Thursday, October 13, 2016

Superstitious, Cowardly Lot

Batman: Haunted Knight Written by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. Art by Tim Sale.
Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna

Batman and Halloween just make sense together. Certainly Bruce Wayne wasn’t the first, or the last, ultra-rich playboy to fight crime by donning a mask and costume. However his costume isn’t just a mask to conceal his identity or armor to protect his body. His chosen totem, that of the bat, is linked in our culture to the night, the occult, and Halloween. It is part of Batman’s creed that he considers the criminals of Gotham “a superstitious, cowardly lot.” In his more gritty adaptations we see how Batman deploys the imagery of the supernatural, his Dracula-like cape and his pointed ears, which present an almost demonic profile to strike fear into the hearts of hapless henchmen.

Even his most iconic villains look more like people headed to a costume party then on the way to commit a crime: clowns, a dapper penguin in a tuxedo, a sexy cat-woman, and a man bisected between good and evil. And like Halloween itself, this iconography can be tweaked to move along the spectrum toward children or in the other direction toward a mature audience. On one end of the spectrum we have Adam West’s Batman attempting to thwart some ridiculous caper by comedians, on the other end, Christian Bale trying to stop deadly terrorist attacks by a method actor.

So let’s continue our Nerds who Read Halloween series with the graphic novel, Batman: Haunted Knight. I wanted to hire long-time Joker voice actor Mark Hamill to introduce this review in his Joker voice, à la the Crypt Keeper, but my cheap editor won’t pay his fee, so you’ll have to use your imagination:

“Okay, listen up kiddos, the following material requires parental guidance. On the other hand do you know who didn’t have parental guidance? Little Bruce Wayne and look how well-adjusted he turned out. HAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

Haunted Knight is a collection of three separate standalone stories: “Fears”, “Madness”, and “Ghosts”. Each of these was a Halloween special when authors Loeb and Sale were the creative team on the Legends of the Dark Knight monthly comic. Together the three stories form a sort of concept album, same creative team, same overall tone, but each part distinct.

In the first part, “Fears,” our hero is challenged on two fronts: Batman seeks to bring in the villain Scarecrow and his fear-inducing chemicals, and a beguiling redhead has set her sights on Bruce Wayne at a costume ball. And for those who think they’ve got it figured out just from the premise, this redheaded vixen is not famous man-eating plant-lady Poison Ivy, but rather a more mundane threat to Batman’s crusade: he might find a reason to settle down.

In the second installment, “Madness,” childhood fantasy is warped into adult obsession when the criminal Mad Hatter kidnaps Commissioner Gordon’s young daughter when she is out trick-or-treating, dressed as Alice from Alice in Wonderland.

The creative team takes some inspiration from Batman director Tim Burton In the final tale, “Ghosts.” They bring Halloween and Christmas together and see what happens. One Halloween night, Bruce Wayne is placed in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge as he is tormented by apparitions guiding him through his past, present, and future. Our hero is asked what kind of legacy he wants to leave as Batman and as Bruce Wayne.

Unlike some writer/artist teams, where the artist slavishly attempts to illustrate the purple pulpy prose sent down from the writing department, Loeb and Sale work as a dynamic duo. The text is either sharp dialogue or internal monologue that doesn’t obscure the fine art and panel arrangement. With contributions from colorist Gregory Wright, they weave quite the immersive tale. Loeb and Sale have worked together with Batman before and in their hands certain parts of the Batman iconography are more form than function. Batman has an impossibly long cape that unfurls into bat wings when airborne, yet pools and billows around his ankles like a personal fog bank when he stands still. His rogues gallery, Joker, Scarecrow, and Mad Hatter, are more caricature grotesques then people; the Joker is all toothy grin, the Scarecrow a gangly assortment of rags, and the Hatter a dumpy little man who looks like he walked right out of the Lewis Carroll storybooks. In Loeb and Sale’s excellent crime saga Batman: The Long Halloween and its sequels Dark Justice and Catwoman:When in Rome, the highly stylized character designs of the supervillains stand in stark, probably deliberate contrast to the more believable and grounded character designs of Gotham’s traditional mafia families. But here, that contrast isn’t called for. It’s just Batman and his foes tearing it up, on the spookiest night of the year no less, so bending the laws of reality makes more sense for the Halloween atmosphere. In two stories, “Fear” and “Ghosts,” there are sequences where actual dream logic and imagery is on wonderful display. In “Fear,” a dose of Scarecrow’s fear gas subjects Batman to all kinds of illusionary horrors. As “Ghosts” is directly inspired by A Christmas Carol, Bruce Wayne is whisked magically from his bedchamber to all the different locales and times. At one point, as Bruce walks through the mansion to meet the Ghost of Halloween Present, his pajamas and dressing gown shift and morph until he is wearing his Batman cape and cowl.

As I said, Batman and Halloween make a lot of sense together thematically and this is the creative team to pull off a whole grab bag of tricks and treats that pair this specific character and this specific holiday. I would highly recommend checking out Haunted Knight if given the opportunity. It isn’t heavy on continuity, so even if you're familiar with Batman mainly through TV and film, and the comic books are uncharted territory to you, you'll find it rewarding.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Fahrenheit 10-31

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury. Audiobook narrated by Bronson Pinchot.
Book Review by Kerey McKenna

October is Halloween, so I thought I’d kick off the month here at Nerds Who Read with the Ray Bradbury classic The Halloween Tree. It isn’t just a story of the occult, and thereby Halloween-themed. It’s a ghost story of Halloween: an exhumation of the ancient traditions, civilizations, and very primal fears that gave rise to the Dance Macabre and harvest festival that lie just below the surface of Halloween the American Holiday of door-to-door candy collection. Our story begins in small town America. The small town America that is no place in particular and yet so very specific:

It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state. There wasn't so much wilderness around you couldn't see the town. But on the other hand there wasn't so much town you couldn't see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness. The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across.

In this idealized American town lives of course the most idealized American boy since Huckleberry Finn took his famous raft ride, Joe Pipkin. Pipkin leads a cohort of eight rambunctious boys who are always up for whatever game, adventure, or practical joke a group of twelve-year olds will swear was a good idea at the time.

But this Halloween, the band of brothers is without their fearless leader: Pipkin has fallen seriously ill. Or so they thought: the Trick-or-Treating boys could swear they saw him run into the old, dilapidated, and therefore, surely haunted house with the gnarled, twisted tree in the backyard. A tree from which hang jack-o’-lanterns of all shapes and sizes. Something they have never seen before but can name instantly because it is so self-evidentially…a Halloween Tree.

There they meet the mysterious Mr. Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud who reveals that if they do not learn the origins of Halloween and find their friend Pipkin’s wandering soul, they will lose him forever.

The gang (the boys are named but rather interchangeable save for their costumes: Ghost, Witch, Gargoyle, Devil, Ape-Man, Mummy, Skeleton, and Grim Reaper) are whisked away on a magical journey by Moundshroud, chasing the spirit of Pipkin through the ages, learning about the ceremonies, fears, history, and religions that formed the iconography of Halloween as we know it today in America. But at the end of what could possibly be the most engrossing presentation on the cultural anthropology of a holiday, the boys will have to make a bold sacrifice to retrieve their friend.

The common wisdom of drama is that both magic and horror lose their power if the audience sees what’s really going on. So does explaining the origins of the ghosts and goblins of our autumn holiday rob them of their danger and mystique? Not really, since Moundshroud’s thesis statement is that humanity’s contemplation of its own mortality is the root of all these traditions. Behind all the fearsome monsters isn’t a harmless old huckster pulling the strings like the Wizard of Oz, but rather Death itself. That this quest for knowledge is also an attempt to rescue a beloved friend from Death’s clutches raises the stakes and makes the boys acknowledge their own mortality, in a way they never had before, and as an important step into adulthood.

As I mentioned in my review of Lovecraft Country, I find there is something special about having a ghost story read to me. I therefore chose to “read” The Halloween Tree with my ears, via the audiobook narrated by Bronson Pinchot (yes, the one from Perfect Strangers). Pinchot does an excellent job capturing all at once the ominous Moundshroud, the Norman Rockwell naivete of the boys, and the sometimes lyrical, often purple prose of the narrator.

I would highly recommend seeking out this story during October to get you into the Halloween spirit. In addition to paper, Kindle, and audio versions, there is an animated adaptation from the 90’s that is still generally available commercially and sometimes still gets air time. It features Leonard Nimoy as Moundshroud and Ray Bradbury himself as the narrator. But regardless of which incarnation you choose, this story is for anyone with little boys and ghouls who find it a treat to learn something from scary Halloween tricks.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds Who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at