I picked Batman: Hush up originally when it was published in 2003 in two hardcover volumes. I wasn’t reading a lot of comics at the time, and by a lot I mean “next to none,” so I’m not sure what lead me to it. I read Volume 1, was disappointed, and never cracked the shrink wrap on Volume 2, and probably never would have, had Paul Dini not just written The Heart of Hush storyline, forcing me to go back before I can go forward.
And damn am I glad I did!
Probably what threw me at the time was that I was coming off Jeff Loeb’s work with Tim Sale in The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, both set in the early years of Batman’s career, and the former a major acknowledged inspiration for the film Batman Begins. As such, there’s a slightly timeless quality to those narratives, as well as—following as they do so closely the events of Frank Miller’s Year One—a level of seriousness and reality to them that is missing from a lot of (even then) contemporary continuity. (And why are all the best Batman stories set either at the beginning of continuity or outside of it?) So I opened up Hush, which starts out with a Killer Croc who is no mere victim of severe ichthyosis but here a full-on reptilian mutant (akin to Spider-Man’s Lizard), and goes on from there to a half-dozen Bat Family-cameos ending with a big brawl with Superman. It’s full on DC Continuity, so Oracle, Huntress, Nightwing, Robin are all on board, Jim Gordon’s temporarily out as commissioner and working as a P.I., and Lex Luthor’s in the White House. And I just wasn’t ready for it. Plus, they were telegraphing the villain so loudly I was embarrassed for them. Add to that my ire at DC Comics for printing Hush on the thinnest paper I’d ever seen. So thin I was having trouble turning the pages without creasing them!
And so I never read Volume 2.
And what a disservice I now know Loeb and Lee were done by publishing Hush in two volumes. Because that telegraphing of the obvious was a bait and switch (reminiscent in some ways to the two puzzles of another Christopher Nolan film, The Prestige, in the way there is a solution behind the solution), and once I got used to the complexity of the continuity, I realized Loeb and Lee were playing on it like jazz musicians riffing on musical scales.
How good was it? Loeb might be my favorite Batman writer now.
Now, before you gasp, I said might. And yes, obviously Frank Miller wrote the two best Batman stories ever written; I don’t dispute that. But—and more recently—he’s also written the two worst, so doesn’t that sort of cancel him out? And while The Killing Joke is a masterpiece, that’s Alan Moore’s only major Bat-outing and I’m sort of tired of him slagging it off in interviews as one of his minor works. Whereas Loeb has now managed to write three complicated, adult, kick-ass Bat narratives. Okay, maybe he hasn’t yet equaled The Dark Knight Returns, so let me put it like this. Which of the three would I rather see tackle a *new* Batman epic right now? I think you begin to get my point.
So what’s so good about it?
Hush starts out with Batman foiling a kidnapping/ransom demand by Killer Crock, only to have the money snatched from out of his hands (and a “secure” FBI perimeter) by Catwoman. Bats laments her apparent return to crime,while noting that it’s not her M.O. to go after someone else’s take. But while pursuing her across the rooftops, someone cuts his bat rope, and he plunges to the streets below. He lands, seemingly coincidentally, in Park Row, a.k.a. “Crime Alley,” the place where his parents’ lives ended and his changed forever. And he’s nearly killed by some lowlifes there until Oracle (Barbara Gordon) summons the Huntress to rescue him. With a severe head injury, and unable to communicate, Batman taps out in Morse that Alfred should summon Doctor Thomas Elliot, a childhood friend and now unparalleled neurosurgeon in Philadelphia. Enter the obvious villain. Doctor Elliot is another square jawed uberman, the young Bruce Wayne’s closest thing to a real friend, albeit a bit of a bully with a temper. And he always got the upper hand when they war-gamed.
Obvious bad guy, right? So when a figure in bandages and trench coat watches from the shadows as we learn that Catwoman is under the influence (Poison Ivy’s influence) and she in turn is working for the mysterious “Hush,” we’re not too surprised. The rest of Volume 1 concerns Ivy’s attempt to sic a seduced Superman on Batman and his and Catwoman’s attempts to stop the Man of Steel. Fun, with gorgeous art, but hardly earth-shattering.
It’s in Volume 2, where the Joker guns down Thomas Elliot, that things get really interesting. Because then Loeb and Lee start really playing on your expectations, as a succession of surprising faces are revealed each time we see beneath the bandages Hush wears as a disguise. The first of which being a restored Harvey Dent. I won’t spoil the others, though you’ve probably had them spoiled for you by now (I had one of them somewhat spoiled, in that I misunderstood some of this new Red Hood nonsense, which only made me fall the harder for the ultimate answer.)
Turns out someone with deep knowledge of Batman’s identity is playing a board game with his life, manipulating all of his friends and foes expertly. So expertly that Batman even suspects his budding romance with Selina Kyle may not be entirely their own idea. It’s this Bat-Cat romance where most of the emotion of Hush lies, though the scene where Jim Gordon stops Batman from crossing his only line is uber-powerful, and really, there’s goodness on every page. Meanwhile, similarly to the way the aforementioned The Prestige sets up a fantastical solution as cover for a more mundane one, the ultimate resolution to the mystery of the manipulative mastermind is just beautiful. And, in fact, if you stripped out the more fantastical elements (Superman, etc...), the basic plot and the romance with Catwoman wouldn’t be a bad starting point for the next Nolan film. But leaving that aside, Loeb has managed to do something I wasn’t sure was possible after my recent experiences, which is to tell a really compelling, interesting, coherent, and lasting story inside the mess of current DC continuity. Because I think IGN was right when they ranked Hush as #10 on a list of the 25 greatest Batman graphic novels.
One side effect of Hush is that it’s lowered my opinion of Grant Morrison’s Batman even further. His Batman: R.I.P. was already a convoluted mess, full of “clever” ideas but horribly executed. Only now I see in another light that tale of a mysterious villain, who may or may not be a crazy doctor, with deep knowledge of Batman’s life, manipulating all his other friends and foes in an elaborate game, even to the point of setting up a romance for him, and forcing him to think someone dear to him has returned from the dead... You can see where this is heading! Batman: R.I.P. isn’t just incoherent; it’s also lifted. If you want to get all the same notes, but played with actual finesse, read Hush instead. And do yourself a favor and pick it up in it’s Absolute edition. Lee’s art, which starts out looking like Frank Miller’s tighter pencils, gets down right Neal Adams perfect by the end. It’s gorgeous, and I wish I had it in the larger size. On better paper! Because Hush is a comic I’m going to want to return to again and again.