My admiration for Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Batman: Hush lies in how flawlessly it wields disappointment, almost like a weapon that cuts through time. This was a time before Batman R.I.P., before Grant Morrison’s take on Batman as a mythic Batman. It was a time when Batman was dealing with Lex Luthor, perhaps the ultimate DC villain having been elected as President. It was a time, and you remember it clearly, back when Batman was old.
A decade back now, Hush had all the power of a marquee Batman story. It was the introduction of a new villain (the eponymous Hush) who in his first appearance in this series was very much. A sadistic version of the Batman we saw in Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins. Rather than simply engage Batman in a physical or cerebral confrontation, Hush manipulated entire networks around the Batman’s various Rogues. And in so doing he prompts a radical rejuvenation of all those he manipulates.
We see everyone in a new light, proverbially of course, but also literally in character redesigns of storyarc artist Jim Lee. The Joker, for all his wild crime sprees, is manipulated into being nothing more than a red herring. He’s shown to be arbitrary to the core. Harley Quinn is powered-up in her audacity—believing she can rob a gala benefit opera. Selina Kyle is manipulated into a relationship with Bruce Wayne as are the alter egos Catwoman with Batman. And the immortal mastermind and eco-terrorist Ra’s al Ghul is left bedeviled by knowing there’s someone who was able to steal from him, someone he couldn’t see coming.
But for all the newness, Hush wrestles with the one inescapable fact of the Batman—how very much, how very convincingly he has grown older. The conceptual enemy of Hush is the certain and savage knowledge that all of this is nothing new for the Batman. He’s faced off against these Rogues before, against the Scarecrow and the Joker, against Ra’s al Ghul and Killer Croc, but not against time itself. The real enemy is the tedium and the weariness that have set in.
We see flashes of this weariness, the same weariness from the third story in Kafka’s “Prometheus”, early on in Hush. “First my body betrays me…then my city follows suit…” Loeb writes for Batman in the opening chapter, “the Ransom.” “My city and I we’ve both grown too old together…” But the most poignant confrontation with the inherent weariness of the Batman/ Rogues paradigm comes in Hush’s eighth chapter, “the Dead.” It sees a Batman brought low by just having buried a childhood friend confront a Riddler who hasn’t been powered up by Hush. “A solid gold garbage truck…” Batman answers to the Riddler’s interrogative, “What’s got four wheels, costs eleven million dollars, and flies?” But in the personal recess of the caption-box, Loeb writes for Batman “I think about Edward Nigma and the life he has had as the Riddler. Where once his obsessive need to leave riddles as clues confounded me…everything about him has become routine. I half expected him to retire by now.”
By 2002/2003 had the nightmarish power of the supervillains Batman faces become nothing more than routine? In would master-conspirator, master-manipulator Hush himself go that same way in nothing more than a few short years?
In the seven years from 2006 until 2013, Grant Morrison envisioned a new kind of Batman, one where even the most camp elements from the character’s history were reintegrated and made not only relevant, but valuable. It’s as if longtime fans, fans familiar with the full history of the character, were given permission to accept all the visions of Batman. And as a grand project, it’s not very different from what we saw play out in the closing stages of last year’s 50th anniversary Bond, Skyfall. In just a few short months since taking the writing reins of Batman: the Dark Knight, Gregg Hurwitz has achieved something even more dazzling—a return of the nightmarish power that all the B-Grade villains Batman faces.
In the “Hollow Man” storyarc we’ve seen Batman confront the true power of the Scarecrow. Spoiler alert, it doesn’t lie in the fear toxins at all, but in the Scarecrow’s fiendish capacity to project his own hopes and fears and failings convincingly onto the Batman. It’s his capacity to turn Batman into a kind of psychic canvas that makes the Scarecrow so formidable an opponent. And now in the “Touch of Crazy” arc, shows the savage power of an industrialist focused not on philanthropy, but on mass murder. If the Mad Hatter is a threat, it’s not because he sees the world as a twisted Alice-in-Wonderlandscape (although he does, and Hurwitz’s renderings of the internal life of the Mad Hatter are as compelling as they are bone-chillingly disturbing). Rather it’s because he can conceive of murder on an industrial scale and he can exploit existing social structures like factories and fairgrounds to enact this vision.
Hurwitz is simply masterful. He’s produced visions of throwaway Bat-villains that are simply portraits in human psychosis. This is the Scooby-Doo school of horror made adult and relevant and valuable—human evil wears a mask, and makes pantomime of unspeakable, unthinkable acts. In Hurwitz’s hands, Batman’s own villains have learned their craft from Batman’s own theatricality. And yet, what makes Hurwitz’s Bat-villains so arresting is that they’re not all “one-size-fits-all”. They are uniquely perceptive of a character failing in Batman himself. Failings they are uniquely positioned and uniquely willing to exploit.
This is an issue that stands at the strange intersection of neonoir and true crime. As an issue that comes just prior to the culmination of the current arc, and on laced with artist Symon Kudranski’s beautifully neonoir chiaroscuro, Batman: the Dark Knight #19, “the Pool of Tears,” comes with the highest praise.