“Shot Through the Heart” is a weekly segment in which I rant about a story that means the world to me. Each week we’ll go over a film, book, short story, or game that touched me in ways that are hard to put into words without them just turning into word vomit. This week we discuss one of the most influential graphic novels from two of the most important writers in the business – Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale.
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale are a powerhouse in comics. Their various series have been some of my favorites from both Marvel and DC, including *deep breath*:
- Daredevil: Yellow
- Hulk: Gray
- Captain America: White (which only exists in legend)
- Spider-Man: Blue
- Batman: Dark Victory
- Catwoman: When in Rome
- Batman: Haunted Knight
- Superman for All Seasons
- Batman: The Long Halloween
That last one should make any comics fan perk up, particularly fans of the Dark Knight and his more noirish escapades. The novel has gone down as legendary since its release in 1997, the issues running for a year to create a story that layers in so many different parallels between its characters and plots that it blurs the lines between vigilantism and justice. Everything you could want from a Batman comic is in here, so ingrained in the storytelling that you can’t think of a time without it.
And it came 55 years into Batman’s existence. This isn’t what made him, this is what changed him for all audiences. This, along with Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, Frank Miller’s comics The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, Brian Azarello’s Joker, and Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke have become the legendary graphic novels that cement what Batman and his rogue’s gallery means in today’s comics pantheon. We get all the classics here: Joker, Poison Ivy, Mad Hatter, Scarecrow, Penguin, Solomon Grundy, Catwoman, they all show up and each has a bit of a mini-arc of their own. They exist on the peripheral though, on the edge of the main story. Most are there to subvert the attempts of our heroes in some way, to distract him like Poison Ivy or serve to find their own means of solving the crime like Joker. Mad Hatter and Scarecrow provide some comedic relief in their bickering, while Solomon Grundy makes you feel sympathy for a giant zombie-monster (he shares a sweet little Thanksgiving moment with Batman). Catwoman even has some of that good old flirtation and criminal activity that Bats just can’t get enough of. But this isn’t their story.
This is Harvey Dent’s story: the tale of a good man gone bad, and how close to the line we all walk when we bend the rules or see our good efforts gone to waste against the darkness. Everyone has thought about killing someone, you’re lying if you haven’t. Even if you haven’t considered the deed itself you’ve thought about what it might mean, what good could come of it, if someone or another was simply offed. It’s a shame that many live with, something that lurks inside of them longing for release. Jung called it “the shadow self,” Dexter called it “the dark passenger,” and everyone else seems to think of it as some devil on their shoulder that calls them to the darker route. Heck, even Anakin Skywalker was just trying to save his wife and became a whiny jerk in the process. Harvey Dent is a man on the edge, a man whose whole life is involved in trying to take down a crime lord that is above the law. His citizens are suffering at the hands of a man who answers to no one, who has ties to major families in the city, and who can literally get away with murder. The idea that he needs to take a shot at Carmine Falcone is relatable because…well, who hasn’t had that thought at one point or another?
On a rooftop our three heroes make their bond – they will bend the rules to bring in Carmine “The Roman” Falcone, but they cannot be broken because then they would be the same as he is. Jim Gordon, police commissioner, insists on this and Harvey Dent agrees alongside our caped crusader. Together, through various means, they begin to delve into shady dealings together. They fake Dent’s death, burn down Falcone’s cash stockpile, and attack his low-level thugs for information. As they sacrifice their souls each engages in duality and duplicitous dealings with the others to bring down this mob boss. Harvey begins to show his hidden anger, the buried rage that comes from his failures as District Attorney for Gotham, while Batman and Jim struggle to maintain their promise to only bend the law (let’s forget for the moment that Batman’s mere existence is breaking the law). Each one begins to question what they know, who they know, and what they are even doing. Batman is false by nature, by day wearing his person-suit of Bruce Wayne and his power in the public eye to take on corruption head-on but it’s as Batman, his shadow, that he can really get things done. Same for Dent, who sneaks around both alone and with Batman at night, to get under the skin of their enemy.
And Harvey Dent is Two-Face. Let’s not forget that. His existence, his entire schtick, is the embodiment of what vigilantism combined with a penchant for flaunting the law can mean.
Alongside all of this is a serial killer. Did I forget to mention that? There’s a serial killer running around in Gotham (there’s always a serial killer running around Gotham). This one is interesting in that they only seem to murder those connected to the Falcone case. Consultants, family members, other crime bosses, they only want to touch those that are in bed with the Falcone crime family and the deaths are always heralded by the same callsigns – blood, a gun with a baby-bottle-nipple silencer, and a token from the holiday it occurs on. Naturally Batman thinks of Calendar Man, a.k.a. Julian Day, but the guy is incarcerated in a cell that is meant to invoke Hannibal Lector’s lockup. As they consult this individual, who murdered people to coincide with obscure holidays, they start to wonder who could be the killer and what the agenda is (I mean…that’s just basic police work).
This is all just the setup. The story itself gets way more wild.
From the sewers of Gotham to its high-rise apartments, the three men try to tackle the unseen villain through every means necessary while also trying to trap Carmine Falcone. This all ends one way, there’s no other way for it to go in the Batman mythos, but it doesn’t stop the tragedy. Reading this is similar to trying to watch Carrie in that you know how it goes, what the inevitable outcome will be, but you can’t stop it no matter how much you shout at the page/screen. There’s only one outcome – a fall. One of our three heroes must crash and burn, go down in flames. Falcone states early on that one thing he’s learned in the business is “…to expect the unexpected,” but that’s just a misdirection. This goes down the way you think it will and it’s gloriously hard to read.
Harvey becomes Two-Face, Carmine Falcone is murdered, and Batman fails everyone. The old way, the idea of families that respect each other and work to control Gotham through fear and blackmail and drug addiction, is done away with in favor of a new mode of control – supervillians. And to be honest, isn’t this pertinent? We live in an era where the curtains have been drawn away and corrupt, evil people stand in the sun and say “come get me” with minimal retribution. Something is awoken in their followers, a stain on the hearts of citizens that grapples with fear, real or imagined, and chooses to back insanity instead. The line between good and evil is gone and there are those that choose whatever excuse they need to back evil. In the end even Batman and Jim Gordon backed it, to their shame and failure.
It’s no wonder Christopher Nolan based so much of his Batman trilogy on this novel. The fall of Harvey Dent, the failure of heroic men, hell even the entire rooftop scene are all pulled directly from this for The Dark Knight to it’s salvation. Without this grounding that story fails because we aren’t able to show vigilantism without showing its darker half. We have men and women who sacrifice every day to uphold the law, but they do it in uniform and with the backing of the government. Lately we’ve allowed ourselves to see the worst in them based on the actions of a few, but that discounts the thousands that stand on the line of the law between darkness and light. What film and the written word often ignore is the work put in by these people during the day, but this story ditches that bias in favor of painting the police as a force for good in Jim Gordon and Nolan’s film follows that. Good men and women die in the line of duty due to the poor judgement of a man in a mask, an individual who saw that something couldn’t be done with the law and chose to act above it and in doing so misses the destruction of not only a public figure but a friend.
Batman: The Long Halloween is my favorite story in Batman lore because it challenges what we think of good and evil. In the end evil is locked away and a criminal above the law is killed, but did the heroes win? Do the ends justify the means, is the law fallible, and above that is a good person subject to corruption or must it exist in them to begin with? This is the question and it’s echoed in the title – “The Long Halloween” stands for the prolonging of horror, of nightmarish behavior, and what it does to a psyche. One can have the best of intentions and still find themselves in hell and it doesn’t take much to slip over that edge.
I was gifted the gorgeous Noir edition of this a while back. DC Comics has been publishing these editions of their comics for a while now (basically oversized black-and-white editions of detective stories) and so many have been absolutely gorgeous, but my friends Adam and Gaby sent me this one and it is, to this day, one of my most prized editions due to just how beautifully it captures the story. Tim Sale is a favorite artist of mine and his work with dark paper, adding color to it, has been a huge change in Batman. Batman: The Animated Series used the technique and the Nolan films adopted the visual image, heck most comics of this nature have gone that direction but this one did it first and I’d argue that it did it best. I know, I know, this came out after the show, but I find similarities in the art and I think what Sale did is more groundbreaking, come at me.
Batman: The Long Halloween is the best Batman comic to date and it creates a strange relationship between art and audience. This has influenced film, television (anyone been watching Gotham lately?), and all other Batman comics since its release. I’ll state this: there has been no better Batman comic. Come at me, with your Killing Joke and Dark Knight Returns, I’ll rebuke both in favor of this. While those are relevant no other Batman story has changed the tone of the arc this much, has impacted his ongoing persona this much, and has done the work to change the idea of what a good person is. Batman is a failure, and that’s the point. No matter what he does he will fail. His rise above the law, to bend the rules with his actions and bone with his fists, is ultimately hollow if he allows his friends to be destroyed in the process and that’s the lesson. If you fight, it should be done in the day…or should it? Is the light the better process, or the darkness? That’s the fundamental question and Loeb/Sale offer no answers. Instead they ask us to make our own decision in that regard, to challenge our beliefs and decide what we believe. Hell, they ask us to decide what we stand for and then stand for it.
There’s more than one Holiday Killer, more than snake in the grass to worry about. And isn’t there always?