Thursday, October 23, 2008

boys in eyeliner

Dark Victory

It’s really strange to be reading Loeb/Sale work with Heroes on the tube, since they’re both collaborators in that series as well (and one of the best pieces of TV fiction ever, in my opinion). As usual I’m doing it all backward—this is supposed to follow the Loeb/Sale masterpiece The Long Halloween. (The library doesn’t have it, so I may have to actually put down some cold hard cash and buy it.) Catwoman: When in Rome was excellent, this was very good, so I’m hoping Long Halloween will be, in accordance with the hype that surrounds it, unparalleled.

As far as I understand it, Dark Victory continues on more or less where Long Halloween left off. This is different territory than any of the Frank Miller I’ve been reading ,which started at the very beginning of Batman’s and Gordon’s careers (Year One), or the very end (The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again). Here is a fairly young Batman, a fairly young Gordon, and it’s time for Robin to make an appearance. All modern writers seem to acknowledge including Robin is difficult—Miller compensated by making her a girl, Loeb and Sale try to reconcile the fact that Batman works alone with a need to prevent his childhood tragedy—with no one to talk to except Alfred—happening a second time. It works fairly well. That’s one thing this graphic novel seeks to do.

One must remember that being a detective is in Batman’s DNA. He made his first appearance in 1939 in the pages of Detective, Ras al Ghul calls him “detective,” and this is what sets him apart from Superman, Spiderman, all those with “superpowers.” Hence, this is a really good detective story. It’s long and complex, so it has room for many characters and conspiracies. The conceit is a follow up to (who I assume was) the villain of Long Halloween, a villain called Holiday who strikes only on holidays. A villain named Hangman is emulating Holiday’s style. I tried to do the “holidays universe” thing myself, albeit in Doctor Who fan fiction: I got as far as “Birthdays,” “Friday the 13th,” and am still slogging away on “St Valentine’s Day.” So I have a lot of affection for this conceit, artificial though it may be. Remember Calendar Man from Sale’s “Misfits”? He’s in here too. Albeit much more sinister.

Though Alfred is around minimally to make his usual dry quips, I find it’s actually Gordon who provides the much-needed comic relief in this story. He’s got a new D.A., Janice Porter, who went to law school with Harvey Dent. Who I guess must have just become Two-Face in the last story, as the wounds are still fresh within everyone—Batman/Bruce, Gordon, Selina/Catwoman, etc. Janice Porter is, as the notes say, based on Lana Turner and must have been fun to draw. She’s a fun character, and a lot more complex than you might think. Her arrival in the comic is: “I’ve just come back from Arkham.” Gordon’s response is, “Business or pleasure?” She won’t work with Batman, she finds it difficult to see eye-to-eye with Gordon (it’s sweetly pathetic when Gordon invites her to Thanksgiving, a bit à la the young Gordon in Year One), and she’s reopening the Alberto Falcone case (ie, Holiday). In court Gordon tells her she’ll regret it for the rest of her life. Well, she does. I may as well tell you that she’s secretly Harvey/Two-Face’s lover, which is reminiscent of Bruce Timm’s Two-Face story in Black and White—with the same tragic results.

Alberto Falcone is released on strict parole and starts hearing the voice of his “father,” encouraging him to commit Holiday-style murders again. He’s got a copycat in Hangman, who everyone thinks is Two-Face. When Two-Face is busted out of Arkham, along with Solomon Grundy, the Scarecrow, and the Joker, we begin to see one half of the coin (if you’ll pardon the pun). The “freaks” of Gotham are going to war against the five crime families (Falcones, Vitis, Maronis, Gazzos, and Zuccos) with the death of Carmine “The Roman” Falcone (in Long Halloween). His daughter Sofia Gigante (so-named for ample reason) is now the head of the crime family but confined to a wheelchair with a neck brace. Or is she? To quote the Fourth Doctor in Wolfsbane, “Women can be monsters, too, you know.” Hangman is going after Gotham City cops, corrupt and clean, killing one per holiday, per month. There is a method to this madness, but it only becomes clear in the stunning finale. I can tell Loeb and Sale are obsessed with this Gotham City mafia business, and make Selina Kyle a big part of it, so I’m content to let them steamroll along. I suppose it’s all leading back to that realism vein Batman Begins started in on. (“Lovely bunch of coconuts,” is Gordon’s assessment of the mob families.)

Speaking of Selina, she’s still dating Bruce Wayne in this, and from her perspective, he’s a really crap boyfriend. They spend Thanksgiving together at Alfred’s suggestion but he fails to show up on Valentine’s Day. From the Catwoman angle she isn’t getting any satisfaction either. Batman yells at Catwoman to get down, and when he falls on top of her, she’s prepared to take it with a smile and a wink. On Valentine’s Day she and Batman stand on the roof together. “I know there’s something about me you want. I can tell. You go all rigid when I’m around. Let’s do it. Right now. Take off the masks. No secrets.” BATMAN: “ . . . What is your relationship to the Falcone crime organization?” CATWOMAN: “Happy Valentine’s Day.” I still think Sale draws Catwoman like a man with helium balloons glued to his chest (as Renaissance artists used to make their women terribly muscular because they only had male models). But character-wise, she’s awesome. “Why is it so hard for you to understand—when you blame yourself for Harvey Dent—and you didn’t even throw the acid.” BATMAN: “Harvey Dent was . . . my friend. Who is Sofia Falcone to you?” Clearly the lack of trust has gotten in the way of something really great between them. Oh well.

I do like how Sale draws Bruce/Batman. Bruce is hairy but has a lovely facial structure, slightly presaging Christian Bale. Like all of Sale’s characters he seems to be wearing eyeliner—all of Sale’s men look like raccoons. Fortunately I am a woman who appreciates men in eyeliner. I don’t like Sale’s Poison Ivy, he’s got it all wrong there. His Scarecrow, however, is the epitome of creepy—really, really far out there and the complete reverse of anything BTAS or Batman Begins could offer. Loeb and Sale seem to understand Harvey/Two-Face, giving him motive and moments much like some of the best stories in Batman: Two-Face. The scarred part of his face (play some Phantom-style organ now) is perfectly hideous, but the handsome Harvey-side is not really that handsome. (Have to say I prefer BTAS’s version.) I love what Loeb and Sale manage to do with the Riddler. And as for the Joker . . . is it too facetious to use the Third Doctor’s words there—“all teeth and curls?” Can’t say it’s my favorite design—that probably belongs to Joe Chiodo, whose Love on the Lam actually has a scene reminiscent of the one here where the Joker and Two-Face level semi-automatics at each other’s heads—but he does have the tommy-gun. I have to say from what I’ve seen the Loeb Joker is not really that funny and perfectly loathsome. Nevertheless I was a bit tickled at the fact Porter got dragged off to see Two-Face by the Joker and the Scarecrow.

And what of Dick Grayson? There’s a really powerful panel of Bruce Wayne at the circus where Dick’s parents have been killed in their highwire act, and Loeb and Sale are careful to emphasize the link between the two men, in terms of unbridled rage and need for revenge, as well as the terrible loneliness thrust upon them at a young age. In a rare smile-inducing moment Dick insists on the yellow cape as part of his Robin costume, to Bruce’s puzzlement. Art-wise Dick looks like a small wiry monkey with mascara, a character design I could live without.

Loeb and Sale know what they’re doing. They’ve plotted this thing to perfection, with twists and turns, and therefore have turned out a moving, fast-paced, beautifully drawn, inked, and colored piece of work. Sale has a real sense of design and space and how to use it, most evident in his large, page-sized spreads. It’s another graphic novel I’d certainly like to own one day.

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