Review: “Batman Haunted Knight” – DC Comics (Festival of Dread special)
Before The Long Halloween, the creative team of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale crafted three Halloween-themed Batman stories for DC Comics’ ongoing Legends of the Dark Knight series. Originally released in the autumn of 1993, 1994 and 1995, these three tales simply titled Fears, Madness and Ghosts would later be collected into a single trade paperback titled Haunted Knight, which has become quite the treasured tome for fans of the caped crusader.
Like other stories in the Legends of the Dark Knight series, Loeb and Sale’s Haunted Knight tales are written as a “Elseworlds” stories which take place outside of regular continuity (pre-New 52 continuity, that is). The stories have since proven to be extremely influential, with the aforementioned classic The Long Halloween arriving as a follow-up maxi-series, and even some of Loeb’s dialogue was used in the Batman Begins feature film.”Professor Crane isssn’t here right now. But, if you’d like to make an appointment…”
Fear was the longest of the three stories (74 pages), and as such, it is also the most satisfying. The tone of Fears very much resembles some aspects of the animated movie Mask of the Phantasm in that Batman is battling crime early in his career, balancing his obligations as Batman with his own personal desires as Bruce Wayne. The supporting cast is very limited: Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, the Scarecrow and Jillian Maxwell (the short-lived love interest). The story is very quickly paced, and the Scarecrow fights serve mostly as a backdrop for the other issues Bruce is combating in the book – his fear of being alone.
The second story – Madness – does not quite live up to the first, but there is still plenty to enjoy. The cast again remains small: Commissioner Gordon, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, the Mad Hatter, and Barbara Gordon (pre-Batgirl). Madness isn’t as long as Fears, which may hamper it just a bit as the story still moves along very briskly. As a result, Bruce’s journey of coping with his own childhood loss while fighting the child abducting villain Mad Hatter isn’t quite as satisfying. The inclusion of a Commissioner Gordon/Barbara Gordon subplot also distracts from the title character a bit, too, despite it being relatively well done given the page count (48 pages). However, if you’re like me and enjoy reading stories where Batman beats the hell out of villains who hurt kids you won’t be disappointed.
The third story – Ghosts – is a Halloween take on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in which Bruce Wayne is visited by three spirits who show him vignettes from his past, present and future, all with the intent of inspiring Bruce to better his life before dawn. This story reads a bit too quickly for my taste, even more so than Madness did. Given the rich backstory Bruce Wayne/Batman has accrued over the years, it was a bit disappointing that Loeb didn’t dig a bit deeper for more life-changing moments for Bruce to confront. I would have been happy to read a full 22 pages dedicated to each “spirit,” but as it is, there are only 48 pages allotted to the story in its entirety. The “ghost of Halloween present” (played by the Joker) only gets 6 total pages to work with, including the two-page spread you see above.
As for the artwork, I find Tim Sale’s art to be a perfect match for Batman, particularly with mystery-toned stories. I fully acknowledge that Sale’s character designs may not please everyone. His focus on differentiating mouths may not always be to your taste. You may not care for Bruce’s curved lower lips, the Joker’s exaggerated smile, and I myself don’t prefer the sharp-toothed, mutated look of the Penguin (above) which was so prominent in the years following Batman Returns.
If you’re on board with the character designs, you’ll likely enjoy Sale’s art. There are some wonky perspectives early on (below), but his work gets better and better with each new story. There’s a lot of variation in his compositions, and his backgrounds are particularly engrossing and convey a convincing “sense of place.”
Despite its minor flaws, I still absolutely love Haunted Knight. After re-reading it with a critical eye for this review, I put it down on my bedside table and said to my wife, “That book is so damn good.” If you’ve only been exposed to comics in the past few years, you may not realize just how well done some of these older stories are. If you are a fan of Batman the Animated Series, detective-themed Batman stories, or Batman solo stories (without Robin, Nightwing, Catwoman, etc.), I highly recommend giving Haunted Knight a shot. If you enjoy it, definitely pick up The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, both by the same creative team.
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