind, at his darkest moments... then it is utterly perfect, in every aspect, and really one of the best pieces of fiction I've ever read, never mind just comic books.
Batman: Year One by Frank Miller.
Very, very good. I really liked this one. I prefer it quite a bit to the story in Batman Begins, although I also recognize that it wouldn't have translated to film well at all. I loved what Miller did with the characters, how grim his Batman is, and his Gordon, fallible and human and kind of... desperately just. I loved Batman's imperfections, his failings in combat because he doesn't quite know his own ropes yet. I loved how he comes up with his crazy bat-man idea in a semi-delirious state of severe blood loss and near death.
This Batman is very human, driven, obsessive, and a little impatient; at every moment he seems at risk of being discovered, exposed, ruined, or killed; he's uncertain a lot, in danger a lot, but thankfully he's always got one more ace up his sleeve. Alfred keeps him in line with sulkiness and sarcasm. You've got to love Alfred.
All around, Batman: Year One feels the most like what I've always imagined Batman to be. Apparently some people (including the artist who illustrated the comic o_O) have taken issue with Miller's realism, his attempt to take Batman seriously and regard him as a real human being. These people apparently believe the superhero genre is, by nature, fantastical and juvenile, and should remain so. Well, I think those people are idiots. It's not as though Miller's stories aren't epic, exaggerated, thrilling, with unlikely escapes and amazing innovations; the guy is still writing Batman. He's just not writing a clunky, cliché, redundant Batman: he's writing a Batman you can actually believe in.
And whoever thinks writers of fantastical themes shouldn't take their work too seriously needs a lesson from Professor Tolkien, methinks. Sheez.
The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller.
This one just left me sort of speechless. I'm not actually sure whether it's the good kind of speechless. I liked it. I'm very impressed by it. I'm just not sure I... accept it, if that makes sense.
I loved Miller's idea to write a Batman who is old (well, old for a superhero, anyway). One thing that really bugged me was his making it impossible to figure out just how old Batman actually was; I tried to calculate it based on various clues, but never could figure it out. But anyway, he finally came out and said fifty-five at the very end, and fifty-five was just right. It means he quit the bat business when he was in his mid forties, still young enough for the job, but probably beginning to slow down. I can picture him giving up the game at forty-five. And I can picture him hating every day of the next ten years.
And maybe I'm a sadist -- well, duh -- but I loved Batman's internal monologues in all the fight scenes, when he was always not quite fast enough or not quite strong enough, didn't quite have the stamina or the agility he was expecting from himself, couldn't breathe, started blacking out, taking bullets. I loved his continual cursing of his failing abilities, his "senility." And I loved his stupid suicidal arrogance, choosing to face that mutant kid hand-to-hand, not out of chivalry but simply because he wasn't sure he could.
I wasn't too sure about his recurring murderous thoughts, though. It didn't bother me that he kept thinking about killing people -- most of them would have deserved it, and in the Joker's case, it's true that Batman has basically killed hundreds of people by letting the Joker live; so the morality is very questionable there. No, what bugged me was how he kept thinking about it in a way that sounded malicious, as though he wanted to kill them more for pleasure than for justice. "It takes nearly a minute to fall from this height, and despite what you may have heard, you're likely to stay conscious all the way down. Thoughts like that keep me warm at night." And there he rescues Harvey not because of any moral objection to letting a man die, nor even because his vow forbids it, but purely because he has to know whether it's really Harvey or not.
And then, "Leaving the world no poorer -- four men die." What? Is this Batman talking here? I realize he didn't kill them, exactly, but... just, what?
Also, it didn't seem like we ever actually got resolution on Harvey's portion of the plot. Maybe I'm missing something.
I'm not sure how I feel about Robin the Girl Wonder, either. Miller did a pretty good job with her, better than I'd have expected, so, eh. But we seem to be short a Robin in this story. I'm not sure, but it looked like Tim got written out completely. I'm just going to pretend that Batman carried on for a while, post-Jason, with Tim, and then quit... because of Jason's death, but not directly subsequent thereto.
Anyway, apart from a few things like these, I did really like the story, even if it was pretty goddamn dark, even for Batman. The way the media comes down on him is absolutely brutal, and the charges leveled against him are not only terrible, but also... sort of justified. His fading legend, the way the kids think he's just a myth... it was just bleak. Really well done, but really bleak.
I liked the Joker, and his reaction to Batman's return -- "Batman. Darling." -- cracked me up. He was pretty careless, but then, subtlety has never been one of the Joker's strong suits. I can't quite decide what I think about his death -- whether it seemed in character or not, for him to kill himself to frame Batman. There are so many new factors; both of them are getting to be old men now, and the Joker's priorities may well have changed over the years, and getting the last laugh might mean something different to him now. And then, maybe he just didn't have any choice, if he was really completely paralyzed. Maybe he really did it because he wanted to die before the cops arrived, and not because he cared about framing Batman at all -- a desperate kind of last laugh, a false face of triumph, knowing he'd lost. And then, maybe he figured they'd both die together. He'd stabbed Batman enough times, apparently.
Mainly, though, what I'm ambivalent about is the end. Because it's got fucking Superman in it. A lot.
See, I've never accepted Superman as existing within the same canon as Batman. I want Batman to exist in the real world of human men, not some magical world populated with superheroes with superpowers. So as soon as Clark Kent showed up, the whole story lost credibility for me. And his role was so important that I couldn't just write him out in my head. Either Superman is canon, or this comic isn't.
It was really well done, and Superman was actually a very interesting character; I found his position, relative to Batman, fascinating. It would be Batman laughing at the council, saying of course we're criminals... it would be Batman giving the rest of the superheroes a bad name with his scare tactics and excessive force. All the more annoying to them, since Batman isn't even a real superhero -- just a rich kid with a vendetta, completely off his rocker and prancing around in a batsuit. I mean, all superheroes are weird, but Batman has got to be the craziest of the lot.
I did love his plan, and didn't predict the twist at all. Well, heck, even Superman bought into it, so it must have been well played. And then the funeral... all really well done. Poor Alfred. I wonder if he knew.
Not too sure about the very end, either; an army of vigilantes sounds like an unbelievably bad idea to me. Does Batman not realize that taking the law into your own hands is not for just anybody, least of all a bunch of impressionable young idiots who will follow whoever waves the biggest flag? None of these guys are actually reformed. They don't hate crime. Their parents weren't killed outside a theater. Bah.
But on the other hand, even if they're not great at being batmen, they'll probably do better than Gotham's current police force, especially now, with Gordon gone and chaos everywhere. We could have done with more closure on Gordon, come to think of it. We just kind of left him standing there.
Anyway. I can see now why The Dark Knight Returns gets so much press, both positive and negative. It's a really intensely grim and serious story, and it's very, very good -- but also quite a bit of a departure from the usual for a Batman comic. It's not even really a story about a hero. It's just a story about a man. It kind of belongs to some other genre.
Also, as an aside: the more comics I read, the harder it is for me to see Christian Bale as Batman. I still think he's way better than any of the other actors who've ever taken on the role, and when he's actually in the batsuit, he's damn good. And when he's playing the part of Bruce Wayne, playboy zillionaire, he's good, too. It's just when he's talking to Alfred or Fox or Rachel that he's all wrong. He just doesn't have that brusque, surly, uncommunicative moodiness that's so definitive of the real Bruce Wayne. Bale!Batman smiles. He makes jokes that are not dry or sarcastic. And that's not who Batman is. He's moral and good and just, but he's not nice, not friendly -- not even with Robin or Selina. He's kind of a complete bastard, actually.
But, heck, he's playing a very young Batman. I know Bale is in his thirties, but I like to think that The Dark Knight Batman is only twenty-six or so, and maybe at this early stage he's still more open: the bat has not yet consumed the man. Maybe this deal with Rachel is what breaks him, and he'll be moodier in the next film. I hope so, though honestly I'm not expecting much. I can't see how the next film can even approach The Dark Knight, no matter what they do. Seems to me they've almost made it pointless to make another Batman film of any kind ever again.
I still love the Joker, though. I love that instead of a chemical-accident-grin, which would have looked silly on film, they gave him those scars -- and instead of using chemicals to carve smiles into the faces of his victims, he uses a plain old knife. Very fitting. Ledger's Joker is not quite what I picture when I read the comics, but neither do I find him to be in any way inconsistent with the comics. I saw the film again the other day, and found that whenever Ledger was onscreen, I could imagine the comic book Joker, with his long face and slender body, making all the same moves, the same expressions, smiling the same mocking, malicious smile with too many teeth; I could superimpose the cartoon right over the living man, and every step suited them both.
I'm also reading Gabriel Garcia Marquéz's The General In His Labyrinth. So I haven't abandoned real literature or anything, I promise. ;) Oh, and if anyone is comparing this to my post about Watchmen -- well, Watchmen is better than any of these comics (bar maybe Arkham Asylum, which is like a whole different genre, anyway); I was just more critical of it because I had set such high standards. I appreciate it a lot more now that I've got in in proper perspective.