(Note that this cover isn’t actually the one of the new edition made for The Dark Knight’s release – I just chose this one because I like it better, matching Dark Victory’s style)
In my second to last post, detailing some of my first thoughts on this book, I mentioned that it opened with a foreword from Christopher Nolan and David Goyer who suggested that it’s the best Batman book ever made. Although I don’t like to have one favourite book, video game, or piece of music out of all the ones I enjoy, I doubt that this is many people’s favourite Batman story. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, the only thing that bothered me about it at all was that, presumably because of the way it was formatted into monthly releases, Jeph Loeb repeats the same several lines or two about who a character is when they first appear on panel in each chapter, even if we’ve seen them several times by that point. Obviously you can see why he did it, if it was his choice at all, but you still wish he mixed the lines up every now and then, instead of repeating the same ones over and over. A small complaint is all this is however. Really, I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s the only major criticism I have, and I’m not even sure that any minor ones I could talk about are really fair points at all.
The thing is, I actually think that a lot of others who’ve read the book would probably have additional complaints on top of mine, starting with the art. As I said in my Haunted Knight post, although I love the artwork, it’s an art style I think others might dislike for the very same reasons that I think it’s great. However, I’ve touched on all this – the wacky character design, heavy use of black ink, cartoon-like style, etc., if you need a reminder – so I won’t bother going over it all again. Rather, I think it’s the story that people will have left and looked back on with disappointment, or perhaps even anger. This book is essentially one big murder mystery, you see, taking place over the course of an entire year of Batman’s life, and I imagine that a lot of people got to the end of the book and were left feeling incredibly let down at the big reveal, as well as things that came before. Because when I say it’s a murder mystery, I mean it’s a properly good murder mystery, and I think that some people just won’t get that, particularly if they’ve never read an equally good kind of mystery or even just have a misunderstanding of what the genre’s all about, which I think applies to a lot of people, judging by the reviews you find for such books. But this is a good one, done very well.
It’s the kind filled with red herrings to make you second guess yourself – those things that are left to lead characters themselves in the wrong direction, but take readers with them too. Some people consider that cheap, which is fair enough in some cases. Personally, however, I feel it’s usually realistic of the characters within the context of the story – at least if the surrounding world itself is grounded in an element of realism too – and in this case I thought it was because of the way Loeb portrays them, a subject I’ll briefly talk about in a moment. It’s also the kind of murder mystery where the detectives or people in general trying to make sense of what’s going on, in this case, Batman and his friends, are led astray themselves, which I think probably annoyed more people in this case because Batman’s supposed to be the greatest detective ever, a second topic I’ll touch on in a moment. It’s the kind too, where the big reveal is obvious – I, in fact, think Loeb purposefully went out his way to make the last several murders point to the one person – and it’s actually a second reveal that’s the twist, and in this case it’s a twist that looks to go unnoticed, though it possibly might in Dark Victory, the sequel; either way, another thing I’m sure that frustrates people, and my third point I’d like to talk about. Obviously there’s more to murder mysteries than three points, but those are the ones I’d like to focus on for the purpose of this review, as I feel they’re the most important to talk about here.
Let’s start with why red herrings aren’t the cheap plot device people seem to think they are when done correctly. Take Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Yes, I am aware that it is far more complex than this, but hear my next sentence out. This is a hardboiled crime novel about a private detective who’s simply asked to deal with a blackmailing attempt against one General Sternwood’s daughter, only things escalate into multiple murder mysteries that are, as I say, fairly complex in nature. The disappearance of another character is briefly mentioned but, for a time, never explored, even though the story ends with that mystery being solved in a place foreshadowed through the use of weather. The main character, Marlowe, who we follow in first person, is constantly led astray as other characters enter the scene and cross paths with one another, and different clues to different mysteries are found or are revealed to be nothing but red herrings, things that in the context of the story have a connection to this, but not that, if you get my meaning. Yet the book’s widely considered to be a masterpiece of the genre, and that’s because it works. It really does. The world is portrayed in a particularly believable fashion, as are the characters, so it’s perfectly understandable that the lead character goes from plot point A to plot point C, then returns to plot point B, and so on.
It works here too. From the very first chapter you know that this is a Batman universe grounded in reality because in this long opening we see Batman make a deal with Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent to take down “The Roman”, a crime syndicate boss who’s been causing trouble in the city prior to the story actually beginning. There’s two things unusual about this. First, and as Nolan points out in the introduction, Batman is working directly with the police and district attorney offices. He’s not dealing with Roman in his own way, and leaving him stringed up somewhere with evidence around him – he’s doing it by the book, almost as if he’s one of them. Indeed, the good characters of the book are quite focused on making sure they do the right thing, complete with realistic doubts about these actions of theirs perhaps being too light of heart, leading to Dent’s tragic downfall and loss of faith in justice. The second weird thing is that the main antagonist is this Roman, an ordinary crime boss like that found in a gangster flick (which ties into the cinematic presentation that I mentioned Nolan having said, back in my prelude) – not actually one of the super villains that we constantly encounter. In fact, Roman pays them to work for him. It’s the less realistic of the two, only because the super villains themselves aren’t exactly something we see here in the real world. But as a Batman book, yes, it definitely adds a dose of reality to see these villains be motivated by the want of money, or the simple chance to cause chaos and be rewarded for doing so. Speaking of the villains, Loeb is even clever enough to involve the villains themselves in the mystery, one of my favourite chapters being where the Riddler’s hired by the Roman to try to work out who the murderer is. Everyone you expect to be interested by what’s going on is interested, you see.
With this context established, and explored more as the book continues with the introduction of additional characters, I think it’s safe to say that the red herrings are perfectly fine. Just like in The Big Sleep, it’s perfectly reasoned that Batman should be led in one particular direction or another at any given time, and that we as a reader are led that way as well. Even the Joker, for example, at one point tries to work the mystery out, yet is ultimately led nowhere, and there’s no problem with the fact that this takes Batman astray for a month as he tries to re-apprehend him, just as there isn’t a problem with him not getting the meaning of various clues. Because his shame by the end of the book, his question to Gordon – “Was it worth it?” – is a reflection of the reader in a way. Yet there’s no shame in having guessed correctly about something, doubted yourself because Loeb did pull a fast one over you or introduced contrary evidence to fuck with your head, and then found yourself back at your original theory. That’s part of the fun of a murder mystery! But, even if you don’t personally enjoy finding yourself confused or tricked, you should at least find the characters of the story and their own doubts interesting, particularly since they’re made to be very logical thoughts that lead them to, yes, a sad conclusion – but one that’s importantly grounded in the world of reality. As I seem to be repeating by now, Jeph Loeb really does portray these characters, and Gotham City around them, as if they were real human beings, and a real place, which brings me to my next point.
Problematically, Batman means different things to different people, most noticeable when it comes to different writers’ take on the character. The perfect example in this case would be a comparison with Loeb’s Batman to that of Grant Morrison’s run on the character. As I’m to understand, Grant Morrison, in going back to the really old Batman stories to bring them into continuity, makes him into the world’s greatest detective that he’s called quite often. Literally the man who thinks of everything, and it’s pretty cool that he’s so intelligent. But Loeb’s Batman isn’t the ultimate detective, and that’s okay too. What is so wrong about a portrayal of Batman as a character with doubts about himself, and why is it so wrong that this Batman isn’t a genius detective? In fact, I didn’t even realise, but the character of the Roman is from Frank Miller’s Year One, meaning this is part of the continuity following that story, meaning also that this Batman is still very much inexperienced. Indeed, so is Jim Gordon for that matter, not yet Commissioner, a fact I did pick up on. That, as far as I’m concerned, should immediately make it okay that Batman isn’t a genius here. But, as to the former point, I think that’s alright too, and it actually ties into his inexperience in the sense that this Batman has more of a social life, seen here spending a lot of his time with Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, a relationship I know Loeb explores again in Hush. Even if this relationship wasn’t a part of Batman’s life in this story, however, he’s still clearly depicted as a more relatable character – not some incredibly smart super detective, but a man filled with doubts at his judgement, at his desires, at his reasons for adopting this disguise in the first place.
So I find it really funny to see reviews in which people insist that Batman should have solved the mystery sooner, because Jeph Loeb clearly spends so much of the book exploring this side of the Batman. It’s something I’ll talk about more in my post analysing some of the characters in this book, but I’ll say a few things for now, starting with a repetition from my prelude to this review: there’s a reason why this book opens with a picture of Bruce Wayne hidden in shadows, stating that he believes in the people of Gotham City, and there’s a reason why he says he believes in Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent too. It’s because he doubts whether or not they truly need them; whether or not good men like Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent are enough for the city; and perhaps most of all, desires it to be the case where he’s no longer needed, as explored in the chapters in which he shares time with Selina Kyle, and those in which he spends time thinking of his parents and the promise he made to their graves. And couldn’t his question to Jim Gordon at the end of the book also be directed at himself, here at this point where he’s won a major battle against crime only at the loss of a close friend? I certainly think so. It even reminded me of the ending to one of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels in which the titular lead character questions himself through the thoughts of various song titles. But, as I said, I’ll talk about this more in my spoiler-full analysis, in which I’ll be given freer reign to talk about one final variation of the “I believe in [something]” line.
Both of my last points lead me to this conclusion: Jeph Loeb knew what he was doing. This is on the contrary of a lot of reviews I’ve read in which people have said things along the lines of, “Batman wouldn’t have done this or that”, but, far more commonly, accusations of apparent plot holes being in the narrative. There are no plot holes in the narrative. What isn’t explained is left there for you to figure out as a reader, and I might also point out something that people seem not to realise: there’s a sequel called Dark Victory. As I write this, I’m actually halfway through that and – would you believe it? – Loeb is tying up some of these ambiguous plot threads; but not all of them,which is fine, though I’ll talk about it some more in my review of Dark Victory. Still, I’ve even seen some reviews to go as far as to point out that the killer’s identity becomes really obvious. Like I said earlier, I thought Loeb made the last few murders quite obviously point to the one person on complete purpose. To explain why, again, I’d like to look back at The Big Sleep. It isn’t obvious at first there either, especially once we’re led away from solving it all out too soon by the author, but, by the end, we’ve encountered the person who caused the disappearance of a character, who’s only briefly mentioned, enough times to know that they’re responsible and why they did it. And Marlowe gives this person a gun loaded with blanks because he knows it’s this person too, and he only needs them to pull the trigger at him in order to be completely positive. The characters of Jim Gordon and Batman never actually work out who the killer is before the big confrontation, but they do understand who the murderer will go after next, and set themselves up in order to apprehend their suspect. The difference is that the identity of the killer isn’t so much foreshadowed here as it is in The Big Sleep – instead, the last several murders just piece together to point to the one logical suspect. Cleverly enough, readers like myself probably initially suspected this character to begin with, judging only by crime films we may have seen where the killer may have had a similar motive, but Loeb tricks us, makes us doubt ourselves…and then we suspect this person again.
Really, the identity of the killer, I’m certain, is supposed to be obvious, creating dramatic irony. Indeed, the bigger twist I’ve alluded to is the thing we may not suspect, only becoming aware of it once Loeb reveals it to us, – and yet, our heroes never find out. And as of Dark Victory, they still don’t. And here is my other point: Jeph Loeb hasn’t just written a murder mystery – he’s written a tragedy too, and that’s why the he uses dramatic irony throughout this book. As a matter of fact, I think that the book’s a better tragedy than it is a murder mystery, which is why it’ll be the focus of my analysis. And it’s not just the tragedy of Harvey Dent either – it’s the tragedy of other characters too, our heroes in particular, and how they ultimately fail both Harvey and themselves. The book seemed to have passed me by by the time Batman asked the question: “Was it worth it?”
That’s what’s amazing about this book. It’s such a simple story when you glance at, perhaps even cleverly reinforced with Tim Sale’s seemingly straightforward art style, and it’s tied up quickly in the end. Yet, like Sale’s very stylish artwork and the way it actually foreshadows events, or touches upon a character’s inner struggles, the story is much more complex than it seems. Perhaps not as complex as something like The Big Sleep, and perhaps not as complex as an Alan Moore graphic novel either – but complex enough that it deserves its place amongst the better Batman stories and, indeed, comics in general. Even though I’ve spent quite a bit of time addressing criticisms against the book too, this wasn’t the case with most reviews I read, I should point out. Those complaints were just some of the more frustrating to have read and, as you can see, I thought had a funny connection that formed a perfect whole reason why this book is so great. Honestly, you would be simply insane not to pick this and Dark Victory up as both books are good enough to be enjoyed without breaking the surface – but rewarding and to be treasured in your collection if you do.