Debriefing #5: ‘The Long Halloween’

Batman: The Long Halloween (1996-7)
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artist: Tim Sale
Letterer: Richard Starkings
Colorist: Gregory Wright

Batman, Commissioner James Gordon and new District Attorney Harvey Dent team up to bring down the Falcone crime family. But when a killer known as Holiday begins killing off members of organized crime groups during major holidays, the trio find their priorities shift to bringing the serial killer to justice.

James: Part The Godfather, part rogues gallery of villains. The Long Halloween is an interesting mix of grounded crime drama and fantastical villains. Do you think those two worlds coming together works?

Edgar: I do, and I think it as a lot to do with Loeb’s handling of those fantastical characters. It’s one thing to have Batman in a grounded world (I know you’re not too hot on that description), it’s another to combine that with the traditionally fantastical elements. Where that works in particular is in how those Arkham nuts jobs ‘require’ Falcone to get them out. Not only that, but their personal motivations are driven by, what else, money, which Falcone has plenty of, so that made a lot of sense to me. How about you?

J: The first time I read this, I didn’t care for the villains popping up throughout the story. I thought it broke the flow of the core story. But reading it again, I appreciate how Loeb has the two worlds interact and how he places them both in cooperation and opposition with one another. I do have issues with certain appearances. I don’t like The Joker’s escapades. It doesn’t fit with the tone. But others like Poison Ivy and the Riddler enhance the story. I’m curious, is there villains you thought worked better than others or did you like seeing them all?

E: Excellent question. Like you, I did not, in fact, like seeing them all. Despite my just writing how I felt their escape and motivations were handling adeptly, it felt a bit too obvious sometimes that a new super villain would emerge out of the shadows. A new chapter begins, concentrating on a new holiday so….I guess a cameo is coming  up! That sort of logic went against what I would have preferred considering that so much else seems to operate very smoothly. As for the ones I liked, Riddler and Poison Ivy were great. Ivy for how she controlled Bruce into acquiescing to Falcone’s banking demands and the Riddler for how his place in this world was treated. He solves puzzles, but when he fails to solve the one annoying Falcone, it’s like’ Eh, take him outside!’ I loved that moment. As for the ones I didn’t like as much, I could understand what the heck Mad Hatter was doing in this, nor Calender Man. Okay, the mystery murderer is killing on holidays, go as Calender Man questions, but he didn’t help at all!

J: I think he actually did, but we’ll talk about that later when we discuss Holiday’s identity. I do have an affection for The Mad Hatter, but he’s given a worthless cameo here. Also, I dislike the actual rogue’s gallery supervillain two-page spread, especially when you’ve got Penguin there who is only briefly referenced in one panel of the comic before. Still, I like how Loeb contrasts the traditional world of crime with the insanity of these supervillains. What did you think about Loeb’s writing?

E: It takes the universe of Batman to a new level. Not necessarily a bolder level, one with even bigger events transpiring, but more in a different direction. Batman does not engage in too much hand to hand combat for a story that spreads over, what, 200-250 pages? It’s a lot of detective work. This is highlighted in his semi-professional ties to Gordon and Harvey Dent, with whom he must converse and debate before making any major moves himself. The intro to the edition of the book I have features a short little interview with Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, who both state that this story served as major inspiration for their films and, having seen the movies, that’s very easy to detect.

J: It does put a heavy influence on Harvey Dent and I’m guessing is the Batman story that first penned the line “I believe in Harvey Dent.” I do think that Dent is the most interesting character in this book. I love seeing the dynamic between Dent, Gordon and Batman as they try to take down Holiday. They each have a different approach to how they want to do it and it’s interesting to see how those different views play out throughout the hunt. And I like that Loeb addresses the fact that Holiday is killing off bad people. At some point Dent asks why are we even bothering, this guy is doing us a favor, which is one of the threads that lets Loeb organically transition him into Two-Face.

E: It seems to me that Loeb is trying to write Harvey Dent as being in an even more delicate emotional and psychologically situation that Batman/Bruce Wayne. Bruce has embraced his dark side by becoming the Dark Knight, whereas Harvey Dent, as you wrote, is slowly accepting that bad people are being murdered all the while trying to operate as an attorney, a man of the law, man who is upstanding. I think that works to a degree, maybe I didn’t think it was absolutely perfect just because (and this may just be me) I wondered a couple of times ‘Well, where is this attitude coming from? Why would Harvey be willing, on one side, let the murders happen?’ A nitpick, not a huge complaint. Overall I liked it. What did you make of Harvey’s arc?

J: I though it was superb. Harvey Dent/Two-Face is a complicated character because he is a villain, but he still holds to this strong sense of justice, it’s just a warped sense of justice. I think Loeb shows that it’s something inherent in the Dent character before Two-Face even comes into the equation. I think that’s a compelling take because it’s not so much about the trauma of the event completely transforming the character, but about it being the tipping point that shoves this character to truly enact what he believes, or at least what he believes in the most cruel and twisted way possible.

E: In other words, he was always part Two-Face. Circumstances were required to push him over that edge to become what was breathing underneath the surface. Correct me if I’m misreading that.

J: In part, I think part of it also has to do with Holiday because, and this is where things get confusing, the book spends a lot of time suggesting that Harvey Dent could be Holiday and even in the end I feel like the book isn’t explicitly telling us that he never actually took on the Holiday persona to kill someone. I think the book presents the audience with who Holiday is, but if you think about it, they didn’t commit all the Holiday murders.

E: That is the element to the Harvey Dent arc that I loved. As that character begins to exude some questionable morals, that is when suspicions of his involvement in the Holiday crimes become more prominent. That’s handled superbly because, by the stories end, even though Dent was not Holiday (not completely), because he has become Two-Face, the reader can understand that Dent quite frankly could have been Holiday all this time. Thematically it is exquisitely handled. Should we talk about the reveals at the end?

J: Sure. It’s actually two separate reveals. The first is that Alberto Falcone, which is supposedly killed off on New Year’s Eve, is alive and Holiday! But the last couple of pages reveal that Holiday is actually Gilda Dent, Harvey’s wife. So you have two people confessing to be Holiday. I think this opens it up to the audience, leaving them to wonder who committed what murders.

E: Hmm. A loaded talking about. I’m not sure how to approach this! Okay, I think there are two ways to read everything that happens in the last 10-15 pages. Either there were, in truth, two Holidays, Gilda and Alberto, or Alberto, who looks pretty crazy near the end of the book, is simply insane and never committed the crimes. Gilda committed all of them. I’m not sure those two explanations popped into my head. I think the first one (two killers) makes sense. Then just before Dent/two-Face is arrested, he admits to their being two Holidays! Is he referring to Alberto and himself (because, remember, he just killed two people, including Falcone) or has he clued in on the fact that his wife also played a part. It’s kind screwed up there at the end.

J: And just to twist things even a little more, it could be that Gilda is covering up for Harvey who could have been committing the killings the whole time, convincing herself that she did them. I think that’s another way to look at it, and, at least to me, it makes more sense when she says “I believe in Harvey Dent” at the end. I do think it’s at least two killers because The Calendar Man mentions from the beginning that he is the killer and she will kill again, which is the tipoff that it was Gilda and Alberto who were Holiday. That contradicts the Gilda covering for Dent theory, but I think Loeb intentionally leaves it closed enough that those who just want a pat answer, but he also gives astute readers the space to come to their own conclusions.

E: I didn’t clue in on Gilda covering for Harvey the whole time. That ‘I believe in Harvey Dent’ line does have more resonance if one takes to have that meaning. Hmm, I’m still thinking about the whole ending as I type these replies. I love how there are so many possibilities. You mention Calender Man and I guess your point above is the example of how he helped Gordon and Batman, but I always just took it as him assuming, given that no further clues were available, that the killer could a woman or it could be a man. I never saw that as Calender Man genuinely giving Gordon and batman info. Love this discussion though.

J: Honestly, if this wasn’t my second time reading this, I wouldn’t have picked up on these things, so I feel I have a bit of an unfair advantage revisiting the story already knowing the ending. I do love that it does hold up to a reread because, to be honest, the first time I read it, I didn’t think much of it. This time around it knocked my socks off once I realized how much detail Loeb poured into the story.

E: I wanted to read it over again the moment I was done! To get to another topic, I saw The Long Halloween as a logical sequel to Year One. The evolution of the Gordon-Batman relationship, the arrival of Harvey Dent into their alliance. I don’t know if Jeph Loeb intentionally aimed for that effect, but that’s what I felt throughout the entire book. What about you?

J: It’s funny you mention that, because most fans agree that this is the unofficial Batman: Year Two. There is an official Year Two run, but it got slammed with the non-canon hammer so most fans place this as Batman’s second year. I think that does work as a natural evolution. Batman is more experienced, but still developing relationships with certain characters and probably is encountering certain villains for the first time (such as Poison Ivy and Catwoman).

E: I’m not sure he’s encountering Catwoman for the first time, though. I don’t recall the specifics of their first tête-à-tête in the book, but I’m pretty sure they’re familiar with each other at that stage already. Regardless, I get what you mean. So far as the story is concerned, it has a lot of connections to Year One and feels like an organic extension. Yet, I felt as though the artwork played a role in that as well. The limited colour palettes (on some panels, at least) and how light played with shadow, particularly in the faces of certain characters at any given time. It was like an evolution of the Year One artwork too, which is fine by me if you recall how head over heels in love I was with how that book looked.

J: The art in this book is gorgeous. I know we’ve heaped a lot of praise on the art side of these books, but I think this is some of the best comic book art I’ve seen. I love how striking and bold it is while never feeling like it’s in your face. And there are so many panels that capture that crime mood so well. Tim Sale has a fantastic understanding of how to use perspective, scale and colours to convey the feeling that the story is going for, so much so that I think that’s a large reason why Loeb keeps a lot of his writing short, because he trusts Sale to let his art tell a large part of the story. I think the best example of this is the Poison Ivy reveal. Sale’s art is at the forefront and Loeb uses words to give the audience just the briefest suggestions of what is going on.

E: A similarly effective sequence is when Bruce is still feeling the effects of Crane’s fear gas and goes running mad through Crime Alley, all the way to his mother’s grave. I though that was incredibly powerful. The Long Halloween is, of the three books we’ve discussed thus far, the one that balances text and imagery the best. That trust between the author and the artist that you referred to is very much present in this book and it makes the books all the better because of it. It’s what a comic book is supposed to be, as an artistic endeavour. What did you make of the Bruce Wayne-Selina Kyle relationship? No point or fits in just right?

J: I like that it shows that Bruce as a character has his own relationships and attachments, it makes Batman more human when you realize that he’s infatuated with this women. Where the relationship always feels a bit strained to me is when they interact as Batman/Catwoman. I’m never sure why they aren’t able to see through each other’s personas. Or maybe they do and never admit it to each other. It works as a playful twist on their regular relationship, it just always comes across as a bit implausible to me.

E: See, I like how you point out how they just might know who each other is. It isn’t because, when donning their uniforms, they call themselves out as Batman and Catwoman that they haven’t understood who each one is underneath the costumes. It’s more fun to think that they know who each other is. We need to find a book that deals just with that relationship!

J: I think the followup to this book, Dark Victory, might be just that if I remember correctly. It’s one of the most frequently used relationships and I think when done right it can be very good. Here, I’m not completely won over by it, but I think it works for the most part.

E: I saw Dark Victory on the bookshelf the other day and immediately wanted to read it. It’s same Loeb-Sale team as here, which is a win in my book. Anything else?

J: The Long Halloween show that Loeb-Sale are quite the team. It’s a detailed story that takes advantage of the strengths of the comic book medium. Of the books we’ve read so far, this is the best. I’ve still got a strong affection for The Dark Knight Returns but upon revisiting this, I think The Long Halloween is a much more elegant and well-constructed comic book.

E: Agreed that it is the best of the three we’ve tackled thus far. For me, unlike with Dark Knight Returns, it has themes it wants to play around with but integrates them into the story so organically. It is emotionally motivated, which is so important in stories like this. It can’t just be about the action and the heroes and the villains. Whenever there is a heartbeat at the center, it makes a comic story, or any story for that matter, so much better. Long Halloween is a real, true accomplishment. I love it, even more than Year One.

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