Thursday, October 31, 2013

Trick-or-Treating in Gotham- Batman: Haunted Knight

We hear at The Matt Signal (and by we, I mean, well, me) love October, and especially Halloween; candy, monsters, and something spooky around every corner. I imagine this is surprising to anyone who has never read this blog before and has no idea about my love of Batman and horror comics, but we're all old friends here, so let's gather round the fire and I'm going to tell you about some of my favorite Halloween themed Batman comics.

When most readers think about Batman related Halloween comics, the stories that spring to mind are Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's two maxi-series, The Long Halloween and Dark Victory. And can I blame them? Heck, no. Frankly, The Long Halloween is one of, if not my all time, favorite Batman stories, even if the ending isn't perfect. I remember reading the series as it came out, issue by issue, piecing together the mystery of who is Holiday. But Loeb and Sale had a history with Batman before that.

For three Halloweens before those series, Loeb and Sale created prestige format Halloween specials, under the banner of Legends of the Dark Knight, the title that was being released at the time that was a creator showcase for Batman stories that were out of continuity or tales set in the past. Over the course of the three specials, they touched on many of the great Batman villains, as well as his allies, and fleshed out the early years of Batman. These stories were collected in the trade, Haunted Knight, and I think they don't get as much credit as they're due. So here's a little discussion of each of them.

Choices (or alternately Fears) is a story featuring the perfect Batman villain for Halloween, the Scarecrow, the master of fear. On one of his early rampages, Batman is pursuing the Scarecrow, while Bruce Wayne has a new love interest. While Batman duels with Scarecrow, the slowly revealed revelation of the black widow planning to take everything from Bruce makes for a great parallel. There are some amazing visuals in this story, especially as Batman attempts to find his way through a maze of thorny hedges poisoned with Scarecrow's fear toxin. Fear is central in all Scarecrow stories, but this one really uses the idea that as terrifying as Scarecrow is, it's Batman who is the truly frightening one, and that Scarecrow has something to fear when he confronts Batman. Jillian Maxwell, the black widow killer, has her own fears, and the final page is a great moment showing exactly how far the fear of the Dark Knight can reach.

The second special, Madness, is my favorite of the three stories. A story of not only Batman, but of Jim and Barbara Gordon, this is set firmly in the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity where Barbara was Jim's adopted daughter, the biological daughter of Jim's brother. Shortly after Barbara is adopted it's Halloween in Gotham, and the two fight over whether Barbara can go out on her own, and the teenage Barbara storms out, only to be abducted by the Mad Hatter, making her his most recent Alice. Batman pursues the Hatter, as does Jim, and the two rescue Barbara. I love how spunky and tough young Barbara is, foreshadowing her time as Batgirl. I also have to give Loeb credit for writing a creepy Mad Hatter story. The Hatter is often portrayed as just another villain with a weird fetish (I mean that in the obsession sense, not in the sexual one, although Gail Simone portrayed it as such to wonderfully disturbing effect in Secret Six) for hats. This is one of the first stories that really plays up the Alice in Wonderland themes and the creepy child abduction angle. It has a happy ending, naturally, but it probably the most spine-chilling of the stories here.

Ghosts, the final of the three Halloween specials, takes the classic A Christmas Carol and sets it instead at Halloween, with Batman in the Scrooge roll. It's a natural fit, and isn't the only Batman/A Christmas Carol mash up in the history of the character, but is my favorite. Thomas Wayne takes the roll of Jacob Marley, and Poisons Ivy, the Joker, and a skeletal Bruce in a Bat costume are the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, respectively. I like the little redemptive moment at the end of the issue, where Bruce learns his lesson, like Scrooge, that one cannot be separate from people and cannot be just Batman, because that way lies despair and loneliness.

Loeb's stories are solid here, and are early work in his career, and while they're good reads, the star is often Tim Sale's art. His versions of Batman and his enemies are distinct and not realistic in a traditional sense, with his Mad Hatter and Penguin being oddly dwarfish, his Joker snaggle toothed with a strangely distended jaw, and his Scarecrow seeming to be more his namesake than a human being in a costume. Sale is one of my favorite artists in all of comics, and his Batman work is the best of that.

Haunted Knight is in print as a trade, with new cover dress a few years ago to make it fit with the current printings of The Long Halloween and Dark Victory. If you have read and enjoyed either of those stories, or just enjoy a good Batman story, this is a trade well worth picking up, and perfect for those long nights when the wind makes the eves creak and you might just be hearing the sound of a madman laugh somewhere out there...

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