There are several creative teams in Batman history that are considered “the greats.” However, there’s only one that’s never had a run on the main Batman title or Detective Comics– Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. This week, we’re going to take a look at a forgotten classic from the duo.
When comic readers think of Loeb and Sale, they think of Batman: The Long Halloween or their series of Marvel “Color” miniseries. However they forget about a trio of graphic novel sized one-shots that led to The Long Halloween sometimes known as the ‘Haunted Knight’ trilogy. These three stories showed what the duo could do, not just with the Dark Knight, but with emotionally grounded character-centric superheroics.
One of those three, Batman: Madness shines a new light on one of Batman’s longest lasting villains, the Mad Hatter. The duo, alongside color artist Gregory Wright and letterer Todd Klein, transform Jervis Tetch into a unique threat in Batman’s rogues gallery- someone that strikes a personal chord with the Dark Knight that isn’t a figure from his past (a retcon that I wish had stuck). The team also explores two familial relationships in the world of Gotham that may not get explored much.
As Batman attempts to chase down the Hatter, the main suspect in a series of kidnappings, Jim Gordon is struggling with his newly adopted daughter, Barbara. However, the two conflicts crash together when Barbara is kidnapped by Tetch to become his new Alice. Can the duo rescue Barbara before it’s too late?
The answer, of course, is yes, because we know who Barbara grows up to be. However, this exploration of the relationship between father and daughter is unique. The retcon of Barbara Gordon’s adoption is seldom explored, and has essentially been wiped away again. That makes this story unique as probably the only exploration of the struggle that two people go through in this absolutely unique family bond. It’s done wonderfully by Loeb, and strengthened by Klein’s letter work in the duo’s mirroring narration.
On the other side of the story is Batman’s personal struggle with the Hatter. Loeb retcons a bit of Bruce’s history here to form a connection between him and the Hatter, but in a unique way. It’s not that Bruce Wayne and Jervis Tetch were childhood friends, or classmates. Rather, Alice Adventures in Wonderland was a major part of one of Bruce’s happiest- and last- memories of his mother. Martha spent the entire rainy day leading up to their fateful trip to the movies reading Bruce Lewis Carroll’s fairytale. That leads to Bruce seeing Tetch as a perversion of his happy memory- a retcon that truly feels additive to the characters involved.
Sale is simply one of the all-time greatest artists in comics history. His exaggerated figures are able to convey emotion extremely well, which sells the story Loeb is telling. He also has a great sense of action, drawing the reader across the page as the Dark Knight pursues and fights his quarry. It’s brilliant work by a great at the height of his game, and worth the price of admission alone. Add Wright’s water-color influenced color art, it’s equal parts whimsical, gritty and horrifying, a strange mix that doesn’t seem to mesh, but does so perfect.
I had never read this story until recently, but it has quickly jumped up to one of my favorites. It’s well worth tracking down. The issue is available digitally, and you can track it down at your local comic shop. It’s also collected in Batman: Haunted Knight.
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