Jeph Loeb loves a mystery, as evidenced by the majority of his past comics work. From Hulk to Batman and beyond, almost all of his most successful and well-known comic stories have revolved around a murder mystery of some kind, with a secret villain working behind the scenes. One of the first mysteries, and easily his strongest, was ‘The Long Halloween’ with Tim Sale, Gregory Wright, and Richard Starkings.
Following Batman as he’s just put on the mantle and taken to the rooftops of Gotham, The Long Halloween is a thirteen-issue series which traces a year in the city. Each issue takes place during a holiday of some sort, as a new serial killer arrives and starts slaying members of Gotham’s underworld. Each time he kills someone, he leaves a holiday memento by their side. Batman has to solve the mystery of the killer whilst dealing with a gauntlet of his most notable villains, a dangerous flirtation with Catwoman, an uneasy tension with police officer Jim Gordon, and a crumbling, fractured gangster culture lashing out at anyone it can.
Loeb and Sale put together a compelling story, and I’ll be following it in real time over the next year: from Halloween to Halloween, we’re going to follow the story as it progresses and annotate/analyse each issue.
We start on Halloween.
There are a lot of characters – at first – in The Long Halloween. Not only do we have a core group of players whom most readers will recognise (Batman, Catwoman, Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent) but we quickly assemble a cast of supporting character also. Although it can be difficult to tell them apart, Loeb’s focus is on establishing the presence and dominance of Gotham City’s criminal element, as it stands before the super-criminals begin to take the focus away. Chief among them is Carmine Falcone, who wears a distinctive rose and has three scratches down his chin – so he’s recognisable. Then we have his family members and agents, including his sister, Carla, son, Alberto, and security officer Milo. Lesser powers in the criminal world like Sal Maroni also appear in the issue, although he stands in the background during this first issue.
The murder mystery element of The Long Halloween doesn’t appear particularly in this first issue, although we do see the first murder perpetrated by the killer. Instead, the conflict lies in Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham City, and his interest in cleaning out some of the corruption. Early on in his life, he’s still willing to look for allies and partnerships – following Year One (many claim The Long Halloween to be essentially ‘Year Two’) he is already aware of Jim Gordon, and in this issue he makes full acquaintances with another white knight for Gotham: Harvey Dent.
Thus, across this issue, a battleline is drawn. The basic concept of the series will see these three working together to try and wipe out the mob in Gotham. It’s fairly simple at this moment in time, although Loeb throws in several wildcard elements to throw readers around a little. Catwoman would be chief amongst them at this point, appearing a few times to shake Batman off her own tail. Bruce Wayne is clearly interested in her, and their bickering serves as distraction from the more sombre elements of the battle against Falcone. She is portrayed here as faintly one-note, although that is a note she’s chosen for herself – she attempts to be a Batman-esque blank slate, boiling her entire caped persona down to the uncatchable cat-burglar.
These will be the characters we spend most time with across the next year: Batman, Catwoman, Gordon, Dent and Falcone. They are what hold the story together, and everything expands outwards from them.
Although we have Loeb making the introductions, the real entrance is made by Tim Sale and Gregory Wright, artist and colourist respectively. Together, they establish a mundane sense of noir into the storyline, blacking out many scenes in dark shadows or bright whites. Whilst Gotham is run by organised crime, the panels here are organised – only deviating at one or two points, notably. The very first page of the issue sets a mission statement for the rest of the series (and Batman in general) with Bruce Wayne stood, in shadow, staring directly at the reader and saying “I believe in Gotham”. That belief system will form the core of the character for years to come, and one of the recurring themes in the issue is of trust, and expectation. Sale and Wright make this a deeply ominous splash panel indeed, furrowing Wayne’s brow and leaving him stranded, by himself.
The second time the artistic team deviate is for a scene where Harvey Dent, skittering round in Falcone’s car park and taking down license plates, is beaten by the gangster’s men. As he is hit, the panels whirl out of control, decreasing in size and spiralling down into nothingness, before whirring back into consciousness as Harvey is recovered by Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. These little changes in style are important to note, as they denote the distinction between the age of organised crime and the age of the supers. Reading the issue, you also begin to note how Sale hyper-exaggerates every panel with superheroes/villains in it – such as a standoff between Batman and Catwoman – so they seem out of sync with reality.
They are out of sync, for now. But eventually they will become the norm.
Wright’s colour choices are absolutely fascinating, and he provides the most distinctive artistic choice of the issue, and the one which alerts readers as to the moment of real importance. For all Batman, Dent and Gordon work together against the mob – and they achieve a sizeable victory within this one issue alone – they still haven’t realised what’s going on right under their noses. There is a killer at work here, a killer with a gimmick who will act as the bridge into a world of Jokers, monsters, and madmen. Towards the end of this first issue, the killer creates a murder weapon (and immediately the creative team suggest that Gordon could be the killer, in an early example of Loeb’s love for a “anyone could have done it” mystery) and then goes out and shoots Falcone’s nephew, who works as an enforcer.
These two scenes are colourless from Wright, creating a drastic and arresting crime scene which makes it clear to the reader that what’s happening here should stand out and be noticed. Nothing is given away about the identity of the murderer, and readers won’t care about seeing the barely-present nephew be shot and killed. But we get this in pure black, white, and then red: this is something we have to pay attention to.
Although keeping to the central conflict of Batman’s team of agents against Falcone’s trained organisation, the first issue of The Long Halloween allows itself to wander around, building up a world and leaving the reader wondering what all these subplots might be – and which are connected to one another, or even have a relevance at all. We’re offered tantalising hints at whatever might come next, but we’re left as near-completely in the dark as Batman is, himself. We can choose to believe what we want: it won’t help us right now.
The Long Halloween finds Batman entering a formative, transitional year. As we start out, we get a solid grounding on everything that is and how they operate. Across the next year, we’ll start to find that nothing lasts forever, and we’re entering a whole new world of curious wonders and dangers.
See you at Thanksgiving.