Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Jeph Loeb - Batman: Hush

Jeph Loeb’s Hush is intense. If you are going to go into the book knowing one thing, make it that. This book is painfully difficult to put down, every scene flowing into every other with all the momentum of a train speeding off a cliff.

Of course, Hush is more than a collection of fun action scenes, though the main plot’s development due to it occurring almost entirely in the shadows of explosions and grand gestures. A large part of this is the narration of Batman’s thoughts which frequently color the scene and give information that would be otherwise impossible to convey.

Generally, these work quite well, but they bring up two problems. The first is the presence of Batman’s thoughts in scenes where Batman is obviously not present. Here, they act as more of an omniscient scene setter, but they are presented in the same style as the monologues, so telling the two apart is impossible. More important is Loeb’s tendency to litter fight scenes with thoughts, which works for the most part but can occasionally lead to the odd moment where the action is frantic and Batman’s thoughts are contemplative and, by comparison, almost bored, making it hard to really care about the action (you'll have to click the picture to read the text):

For reasons not completely clear to me, Jeph Loeb decided that Hush needed to include every single character to ever see a bat shaped light go off in the sky. As someone relatively unfamiliar with the Batman mythos, I saw a huge number of new faces, but familiarity isn’t required as Loeb does a great job of bringing you up to speed in a few quick lines. The characters themselves generally come off quite well, even though most are only given a limited space to develop, and though none of the sub plots are particularly important on their own, they each do a good job of keeping you interested while the main story slowly builds behind them.

Of course, there’s the inevitable straining of suspension of disbelief that occurs whenever you’ve got more than one guy in tights on the page at once. For the most part, this is handled well enough with the standard Batman characters. It is at times hard to see how the seventeen sidekicks that Batman’s had over the years don’t bump into each other all the time, but Loeb focuses on the character’s on screen well enough, and gives them enough depth, that I can forgive that. What’s harder to forgive are the characters that come from elsewhere, namely the Superman mythos. I’ll just say it right here: I don’t like super hero crossovers. It just seems silly. Still, when Batman was in Metropolis, I was able to tread the whole thing as a mildly enjoyable cartoon, but even that slight connection was blown apart when a super dog came on stage, and I laughed the rest of the way to the issue’s end. Thankfully, superdog didn’t make another appearance.

By far the most important of the side characters, and the only one to really stay with the story for more than five minutes, was Catwoman, who begins a romance with batman towards the beginning of the story. Their relationship is more commented upon than acted upon, which can be fairly annoying, though fitting with Batman’s character, but their interactions do lead to several good scenes and do serve to lend both characters more of a human side than they might have otherwise have had, as well as providing the lion’s share of the text’s rare breather moments.

In the final issues, the main plot that’s been, we’re told, slowly building the whole time starts to emerge. I specify “we’re told,” because, despite a few out of place events, most of Batman’s theories come across as pointing fingers at random and seeing Cthulhu in the shadows behind his dresser. Still, the last issues do a good job of trashing our expectations, and the several layers of reveals at the end had me quite interested in who the villain would turn out to be.

As for that villain’s actual identity (I won’t spoil the particulars for you), I’m unsure if it’s a brilliant turn or a cheap trick. If this is one of your first Batman comics, try as hard as you can to guess the villain. You’ll never get it, because the villain’s scheme relies on an ability wholly unknown to the newcomer, but obvious to the veteran. At the time, I was more than a tad annoyed, but, in retrospect, I’m not sure that’s fair. How much of bringing us up to speed is really Loeb’s responsibility? If the device is already established in the Batman mythos, I guess it’s fair game, so I won’t hold the trick against him.

The best word for Jim Lee’s artwork is iconic. Every frame and character that the man draws is larger than life, including the monolithic muscles under Batman’s suit to the fight scenes, which are just choreographed enough to have the feel of a martial arts master but just frantic enough to feel dangerous and unpredictable. Lee’s style is, in no real way, realistic, but none of his characters ever devolve into caricature, and he’s fluid enough for his super models to feel natural and powerful, fitting into the world rather than sticking out like an overly buff sore thumb:

Besides, the athleticism of the characters makes a degree of sense. Providing you weren’t immediately shot in the face, jumping from building to building to knock out criminals night in and night out would shape you up pretty well, I think. (Of course, that only explains one aspect of Lee’s universal male anatomy, and damn little of his female equivalent, but we’ll just let that slide).

When it comes to scenery and fight scenes, Lee is equally competent, blending subtle hints that bring the scene to life amidst the more boisterous elements of the artwork in much the same way that Loeb does with the plot.

At several points in the storyline events break into several strands, some operating in different chronologies, with the majority of the work of differentiating between them falling to the artwork. For the most part, different color choices keep the scenes distinct and provide each with its own feel, though the washed out palette of the recollections can make telling the details of the scene difficult. That could, of course, be argued as intentional – after all, it’s not like we really remember every part of that day twenty-five years ago equally – but whatever the intent, things have certainly gone too far when I mistook the two boys for each other on several occasions.

Hush can be a bit hard to take seriously at times, and not all of Loeb’s ideas work out with quite as much finesse as one might hope, but the ride is fun from beginning to end. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief for a few hours, you won’t want to stop reading until the ending, and you’ll enjoy (almost) every minute of it. I wouldn’t recommend this to someone looking for their first taste of Batman, but if you’ve got a few Graphic Novels under your belt, Hush is an entertaining read.

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