Superman: Red Son and Batman: The Long Halloween

by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson, and Walden Wong; and
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

 

After more than six years of blogging, and as I approach an unpleasantly round number of years on this Earth, I find myself having less and less time to do things. Things that I want to do, and things that I have to do. I want to be good at playing banjo. I want to be well-read. I want to have a blog that actually chronicles my experiences in something close to real time. I want a hundred other things. Unfortunately, sometimes doing all these things start to feel like work. Sometimes the things I want to do require too much effort, and I end up doing nothing. Sometimes, stuff just gets lost.

But I’m trying to be better! I’ve got a backlog of reviews I need to start and/or finish, and this is my down payment on that.

And while, yes, this makes two straight graphic novel reviews, which makes it seem like I only read comic books now, I actually do still read books without pictures, too. Sometimes they just take a little longer.

Regardless, following the precedent set by my last post–yes, half a year ago–I am dedicating this review to a pair of graphic novels, respectively starring the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader. And, following precedent, I will now give you a quick rundown of each book.

Red Son

I make no secret of the fact that I’m not too big on Superman, but I love a new twist on an old story, so I figured if I was ever to give him a shot, this would be it. The book takes place in an (alternate) alternate universe in which Superman doesn’t land in Kansas–growing up believing in truth, justice, and the American way–he lands in Ukraine, and places his faith in collectivization and Soviet egalitarianism. Instead of Ma and Pa Kent, his hero is Uncle Joe Stalin. So on, so forth, you get the idea. Retaining his morally righteous streak even within a totalitarian society, Superman finds himself a hero of the Soviet Union, accruing ever more political power and making ever more powerful enemies. Lex Luthor, on the other hand, is still American, and still hates Superman, elevating their personal and ideological differences to a struggle for global domination, with each contributing to and drawing upon his nation’s Cold War arsenal. (Also, Batman exists, and he’s a crazy Russian dissident with a goofy Russian hat.)

The Long Halloween

Like Hush, my first trip to the literary Batcave, The Long Halloween is a pretty traditional comic book story. Our hero, battling Gotham’s criminal element as both Batman and Bruce Wayne, becomes entangled in what’s starting to look like an inevitable war between the Falcone and Maroni crime families. As the mob finds itself squeezed between Batman, District Attorney Harvey Dent, and the less-corrupt elements of the Gotham police, the last thing anyone needs is for a new psychopathic killer to show up threatening civilians, honest crooks, and supervillains alike. Which is, of course, exactly what happens. This new baddie, notable for his apparent inclination to kill only on holidays–though not distinguishing between federal holidays like Christmas and Hallmark holidays like April Fool’s–attracts attention pretty immediately, bringing a new wave of chaos and fear to a city that wasn’t exactly a model of safety and stability in the first place. The Holiday Killer even rubs both Batman and the Joker the wrong way, which should be some indication of just how big an asshole he is.

So that’s that.

To start with Superman, I’ll just say I enjoyed it. Superman himself seemed like a fresh character to me, in a way that shouldn’t be possible for me or frankly for anyone. As Americans, we have this innate idea of Superman as the perfect citizen, or even the perfect human, to the point that we don’t have to have read a Superman comic or seen a Superman movie to understand the connotations of his name and his symbols. Yet here he was in Red Son, immediately recognizable but very, very off. I dug it.

Add to that eeriness the specter of an unimpeded Lex Luthor running amok in America, using his country’s fear of Superman to slowly build up his own prestige and power in the shrinking corner of the world free from Superman’s influence. Superman, for his part, initially recoils at the idea of leading the Soviet Union, but America’s persistent threat forces him to take on the mantle of leadership and to expand his “utopia” to cover as much of humanity as he can. In his opposition to Luthor, Superman has both the moral authority and the edge in raw power, but Luthor never takes his eyes off the ball, forcing Superman into increasingly dangerous and morally gray choices.

The Long Halloween had no similar twists, and was pretty straightforwardly Batman. I don’t know how common it is for Batman stories, but I did like that Halloween, along with Hush, follow the beats of a detective novel or movie, rather than those of an action adventure. The personalities in Halloween, including Batman/Bruce Wayne as well as Harvey Dent and others, are established through a combination of quick characterization and the reader’s prior knowledge, allowing the story itself to have a direct and immediate impact on the characters. Instead of, say, learning who Batman is while we’re also learning what’s happening in Gotham, we know who Batman is, and we experience the story more or less as he does. We likewise get to live the frustration and danger of being Gotham’s District Attorney, and even if we all kinda know where it’s going, we’re not just waiting for the second half of the book so that the hero can fight the villain three times before ultimately prevailing. It might sound counterintuitive, but there’s tension to be derived from our familiarity with Batman and the other characters.

That being said, maybe we do know Batman too well. Don’t mistake me, he’s still and always my favorite superhero, but seeing Batman brood over yet another mystery, all the while coping with his parents’ death as well as keeping up with his Bruce Wayne shit, makes me wonder whether there’s anything original to be said about Batman, at least in the comic book format. Perhaps there are nuances I’m just not picking up on, me being so new to the genre and all, but having just read Hush, Halloween seemed pretty dang familiar. (Arkham Asylum, on the other hand, seemed like a truly unique experience.)

I mean, I liked Halloween, and I looked forward to reading some of it before bed every night, which is just about the only metric I have nowadays. I just don’t know if it brings anything unique to the Batman oeuvre. Perhaps it doesn’t have to. It kept me entertained, and it added another interpretation to Batman’s mythos, which is really good enough.

These books are short, so I don’t really feel the need to write a treatise or anything. Just for fun, though, and because I need to get this off my chest, I’m gonna take a moment to nitpick. One thing that bothers me about graphic novels, something I didn’t know before I started reading them, is that they’re kind of poorly edited. I realize that books have mistakes too, some more than others, but the text-to-typo ratio in the few graphic novels I’ve read is absurd. Sometimes, the words don’t match up with the pictures. Other times, the text is just wrong. In The Long Halloween, they literally fuck up and identify Falcone’s daughter as alternately Sofia and Sophia. Seriously, who is editing these things? Pay someone fifty bucks to take a quick look, for fuck’s sake.

As an aside–really just to end on a positive note–it was interesting seeing the influence of The Long Halloween on Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight. From the mob war backdrop, to the courtroom assassination attempt, to the creation of a triumvirate between Batman, Gordon, and Dent, many of the plot elements seen in Halloween are imitated in Nolan’s work, as are many of the themes. It was fun for me, as a Dark Knight fanatic, to see the genesis of some of those ideas.

And while we’re on the subject of movie adaptations, what if DC made a Red Son movie instead of butchering their franchise with a black-and-white, confused-looking Superman and a gun-toting, murder-happy Batman? Wouldn’t that be better than the gar-bage they’re putting out now? Just a thought.

The Long Halloween was a pretty good read, and if you’re into Batman or graphic novels, I think you’d probably like it. Red Son, while goofier in a way, actually probably has wider appeal; it’s fun to see familiar-yet-twisted versions of our favorite DC characters navigate an alternate Cold War, especially because Superman has to live in a morally gray world, for once. So, while I thought The Long Halloween was fun, I’d have to say I preferred Red Son. Not that it’s a competition between the two–this isn’t the exquisitely titled cinematic masterpiece Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

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Get Popped: The Dark Knight 10 Year Anniversary Retrospective Bonus Bananza Extravaganza

I was invited onto a recent Get Popped podcast to discuss the tenth anniversary of The Dark Knight‘s premier on July 18, 2008. We cover the movie’s impact on us as well as our perceptions of its ongoing legacy, we dish out some hot and not-so-hot takes, and we talk about Spider-Man more than we should on a Batman podcast.

For more Batman-related content, please check out our Batman department.

Hush and Arkham Asylum

by Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee, and Scott Williams; and
Grant Morrison and Dave McKean

 

In a Bored and Literate first, I’m going to take a shot at two books in one post. Alright, technically I’ve done it before, but only when reviewing two or more books of the same series, by the same author; Hush and Arkham Asylum, while both well-known graphic novels starring my favorite superhero, Batman, are very different stories with very different aesthetics.

And while not a Bored and Literate first, this is personally my first foray into the graphic novel genre. I read Persepolis a few years back, when it was assigned for a women’s studies class in college, but other than that, I’ve read nary a panel; no Batman, no Spider-Man, no X-Men, nothing. The closest I’ve come is the funny pages in the newspaper which, while containing a long-running Spider-Man strip, aren’t exactly comparable to reading a book.

But friends of mine–and friends of the blog–know that I do get down with comic book characters, with Batman being far and away my favorite. (I even had to review The Dark Knight Rises, a movie I saw at midnight on a Thursday, despite having to be at work at nine the next morning.) I love the characters, themes, aesthetic, and even the relative plausibility of Batman, and I love the ongoing meta-commentary about what Batman’s meaning and presentation. So this past summer, after a tempting visit to a comic book store, I resolved to finally visit the world of popular graphic novels, starting with Batman. But which books to choose? Luckily, that choice was made for me when a friend revealed his heretofore unknown comic book collection, insisting that I borrow Hush and Arkham Asylum.

With my Batman books in hand, it didn’t actually take too long to get through them, and here we are. Since I haven’t done this before, and I’m just making up the rules as I go, I suppose I’ll start by describing the books separately, before getting into the similarities, the contrasts, the subject matter, the format, and whatever else there could possibly be to discuss.

Hush

HushFor someone already familiar with Batman from movies, TV, and his place in the broader popular imagination, Hush was an incredibly easy transition into a new medium. The book begins with our hero chasing down leads to thwart a kidnapping plot, leading him to Killer Croc and Catwoman before a life-threatening injury forces him to retreat to the Batcave. He eventually follows the clues and encounters just about every rogue in the gallery, from the Joker to the Scarecrow to Superman–even the Green Lantern and Lex Luthor make brief appearances. As he grows frustrated with his pursuit, Batman also reflects on how his persona has, in many ways, destroyed any hopes he might have had for a life as Bruce Wayne.

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

Arkham AsylumIf Hush was crowd-pleasing and easily accessible, if somewhat uninspired, Arkham Asylum was small, dark, and surreal. Rather than depicting a mystery unfolding over the course of many days and nights, Arkham Asylum invites Batman–and the reader–to spend one night at Gotham’s infamous mental hospital, necessitated by an inmate takeover of the asylum and made urgent by the Joker’s sadistic and believable threats to Arkham’s staff. As Batman ventures deeper into the labyrinth, the audience is simultaneously given the twisted history of what had once been a private home and an exploration of the twisted minds of its current residents; the story of Amadeus Arkham, a man driven to the brink by Gotham’s cruelty, mirrors Batman’s own experience in the house.

Basically, these books could not be more different in style or tone. Broadly speaking, while both had beautiful art, Hush was much more centered on its plot than was Arkham Asylum, which instead used nightmarish visuals and heavy symbolism to tell its story.

I don’t know if I could say which I enjoyed more, though without a doubt I became more engrossed in the story of Hush. For one thing, the plot unfolded over the course of several days, with red herrings, betrayals, new leads, and dead ends. It was action-packed, but the separation into chapters gave the book room to breathe, allowing Batman to wax philosophic on his own existence. Arkham Asylum, on the other hand, was claustrophobic, and intentionally so. Taking place overnight, and across a century of Gotham’s history, Arkham Asylum nearly begs the reader to finish it in a single, two-hour sitting. So while I don’t think the story of Arkham Asylum was as good, each book accomplished what it set out to do. Hush succeeded in creating a serialized adventure with interesting characters, and Arkham Asylum was a thoroughly engaging and disturbing fever dream. On the plus side, as someone who has had trouble finishing novels recently, I can honestly say that I was never bored and I never lost focus with either book.

In addition to telling their stories differently, the two books also diverge in their depiction of Batman himself. Hush‘s Batman, as I mentioned, has time to reflect on his mission and his history; the book’s action is accompanied by Batman’s narration, which eschews the extremes of seriousness and silliness for  a quiet, self-aware internal monologue. While Loeb’s Batman often seems to see the humor in his situation, it is clear that he takes his role seriously, seriously enough to carry out his responsibilities even when they seem most futile.

With Arkham Asylum‘s treatment of Batman as a character, on the other hand, the first thing you notice is his appearance: McKean draws him as a dark, almost demonic figure, usually lacking a face or anything that would identify him as human. Indeed, befitting the book’s exploration of the line between reason and insanity, Arkham Asylum depicts Batman as a creature that would perhaps be more comfortable within the hospital, among its patients, than in the outside world. Unfortunately, while Batman’s visual depiction is thematically coherent and amazing to look at, his character, as created by Morrison, is largely reactive, especially towards his primary opponent. Not only does Batman only show up at Arkham at the Joker’s request, his silence stands in marked contrast to the Joker’s boisterous sexuality, to which Batman responds with obvious discomfort.

Yup, this happens

With respect to the artwork, I was much more drawn to that of Arkham Asylum than that of Hush. As I mentioned, Hush is story-driven, while Arkham Asylum allows the visuals and the atmosphere to take the lead; for me, it created a more immersive experience. With Hush, I never forgot I was reading a comic, but you could get lost in the insane and impossible images of Arkham Asylum, a credit to McKean’s craft.

So that about sums up my first foray into the world of graphic novels. It was a long time coming, but I’m very pleased with the books I chose. Hush and Arkham Asylum, while displaying different facets of Batman and his world, were both incredibly satisfying for me as both a Batman fan and a graphic novel noob. Hush told a grander story, but it also hinged on an incredibly stupid plot point that casts a childish light on the whole book, which is bad news for a medium already considered childish. Pressed, I would say I liked Hush better, though it’s almost like comparing a novel to a poem. (I’m just sounding pretentious now, so I think I’ll call it a day.)

Towers of Midnight

by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

 

The previous Wheel of Time blog post was largely about the transition from Jordan to Sanderson. The next will probably be a lengthy wrap-up for the entire series. I don’t know how much there really is to say about Towers of Midnight.

I will try to say stuff anyway.

Overall, I liked the book, though it’s pretty clear there’s a checklist of things the characters have to do and places they have to be before we can move on to the finale. It’s foreplay. Or, for our younger readers, it’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. In other words, Towers of Midnight is cool, but even while you’re reading it, you’re already thinking about finishing. So to speak.

Just to get my main criticism out of the way, there was way too much Perrin and the Wolfdream. There’s always too much Perrin. I know I sound like a broken record, or that modern music your friend swears is huge in Europe. But there’s simply too much Perrin, and way too many dead wolves spouting pseudo-philosophical nonsense. It got old many, many books ago.

Alright. With that said, here are the best moments in Towers of Midnight, in no particular order.

  • Mat finally kills the fucking gholam. I don’t even remember where the thing came from; it was probably one of those prologue scenes featuring previously unknown Darkfriends, and it was probably in book seven or something. Regardless, Mat disposes of the gholam, and the loose plot thread, in a cool way.
  • Egwene gets put in her place. Why Jordan wanted to create a virtually flawless character I’ll never know, but it’s nice to see her at a loss for words when Perrin shows her up with his wolf dream skills. Immediately afterwards, of course, she instantly masters everything it’s taken Perrin thirteen books to learn, but whatever.
  • Elayne chooses to exercise her idiocy in a way that moves the plot forward. Okay sure, Birgitte is right about the “interrogation” of her captured Black Ajah being a really, really bad idea. It’s at least a fun action scene that doesn’t do anything we’ve seen before. Plus, it introduces the idea that Min’s vision–Elayne giving birth to healthy babies–might be wrong, a prospect that will hopefully be explored further in A Memory of Light.
  • Perrin and Galad. We always knew Galad wasn’t really a dick, even though he’s the most dickish “good” character, but Sanderson was still able to make the standoff between him and Perrin exciting. The presence of Morgase, the Whitecloaks, the dreamspike–it all came together quite nicely.
  • Mat’s rescue of REDACTED. I’ve never really understood the snakes and foxes. I guess they exist in parallel worlds where it’s normal for people to look like snakes and foxes? But somehow also they’re all-knowing about Mat’s world? Whatever it is, the whole book builds to this one particular scene, and it was great. Mat tests the boundaries of what his luck can do for him, and of course it works, because he’s fucking Mat.
  • Oh yea, the war. There is a war. Rodel Ituralde, one of the more memorable and likable minor characters, is in charge of defending Maradon. He does war stuff.
  • Rand kicks ass in the war. His appearance at Maradon is one of the most badass moments in the whole series. In a world with witches and wizards around every corner, it’s frustrating to watch the main characters constantly behave as if big medieval battles aren’t absurdly wasteful. I guess I’ve just been waiting for Rand to show how powerful a weapon of war he can be. His walk towards the enemy line to deliver a well-deserved ass-kicking, two bodyguards in tow, is one of the more memorable images of the series thus far.
  • Rand stops being grumpy. Self-explanatory. Major improvement.

That about does it. Unless there’s a secret fifteenth book that I don’t know about, my five-year Wheel of Time journey is about to come to an end.

The Gathering Storm

by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

 

The big story with The Gathering Storm, obviously, is Robert Jordan’s death and the introduction of a new author for the final three books. While some rockiness might be expected, given the change in writing style and even just the loss of Jordan’s guiding hand, for the most part I didn’t find the transition all that jarring. There are a few things, though, that I believe bear discussing.

First, let’s talk about Mat. I like to read without knowing too much in advance, but I’m not unaware of how fans see characters, plots, relationships, even entire books. The dope on Sanderson’s books included, among other things, his alleged misunderstanding of Mat as a character. Now, I liked Mat from the beginning; he’s comic relief, but he’s also just as powerful as the other main characters, and much more appealing as a character. That being said, as the saga progressed, it seemed like Robert Jordan’s main characters all converged into a single tired, brooding, unpleasant archetype. Jordan doesn’t let them have any fun, and I get the sense that none of the characters want to be there. Mat, especially, suffered from this. He’s always had a dark side, no doubt–the whole knife situation and whatnot–but in the later books, Jordan forgets that Mat is supposed to be lighthearted and fun, a foil to the responsible Rand and the almost comically self-serious Perrin.

Well, I guess a lot of people didn’t see it that way, given all the hate for Sanderson’s more “jokey” portrayal, but I think Sanderson found a way to return Mat to his roots and bring back some differentiation between the main characters. Now that he’s free of Tuon, Mat can return to his old rascally ways, spending his time drinking and ogling people that aren’t his wife. Compared to the unpleasantness of Ebou Dar, I’d say this is a significant improvement, even if it is a somewhat jarring transition.

Actually, I think Sanderson wanted to reset the plot and characters for the final three books, Mat included, so that he could create concise and satisfying arcs. Storm ends with two main characters, Rand and Mat, coming to new realizations about themselves and their role in Tarmon Gai’don. Now, maybe I’m wrong, but I just can’t picture Jordan structuring this book the same way. I don’t know why, but Jordan was always reluctant to give his plots any sense of finality; perhaps he  preferred to keep the characters busy and, in so doing, continue to draw the story out. To me, though, the constant addition of new plot elements, and the lack of any indication that Jordan wanted to wrap up any of his plot arcs, was growing stale. In that sense, Sanderson’s work is an enormous leap forward.

Further, Sanderson is unafraid to push against emotional boundaries that Jordan had never crossed. Without a doubt, The Gathering Storm had some of the most powerful scenes I can recall reading in Wheel of Time. Rand goes to about as dark a place as we’ve been in the entire series, and he takes us there more than once. And while we know, of course, that Rand is our hero, and that he can’t actually fall to “the dark side”, so to speak, Sanderson calls that assumption into question. Again, maybe I’m underselling Jordan, but it’s hard to imagine him being so bold.

The only fault I can really find with Sanderson’s work is that Egwene is still a poorly drawn character. Her only quality seems to be that she’s inexplicably good at everything, and while I’m hesitant to use the term, given all of its connotations, she comes across as very Mary Sue-ish. The rebels follow her, the novices look up to her, and the White Tower sisters almost immediately realize that she would make a better leader than Elaida–who then conveniently gets kidnapped and made into a slave. This “Kumbaya” outcome strikes me as unrealistically optimistic, especially when I consider American politics and some interesting parallels between our current regime and Elaida’s. In particular, the idea that the Amyrlin, who turned out to be a “useful idiot” for the Dark One, was selected by a minority of Aes Sedai and put over the top by Black Ajah traitors–it maybe hit a little too close to home. Given what’s happening to our democracy right now, the notion that Egwene would be able to walk into the White Tower and command respect by virtue of awesomeness looks naive, at best.

The Gathering Storm is notable most of all for Brandon Sanderson’s continuation of the series after creator Robert Jordan’s death. Nothing can take away from what Jordan built–his world building and intricate plotting are unrivaled–but there are some areas in which Sanderson has him beat. Neither author is solely responsible for these last three books, though, and their joint credit on the cover is a testament to Jordan’s and Sanderson’s united efforts to create a series finale that stands the test of time.