Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Real Mystery is How They Got So Popular!

[Spoilers below for Jeph Loeb's Batman work]
Word is that Jeph Loeb’s Batman: Dark Victory is receiving an Absolute Edition, along with the already released Batman: Hush and Batman: The Long Halloween. All three of Jeph Loeb's major Batman projects will be available in the format DC Comics uses for its greatest works.

I know I rank in the minority for this – though that isn’t a bad thing, I presume – but I care very little for Jeph Loeb’s Batman writing. On the surface this would be an odd statement because the positive buzz around Hush was what brought me back to reading comics regularly after I spent about eight years away, driven away by the (general) lack of quality of mid-to-late 90s comics (and also the lack of personal funds at the time, I must admit). I like Hush for the gorgeous Jim Lee art, but the story was lacking. I found the “mystery villain” incredibly obvious and the carousel of "greatest hits" villain appearances was unnecessary, distracting from the main story, and only served to pad it out to the unnecessarily long twelve issues. But from my perspective (as a casual reader of mystery fiction) Hush as a whole fails as a “mystery story” (which Loeb seemed to adamantly promote it as so). As those who have read Hush know, the “big reveal” of the “mystery villain” has less depth and “mystery” than the average Scooby-Doo mystery reveal.

I was told by others that Loeb’s two other Batman projects, The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, were much better mystery stories. I went out and bought them. Once again, I loved the art (this time by Tim Sale), yet I found the stories lacking for a multitude of reasons. The primary reason? Neither are actually mystery stories in the true sense of the term.

The Long Halloween suffers from multiple storytelling problems. One of the major distracting problems is that Loeb seems intent to reference as many gangster films as possible – there are multiple references to the Godfather films, Goodfellas, and older gangster films like White Heat (the first line, “I believe in Gotham City,” echoes the first line of the Godfather, “I believe in America;” the first scene takes place at a wedding and Harvey Dent gets beat up for snooping in the parking lot, like Godfather; there's the "try the cannoli" line from Godfather; and Carmine echoes Pacino’s “In my home!” line from Godfather Part II… and all this is in just the FIRST ISSUE!). Homage is homage and allusion is allusion – both are done all the time in fiction – but when it comes to doing both a few dozen times across thirteen issues, well, let’s just say Loeb cannot hold a candle to Alan Moore’s much deeper work with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Where Moore’s literary references are subtle, display great appreciation for the source material, and does something interesting with it, Loeb’s word-for-word quotations appear like obvious rip-offs and because the references are so obvious they come off as poor writing. Yet they haunt Loeb like a crutch, like he personally did not know how to write mobsters, so he just went with the ones he saw on TV during Spike TV's "Wise Guys" movie marathon. At best this makes Loeb come off like that irritating guy you knew in your college dorm that awkwardly punctuated his conversations with quotes from movies in a poor attempt to be witty.

Along with that criticism, Loeb’s The Long Halloween and Dark Victory both make Batman – who is, after all, supposed to be The World’s Greatest Detective – out to be remarkably clueless. It takes Batman an entire year to figure out who the Holiday killer is in The Long Halloween, then another entire year to figure out who the Hangman killer is in Dark Victory – and, if we are to take the epilogue of The Long Halloween at face value (and more on that later), he actually doesn’t fully solve that mystery. Batman, as written by Denny O’Neill in the 70s, Max Allan Collins in the 80s, Chuck Dixon in the 90s, or Paul Dini in recent years (I should add that Dini has been the only one to produce a good Hush story), could have had Batman solve the mystery of two rival crime families with members dropping dead in a single issue. Now, this isn’t me so much invoking Batman’s detective skills (he is, of course, a fictional character), but rather showing the strength of these other Bat-writers who wrote much better mystery stories. While I understand that these two works take place early in Batman’s career, that fact alone does not excuse his Batman’s relative lack of detective skills in both stories (and the same lack of skill in Hush, which takes place much later in Batman’s career!). If mobsters are murdered on every major holiday, why isn’t Batman doing more to predict who will be the next one killed, and plan ways to watch out for them? Even more so, in the sequel, why isn’t Batman (and the GCPD, for that manner) doing more to predict which
cops the Hangman killer will go after, and how to protect them? If Batman’s mission is to protect lives, why does he allow mobster after mobster to be killed when the possible victims amount to a monthly-decreasing list of about a dozen? Give Gordon a list of possible victims (i.e. the whole crime family in The Long Halloween) and stake them out; story over in issue #2. Yet another way Loeb demonstrates that Batman is a poor detective in Dark Victory is Batman's inability to guess that the first word in the Hangman’s game could be “NINE” instead of “NONE” when the “N_NE” is given. It takes Dick “Dictionary” Grayson to figure this one out. So Batman, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, and the entire GCPD missed that one? Batman didn’t run other possible solutions through his brain or the Bat-Computer, forcing it to be solved by a kid with no detective experience? Again, very little sense, and "The World's Greatest Detective" being baffled over this is a gigantic logical fallacy that Loeb has never really learned how to control in his Batman work.

I have even stronger criticism for Dark Victory. While Loeb shies away from the use of movie references (thank goodness!), the mystery in this one is even weaker. The Hangman killer’s victims are cops that are chosen at random, whom all happen to be alone at the time of the murders. Often the Hangman killer has no way of knowing that these officers will be alone at the time and at the appointed time they are killed, nor does the killer have any reason to kill some of these specific police officers (Flass, Commissioner Loeb, and Branden, for instance, were off the police force before the Hangman killer’s family fell apart in The Long Halloween - and the "helped Harvey Dent become a crusading DA" reason given doesn't work because as corrupt cops they were a hinderence, if anything). If the only motivating factor for the Hangman killer to kill police officers is because she doesn’t happen to like police officers, well, that is a rather weak motivating factor from a revenge standpoint because there is no revenge to take on these individuals. It makes little sense to take revenge on people who haven’t done anything to deserve revenge – in fact, that isn’t revenge at all. That instead smacks of madness, the number one cop-out (no pun intended) of mystery stories.

An “insane” character has no place as the villain a mystery story. Why? Because a mystery story should be based on a crime that can rationally be solved if the reader is attuned to all the facts of the case (which is actually #15 on S.S. Van Dine’s classic 1928 list “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” I might add). Often this is nearly impossible (I have solved very little of Doyle’s Holmes stories in my first reading!), yet the possibility must be there for a story to truly be a detective story. If not… well, it isn’t a mystery story. This is why Joker, Scarecrow, etc. are effective as Batman’s villains – they are insane, so Batman has very little chance of solving their crimes beforehand because Batman is, if nothing else, a man of rational thought. But for people (including Loeb) to present these stories as “mystery stories” is incredible deceitful – a mystery story must have a solution that can be surmised from the facts presented. The reveal of the “actual” Holiday killer shows no possibility based on prior facts (which is why Loeb needs to resort to blatant exposition on the much-discussed last four pages which also makes little sense – although this is not unlike the “postscript” technique often employed by Agatha Christie and others, although much more logical in their cases), and the Hangman killer’s murders have no discernable solution based on their “pattern” (actually lack thereof). Think of the ending of the movie The Usual Suspects -- it requires no exposition because all the pieces fit once the true genius of the villain is revealed. The art of mystery fiction requires careful and intelligent plotting – an insane character lacks that skill, and it becomes a simple way for an author to write himself or herself out of a corner – “of course it doesn’t make sense! The killer is insane!” As I said, a very weak excuse to explain away why Batman could not solve either mystery in a year's time.

Even Scooby-Doo mysteries have a clear solution based on the facts presented – in fact, Loeb makes the opposite writing mistake with Hush, where the villain is telegraphed from the first appearance because of his “unrevealed until now!” origin, just like Scooby-Doo ("it was the old man all along!"). On Internet message boards while Hush was being released many were posting countless figures from Batman’s past as possible “masterminds” because too many (myself included) thought the eventual villain reveal would be too obvious. Loeb even teases two of these possibilities (Jason Todd and Harold) within the story, yet both are red herrings for the obvious (and even weaker) solution. Again, this presents Batman as an incredibly weak detective, whereas the detective should always be much smarter than the readers. Otherwise the mystery holds little entertainment value, although, I admit, Loeb did have a lot of people's attention (he just lost much of it with a weak ending).

Loeb had the remarkable fortune of landing in the company of two incredible artists for his three biggest Batman projects, and these certainly helped his projects receive such positive buzz. But I ask current and future readers to judge these works from a writing standpoint, particularly as they hold up as “mystery fiction.” For all the positive reviews these stories have received as "mysteries," I feel that all require a reevaluation based on tough criteria. True masterpieces stand the test of time – which is why people still read Christie and Doyle all these years later. Before the work of other great Bat-writers gets ignored in favor of Loeb’s, I’d like people to take another look at what makes Loeb’s stories fail from a storytelling standpoint as mystery fiction.