Ambidextrous 277: This is Why (Batman: Long Halloween)

Ambidextrous 277: Why (Long Halloween)

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale always bring out the best in each other…

Their frequent collaborations are among some of the finest that comics have to offer, and their names will always be cited whenever someone asks about the great creative teams in the biz. Because while they’ve both done excellent work separately, there’s just something about them working together that makes perfect sense. It’s obvious that they have a really deep understanding of the way the other guy works, and are committed to making sure their fellow creator walks away from every project looking like a genius. Which is how both of them looked after finishing Batman: The Long Halloween.

This particular story is the focus of the latest This is Why for a few reasons---it began a string of highly successful and critically-acclaimed collaborations between the two, building on an earlier Challengers mini and a couple Batman specials. It was the first hardcover collection I ever got, a Christmas present read that same night in one frantic sitting, and then re-read a day later. It also seemed to offer some inspiration to the Dark Knight filmmakers, as there are a few close ties in their respective portrayals of the downfall of Harvey Dent. But more than all of that, it’s just a great Batman story that plays out in that nebulous period of history when the character was still somewhat fallible. A slightly younger and more mistake-prone Batman always seems worth reading about, especially in a series that packs in a ton of villains, a ton of gangsters, and has a compelling mystery at its core.

The follow-up series Batman: Dark Victory will also be receiving this treatment in the coming weeks, which in some ways is an even stronger piece of work. But it can’t exist without all of the wonderful things that occur in The Long Halloween, and I’d like a few minutes of your time to talk about some of them. Let’s take it from the top…

I Believe in Gotham City- (Chapter One, Crime)

This is the prevailing theme of the entire story—belief in one’s self, belief in one’s city, and belief in one’s friends. Loeb makes it pretty obvious by having characters actually verbalize this sentiment at several points during the mini, but it’s the first instance of this from Bruce Wayne that really sets the tone. You combine the gravity and implications of a line like “I believe in Gotham City,” with Tim Sale’s grim and haunted depiction of Bruce, his suit and body melting into the black background, and you immediately get a strong sense of the tone and direction of the story. And a reflexive need to turn that page and see what’s coming next…

Bend Not Break- (Chapter One, Crime)

The forging of the great alliance between Batman, Harvey Dent, and Jim Gordon, with as much terrible foreshadowing as Loeb and Sale can manage. To me, this was very similar to the fateful meeting between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels---you knew this partnership would eventually go horribly wrong, but watching it go through its trauma remains no less compelling or necessary.

Every character brings their own emotional baggage into the scene---Batman and his hesitation at accepting any help in his quest to honor his parents’ memory, Jim Gordon and his concern that he’s crossing a moral and ideological line, and Harvey Dent’s consuming passion for justice that includes a clear willingness to cross that line…as long as it’s for a good enough reason.

The way Sale stages it is also brilliant---while they’re deciding if they should all work together to bring down Falcone, they circle each other like sharks, avoiding eye contact and trying to divine if they can actually do the job without breaking every rule that makes them fundamentally different from him. Also, Sale throws the left half of Dent’s face into shadow every chance he gets, but this instance is among the most effective ones, given the scene’s overall context.

The Holiday Kills- (Various)

Fantastic storytelling conceit for these scenes---black and white images, absolutely no dialogue, and spot coloring. Considering that the Holiday killings were a huge part of what made this series notable in the first place, it was very important they be depicted in a way that was visually unique, yet formulaic. I always thought if this was a movie, the sound would drop out along with the color, leaving just the stark imagery of gangsters being murdered and left beside colorful souvenirs. Very cool, very noir, and a perfect perfect element in a Batman book.

In the Green- (Chapter Six, St. Patrick’s Day)

Another great success of the mini lies in the depiction of the relationships between Batman & Catwoman, and Selina Kyle & Bruce Wayne. Each pairing is laced with its own little idiosyncrasies, and though it seems impossible they wouldn’t figure out each other’s secrets, it’s obvious the interactions are more interesting that way. It’s also quite plausible that they’re both aware of the other’s costumed life, but doesn’t want to be the first to admit it. Whatever the case, I think Batman becomes more well-rounded with a love interest hanging around, as it tethers him to something more than his childhood trauma, and honestly, his childlike response to it. An undeniable, though repressed attraction to Catwoman seems honest and relatable. As is his insistence that there’s nothing more between them than a vague curiosity on either side.

The turning point here is when Catwoman comes to Bruce’s rescue, who’s under the thrall of Poison Ivy. Not only is it the first instance in which their dual lives violently collide, but it provides an opportunity for more fine work from Tim Sale. The two-page spread in which an enraged Catwoman charges across a long dinner table at Ivy while snarling, “You are mine, Poison Ivy. All mine,” is a definite highlight. Also, when Catwoman slashes open Bruce’s shirt and finds his entire chest covered in thick, tangled vines. Afterwards, he thanks her, saying that Bruce Wayne is…a friend. So much is left unsaid between these two that Loeb consistently finds new ways for them to interact, and this particular development was an important one.

Clip Show- (Chapter Seven, April Fool’s Day)

Roughly at the halfway point, Loeb turns what is essentially a recap issue into one of the strongest of the entire series. He does it by establishing a dueling narrative between Batman and the Riddler, both trying to figure out the identity of the Holiday killer. They review the evidence, speculate about possible suspects, and play a game of “What if?” skillfully rendered by Sale. This story accomplishes a couple things--- it provides an appropriate breather to an otherwise breakneck story featuring a ton of characters and plot threads. It both eliminates and suggests possible killers, which are likely intended to deliberately throw the reader off course. Most importantly, it is the very first time that Batman allows himself to think the unthinkable…Harvey Dent is Holiday. This moment of clarity is a huge moment going into the second half of this story, and looking even further ahead, into the sequel Dark Victory. The fellowship as it were truly begins to unravel here, and Loeb makes it happen in a manner that appears deceptively simple, but proves no less effective.

Great ending too.

Secret Origin- (Chapters Eight & Nine, Mother’s Day & Father’s Day)

Batman inhaling Scarecrow’s fear gas is always a good thing (storytelling-wise, that is) but Batman inhaling fear gas on Mother’s Day is even better. It takes what is already a highly unpleasant experience for Bruce Wayne and makes it that much worse. Because of Ivy, Dent is convinced there’s a sizable connection between Bruce and Carmine Falcone. This suspicion is likely only made stronger when Wayne runs from the police in a drug-addled state, only to be found clutching the super-sized headstone of Martha Wayne, bawling like a baby. Am I a terrible person for thinking this scene was so cool…?

In the next chapter, we learn of the actual connection between Thomas Wayne and Carmine Falcone---the good doctor once performed emergency surgery on the then young criminal, saving his life in the process. Which from a strange perspective makes Thomas Wayne responsible for everything that’s happened since that fateful night. The irony of course is not lost on Bruce, who takes every opportunity to place the weight of the world on his shoulders and take responsibility for things far beyond his control.

But the real truth of the matter appears at the close of these two issues---Bruce Wayne is just a young man that fiercely misses his lost parents. This is something that obviously defines the character, but Loeb found two very interesting ways to illustrate this, hammering home the intensity of Bruce’s quest to rid the city of the evil that took their lives.

Poor Harvey- (Chapter Eleven, Roman Holiday)

As a kid, I was always particularly horrified by the origin of Two-Face, thinking the very idea of hurling acid into someone’s face to be particularly excessive. That is of course the whole point, but every time I see this moment depicted, it remains just as unsettling as the first time I saw it…except maybe for that lame flashback from Batman Forever. But yeah, it’s something that always makes me cringe a little bit anyway, so leave it to Tim Sale to make it that much worse.

We’ve known this was coming from the very beginning, but it’s still awful to watch it all play out in slow motion---Dent’s “assistant” handing Maroni a mysterious bottle, the sudden coughing fit during Maroni’s testimony, a disguised Batman’s realization that something is very wrong. The storytelling is perfect here, and I can’t decide what’s worst, the shot of Dent watching the acid come towards his face, or the one of him writhing in absolute agony on the floor of the courtroom while Maroni taunts him from the witness stand. Batman’s captioning says that he’ll never forget the sound of Harvey’s screams and Sale’s visuals make us believe it.

We knew there was no getting out of it, but with everything we’ve learned about Dent over the previous eleven issues, it’s still hard to watch. Which I suppose is the only proper response to seeing a man have acid tossed into his face.

The Surgeon- (Chapter Thirteen, Punishment)

The classic “Batman takes down a half dozen bad guys without breaking a sweat” scene, only with that distinctive Tim Sale twist. A symbolic moment really, as the torch of the Gotham underground is passed from the gangsters to the freaks, which becomes a critical plot thread in the follow-up series. But this was the first time his interpretations of the famous rogues’ appeared together in all their exaggerated glory, making for a poster worthy shot of everyone surrounding a shadowed Harvey Dent, now fully reborn as Two-Face. And Batman promptly breaks up this Kodak moment with gas bombs, brass knuckles, and batarangs. It’s one of those typical action/adventure constants---incredible odds always makes for great fun. Loeb also gives it a clever narrative slant, using Batman’s captioning to link the assault to his father’s approach to surgery.

I Am Holiday- (Chapter Thirteen, Punishment)

Should’ve known that Alberto Falcone wasn’t the true Holiday reveal, as Loeb went out of his way to ensure his body never actually appeared on-camera. Still, it was pretty cool to see the beam from Gordon’s flashlight fall across his face after Maroni took two to the head. And to see Batman emerge from riot gear and pound the ___ out of Falcone, before stepping on the young killer’s fingers, mangling them in the process.

Again, the main thing here is Batman’s consuming guilt---that he suspected Harvey Dent of being the killer and that this suspicion somehow prevented him from helping his friend when he truly needed it. So that by the time all three men meet again on the roof of police headquarters, not one of them has been left unchanged by the unintended consequences of their pact. And none of them can even be sure it was worth what it ultimately cost them. When Harvey tells Gordon and Batman point blank there was more than one Holiday killer, they can’t even see past his obsession with the number two to take him seriously. So Gilda Dent gets away with murder, revealed in Keyser Soze-like fashion in the final frame.

Favorite Issues-

Chapter One, Crime

Chapter Seven, April Fool’s Day

Chapter Eleven, Roman Holiday

Chapter Thirteen, Punishment

Chapter Nine, Father’s Day

Batman: The Long Halloween, by Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale, and Gregory Wright---this is why I love comics.

As always, feel free to leave your own thoughts about the series, including personal highlights, favorite lines, etc. on the board below. Thanks again.

The Fiction House

Previously:

This is the Why: All Star Superman

This is the Why: The Authority  

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