Batman: Haunted Knight – The Hero We Deserve

Haunted Knight.jpgHappy Halloween everyone, enjoy a special post!

Batman: Haunted Knight collects three Halloween tales by writer Jeph Loeb and illustrator Tim Sale. Famous for The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, the pair should be considered among the most trusted minds to weave a fantastic Batman story. Each of the brief stories in Haunted Knight glows with Loeb and Sale’s unbridled joint creativity, setting the stage for the two aforementioned novels that would become their masterpieces.

Fears, Madness, and Ghosts comprise the collection, each exploring in varying detail a particular aspect of Batman’s psyche. Originally, the stories ran separately as Halloween specials before becoming a seminal collection of one-off caped crusader escapades. The specials stand quite sturdily when evaluated alone, but they thrive when collected. Three dark Batman vignettes showcasing his skill alongside his flaws? Sign me up.

Fears launches the trilogy and establishes Gotham as a city overrun by fear, with Scarecrow dead center. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne, who struggles to balance his…knight life with his more human side, falls for a mysterious woman with an unclear past.

The Bruce/Bats dichotomy is well-trodden ground, but Loeb and Sale handle it deftly without missing a beat. Bruce’s troubles are reflected by Batman’s woes, and Scarecrow knows how to exploit those issues with deadly accuracy. In my admittedly limited experience with Scarecrow in Batman comics, this story stands as one of the best portrayals of the villain I’ve ever read. There’s nobody better suited to bring out the dark corners of Bruce Wayne’s mind. Where The Joker forces Batman to wrestle with chaos for its own sake, Scarecrow smartly plays to Batman’s biggest weakness: his undeniable humanity.

Fears, by a sizeable stretch, wins the gold medal out of these three tales, punctuated by a percussive and smirk-inducing conclusion that just begs to be adapted to the big screen.

Madness drops Bats into a thorough exploration of his relationship with his late mother, mirrored in the present day by Mad Hatter’s kidnapping of Barbara Gordon and her relationship with Batman mainstay Jim Gordon. I’ve always thought Mad Hatter faltered as a villain, if only because his deranged mind does nothing to compensate for his tiny stature. Here, he makes up for his shortcomings with ample firepower and Barbara, a critical hostage. Even with the added leverage, Mad Hatter still reads like a cheap caricature rather than a full-fledged villain. Instead, Batman’s own inner turmoil, heralded by memories of his mother, plays the real starring villain role. Sure, it’s a tad highfalutin, but the story ends up better off for it.

Ghosts brings the collection to a lukewarm end. Easily the worst of the three, but not necessarily bad, Ghosts reads more like an excuse to retell A Christmas Carol through the Batman lens than a story that deserves to be told. After an altercation with Penguin, Bruce is visited by the ghost of his father followed by three other ghosts who represent past, present, and future.

A few villainous staples appear throughout the tale as titular ghosts, but the narrative moves so quickly that no worthwhile conflict emerges. By the end, I had written Ghosts off as a semi-charming recreation of a classic tale using the iconic stable of Batman characters. It’s worth the read, but any deeper meaning eludes this one. And, at the end of the day, that’s just fine.

Batman: Haunted Knight captures the spark of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale effortlessly, setting the stage for their continued collaboration and cementing them as trustworthy Batman storytellers. The three collected tales vary in terms of quality, ranging from passable to amazing, generally settling toward the latter.

Rating: Batman: Haunted Knight – 7.5/10
-Cole

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The Books of Magic – Gaiman’s Graphic Sorcery

51mirbkrqgl-_sx343_bo1204203200_Neil Gaiman’s The Books of Magic lives up to its name. Combining Gaiman’s distinct charm with illustrations by John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, and Paul Johnson, Magic stands as a narrative wonder among the pantheon of amazing graphic novels. In fact, published in 1993, it may have built the foundation on which some of the medium’s best work stands.

I encountered The Books of Magic after a lengthy discussion with a friend about the Harry Potter series during which he called out certain similarities between the stories. I usually wouldn’t mention this in my review, but it seems this is a common question among Potterheads looking to dive into Gaiman’s graphic novel. Perhaps significantly, The Books of Magic predates the first Harry Potter book by about five years, and there are a few notable similarities. Tim Hunter, the graphic novel’s protagonist, has dark hair and glasses. Early on, he’s given an owl by an older magician. Both of these facts become apparent right from the start, but the parallels pretty much end there.

Following a quick and mysterious intro that establishes Timothy’s potential to be an immensely powerful wizard, he’s whisked into a crazy adventure by four magicians who all wear trench coats. He explores the past, the present, the future, and Fairyland, each time with a separate mage companion. The entire plot is staged as a sort of “magical preview,” and when he’s through with the journey, Tim must decide whether he wants to pursue magic further. Boiled down to its bare bones, the story is essentially Timothy watching a trailer for a fascinating, real-life movie, then must decide whether to watch the feature film.

The plot, paired with brilliant illustrative work and Todd Klein’s diverse lettering, make The Books of Magic a feast for the eyes and mind. Tim’s journeys through time and reality are beautifully imaginative, and they leap off the page with the help of Gaiman’s typical (but still somehow unbelievable) panache. The past, present, and future as they relate to magic are fascinating “locales” worthy of the pages-long explorations they receive. Fairyland, though, plays the starring role. An amalgamation of countless worlds including Hell, the dream world (inhabited by Gaiman’s Sandman, who makes a cameo), and many others, Fairyland and its whimsical reality-bending branches shine through in text and drawing alike, culminating in a downright gorgeous romp through Gaiman’s fantasy-genius imagination.

The story and setting are bolstered by a quirky cast of characters, many of whom have appeared in other DC series. In the visual medium, the lack of physical space for text places much of the characterization burden on the artist, and each illustrator in The Books of Magic showcases talents that well surpassed even my highest expectations. They treat every illustration with such care that I often found myself lingering on the artwork for minutes at a time, absorbing the detail admiring the artistic skill on display.

The Books of Magic builds to an explosive and, I have to say it—magical—ending that mostly pays off. Tim’s journey comes to a meaningful and sensible conclusion, but it does lean heavily on a loophole that felt either cheap or unearned—I honestly can’t decide between the two. Still, it did little to detract from the fantastic story that preceded it. In some ways, the story feels like a prequel to a much longer saga, and that’s partly true. While Gaiman’s novel stands alone, it did continue under new penmanship years later. I left The Books of Magic so enamored that I bought the continuation, and I can’t wait to dive in.

Rating: The Books of Magic – 8.5/10
-Cole