SFF, fantasy literature, science fiction, horror, YA, and comic book and audiobook reviewsBatman: Hush by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee

BATMAN HUSH comic, fantasy, science fiction book reviewsBatman: Hush (2002-2003) is a story arc that appeared originally as Batman #608-619. I first saw it as a bound collection at Barnes & Noble when my daughter was shopping for Christmas presents. I knew nothing about internal chronology, but I picked it up and was just stunned by the glossy, dynamic, sensual and powerful artwork of Jim Lee. This guy is really something else, I can understand why he is so popular.

Before reading Batman: Hush I did my homework and read some core Batman titles beforehand: Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One (1987) and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) which cover his early and later years, Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), which explores the weird relationship of Batman and the Joker, and Jeph Loeb’s Batman: The Long Halloween (1996-1997), which is a crime noir detective story with lots of style. These titles will give you an excellent introduction to the Batman, his allies and enemies, and the dark and brooding city of Gotham itself. I’m glad I read those comics first, because Batman: Hush basically takes ALL of Batman’s friends and foes and throws them at the reader, one after the other, in a fairly formulaic but entertaining mystery about an ultra-secretive super-villain who is manipulating both friends and enemies to hurt and humiliate Batman.

Batman_Hush_1I know that comics generally are published as individual issues first, then collected in volumes and published together as a graphic novel if the story-arc is continuous. This book would count, but it’s easy to see how each issue is designed to introduce a familiar Batman adversary and reach some resolution by the end of the issue. That makes perfect sense if you read them one-by-one, but all together the pattern becomes somewhat repetitive. Even though The Long Halloween had a similar structure, I felt it had more emotional depth than this story, though the writer is the same.

That’s not to say that Batman: Hush lacks depth. There are plenty of interesting interactions between Batman and both friends and enemies. Most interesting is the romantic play with the sultry and seductive Catwoman. These two make quite the sexy couple: Batman is built like Arnold Schwartenegger in his prime, and Catwoman is like a Sports Illustrated super-athlete model. They both put mere mortals to shame, and with the Batman’s billowing cape and Catwoman’s body-tight catsuit, they would excite even the most jaded comic-book reader. The credit here goes to Jim Lee, who got famous drawing for X-MEN and helped found Image Comics. He understands that if you want to draw superheroes, you may as well go all out and make them incredible physical specimens. Why hold back? It’s fantasy anyway. So every female in the story is voluptuous (in every frame, every flying kick, even just straddling a motorbike), and he is clearly a fan of the idealized female form. At least he does the same for the male characters, who all have abs of steel and muscles on top of muscles.

Batman_Hush_2Oh, did I mention that Jim Lee knows how to draw motion and personal combat like I’ve never seen before? There are tons of fight scenes with just about every Batman villain, and they all have some amazing details that put them above your average combat sequence. In two ways in particular, he somehow blurs the picture at the edges to indicate high speed, and he draws multiple frames of a character leaping through space in the same panel, so you see the progression of their motion. It is very cool, and very difficult to pull off well, and he does both. It reminds me of the stop-start super slow-motion fight scenes of Zack Snyder in 300 or Watchmen. This is probably copied by a ton of other artists, but I wonder if he pioneered this technique.

In the end, I thought that the supervillain (nicknamed “Hush”) was too diabolically brilliant to manipulate so many villains and heroes so effortlessly, so the plausibility (even within the genre) was quite stretched for me, but I don’t really think that was the main thrust of this comic. Jim Lee basically steals the show, and Jeph Loeb is there to concoct a way for Batman to encounter all his friends, love interests and foes in one story-arc, which he achieved. So it’s a very enjoyable ride, even if it lacks the emotional punch of the core Batman stories I mentioned above.

~Stuart Starosta

A Good Starting Point for the Budding Batfan.

Jeph Loeb is an author who has had his ups and his downs. On the one hand, he’s much lauded for the fan favorites Batman: The Long Halloween and Superman: For All Seasons. But on the other hand, he is the fellow who introduced Red Hulk to the unready world, a character who was met with somewhat less fervent fan approval.

Hush Image 1Yep. That Red Hulk. Yes, he’s riding the Silver Surfer’s surfboard. It was a strange arc.

But that’s Marvel, of course, and Loeb has an otherwise very solid history with Batman. So what about Batman: Hush? Is it any good? Well, it’s all right. Loeb has a good understanding of what makes Batman tick, and it’s hard to fault his characterization. Hush admittedly follows a very similar premise to The Long Halloween and Dark Victory (there’s a mysterious killer on the loose and Batman must discover who it is), but this is after all nominally a detective character and to his credit Loeb makes efforts to develop the Batman world even as he brings us through the motions of the usual mystery. Catwoman has often been stuck in a kind of limbo state in terms of development because she’s defined by her will-they-won’t-they relationship with Bats, but Loeb (always a Catwoman fan) takes the opportunity to finally just drop them into a serious relationship and see what happens. Likewise, he teases resolution for Batman’s lingering guilt over Jason Todd’s death and offers the possibility of redemption for Two-Face.

These are the kinds of changes that tend to be made rather glacially in superhero comics (the authors are aware that there is no endpoint for this character, and all narrative progression tends to be softened by that central fact), so it’s Hush Image 2oddly cathartic to see Loeb go after development so aggressively. If some more standard Batman arc is the world’s slowest game of Russian roulette — lots of suspense and threat, little meaningful change to the status quo — then Hush feels like a burst of machine gun fire. Batman’s dating Catwoman! Two-Face might be healed! Jason Todd might be alive! Every single criminal is apparently on the loose! Bruce Wayne’s never-before-mentioned childhood friend, Thomas Elliot, has returned at the same time as a mysterious new crook named Hush makes Batman his target! But Elliot’s, uh, definitely not involved…

Pictured: the face of a totally innocent man.

Does the story seem a little obvious so far? Well, where The Long Halloween‘s mystery was engagingly complex, Hush‘s is less so. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the plot becomes the major weakness of the graphic novel. Loeb’s previous Bat-mysteries gave the impression that while the story might be dense and a little complicated, most of the clues were there if the reader wanted to try to outguess the Caped Crusader. Hush, on the other hand, is a fairly basic story obscured beneath a lot of mayhem. Our premise is this: an evil mastermind called Hush is out to get the Dark Knight, and he’s somehow managed to get all of Gotham’s baddies to become involved with the following plan:

1) Attack Batman one at a time in unusual or out-of-character ways.

2) Get defeated and captured.

3) Profit??

So yes, it’s pretty much just the same “supervillain team-up” storyline that’s been kicking around comics since their inception. I remember the Sinister Six using this scheme when I read my father’s old ’60s Spider-Man comics as a 7-year-old. Even then I thought it was a stupid plan, and my feelings haven’t changed much.

The thing is, this plot isn’t even new to Batman. It was done with more payoff (though arguably less panache) in Batman: Knightfall, also known as “that one where Bane breaks Batman’s back.” There, the villains all lining up to take a swing served the explicit purpose of wearing Batman down physically to the point that Bane could defeat him in a fight and take over Gotham. Here, the goal is much more nebulous and too often falls back on Ye Olde Villainous Motivation: “rather than just killing him, I must emotionally shatter him.” Conveniently, this means that since pretty much anything negative could then be part of the plan — particularly if the villain is mentally unstable — anything the author wants to do, no matter how nonsensical, can be tied back into the main plot as if it’s meaningful.

Basically, it’s an incoherent premise designed to wrap together a series of unconnected vignettes. Hush shows up at the end of every crisis to imply that what you’ve just seen was all according to plan, and it’s mostly just to give the illusion of some kind of connectivity. That said, the individual crises that make up the larger storyline are often exciting and successful. Poison Ivy forcing Superman to fight Batman is hard to figure out in relation to Hush’s alleged master plan, but it’s always good fun to watch Bats sock Big Boy Blue in the jaw. The Joker, Harley Quinn, Killer Croc, and others all show up and have great moments of conflict with the Dark Knight, which ultimately forces me to add a caveat about the plot: in terms of a graphic novel, Hush has a good few plot holes; but as individual issues of a comic book, it’s a success. Batman feels interesting and driven, the introduction of Catwoman into his personal life does amusing things to his state of mind and his relationships with other characters, and there’s always something flashy and entertaining to enjoy.

In fact, I’d say that I’d recommend Hush without reservation to one particular kind of reader: the new reader. For that person in your life who likes superhero films but hasn’t ever really gotten into comics, Batman: Hush is a lively and fast-paced introduction to the character and his situation. Most of the major villains get a cameo, nothing is too tied down in complex back-story, and it’s all very charming and pretty.

Speaking of prettiness, I haven’t mentioned Jim Lee’s art yet. Well, that’s another positive in Hush‘s column, and again it’s a plus particularly for the new reader. Jim Lee draws what is pretty much the perfect form of the “classic superhero style.” Hush Image 3Characters have never looked more imposing and muscular than they do under Lee’s pencil, and the combat is full of explosive motion. Male and female characters alike look like they’ve been vacuum-sealed into their super-suits, the better to impress readers with every crevice of Batman’s rippling biceps or Catwoman’s sculpted deltoids. See them over there? Yeah… Batman and Catwoman: reminding readers everywhere that it’s time to renew that gym membership.

Sure, no living human being ever looked like that (just compare the size of Batman’s head to that of his legs), but it’s very impressive anyway. In fact, “fanservice but nonetheless good fun” is a pretty good way to describe the whole book. Much of what happens is less cohesive storytelling for the long-standing reader and more just fun for the casual Batfan. “Oh, you like the Joker?” Loeb seems to say. “Well here he is, even though he has pretty much nothing to do with the story!”

“And he’s never looked more Joker-y!” Lee chimes in. “Just look at that profile! You could use his nose as an icepick!”

And the thing is, it is fun. Even as I reiterate that the plot is a bit thin and the book ultimately doesn’t have much to say beyond “Batman is cool,” I have to admit that I enjoyed myself. Hush isn’t a diamond in the rough, but there’s something to be said for a simple, engaging superhero romp. I’d recommend it to new readers who are already predisposed to like Batman. More demanding audiences might want to look elsewhere, perhaps to Arkham Asylum or The Black Mirror.

~Tim Scheidler