I hate that cover. I really do. I never have liked such a kind that “split” a character in two for some reason or other, and I probably never will, but this one is just awful. I know it sounds harsh to say this, but if I were passing this in a book store I would judge it by its cover and move on – that’s how bad I think this cover is. I hate it so much that I’m tempted to tear it off and replace it with a stick figure drawing. So there.
The reason I’m being so harsh on the cover is to illustrate a point: you shouldn’t judge a book by one at all. I didn’t in this case, as I bought it online, but I would understand if others have passed it by during their shopping because that cover really is unattractive, but also criminally unrepresentative of the artwork inside. That’s what I want to talk about first. We’ll get to Jeph Loeb in a minute, but first we should really talk about that big, fat elephant in the room: Jim Lee’s artwork. Well, I say Jim Lee as if it were only him, but that’s really unfair in this case. The inking, colouring and even lettering play just as big a part in the beautiful display you’ll find within these pages as Jim Lee’s excellent pencil work. Still, it wouldn’t be possible to have their contributions if it weren’t for Lee’s skill as an artist; as the first layer, if you like, upon which the beauty of this book is formed. Let me put it this way: his art is so good that, in Amazon’s preview of this book, I was so amazed by what I saw, without actually having it in front of me, that I spontaneously bought Hush Unwrapped with this TPB. What is Hush Unwrapped? Well, it’s Hush still – same story, page layout and all that – but with the colouring and inking stripped from the artwork, showcasing only Lee’s pencil work. Which is quite frankly incredible.
In the introduction Loeb describes his artwork as being special for the attention to detail, and I couldn’t put it better myself. This book is brimming with details – actually, forget that – it’s overflowing with details. The first time I was blown away was in the second chapter of the book. Dear ol’ Batman was in a bit of a tricky situation and a heroine called Huntress came to his rescue, her first order of business being to kick a guy in the face. We’re then treated to a full page shot of her, and I naturally poured over the details. But you’ll never guess what my eyes found. On her right boot was a small bit of blood from the poor chap she kicked in the teeth. You notice things like that throughout the rest of the book; small, insignificant details other artists wouldn’t bother to include. What I wonder is if Loeb, who Lee himself confirms in the afterword to having taken advantage of his attention to detail, suggested such things in his script, or if these small touches are simply Lee being an obsessive maniac. Mind you, he’s not the only one.
A chap called Scott Williams is Lee’s inker and, if Hush Unwrapped is any indication of what Lee’s pencils always look like, then I swear that this guy is psychiatrically insane for bringing his artwork to life the way he does. Trust me, some of the pencils in that book look really difficult to follow, yet this guy has done the inking where necessary and, no doubt, made additions of his own too. Then there’s Richard Starking, the colourist. This man’s clearly nuts too because he is so consistent with the way lighting works in here, and I couldn’t help but notice his approach to different scenes as well. The colours during the chapters set in Gotham City are, of course, very dark, for instance, but Metropolis, home of Superman, on the other hand is very bright. The Batcave has a sickly green tone to it, and a major fight scene, the one you’re lead to believe is the finale in the second to last chapter, has an apocalyptic red sky going on. Even the panels of a brutal scene at the halfway point of the book are set against red background pages to emphasize Batman’s anger, yet eventually fades back to white, which is incredible. Seriously, all of these guys are amazing. Sure, every character Lee draws seem to be the most perfect human beings – the men are buff, the women curvy – but that is one small complaint against everything else. It’s simply astonishing otherwise. When I get round to reading Hush Unwrapped / staring at that bloody artwork, I really will have to compare it with this. No doubt my jaw shall fall off my face.
Annoyingly enough, however, the production quality of this comic is kinda crap. Not the printing of the pages or anything like that – oh no, the artwork comes alive. It’s the binding that’s pretty poor. Someone pointed out in an Amazon review that their copy of the book fell apart in an all too familiar-sounding way to what happened to my copy of Judge Dredd VS Aliens: Incubus years ago, and I can see this happening with my copy in the future. But that wasn’t my problem as I read this. No, my issue was that there is too much gutter loss for a book this gorgeous. Funnily enough, I wrote my first review on Amazon for my unread copy of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Omnibus, which I noticed lost its art, speech bubbles and prose to the gutter. The latter two isn’t really an issue here, but you do lose a lot of the art unfortunately. It was made even more frustrating when I had a look at the copyright page and found out that this was the ninth printing. Come on, DC… It honestly is a great shame that there’s no hardcover for this outside of the expensive Absolute Edition. Don’t get me wrong, I’d be delighted to pick that up one day for the oversized glory of it all, but Hush Unwrapped is in hardcover and has no gutter loss that I can see. Let’s hope they can print a better edition in the future – the artwork deserves that much surely.
With the elephant…um, shot, we really should move on to the story now if we hope to finish this review at a reasonable length. This is quite the book to end our Jeph Loeb run of Batman on simply because I think that it’s probably the most interesting, combining ideas that he’s explored in the past, as well as adding additional concepts. There’s probably more of the latter actually since, as he points out in the introduction, this is a more up to date Batman that we’re following. If we consider The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, following the continuity of Frank Miller’s Year One, to be, respectively, Batman’s Year Two and Three, then this is surely his Year Ten, or perhaps even Fifteen. Like Loeb’s other Batman stories, there’s a mystery at hand but, other than that, everything else has changed. Well, he’s still tricked in the end again too – something sure to frustrate the people stuck in the mindset that Batman = the world’s greatest detective – but the Batman here is still a remarkably different character compared to what we’ve seen before, and the way in which he’s tricked is potentially of bigger scale than usual. “Bigger scale” are perhaps the best two words you could use to describe this book compared to the last several.
Although Loeb doesn’t fit in every character, there is overall a larger cast and those characters which don’t make an appearance are at least given mention. In other words, there’s far more trouble for Batman to contend with in the new forms of people bad guys like Killer Croc and Harley Quinn. Equally, however, he has more allies: Dick Grayson, who we met as a young child of ten in Dark Victory, is here a young adult, grown out of his role as Robin, and now Nightwing instead, meaning Tim Drake is Robin instead; Barbara Gordon, only a young girl in the last few books, was Batgirl as a teenager, but now Oracle after the Joker crippled her; Huntress, who I’d never heard of before, is a pretty powerful heroine unaware of her own strength; and, of course, there’s Catwoman. Indeed, it is she who gets the most focus from Loeb. Just as he explored Batman’s loneliness in Dark Victory, which ended in Catwoman losing interest in him as the costumed hero and as Bruce Wayne, embarking on a search about her own background in Catwoman: When In Rome, here he takes their relationship to a new level. It won’t be a spoiler to say this, as it’s right there on the back cover, but they finally get romantically involved with a kiss. It’s an interesting development from the last couple of books, the kind that other returning characters are given consideration to as well. We see Harvey Dent return in a way reminiscent of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, though with a twist. We find out that Jim Gordon is retired (not that you can blame him) and it’d appear no one has taken his place as Batman’s trusted friend within the Gotham City Police Department, meaning there’s no bat signal in the night sky. And then there’s Batman himself.
This older man reminds me a bit of Frank Miller’s approach to the character (seeing a trend here?) – he’s more prone to anger, more violent and generally just a bit gritty. Early on he suggests that both he and the city have grown old together, which I suppose says it all. It’s not ever taken to such an extreme where Batman beats Bruce for control of the vessel that holds the two minds like Frank Miller’s amazing “I am your soul” moment, but I’m sure a lot of readers probably noticed that, where he says Superman is a good person, he says that deep down he is not, which is quite surprising. It’s difficult to tell if that’s really true though. Certainly, he does something shocking halfway through the book, and the spoiled child in flashbacks seems like a bit of a fanny, but he’s, um, still Batman at the end of the day. Sure, he’s come such a long way since The Long Halloween that he has a ridiculous arsenal of gadgets to prepare himself for new dangers, but he’s still the Batman of old at heart, and humanely portrayed through Loeb once again.
Everything else that’s undergone changes over the years that have passed within these books are still relatively unchanged at their core too, though. Take the city’s larger presence. This isn’t just because of Lee’s ultra detailed artwork – we see characters pursue each other through the streets of Gotham more often, along more rooftops than usual and even come to understand what the route from the Batcave to the city is. The Batcave itself is notably huge in size compared to when we last saw it at the end of Dark Victory, filled with all the various vehicles that have been used by Batman and Robin over the years. But they’re both still the same. In the scenes with Superman, again, Batman stresses the fact that Metropolis is his city, whereas Gotham is his, an idea which was explored by him and a few other characters in The Long Halloween. Meanwhile, Alfred’s still the man stitching up Batman’s wounds back home, and the home beneath the home still has a giant coin and dinosaur, as well as the displays of old costumes. A lot has changed over time, but nothing is unrecognizable, and all of these developments from the past weave together to form this wonderful tale.
As another mystery, it’s not as good as The Long Halloween or Dark Victory in terms of the identity behind Hush, the bandaged guy on that terrible cover, just because it’s so obvious. But, like The Long Halloween’s last couple of murders, it’s supposed to be. You can read my review of that book to see my response to the dumb criticism of it being too obvious, but welcome to the world of mystery book reviews, I suppose. The odd thing is, the dramatic irony is significantly downplayed here. The events that take place do lead to a slightly tragic ending, but we’re never as involved as a reader this time – we’re held back at arm’s length – which means the impact isn’t as great when everything comes to a head. In fact, you wouldn’t even guess the involvement of one character who dies at the end, because we never see or hear about him at any time beforehand, and I for one had no idea who he was at all. Even though we know who he must be, we never actually see Hush without his bandages either, or see him commit any crime to end a chapter on a cliffhanger like we might’ve seen in previous books from Loeb. But perhaps that’s the point. If my last few paragraphs have told you anything, then it should be that the world of Batman has been brought to center stage and I indeed believe that the city and characters that inhabit it are the real stars here, fleshed out as they all are. And that’s good enough for me because Loeb does some really interesting things in this book, nothing of which I’ll spoil.
However (and note the use of italics to emphasize that this is a big “however”), as good as that is itself, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that some things about the mystery were terrible, which is a shame because Loeb wrapped up other things really well. For instance, there’s a fairly good reason that Batman’s tricked this time. Not exactly foreshadowed or anything, but it’s explained quite well. Yet when he finally confronts Hush, who you know to be *censored*, it turns out that the guy’s reason for starting all of this is, as you’ll have feared from a number of scenes that make it all plainly obvious, monumentally stupid. If it were a cliche, it’d actually be better, but it’s not – it’s just really, really dumb and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at all. Then there is actually plot holes this time. Not a ton, thankfully, but they’re out in the open for you to see and pretty bad as well. I wish I could say they were things that they probably just missed before putting out each chapter, but I’m afraid that it’s probably just very poor writing on Loeb’s part instead. It’s a shame because, although you might hate Loeb’s approach to mystery in the last several books – which is fair enough, though I think you shouldn’t really be reading mystery books if things like red herrings truly bother you – I think it’s completely deniable, despite a few reviews on the contrary, that the likes of The Long Halloween were filled with plot holes, poor writing and cliches (there is the latter, but it fits the Godfather-like approach to the gangsters). Overall I think good writing outweighs the the former and latter problems of this book, but they’re still there, and I doubt I’ll enjoy the book as much when I get round to reading Hush Unwrapped.
There is, however, a chance at redemption. As far as I’m aware, this is where Loeb’s Batman story ends. Yet he does, as I hope I’ve made clear, some interesting things with Gotham and our favourite characters and ends the book in such a way that these things could be developed even further, even if it is for just one more book, in the future. And I hope we’ll see that someday as I’ve really liked his books, besides maybe Haunted Knight. And I understand others enjoy him too, yet I’ve gotten a strong impression that he’s just as equally despised by DC readers, for some of the things I addressed in my review of The Long Halloween, but also for a surprising amount of other reasons too. I think he’s great, but he’s certainly a guy who people seem to have two very different sets of opinions on.
Incidentally, this is very true of Grant Morrison, probably even more in fact. Yep, we are very close to starting his long run on Batman, and I for one can’t wait. Shortly after the publication of this post, another one will be up in which I’ll discuss my intended reading order of the run. It’s a bit of a headache to put together, so I figure that some explanation is needed. So, yes, that’s coming up shortly after this, and there may be a review or too before we actually begin proper.