Saturday, December 08, 2007

Toys (DC)
Where: Batman: Dark Victory #3 When: February 2000 Why: Jeph Loeb How: Tim Sale

Quick Fix...
Dark Victory was the welcomed gritty sequel to the mid-nineties thriller maxi-series, Batman: The Long Halloween. Long Halloween was an instant classic, bringing together the oft overlooked mystery writing techniques that compliment the Dark Knight Detective; combining them with the world of Gotham City in an unofficial sequel to Miller's Year One.

Dark Victory is an equally revered piece of Batman fiction, but why should the Infinite Wars happen upon these issues now? As is often the case, there's a simple, if veiled explanation!

On the one hand, the Loeb/Sale maxi-series' have both been incredibly influencial to the Christopher Nolan directed feature film(s); with Nolan, [co-writer; David] Goyer, and cast members regularly quoting both stories as invaluable references. Empire magazine, (along with various websites), have featured the first official promotional shots of The Dark Knight's Heath Ledger in full Joker regalia, making now as good a time as any to delve into DK countdown mode!

That, and also, we're featuring an single issue spotlight on reviews from the past twenty-five years in weekly Cover to Cover features. If you're inclined to scour the back issues based on printed year, then you'll already realise that 2000 was a slow year for me. So, just to make sure there aren't any gaps, I'm ramming a couple of 2000 reviews in for four week's time. Haw!

Of course, just to lift the curtain to spoil the magic, in the time it took to start this post, to reach this point, we've also seen the release of a fantastic Dark Knight poster [alluding to the Joker with a dripping red bat isnignia] -- and I've also bumped this entry back several days, making room for another.

So, while a shred of the original intention remains, we should get this show on the road to make way for other entries of immediate interest.

A killer is following in the footsteps of the Holiday killer who terrorized the Gotham crime families with a murder for every month. Now the game is Hangman, and the new killer is eliminating corrupt cops, following a similar seasonal modus operandi as the supposed original Holiday.

The Batman, unclear as to who is responsible, interrogates all available sources, arriving at Boss Zucco, who failed to fullfil his usual routine of receipt collecting from one of the fine establishments owned by the Maroni family. The Cheetah Room gentleman's club was manned by Arnold John Flass - former marine and disgraced police Detective - with all the motive in the world to go after Commissioner Jim Gordon, and Harvey "Two-Face" Dent, for bringing him down under affiliation with criminal activity. Too bad he's not the guy.

Zucco gives up the Scarecrow as the catalyst for variation in his operations: and a potential suspect, or witness, for the Hangman murders. Batman tracks Scarecrow to the abandoned Gotham Toy Factory, where Scarecrow is hatching a plan to release his fear toxin through children's dolls.

Scarecrow proves less than cooperative, attacking Batman with a cloud of his sickly green gas that masks his gangling escape from the Dark Knight's clutches. The weight of a pulley proves vital, swinging like a pendulum through the muck to strike the Batman in the head.

Far more physical a foe than the gawky Jonathan Crane; Batman finds his way outside to the snow, where he lands atop the Scarecrow's getaway truck.

Reciting lines from nursery rhymes to the very end; the Scarecrow opts to plunge his vehicle into the icey depths of a Gotham River. He cuts loose from the noose that binds him to the man crouching atop his caboose; leaving him on the pier to suffer the effects of terror and fear.

See what I did there? Yeah, well, before we spiral down into the abyss of my apparent fixation with alliteration and/or rhyming, let us steer this train back to the rails of a valued entry. Actually, it's probably worth noting that we very nearly discussed this earlier as part of our Halloween spillover!

While the Scarecrow has roughly fifty years of history, it's his depiction in this series (and Long Halloween) that comes right to mind when I think of the character. It's almost contradictory to go from talking so much about pseudo-realism [New Avengers #35], to talking about preferring this fairly outlandish visual take on the Scarecrow character, but that's a surface observation.

These are really points coming at the same rules from different ends of the spectrum, and therefore opposite references. For me, it's the fusion of fiction with inspiration taken from reality that makes these sorts of urban characters so wonderful and enduring.

Scarecrow is famously one of the characters they struggled to totally come to terms with in the much beloved animated series. In my opinion, while the final visual of a bulky man who may or may not be something supernatural is quite neat, it actually gets too far away from the heart of the character.

If I could envision my ultimate interpretation of the Scarecrow it would be very specifically referenced in this contemporary tales. It would be the eerie but stylized appearance of Tim Sale's character; with shades of Loeb's distanced insanity, and Geoff Johns' deranged motivation and desensitization [as seen in Batman: Gotham Knights #49].

Scarecrow is already confirmed for an appearance in the upcoming Batman Begins sequel, and while sources close to the film downplay the cameo as being comparable to Willem Dafoe's returning role in Spider-man 3, one still can't help but imagine how a reference point like Dark Victory might come to play. Will the fractured remains of Jonathan Crane, last seen screaming into the night in Begins, be a silent observer of crimes in the new chapter, or could the Scarecrow and his toxins even be tied to the emergence of a new version of the Joker?

Mmm, me thinks that might just be discussion for another time... Now!

The Fix: 3 The Issue: 6.5
Winner: Draw

It seems a great many comics reader missed out on the experience of the Long Halloween, only to catch up by immediately diving into the 2000 sequel. If you haven't had the opportunity to read either of these modern masterpieces, I strongly recommend them as great Christmas gifts. That said, I would suggest you stay tuned for links to the original, if you're only going to seek out one, because it's there that the intrigue begins, that is inadvertently spoiled if reading Dark Victory first. Note efforts to avoid giving any clues to the final identity of either Holiday, or The Hangman!

Christmas (DC)
Where: Batman: The Long Halloween #3 When: February 1997 Why: Jeph Loeb How: Tim Sale

So, this is the kind of thing that happens when you bounce your entries around. I did scan and upload the next issue of Dark Victory, which is a Solomon Grundy story I've been trying to shoe-horn onto the site since it's very inception!
However, with measured enthusiasm I must declare that I am but a humble servant of a higher power, and that is creative logics. It was just too tempting an offer to do an all Christmas Bat-entry, given the date, and all.

So, here we are, doing it in reverse order!
I stress again for the uninitiated or for anyone who skims over the names and dates at the beginning of entries -- Batman: The Long Halloween is the story to which Batman: Dark Victory is a sequel!

So, here we are, three years before the last entry.
This is a very different time. Movie goers will have recognised the Dark Victory mention of ex-Detective Flass. The man you know as an overweight vision of corruption actually began life in the pages of Frank Miller's Batman: Year One, as a tall and deadly peroxide blonde with special forces combat training. The visions you're having of Bridgette Nielsen are actually reasonably accurate, substituting silicon implants for Miller's standard olive trenchcoat.

Batman: The Long Halloween, like various stories that have followed, serves as a sort of unofficial sequel to Year One. While it provides inspiration for the big screen Batman Begins, it's worth noting that Year One serves more as a vignette of concepts, than a vivid depiction of the early rise of the Dark Knight Detective.
It's this fact that leads Loeb and Sale to quite successfully begin a tradition of telling tales early in hero's careers, elaborating on the Gotham criminal underworld, the corruption that facilitates the existance of a Batman, and the rise of the community of "freaks" and their costumed gimmickery.

While the period of transition (from conventional crook, to freaks) is more specifically explored in Dark Victory, the underpinnings are certainly quite well conceived in Long Halloween. In fact, one of the most vivid analogies of this transition of crime in Gotham is the transformation of Harvey Dent into Two-Face, which was apparently a wise tip from Miller himself, who recognised Two-Face as one of the under utilized gems of the Bat rogues gallery.

Actually, the story does well to further enhance Two-Face's motivations and character, differentiating him from the cooky insanity of his predecessors by drawing on his driven life as a District Attorney. It is no doubt this characterization that will steer Aaron Eckhart's depiction of the character in The Dark Knight; and it's here, in the Long Halloween, that we get a glimpse of the speculated relationship between Two-Face and Joker.

The popular bet is that it will be the clown prince of crime who scars Harvey Dent in this new big screen canon; but in the Long Halloween that is an honor reserved for a vastly different character (who is also rumored to appear) -- I won't spoil it for those of you making eagerly making Christmas purchases.

Having had his home previously destroyed by gang violence; Harvey Dent surprises his chair-bound wife, Gilda, with a bow wrapped cottage on Christmas Eve. Having carried his excited bride across the threshold, the DA encourages his wife to explore the upstairs, having observed unsolicited footprints in his home.

Lurking around the Christmas tree stirs a grinning Joker.

Dent charges the Joker, exploding in a furious delivery of fists that smack the jester's twisted grin left and right of his face. Though the blows might have shaken an average man, the Joker will forever be remembered as anything but average.

Investigating the Holiday murders in his own bizarre way, Joker swiftly puts chief-suspect Harvey Dent down with a swift kick to the crotch.
The uncermonious maneuver sufficiently floors the Distict Attorney, and gives the Joker the opportunity to examine him beneath his magnifying glass.

The Joker notes that Harvey is not Batman; as suspected by some citizens of Gotham; but remains uncertain of his potential as the killer called Holiday. Discontent with the presence of another themed maniac, Joker leaves Dent with a stern warning that should he indeed turn out to be the killer, he will return with intentions far less "forgiving" than this visit.

Joker disappears into the night, leaving Dent to be discovered beside the toppled Christmas tree in a quivering heap. A humiliation the District Attorney will not soon forget.

Boy! Wasn't that a cheery Christmas tale?
Alright, so it might not leave you warm and fuzzy before the jolly fatman slides down the chimney, but it's none the less a piece of a fantastic puzzle! A puzzle in both the story itself, and as a piece of The Dark Knight to come.

As both a fan of play-along mysteries, and Batman and his cast of supporting characters, I fall in that massive category of fans who regard these tales with reverence and awe. Say what you will about Loeb's lesser outings, but undeniable is the stoic execution of this gritty, urban mystery.

Often on the Infinite Wars we've discussed the typical divide of what a fanboy regards as their penultimate Batman. If such a thing is seen in print, for me, it may just be in the pages of The Long Halloween and Dark Victory.
Tim Sale's visuals deserve all the credit in the world for enhancing what is a relatively well constructed story. It is mind boggling that Sale, colour blind, can be so deft at laying down the perfect greys, blues and greens.
I think ultimately the visuals and written execution deserves more kudos than the mystery itself, which I find gets a little muddy, and maybe hides behind the safety net of being coy, just a little too much.

This is historic Batman, and if not for it's connected relevance, it would be a must-have perhaps only surpassed by The Dark Knight Returns; another Frank Miller inspiration for the big screen (re; The Dark Knight).

The Fix: 3 The Issue: 6.5
Winner: Joker

If you can't wait six months for The Dark Knight, or have a loved one who loves Batman and doesn't already own this, then it's the ultimate Christmas gift! If they're really special, you can't go past the oversized Absolute Edition with hardcover, slip case, and tonnes of extras. For everyone else, the complete collected trade isn't a bad way to go, at all! Actually, I kinda think the matte paper stock has a special charm!

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