Collecting all 13 issues of this limited series.
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artists: Tim Sale (p&i), Gregory Wright (c)
As you may realise from reading some of my previous reviews of their work, I have a huge soft spot for the work of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. I think that their work manages to be smart without being self-consciously so; beautiful and epic-feeling without having to sacrifice storytelling for the sake of a good splashpage; well-written without having to bludgeon the reader with endless word balloons and dialogue; and sentimental and emotionally evocative without ever having to resort to being trite or slushy. Admittedly, I was going to be biased going into this review: which makes it a shame that this book doesn’t quite live up to some of the pair’s previous work. The plot plays like a reprise of (or sequel to) the Long Hallowe’en, with another serious of seemingly connected murders – this time of current or former police officers – playing out on a monthly basis. Once again, it’s up to Batman to examine his own relationships with Commissioner Gordon and the (now tragically altered) Harvey Dent and try to piece together a solution to the mystery. In amongst the Year-One-continuity, we see a retelling of Robin’s origin story as well as a continuation of the Catwoman / Selina Kyle romance – both of which give the character of Bruce Wayne a chance to share the spotlight with his alter-ego every now and again.
All the elements that have made Loeb & Sale’s work so attractive in the past are present and correct: Loeb’s note-perfect understanding of what makes The Batman tick, his concentration on Commissioner Gordon as as much of a hero as anyone who wears spandex, and his juggling of myriad plot strands and villains are all up to the usual high standard. Tim Sale’s artwork also keeps on hitting new highs, with his regular style opened up even more by some truly beautiful splashes which show a masterful use of negative space and simple pencil shapes (Batman comforting Robin after avenging his parents; Chief O’Hara and Gordon’s early mist-soaked encounter on the bridge) as well as further innovation in technique: the parallel flashbacks which compare Dick Grayson to Bruce Wayne - and Alfred’s reactions - being a particular favourite. However, this isn’t to say that Sale forgets what makes superhero books fun in the first place, with huge-scale splashes of colour coming regularly, superhero action aplenty, and a courtroom scene involving many of Bats’ villains providing a throwback to Batman’s wackier four-colour days. It’s a real pleasure to watch such a master at work, and Sale’s visuals (combined with the excellent work of colourist Gregory Wright) lend a huge amount of noir-ish, realistic atmosphere to the tale. I couldn’t imagine anyone better suited to the task.
The only place the book begins to struggle is in taking on such a huge load: with what amounts to another “Holiday” mystery as the main plot, there’s also Robin’s origin story to squeeze in, Bats’ rogues gallery to all have their spot in the limelight, a new DA character to develop, the development of the Falcone family and organised crime in Gotham generally, Two-Face’s own agenda to pursue and references and additions to the plot of the Long Hallowe’en to boot. It’s a tall order to keep all these balls in the air, and Loeb manages it 90% of the time. There are few who could pull off such a magnificent plate-spinning act, but even the greatest writers slip up occasionally, and the reader may be forgiven for sometimes feeling a bit snowed-under by too many sub-plots which begin to feel somewhat superfluous to the main story of the book.
If there’s any further fault to be found with Loeb as a writer, it’s a slight tendency to fluff the dramatic finales of his mysteries. There’s no-one better at setting up issue upon issue of intrigue, red herrings and seemingly unrelated action which all comes together at the end, but in the execution of the final chapter there is often a slight sense of anticlimax. Here, this is not because Loeb has crafted an overly simple thriller or has left himself with a dull expositional finale: far from it. Instead, in his determination that the book should be smarter than your average comic, too many elements have to be reconciled in the closing chapter, with too many reveals pulled at the last minute. The brilliance with which the many threads are interwoven makes such a simultaneous reveal a necessity, but in doing so there’s a sense of having to cram too much into a single final issue, with action aplenty vying with the tying-up of loose ends to produce the inevitable feeling that not everything has been dealt with. And whereas Long Hallowe’en gave the reader enough information to work these details out for his or herself, Dark Victory instead leaves some threads (the disappearance of Gilda Dent? The impact of Catwoman’s final revelation?) frustratingly underdeveloped. Having said that, I loved most of the elements of the climax, whether it be the resolution to the storyline concerning the Roman’s ‘voices from beyond the grave’ or the final Batcave battle royale. It’s just that there’s a nagging feeling that the mystery as a whole deserved even more of a grand send-off.
Maybe it’s having read a lot of their other standout work which makes this book seem slightly less exciting or original in comparison, but Dark Victory just doesn’t quite live up to the high standards set by the Long Hallowe’en, Superman for all Seasons, or any of the pair’s Marvel “colour” work (bar the middling Hulk:Gray). That said, a merely good Loeb & Sale effort is still going to be a great piece of comics art, and this collection is definitely worthy of your attention and a place on your bookshelf. Not their finest hour - but hardly a bad book either – Dark Victory is a neat companion to the team’s other Batman work which goes for all the right targets but never seems quite as cohesive or thrilling as the milestone Long Hallowe’en.
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