Bringing Darkness to the Knight
Any comic book fan worth their salt knows the names Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. This dynamic duo of creators helped breathe new life into a little-known title called Challengers of the Unknown in 1991, and it didn’t take long before they moved on to more well-known books. Their work together is extensive at both DC and Marvel. The team has worked together on Superman for All Seasons, Daredevil: Yellow, Hulk Grey, and of course Batman. In the early to mid-’90s Loeb and Sale were synonymous with Batman and Halloween. Loeb’s knack for writing a mystery and getting into a character’s head, coupled with Sale’s artwork, which is simultaneously beautiful and ugly, made them the perfect team to tell Batman stories. And when is the best time to tell a story about a hero who uses fear as his greatest weapon? Why, Halloween, of course.
Walking Before You Run
Before Bruce Wayne faced the longest Halloween of his life, Loeb and Sale spent three years making sure he could handle it. Batman: Haunted Knight is a collection of three Halloween specials. These were originally published in October of 1993, ’94, and ’95 as special one-shot stories accompanying the monthly book Legends of the Dark Knight. Legends was an anthology series that followed Batman’s early exploits, taking place between the events of Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One and the current day stories of the time.
Scarecrows and Fathers
“In Gotham City all hell breaks loose.” That is how Batman’s opening monologue ends in Book 1 of Haunted Knight. The Caped Crusader is pursuing Dr. Jonathan Crane AKA The Scarecrow who has been blowing up Gotham power relay stations so his gang can loot that part of the city. While all this is going on, Bruce meets a captivating woman named Jillian Maxwell. Bruce begins dividing his time between his work as Batman and spending time with Jillian, but Ms. Maxwell isn’t exactly who she seems. Bruce is torn, tortured by his vow to his parents and his desire to be happy. This problem is similar to the dilemma he faces in Mask of the Phantasm, arguably the best Batman movie ever made.
What Sales pencils and Loeb’s words do in this story is show you the nature of fear during the scariest time of year this side of election season. Bruce spends the entire book terrified. First, he’s afraid that he won’t stop Scarecrow in time, and he’s afraid he’s dishonoring the memory of his parents—his father, in particular. He’s afraid that if he doesn’t give up the cape and cowl to be with Jillian that he will lose the only chance at happiness he may ever have, and he’s also afraid that if he makes that decision, Gotham will be lost forever. That’s what makes Scarecrow the perfect villain for this story. Along with using similar methods to Batman’s to reach his goals, Dr. Crane is obsessed with fear and what triggers it, and in the case of Batman, why he doesn’t appear to ever be afraid, regardless of how much fear toxin is in his system. Everyone knows what choice Bruce makes. You can know that without ever reading the story, but the journey is what makes this entry worth the read. Not the end.
“tWiNkLe, tWiNkLe, LiTtLe BaT”
Book 2 is another study in fear. This time, the villain is Jervis Tech, The Mad Hatter. Another appropriate villain for a Halloween story with his constant need to dress the people he abducts and brainwashes into Alice in Wonderland-themed costumes. With these reoccurring themes, it would be easy to fall into a pattern of repetition, but Loeb and Sale find a way to keep it fresh. They steer away from the fear of failing one’s parents to the themes of parents failing children.
Fathers and Daughters, Mothers and Sons
Bruce remembers his mother reading him Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on rainy days, but that isn’t the key point. Chasing the supervillain and saving the missing children also takes a backseat to the main storyline. The main point of this story is Jim Gordon trying to figure out how to reach his daughter Barbara. She’s still young, and far away from becoming Batgirl. What makes this one so interesting is that young Barbara wants her freedom, to no longer be treated like a child. Gordon, on the other hand, knows how dangerous Gotham is on Halloween and just wants his daughter to be safe. The story follows a lot of the “usual” paces, and you can surmise where the story goes and how it ends. However, like every other superhero story you’ve ever seen, heard or read it, isn’t the end but the journey.
A Halloween Carol
One of the things that has seemed to permeate pop culture is Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. It seems all of our favorite characters in fiction have their visit from spirits. They all experience a crisis of self or need a reminder of what’s important, and Batman is no exception. The difference in this story is not only the holiday but also the spirits. They aren’t just personified versions of past, present, or future but people Bruce knows and recognizes.
I never understood why the three spirits are always the ones referred to, yet there are always four. In the case of Batman, his warning comes from his father, yes, one of Batman’s dead parents once again play a part. The more interesting aspect of this tale isn’t the warning spirit but the ones chosen to take Bruce on his Journey. Poison Ivy, The Joker, and of course The Grim Reaper, but this time he’s wearing a cape and cowl.
Mistakes and Failures
“Batman with training wheels,” is how I’ve heard this version of the character described, and I have to say it’s actually pretty fitting. He’s young, he’s clumsy, and he’s not completely sure what he’s doing, but he’s getting there. What our hero learns in this story is quite simple. The past is poison, the present is a joke, death comes for us all, and don’t pass on the opportunity to fix a mistake when it comes along.
The Nature of Fear
Each time I read this collection, I’m reminded of something Scarecrow says in an episode of Batman the Animated Series: “What hidden terrors keep The Batman awake at night?” He asks that question in the episode “Nothing to Fear” from Season 1. These three stories answer that question. His fears are out in the open for all readers to see, and it boils down to failure, plain and simple. He is failing his parents, his city, and himself. He’s afraid to fall down so he has trouble running at full speed.
Why should you give these a read? They are classic morality tales sprinkled with classic literature, psychological analysis, and a few good Batman stories. Fear is one of the fun things about this time of year, and besides, who doesn’t love a good Batman story? Haunted Knight, along with every other Sale and Loeb story in the world of The Dark Knight is available on Amazon in an omnibus. Also, keep your eyes open for Collin Henderson’s look at the longest Halloween of Bruce’s Life.
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