Batman: The Long Halloween

(1996-97)
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Illustrator: Tim Sale
Colorist: Gregory Wright
Letterer: Richard Starkings and Comicraft

"I believe in Gotham City."

It's Batman's second year in costume, and Bruce Wayne finds himself reaching out to others both through his masked identity and in his personal life. Batman allies himself with Commissioner Jim Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent in a vow to bring down the Five Families of Gotham City. Top of the list? Carmine "The Roman" Falcone, head of the most powerful mob syndicate in the city. (You'll remember him from Batman: Year One: he still bears a scar from when freshly-costumed Selina Kyle laid the smack down on him).

Bruce Wayne is reaching out too, dating Selina Kyle and shoring up his business interests as corporate head of Wayne Enterprises. But soon Wayne's new relationships come under fire as members of the Falcone family start getting themselves killed on major holidays, forcing Gordon, Batman and Harvey Dent into uncomfortable moral gray zones as they track a killer who seems to be doing their jobs for them.

And that's before Harvey Dent meets his destiny at the business end of an acid bottle.

The Long Halloween is one of four great DC-universe collaborations between writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale. The first was, of course, 'Haunted Knight', a three-part Legends of the Dark Knight special serial dealing with "Fears", "Madness" and "Ghosts" published in 1993, 1994 and 1995. The second, and perhaps more perfect collaboration, came with Superman for All Seasons, a Capra-esque take on the origin story of the Man of Steel. Batman: Dark Victory functions as a sequel to The Long Halloween and a future collaboration about Catwoman (more on that later) is being planned by the team for a 2004 release.

Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb are a fantastic team, perhaps one of the best working in comics today - their legacy certainly gives Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso (the 100 Bullets guys) a run for their money. Jeph Loeb enjoyed tremendous commercial success with his 12-part 'Hush' storyline for the main Batman title last year; his collaboration with Jim Lee may have eclipsed the value of the Loeb/Sale team, but I believe Loeb's writing is at its strongest when paired with Sale's dark, stylized art rather than Lee's vivid, realistically-rendered characters.

At it's core, The Long Halloween is more about style than substance. The complicated serial-murder plot (taking 13 months to unfold and featuring a murder on every major holiday) has all the hallmarks of a great crime thriller and a noir mystery, but at the end all the careful plotting and characterizations reveal themselves to be wafer-thin, unraveling and vanishing before the reader can really figure out who Holiday really was.

I remember browsing through this trade in my little local comic book store and being turned off by the art, but intrigued by a storyline that somehow managed to weave together a story about the Gotham mafia and all of Batman's rogues. It's become a bit of a cliché in Loeb's writing that nearly every single character in the Batman universe makes an appearance; while the device was beaten to death in 'Hush', it works in stories like LH and it's sequel, Dark Victory, because the structure of the story allows for many characters with different motivations and functions within the text.

As in Batman: Year One, James Gordon emerges as a driving force in the narrative, his character and motives far easier to comprehend than those of the remote Batman or unstable Harvey Dent. Gordon seems to be the Everyman of Gotham City, a man determined to do his moral duty despite the surrounding corruption of Dent's world and the violence of Batman's. Gordon's troubled marriage seems stable in comparison against the romantic doom surrounding the two other male leads. As the union between Harvey Dent and his wife Gilda dissolves and the blossoming relationship of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle reveals itself as an impossibility, Gordon is a man with a family and a sense of community. He is perhaps the most haunted by the events in The Long Halloween; we sense his deep commitment to law and order as he butts head with the gung-ho DA Dent and the troubled Batman over the "best" way to bring down the mob families and protect the city from "freaks" like the Joker, Poison Ivy, Solomon Grundy and Catwoman.

The union between the three men begins as a practical working relationship and evolves into a close-knit friendship. Ties of loyalty are tested well into Dark Victory as both Gordon and Batman feel a lingering sense of guilt over what happens to their friend Harvey Dent. James Gordon has always provided a wonderful counterpoint to Batman; their relationship is often the most satisfying emotional element in any Batman story, and Loeb's introduction of the fragile trust between the two men is wonderful.

Loeb's characterization of Bruce Wayne is strong at the beginning of the story but becomes lost in the shuffle as the Holiday murders go into overdrive. The relationship between Bruce and Selina is forgotten for nearly a quarter of the story, and some tantalizing analysis of Thomas Wayne's complicity in his own murder and that of his wife are introduced and then disposed of all too quickly. Batman's relationship with the criminal underworld is explored here through violence more brutal and unforgiving than we're used to seeing in most Batman stories; it seems to be a way through which Bruce Wayne expresses himself rather than a means to an end. Midway through the story ("St. Patrick's Day") The Roman uses Poison Ivy to manipulate Bruce's vote on the First Gotham Bank's board of directors to launder money. Bruce Wayne is put on trial for complicancy in the money-laundering scheme, charged and released within three pages. I can't help but feel as though Loeb passed up an opportunity to explore how Wayne keeps his nose clean in business while still generating the funding he needs to function as Batman. It was great to see Alfred take the stand in his boss' defense: Leob's Alfred is spectacular, full of great bon mots and the sarcasm we've come to expect from the Batman's butler.

The Bruce Wayne/Selina Kyle relationship (and, by extension, the Batman/Catwoman one) plays out in Loeb's stories as something more than sexually-charged banter. Loeb has said in interviews that he feels the one woman for Bruce Wayne is Selina Kyle: his 'Hush' storyline attempted (among other things) to cement a romantic relationship between the two. Any possibility of love is negated, of course, by a lack of mutual trust and purpose between the two.

Jeph Loeb's Selina is both femme fatal and battle-scarred resident of Gotham: her choice at the end of the story to ally herself with the "freaks" rather than Batman is sad but unsurprising in this year two-era tale. There's real pathos in Selina's ability to reach through the layers of self-imposed barriers and integrate herself into Bruce Wayne's life, only to be rejected time and again. In their costumed identities, Catwoman is often the one who turns away or refuses to help, and her betrayal of both Bruce and Batman at the end of the story comes as a sharply-felt blow to both sides of Wayne's life. It is in 'The Long Halloween' that Batman comes to realize how truly alone he is in his crusade. That loneliness is assuaged, of course, by the arrival of Dick Grayson in Dark Victory.

The character who suffers most from Loeb's multiple plot threads and constantly-changing character priorities is the oft-underused Harvey Dent. Two-Face is a fascinating villain, even more so when one considers that he, Batman, and James Gordon were once best friends and allies in the war on crime. Amid all the mafia posturing, mysterious plot occurrences and shifting loyalties, Loeb somehow forgets to show us exactly how and why the well-adjusted, happily-married Harvey Dent develops a split personality. The acid-throwing scene in the courtroom (tied ingeniously, of course, to the Holiday murders and the Falcone syndicate in the way Dick Grayson's origins are tied to organized crime in Dark Victory) is a dramatic and shocking presentation made moreso due to Sale's use of subtle dramatic devices rather than true violence or gore..

However, not actually seeing the acid connect with Dent's face seems to lessen the impact of Dent's scarring later on. And that's a real shame, considering Loeb doesn't provide adequate evidence of Harvey's mental unraveling to fully justify the emergence of the second personality, Two-Face. There's a reference to Dent's own father's insanity (he goes to visit "dad" in a mental hospital) but there isn't much indication that Dent is capable of the bone-deep madness displayed by Two-Face in this and later stories. I would have liked Loeb to spare some of the dramatic inner-monologue reserved for Batman and given to poor Harvey, who is always one person until the story requires him to become two.

The story's resolution becomes more unsatisfactory as time passes. In the end, who was Holiday? Was it Alberto Falcone? Two-Face? Gilda Dent? The story seems to supply an answer, but the clues don't always match up and the mystery plot collapses under careful scrutiny. Loeb is a master of covering his bases: as the 'Hush' mystery unfolded over a year on the DC Messageboards, nearly every single question fans brought up was addressed somewhere in the story through plot or dialogue. Bodies that go missing in one section turn up in another, odd physical tics or bad moments of characterization are explained later on, and Loeb tries very, very hard to tie everything together and make sense for the reader. I liken Jeph Loeb's mystery plotting to a ramshackle house: I picture him frantically scrambling around, trying to shore up the structure and repair the foundation even as he's constructing the roof. Sometimes the juggling act pays off, as in Dark Victory. Sometimes it collapses, as 'Hush' did. And, like in The Long Halloween, readers are often left scratching their head, searching for profundity or errant plot threads that should make sense but don't.

However, these are minor quibbles. So what if the Holiday murders never really make sense? There is enough violence, action, romance and drama in The Long Halloween to fill a hundred Batman stories, and the tale emerges as a modern classic in terms of mood, style and characterization. TLH has become a touchstone in the post-Crisis Batman canon, never officially official (at least until 'Hush' brought it into the main Batman continuity) but still a hell of a read.


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