Thursday, October 3, 2013

Halloween Countdown Day 27 - Batman: Haunted Knight Chapter One: Fears

"There's a light in the sky, sir. Unless I'm mistaken, you will be wearing a costume this evening after all..."

Greetings, boils and ghouls! Filling in for Eerie Evan today is your pal Creepy Chris. The Halloween countdown takes a hard left into Comic Book Town as I spotlight a classic tale starring the Dark Knight Detective himself, Batman. And what comic book figure is more qualified to peer into the darkest depths of mens' souls? Why, Batman's very origin is a horror story in itself that would be more at home in Eerie or Creepy than Detective Comics if only it had been conceived two decades later. Today I'm going to take a brief look at the combined efforts of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, together one of the greatest creative teams to ever grace the Batman franchise.

Loeb was a screenwriter who turned down a lucrative career in bartending to pursue his dream of screenwriting. You may notice his name in the credits of films like Teen Wolf and Commando. Using his newfound reputation to get a foothold in comic book writing (his boyhood ambition) he met up with up-and-coming cartoonist Tim Sale at a comic convention and not long after the duo collaborated on a miniseries starring the long dormant, Jack Kirby-created Challengers of the Unknown. The miniseries made quite a splash and the duo were destined for comic book stardom. Loeb's film obligations prevented working on a monthly book, so at the behest of editor Paul Levitz, the duo would reunite on a series of Halloween specials during the mid-ninties.

The first of these specials, entitled "Fears", features a two-pronged tale in which the caped crusader faces the Scarecrow in a series of battles leading up to Halloween by night, and falling madly in love with a black-widow type femme fatale named Jillian by Day. While the Scarecrows fear gas strikes at Batman's psyche, dredging up the nightmares of a young, recently orphaned Bruce Wayne, Jillian's romantic facade digs into Bruce Wayne's heart. The two stories intersect in an interesting way, and ultimately its Bruce's oldest friend who comes to his aid. Only Alfred Pennyworth can mend the wounds Batman earns in combat and nurture Bruce after his heart is broken and he nearly reveals his secret to Jillian.

Loeb busts out every trick in the scripting book, yet keeps the story simple. "Simple" isn't a derogatory term in this case though, as he keeps the story focused on the trifecta of Bruce, Alfred, and Jillian. The Scarecrow's antics act as a framing device and the villain himself is little more than a reminder of the madness Bruce succumbs to every time he puts on the cowl. Jillian seems at first to offer a way out, but in reality she's a criminal and a threat to Bruce in an even more dangerous fashion than Dr. Jonathan Crane.

The real meat of this story is Sale's artwork. Sale was born to draw Batman and his world, giving the story the same timeless quality that made Batman: The Animated Series so evergreen, but with his own flourishes. Faces and expressions are skillfully exaggerated, while backgrounds range from hyper-detailed to vacant and muted when the situation calls for it. The Scarecrow resembles a disfigured character from a childrens' storybook, and Loeb accents this by having Dr. Crane only speak in nursery rhymes. Jillian is a beautiful vixen whose voluptuous rendering cause both Bruce and the reader to fall head over heels for her.

This is only the first of three such specials, and they're all collected in a volume entitled Batman: Haunted Knight. Loeb and Sale would go on to do The Long Halloween, Dark Victory, and Superman For All Seasons in the following years. While on their own, they've achieved moderate successes in comic books here and there, it's as a creative unit that they really do their finest work.

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