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.)

The Dark Knight Rises

Directed by Christopher Nolan

 

I know I’m a little late here, and that if you haven’t already seen the movie you’ve probably at least read the reviews, but I would be remiss if I didn’t publish my thoughts on the latest Batman picture. I mostly review books, but The Dark Knight Rises has such a literary quality to it that I thought it would be appropriate. Actually, that’s BS. It’s my blog, I do with it as I please, and right now I’m going to talk all things Batman.

I saw this movie with some friends at midnight on Thursday, as I did The Avengers and The Hunger Games earlier this year, and The Dark Knight four years ago. Incidentally, though this is the way to see blockbuster movies now, it turns out to be a young man’s game; waking up at eight in the morning sucks if you go to see a three hour movie at midnight. I ended up tired, with a mild headache, just waiting for the movie to end so that I could sleep.

You might be saying, well if the movie was good, you wouldn’t feel that way, so you must not have liked it. It’s true, I left the theater a little disappointed, but when I saw it again on Saturday (yes I did) I was able to enjoy it without worrying about sleep and shit. I liked it much, much better.

Yes, I saw The Dark Knight Rises two times this weekend. I am a Batman fan. I want to talk about the movie without worrying about spoilers, so consider yourself warned.

Obviously nobody could ever do what Heath Ledger did as the Joker. That was a performance that had been building buzz for months, and it still blew everyone away. The Joker is Batman’s foil. As he himself says to Batman in The Dark Knight, “You complete me!” The Joker’s absence from the film was missed, and I think that for this reason the filmmakers chose to include a villain that would be as different as possible, and ended up going with Bane. The contrast is obvious: the Joker is nihilistic, alienating, and mainly reliant on his wits to defeat Batman, while Bane is loyal, ideological, charming, and can best Batman with his body as well as his intellect. Ledger’s Joker was riveting, but Tom Hardy’s Bane is just as fun to watch.

Staying with actors here, Anne Hathaway as Catwoman didn’t turn out so bad. Yeah, you could argue that she was pretty irrelevant and unnecessary. But she’s hot, and Catwoman is almost as important to the Batman story as the Joker. And they couldn’t let Halle Berry have the final word on such a cool character. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was awesome as John Blake, which was to be expected. His character was both interesting and important to the plot, and JGL played him perfectly. Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate, on the other hand, I could have personally done without. I didn’t see La Vie en Rose, I hated her in Inception, and I don’t give a fuck about anything else she did. Go away, Marion, there’s already another pan-European it-girl to take your place. Her name is Noomi, or something, and they’re already trying to force her down the public’s throat, so clearly your time is up.

Moving on. I don’t think any sequel could have been as iconic as The Dark Knight, and, just as they try to contrast Bane with the Joker, the filmmakers offer a starkly different tone in The Dark Knight Rises. Rather than feeling like a dark crime/terrorism thriller, this one feels like a comic book movie, in both good and bad ways. Let’s do bad first, just because.

The ending image of Batman hauling away the nuclear weapon on a plane was stupid. I think the fact that Batman wasn’t himself experiencing some physical trauma at what was supposed to be an emotional moment kind of ruined it. And then it was pointed out to me that the ending was basically the same as that of The Avengers. The only difference, so far as I can tell, is that nobody thought Iron Man was going to die- partially because Iron Man 3 had already been announced. It works in The Avengers because it’s supposed to be a more light-hearted story. It doesnt work for The Dark Knight Rises because it’s supposed to be dark and realistic, and Batman’s sacrifice turns out to be less emotionally powerful than Iron Man’s. I just spoiled two movies.

Even so, they handled the pace of the ending just about perfectly. Batman’s death scene might not have been great, but Bruce Wayne’s funeral was powerful. Only those who knew his secret identity showed up, indicating that Wayne had made his sacrifices long before Batman died. But Alfred’s crying cuts quickly to the division of Wayne’s estate, and then to Lucius Fox’s (Morgan Freeman) furious efforts to determine whether he could have saved Batman. Hope slowly starts to emerge, and builds over just a couple of minutes, and the mood shifts as we realize that the Batman legacy will live on, one way or another. Note to Hollywood: We don’t need the eleventy-seven endings you gave us in Return of the King; entertaining us for several hours does not ‘earn’ you the right to make us sit through some self-indulgent bullshit ending.

As for why the comic-book-yet-still-dark tone does work, I will point you to one scene. After Gotham is taken over by Bane and his army, a kangaroo court is set up to sentence cops and one-percenters to death. At the head of this court is the Scarecrow, the batshit (wordplay!) insane villain from Batman Begins. This is probably my favorite scene of the movie: Bane hanging out in the back while the Scarecrow assures defendants that Bane has no authority in the court; the Scarecrow’s perverted sense of justice; the idea that the villains are running the city; and all of the revolutionary imagery that abounds in the scene. Bane wears a jacket that makes him look like a cross between Napoleon and Castro, while Scarecrow wears something similar, only with straw.

There were other little things I liked, such as the way, even though they never called her Catwoman, characters would speak about Selina Kyle as if she were a cat. Blake throwing away his gun after a shooting: foreshadowing? References to Batman Begins that hint at Miranda Tate’s true identity. These little things, added to the big action sequences and art design, made the movie pretty entertaining. At least for me.

From what I can tell, Nolan was kind of just making the story up as he went along, but he ended up with a pretty solid third installment. Not as iconic as The Dark Knight, but I’d put the trilogy up there with the best of them.