Written by Nicholas Barham
Caution: SPOILERS AHEAD
With the upcoming release of the direct-to-video animation Batman: The Long Halloween, Part One, and Part Two, I thought it would be good to revisit the graphic novel.
If you read our first blog then you will know that I’m a comic book aficionado. I have a huge collection of graphic novels, from publishers such as DC comics, Marvel, Dark Horse Comics, and more. It’s probably something you would see me enter a burning building just to rescue.
Within the superhero genre, Batman is my favourite character. This story is considered one of his more memorable tales, written by Jeph Loeb, and published over 13 issues between 1996-1997. A book that, after reading this blog, I hope you will agree is a masterpiece. Here’s hoping that the upcoming animation will live up to the book. As a rule, books are superior to their on-screen counterparts, but in this case I hope that I’m wrong.
Plot: simple, yet effective
Gotham, a city drenched in crime. A powerful mob family, the Falcones, rise to power and prominence. The ineffectual and corrupt justice system, unable and unwilling to put down this criminal menace. Enter Batman, who allies himself with police commissioner Jim Gordon and district attorney Harvey Dent to put the brakes on the Falcones. A trio who can bend the rules, who can work outside the law. But then, a new force emerges, a killer who targets this criminal underworld, striking only on holidays, hence his moniker “Holiday”. Batman and company must unmask this killer before he strikes again.
At its core, the story is a murder mystery that pits Batman against the criminal underworld and a mysterious killer. Like all good thrillers and mysteries, it’s a real page turner, leaving you constantly questioning who the killer is, and their motives. There’s also plenty of intriguing subplots, one of which will become plainly obvious to anyone familiar with Batman… I am of course referring to the downfall of Harvey Dent, the tragic tale of a man of truth and justice being sucked into a vortex of insanity and emerging as Two-Face, a crazed super-villain with a fixation on duality.
Colours of the noir: The artwork of The Long Halloween
What’s a graphic novel without its art? What’s bread without butter? A confusingly blind story, and stale toast. The artwork should be as good as the story, because it is the story. Luckily, The Long Halloween does not disappoint. Credit goes to Tim Sale for the artwork, and Gregory Wright for the colour-work.
The Long Halloween is noir. The panels contain rich contrasts between light and shadow, creating the vibe of a gloomy, gritty city beset by crime and violence.
The use of colour, and occasionally (within panels depicting the Holiday murders) the lack of colour is a stylistic nod to vintage detective stories.
The illustrations themselves are simple, digestible, and clean, they are the perfect example of the classic comic-art style. In contrast, characters like the Joker are summoned to life through inhuman characteristics like his manic, overcharged grin and bone-thin face.
The heroes of this comic; Batman – and when it benefits her – Catwoman, are both captured in the typical superhero fashion, their large muscles and imposing features accentuating their strength.
How many characters did you say there were again?
Jeph Loeb has managed to cram a ton characters into the story; from Catwoman to The Joker, Scarecrow, The Riddler, Poison Ivy, Solomon Grundy, and more. They all feel like organic parts of the story and world, even if some of their appearances are fleeting. Even the more “out there” characters like Solomon Grundy, or the Mad Hatter, don’t diminish the more serious tone of the story. None of them overstay their welcome and all of them help to make the world feel more animated and real.
For example, the Joker’s appearance allows for a refreshing divergence from the main plot. He arrives to cause chaos for all involved in the Holiday affair, his motives clear, stating: “This town isn’t big enough for two homicidal maniacs”. His antics are given the usual Joker flair, insane, violent, and psychopathic.
Two sides of the coin: Good, evil, and the space in-between
Like many great modern superhero comics, Batman: The Long Halloween presents a story that explores important questions and ideas such as, what is good? What is evil? What is justice? Let’s explore some of this:
Jim Gordon is the by-the-books hero, a police commissioner, tasked with maintaining order in a dystopian city. He makes it clear to his allies that there are lines he isn’t willing to cross: “I’ll let you bend the rules, but we cannot break them”. He is the stand-in for the traditional justice system, and although he allies himself with Batman, a vigilante, he does so on the condition that Batman will play by his rules.
Batman is also a symbol of justice, having watched his parents murdered in front of him as a child he sacrifices everything to become Batman, vowing to fight the criminal elements that infect Gotham. But unlike Jim Gordon, he isn’t part of the traditional justice system, this makes him more complex and morally ambiguous. Batman is a somewhat anarchical figure, existing outside of traditional societal structures and hence isn’t constrained by the norms and laws of society. One could argue that Batman is a necessary compromise that Jim Gordon has to make: Jim Gordon knows that there are issues within the institutional justice system that makes it difficult to fight the crime that exists within Gotham. Harvey Dent even references these issues early on, stating that the Falcones are able to evade justice due to bribes.
Batman’s moral ambiguity challenges our own sense of morality, causing us to question how far should one go in the pursuit of justice. Existing outside the law causes the darker aspects of his character to rise to the surface: he frequently uses violence and intimidation in his war against crime. The Long Halloween is no different, for example, he breaks scarecrow’s ribs in order to bring him in, brutalises a barman trying to find The Riddler’s whereabouts etc. But somewhat paradoxically there is a line Batman will not cross, a line that plenty of institutions, like the police, cross every day – Batman does not kill, not even in self-defence. He abhors guns and does not seem to take much pleasure in the violence he inflicts, afraid he will dissolve into the evil that took his parents and forced him into the cowl to begin with.
Harvey Dent/Two-face, represents the other side of the coin in this trio. A man of justice that plummets into insanity and evil. We see hints of his downfall throughout the story, for example, after the first Holiday killing Dent says “…couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy”. A statement that is echoed when Two-Face kills Falcone. The reader is also led to believe that Harvey Dent is Holiday, with hints dropping throughout the story. In the end, Dent does kill, but it’s left up to the reader to decide how far his involvement in the Holiday killings go. After Dent’s transformation into Two-Face he justifies himself by saying that the justice system has and will fail to bring the Falcones to justice perhaps showing that evil will always try to justify itself.
It could be argued that Batman and Two-Face are both after their own brands of justice, two diametrically opposed concepts of justice. This is where I put on my philosophy hat. It could be argued that Batman is a deontologist following a Kantian ethic. I won’t bore you with the details, but essentially the philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that ethics is about following universal rules (categorical imperatives), rules that cannot be broken for any reason – much like Batman’s rule against killing.
Two-Face rejects this categorical imperative and embraces a darker form of justice, a simpler black and white view of the world. Two-Face’s psychosis results in a dualistic view of the world, personified in the two sides of Dent’s face, and the two sides of the coin he carries around. Two-Face justifies his killing as “doing what needs to be done”, suggesting a more consequentialist outlook on ethics – the idea that the result of the action is what determines its rightness or wrongness, not the action itself. It’s certainly hard for the reader to truly identify with Two-Face’s morality once they see where it leads him – to madness. Dent’s wife is also dragged down with him, perhaps showing the infectious nature of evil, her mere proximity to Dent driving her to madness. Whatever the case The Long Halloween forces the reader to confront two diametrically opposed worldviews and consider important questions on the nature of morality, of justice, of good and evil.