Debriefing #6: ‘Dark Victory’

Batman: Dark Victory (1999-2000)
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artist: Tim Sale

Coming right off the heels of the year long reign of terror by the serial killer Holiday (in The Long Halloween), Gotham faces another mysterious killer. This time the mysterious murderer is going after cops, hanging their victims and leaving clues along the way. After the tragic transformation of Harvey Dent into Two-Face, Batman decides to lone wolf this case, but finds himself ill-equipped to find the elusive Hangman.

James: Dark Victory, while a sequel to The Long Halloween, is a similar story. It retains the seasonal killings by an unknown murderer, this time known as the Hangman. And the past year inform almost every aspect of this story. My question is do you think this is a fresh enough story or does it feel like writer Jeph Loeb is treading water, simply rehashing his last story?

Edgar: I wonder if you are a mind reader the way you ask certain questions and how you write down some of your remarks… Dark Victory speaks to Loeb’s strengths as a writer from a character study standpoint and with with regards to his capacity to keep a mystery engaging from start to finish. He makes me want to found out ‘whodunnit’ along with Batman at the end. That being said, it is also too familiar for my tastes. I was so impressed with how he constructed the criminal underworld in Long Halloween, that to see him utilize essentially the same characters with essentially the same setting and same timeline was disappointing. And yet, I was still engaged enough. How about you?

J: I agree. There are a few interesting twists that keep it just intriguing enough to not make it feel lazy, but it is too similar. I do like that this time the victims are cops, but where Dark Victory works the best is in exploring how the last year has changed these characters. Batman becomes much more of a loner, Catwoman becomes even more brash and daring, the Falcone family splinters as different part of the family decided different ways the family should go. Sofia wants to continue the crime business, but in a much more ruthless manner, while her brother wants to go legit because he thinks that’s the only way to keep the family going. The character elements work great, but the plotting leaves a lot to be desired.

E: Our opinions may differ somewhat with regards to the killer’s targets then. Whereas in Halloween I thought the idea of a serial killer going after the quasi-legendary Falcone family was a very bold move, here in Victory I was never as taken aback with the cop killing. I’m not saying I don’t care for cops, only that the idea didn’t seem as provocative this time around, especially considering who the killer was ultimately trying to get at in the end. I felt the links between the ultimate target and the dead cops was tenuous at best considering what the current emotional stage of the target is at that point in his life.

J: Hangman’s motive is somewhat weak. It’s a cool reveal, but when you stop and think about it, the character doesn’t quite have the motivation or unease of the Halloween Killer. However, I do like how the story plays with the judicial system and has the Halloween killer released on parole back into society and we see how he deals with his past. Although, that, too has a rather weak reveal when we find out what is going on behind the scenes.

E: I think I know what you are referring to. Hangman, now in seclusion in his family’s estate, is hearing voices throughout the story, as though he is going mad. Where those voices are coming from is eventually explained and my immediate reaction was along the lines of ‘Huh, seriously? that’s it? *fart noise*’ What did you make of the slow evolution of the Batman character, insofar as the pressures of taking on these elaborate cases is wearing down on him. It all being too much work for ‘just one man?’

J: That was one of my favorite parts of the book. This is a much different Batman than last year. He’s been burned. He tried to work with others and it blew up in his face. He think’s he is responsible. He thinks if it wasn’t so distant, if he let Harvey Dent in on who he really was, and believed in Harvey Dent it wouldn’t have ended so poorly. However, his response is to become a loner and think he can take Hangman on his own. It culminates in what is probably my favorite scene in the book where Alfred confronts Bruce around the midpoint of the book.

E: I also find the book does not beat us over the head with that idea either. I mean, it’s definitely there, particularly in the ‘thought process’ boxes, but I felt it was very organically developed, this idea that Batman believes that so many ills that befall friends and loved ones are of his doing. And yet he marches on with his Batman career. I think that is partially what makes the character so fascinating, this idea that he so often thinks he is the cause of pain suffered by people he knows but he somehow keeps on fighting. Another question, a big one, what make you of the inclusion of the Boy Wonder?

J: It comes a bit late. I wish it had come an issue or two earlier because it needed more time to mature. However, Orphans is my favorite issue of this run because I think it explores the isolation Batman has put himself into and Dick Grayson represents a way to both ease someone else of the pain Bruce put himself through as a child as well as give Batman someone to rely on instead of taking on the impossibility of being the infallible hero.

E: Interesting that you mention that notion of Bruce having put himself through pain as a child. I agree, but I would add that, and this is sort of in that mythic comic booky way of thinking, he was dealt pain, he was dealt isolation by the very nature of what happened to his parents when he was so young and at that age did not have any friends. The exact same thing happens to Dick Grayson. I sort imagine the Graysons being this family that travels the country all the time, so Dick never had the opportunity to make friends, hence when his family perishes (and I like how we don’t have to get into the entire, detailed subplot of how it happens, the story jumps to when they are already dead), he is ‘put’ in the same position as Bruce pretty much at the same age. What about the mirrored flashbacks?

J: That is another one of my favorite moments in the story. I think it’s a great way to see the connection between the characters as well as the potential for change in the way Dick Grayson might deal with the loss of his parents in a different way than Bruce did. It’s a beautiful way of illustrating those ideas through images and a storytelling technique instead of Bruce delivering some speech about his childhood and how it relates to Dick’s present circumstances.

E I agree. It’s quite powerful imagery and speaks to how effective comic book frames can be in the storytelling process, relating emotional connections between different characters. It’s funny, I can just imagine a cinematic translation of Dark Victory happening and that very same sequence added into the film and it coming off as incredibly cheesy. It feels like something that would just work properly in a comic.

J: Yes, it’s a technique that speaks to the strengths of comics, something that wouldn’t work well in most other mediums where paralleling events in time are much trickier. From a thematic standpoint, I think that moment speaks to a larger sensibility in this book, which is that it paint its characters as much more sympathetic than The Long Halloween did. Batman feels much more tragic, as does Dick Grayson. But also characters like Alberto and Sofia which we found weasley and despicable in the last book become sympathetic. Both have had their family fall apart and it’s left them in ruins. I think that’s one of the core ideas of this book: family.

E; Yeah, where it is possible to strike off some points for the intricacies of the mystery, even though oversell it is adequate, Victory finds a lot of power in making the characters more nuanced than they were in the previous book. This nuance, stemming from previous failures (of sorts) and the loss of family also helps perpetuate the antagonisms in Gotham City. Everyone in the world can relate and feel empathy for people who lose loved ones, even when it is Sofia Falcone, and yet that also drives her to become, or strive to become an even greater crime boss than her father, which is a very bad thing. I was wondering, speaking of nuanced characters, what are your thoughts on one of the few new characters in this book, the new D.A., Janice Porter?

J: Janice Porter represents the reaction to a lot of what happened in the last book. She comes in and sees the corners cut and rules bent in order to get Holiday and decides she has to make right and let Holiday go because he was unfairly brought to justice. It creates for an intriguing turn in the judicial system because the legal formalities Batman circumvents as a vigilante come back to bite him once Janice arrives on the scene. So to have this woman releasing the people he’s putting behind bars makes her an interesting legal foil to Batman. As an actual character, I think she’s okay. I wasn’t won over by her and I saw the big reveal of her dirty secret coming a mile away. She’s well-meaning, but naive and I feel like the book never fully dealt with her naivety coming back to bite her later in the book.

E: Janice Porter is only interesting insofar, as you stated, that she is the embodiment of how silly the judicial system is in Gotham City. Not silly in that it doesn’t work in Batman stories or that I don’t appreciate what is happening, but the notion that these institutions which are, theoretically, supposed to assist Batman in some way and whom Batman helps in turn, prove to be only more hurdles along the way. I’ve always liked that about these stories. That being said, I thought as a character she was something of a bore. You wrote briefly about seeing the reveal of her affair coming a mile away. I will admit I did not, but when it happened, it felt so strangely on the nose. I thought she would have had a greater connection to the Hangman, and I suppose in some ways she does, but at the same time I was scratching my head as to what that reveal was supposed to convey.

J: That’s the big flaw of the book: a lot of the major plot points exist independent of the characters. Yes, they’re agents in those moments, but somehow the character beats and story beats never come into full harmony. There’s moments where the intrigue of mystery and plot twists gets in the way of psychologically believable characters. There are a lot of crazies in Gotham, but even they have some sort of explainable motivation, which I feel was lacking from a lot of moments in Dark Victory.

E: Having read Halloween, Dark Victory and gotten ahead by reading Hush (which of course I won’t talk about here), Loeb loves these stories in which there is a new, different villain driven by whatever motivations the author wants them to have, but for some reason practically the entire rogues gallery gets involved as well, sometimes for no better reason than to throw more challenges at Batman. I think that is interesting once (Halloween), but it makes for one of the elements that feels all too familiar when the similar pattern occurs here in Dark Victory. What did you make of that?

J: I think it works in Dark Victory a lot more than it did in The Long Halloween. In part, because I felt like it teased out the contrast between the psychotic and iconic villains of Gotham with the gangster world in a much more direct way. Now that the Falcone family is weakened, these colorful loonies start pushing into their territories and rackets and I also like how the book weaves together the villains into their own organized crime family. I still think it’s straining in part. The Scarecrow bit felt out of place, but I like the way you have Two-Face organizing all these criminals to do things behind the scenes.

E: I understand where you’re coming from with those comments. Unlike in Long Halloween, there are more antagonisms between the Arkham rogues gallery and the gangsters here, but then that brought to my mind the question as to why have they not attempted to take back the streets of Gotham for their own nefarious pleasures long before now? You have the Joker, The Penguin, Scarecrow and a whole bunch that we know and love, but on the same playing field you have the Falcone family who has lasted for long. I will admit to enjoying seeing those two forces going head to head, but I couldn’t help but wonder ‘Geez, shouldn’t this have happened like ages ago?’

J: I think the main reason why it’s never happened before is because everyone has their own personal motivations and plans that conflict. They need someone like Harvey Dent, who I think scares the crap out of a lot of these villains, to call the shots and keep everyone in line. There are a handful of villains like that who can unite the group, but I think those people are rare. The villains can be quite petty at times and I think that’s why we don’t see this happening too often in Batman stories.

E; I suppose. Of course, Scarecrow need only toss fear gas into their restaurants and homes and be done with them. Anyways, this is nitpicking territory we are venturing into. Something I did very much enjoy and that does return from Long Halloween is the function of time in these books. Batman’s cases cannot be solved in a matter of a few nights, which is what it feels like in a lot of the cartoons, films and even some comics. Loeb likes spreading the stories over a lot of time. What make you of that?

J: It’s one of the strengths of Loeb and Sale’s work on Batman so far, they do a great job of giving us that passage of time. The cool thing to think about is in the case of both of these books, they were coming out a month at a time so the people reading them as they came out were experiencing that long passage of time as well. I also like that they bring back the seasons, but touch on them in much subtler ways. To go back to my favorite issue, Father’s Day isn’t as overt as The Long Halloween, it just focuses on Dick Grayson becoming a sort of surrogate son for Bruce. It’s little touches like that which remind me of how much detail Loeb and Sale put into their work.

E: On that we can definitely agree. The Father’s Day issue is great, although I very much enjoyed the Mother’s Day issue, in which Batman/Bruce actually does not find the time to visit his mother’s grave BUT it quickly ties into him meeting Dick Grayson. Excellent point about how these comic issues were released over an extended period of time. Personally I would never have the patience to wait that long for a story to be published, hence I read them in their complete form in singular volumes,  but as a hard core comic book fan back in the day it must have been quite the experience.

J: I can’t believe we got this far without talking about her. Let’s talk Catwoman. She’s back, and while I would say Catwoman is mostly how we’d expect her to be, the book really delves into the character of Selina Kyle and more specifically her relationship to both Bruce Wayne as well as the Falcone family. What did you make of Kyle coming more to the forefront in this story?

E: Heh, heh, this is fanboy time! I have absolutely no problem with her and Bruce hooking up, although astute readers and Batman fans know that it would never really work out. As similar as they are in extremely important ways, they are also too different to possibly end up happily ever after. I also liked how their relationship unravels because of Batman’s devotion to the mystery, which speaks to why this guy would be an awful husband, too. I was not enamored with the linkage between Selina Kyle and Falcones. How about you?

J: Once again, that’s another plot point that felt like it didn’t have a deep connection to the character. It’s an interesting idea, but the book doesn’t explore the ramifications. I do like how both Selina Kyle and Catwoman are both searching for some kind of commitment, either from Bruce Wayne or Batman and it’s sad how she gets rejected and abandoned on both fronts. We understand why, we know why that kind of relationship would end disastrously for Bruce/Batman, but I like how it tempts him with that idea he could have a normal life but you already know he’s so attached to being Batman that it will never work.

E: Yes, the commitment to Batman and protecting Gotham will prevent him from living a normal life so long as he wears the cape and cowl. Reverberations of our Dark Knight Rises discussion….Regarding the Selina Kyle/Falcone connection, it is revealed so late in the game that it feels like a throwaway thing. I personally see Selina Kyle a bit like the Joker in the sense that I don’t need to know they come from. They are perfectly well defined and they just…are. Dark Victory decides to go deeper, but plays its cards such a coy manner that when it wants to hit the reader with something I imagine is supposed to feel big, it’s more ‘Where is this coming from?’

J: We keep harping on the fact that the twists never quite work and I think that gets to the core of the problem with Dark Victory: The story comes across as half-baked. There are interesting ideas, but the story often never earns or explains a lot of the shocking moments. I still like how it explores these characters and builds off the past book, but I’m ultimately left disappointed by Dark Victory.

E: I find it ironic that we are discussing Dark Victory and Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises back to back. I like both. The things I like about both are sufficiently great and effective to win me over overall, but there are too many annoyances for me to say I love them unreservedly. My problems stem from too much familiarity, mostly. Maybe Loeb and Sale had spent all of their creativity in Long Halloween? We should get to the third, shorter entry in their series (Haunted Knight). Maybe they redeem themselves a little bit.


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