GROUNDED: Putting On the Cowl for the First Time – A Reader’s First Impression of Three Famous Batman Stories
I’ve always liked Batman, but I’ve never liked him that much. I’ve watched the movies and cartoons, played some of the games, and — shockingly enough — even read a few comics, but I’ve never found the drive or desire to dive headfirst into the Caped Crusader’s biggest stories. I like discussing the character with others, and I enjoy him and his rogue’s gallery, but something within me always drew me to other characters. However, recently I’ve found that desire that passed me by when I was a kid, mainly from the looks we’ve gotten at The Batman, the new Matt Reeves-helmed adaptation starring Robert Pattinson in the titular role. The trailer really impressed me, and since it’s taking inspiration from several stories, namely The Long Halloween, I figured it was high time that I finally take the plunge into the Dark Knight’s most famous legends, and see if maybe through all of this, I’d grow to appreciate him more alongside the biggest of fans. Oh, by the way — spoilers for those who haven’t read these stories.
First on the reading list – Batman: Year One, written by Frank Miller with art from David Mazzucchelli. For years I’ve heard about how this one was considered the definitive origin story for the character, and now I finally see why. For starters, Mazzucchelli’s art is beautifully grim and gothic, painting a cruel picture of the state of Gotham. The washed out colors, done by Richmond Lewis, add the perfect touch of realism to the art as well. Usually, I always prefer brighter and more saturated colors to contrast with the dark shadows, but I think the color pallet used in this storyline is used perfectly to show how Gotham is in the mud, yet to be touched by Batman, his allies, and his rogue’s gallery. I really adore the pacing and time skips within the story, as well, as I think it truly helps give the readers a good scale of how long it’s been since the last big story beat, rather than just explaining that time has passed, since there’s rarely much in the way of seasonal changes to show us, rather than telling us in the form of time stamps.
Now, to get into the meat of the story, I genuinely loved it for the most part. I appreciated how it wasn’t just about Bruce becoming Batman, but also about Jim Gordon’s trials and tribulations within Gotham, and desperately trying not to lose his soul to it. From being essentially hazed by Flass, to his affair with Sarah, and eventual blackmail for it, I was legitimately fascinated reading about Gordon nearly being indoctrinated into Gotham’s crime machine. He began to morally slip, and instead of giving into it and becoming yet another puppet, he decided to bite the bullet and take the hard — but ultimately right — path. In all the Batman media I’ve watched, played, and read, Gordon has always been one of my favorites, and reading this story gave me the scratch to that part particular itch. As for Bruce, it feels like the story surprisingly doesn’t focus on him as much as you’d think, at least compared to Gordon, in my opinion. However, it is still very fascinating watching him navigate the crime world for the first time as Batman, and even making several mistakes along the way. Also, as pictured here, I really love the direct reference and usage of the original origin, right down to the line, “I shall become a bat.”
I don’t think there’s much that I really disliked about this story in particular, but one aspect I wasn’t entirely on board with was Selina. Her role in the story, while understandable enough, with her deciding to become another costumed theatrical figure in the wake of Batman’s arrival, I feel like she didn’t necessarily do much except give Falcone the scratch marks. And it’s not saying it was bad, it just didn’t entirely feel like it was a part of this story that was mainly about Bruce and Jim. Then again, considering what this story’s sequel is, I can see this as being just a way to introduce her during the story, rather than between the two off-book. Though maybe I’m thinking about it too much since these stories were written nine years apart from each other, so what do I know? Regardless, I think this is a fantastic origin story for not only Batman, and not only Gordon, but the start of their partnership, as well. The influence it’s had on adaptations is definitely apparent, as well, and I look forward to seeing what other projects it influences in the future.
The Long Halloween
Next up on the chopping block is Batman: The Long Halloween, written by Jeph Loeb, illustrated by Tim Sale, and colored by Gregory Wright. Like Year One, this is one of the most popular Batman stories of all time, influencing many different projects and adaptations, such as 2008’s The Dark Knight, and now seemingly 2022’s The Batman. This one definitely intimidated me, as seeing thirteen separate issues, with quite a few spanning double the length of a regular comic issue, left me properly daunted. However, I dove right in regardless, and what I found was a genuinely thrilling and mystifying experience, one that constantly left me on the edge of my seat and kept me guessing, even when the answers were obvious. To start, I absolutely adore Tim Sale’s art and Gregory Wright’s colors, as they reflected what my earliest memories about Batman comics were. I really adore the exaggerated and almost blocky art style, with Joker’s design being my favorite. Something about the mouth and the piano-like teeth remind me of Venom’s early designs from the late 80’s, and genuinely freaks me out in the best way
While I loved how the last story paced and broke up the events, this one, in my opinion, does it far better. Each of the thirteen issues takes place on or in the span of a certain holiday within the year, and each issue is capped off with a murder done by Holiday, with a knick-knack left behind, being the only bit of color in the mostly black and white art. It’s done so well, and really makes you feel exhausted, wondering who’s next and where it’s all gonna lead to. Speaking of which, I genuinely loved the story for the most part, even more so since I see exactly what they lifted from it for The Dark Knight. The triage of Batman, Dent, and Gordon carry this story in flying colors, and watching the story unfold into an origin for Two-Face is a masterful experience. I love the murder mystery aspect as well, and for the longest time I loved how it made us keep guessing as to who Holiday really was. I also really liked Selina this time around, as Catwoman felt like she had a bigger role in the story, one that could shift the tides in either direction in a snap. Side characters definitely took the stage by storm this time, from Falcone and his family, to Maroni, and even Gilda. It helped make this incredibly long story breathe better, and made the personal stakes from all sides way higher.
I will say though, I feel like the story’s seams started to fray in the final issue. Up until this point, we’ve gotten different members of the rogue’s gallery wrapped up in the drama with Falcone and Holiday, from Ivy holding Bruce captive for a month to bend him to Falcone’s will, to Scarecrow and the Mad Hatter teaming up, they’ve been used pretty sparingly. However, they kinda start to overtake this last issue, and it’s not that I don’t understand why. With Harvey now becoming Two-Face, this seems to represent the end of old-fashioned crime within Gotham, and the rise of a new age of supervillains, capping it off with the death of Falcone. It definitely works for the story being set up, along with the themes explored about how Batman may have been responsible for their creation. However, I feel like it overtook the Holiday storyline, as the answer to their identity is insanely messy. First, we find out it’s Alberto, Falcone’s son, who takes responsibility for all the deaths, faking his own to cover his tracks. Then, Harvey implicates that he was also Holiday, confirming the suspicions that Gordon and Batman had. Finally, however, in the last few pages, we find out that Gilda, Harvey’s wife, was apparently the first Holiday, responsible for the first few killings, with her motive being to get Harvey to have a family with her. It raises far more questions than it answers, and in my opinion, it feels like they couldn’t decide who specifically they wanted it to be, so they decided to make it these three characters. I could be wrong, but that’s the impression I got. Despite all of that, this is still a fantastic read, and is probably one of the best Batman stories to pull from for an adaptation. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they use from it for The Batman.
Under the (Red) Hood
Finally, we come to the most recent out of these three stories: Batman: Under the (Red) Hood, written by Judd Winick, and with art by Doug Mahnke, Shane Davis, Eric Battle, and Paul Lee. This one was the strangest, considering how it wasn’t your typical story arc. Not only did Jason Todd appear in Hush a couple years earlier (albeit used as a disguise by Clayface, then retconned here to actually say he was there), but the storyline as it is was broken up into two parts, with a short arc in between. Perhaps this is how comic storylines were told in the main book back in the 2000’s, maybe it’s just weird, but it definitely off-put me. However, after getting through the numerous issues, I definitely enjoyed it immensely. Although it’s a lot more convoluted since it isn’t as stand-alone as the first two, it still tells a complete and concise story, one that really got to me emotionally. To start once again, the art was phenomenal, and all the artists involved did a phenomenal job. However, I gotta give credit to Doug Mahnke, the one who pencilled the most issues. His art really seemed to define this story, and something about the way he drew Black Mask really stuck with me. The dead eyes, the unmoving jaw, it was downright chilling despite the character himself being somewhat of a sarcastic gangster. Also, as edgy as it is, I really loved the design of Red Hood, something about that brown leather jacket goes so well with the red helmet, and regardless of what one might think of the show, I’m glad that Titans decided to put that jacket to use.
I have read and seen bits and pieces of this story before, both in comic and animated form. I’ve seen the big final confrontation between Jason, Bruce, and Joker from the animated movie, with Jensen Ackles’ fantastic performance as the former. However, finally reading this story in full for the first time, along with reading A Death in the Family for good measure, the weight and emotion hit way harder than I expected. Everything hinged on when Jason would reveal himself to Bruce, and the build-up to it was fantastic. From the scene where Jason beat Joker with the crowbar at the circus (revealing him to the readers), to Bruce starting to suspect that it’s him before the confrontation, and everything after just seemed to hit every right note. What I really was looking forward to was seeing how Jason would challenge Bruce’s moral code, and this story didn’t disappoint. Jason definitely had strong, valid points about crime and Gotham, especially towards the big confrontation at the end. It put Batman’s biggest defining strength under a microscope and showed how there’s traces of weakness within it, showing that the only thing keeping him sane is not breaking the rule. It really shows why Jason was the perfect secret identity for Red Hood, and honestly I don’t think this story would’ve worked if it was any other character in any other circumstance.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t have some gripes, though. Like I said earlier, this story is structured in a very odd way, and ends in a very odd way, too. The way it’s separated into two parts is somewhat odd, and maybe it was to let the reveal marinate in the arc in between them, but it still felt like it should’ve just naturally flowed into the second part. The way it ends, as well, is incredibly strange, as we just see different versions of Batman shouting Jason’s name, with the last issue of the story being an Annual issue explaining how Jason is even alive. That’s a whole can of worms for someone more well-versed in DC than I to explain, but it feels weird that they went with this roundabout way of reality being shifted to bring Jason back from the dead, only to put him in a coma and vegetative state, then having him thrown in the Lazarus Pit, when they could’ve just done the latter from the start and explain that it could, indeed, resurrect the dead. There’s not really much of a conclusion to the story, but it probably would make sense to someone who read all the issues, including the stories afterwards. Also, the whole part about Blüdhaven being nuked and Dick being presumed dead felt way out of left field, when it could’ve and should’ve easily just been Batman walking into the building with Jason holding Joker at gunpoint. Maybe it’s because this is a story arc ripped out of an ongoing rather than a separate book focused only on the story at hand, maybe it’s just me not being as well-versed in the DCU, but things like these tended to take me out of the story. However, I would always get drawn back in, as this is still a fantastic emotionally-charged story for the Dark Knight, and after reading this, I definitely want to read more about Jason in his Red Hood persona, especially for seeing how he and Bruce grew closer again over the years.
I’ve always liked Batman, but I’ve never liked him that much. After these stories? It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s because I didn’t read these at an impressionable young age, maybe it’s because even now I still prefer other characters, but it’s hard to say that I consider myself a full-blown fan of his. I like the stories, I like the movies, I like the games, but for some reason I still hesitate to say I’m a fan, and I don’t know why. I might not feel like I warrant enough knowledge or love for the character to call myself one, but it’s hard to tell. After reading these stories, however, I feel a great sense of newfound appreciation for him. It’s the moments that show how he’s more human than just a monster pretending to be a human. How he can be inexperienced and trying to do the right thing, how he can be vexed by love and trying to keep his faith in what he believes in, and how he can be a struggling father trying to save his son; those moments are what make the character for me. They’re moments that I feel like are often forgotten about in adaptations that prefer a more cold, calculating Batman who always prepares just according to keikaku. But just because those don’t showcase the more human side of him, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I just gotta dig past the surface and down to the source. I’ve always liked Batman. Now, I think I like him a little more.