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Hush Little Baby

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You know, I have to agree, at least to a certain extent, with Sean Collins’ review of the Batman story arc called (for reasons which remain something of a mystery to me) simply “Hush.” I’d have to say that I probably wouldn’t use quite the same language as Collins, but like him (and many other readers, I believe), I was very disappointed in the end result.

Unlike Collins, I started reading the series with relatively high expectations. I’d read both of Jeph Loeb’s prior Batman incarnations, both Dark Victory and The Long Halloween, as well as his Superman for All Seasons and liked his sparse writing style and crisp, uncluttered dialogue. I also quite liked Jim Lee’s hyper-realistic artwork from his days at Wildstorm. As a result, I throughly enjoyed what I saw in the first several issues of this story arc. In fact, I actually felt it was among the best things going in superhero comics.

Then came the dreaded “middle” stretch, which was itself followed by an ending that – to be charitable – made really no sense at all. This is how Collins sums up the early part of the story arc:

“Hush” concerned Batman’s attempts to determine the identity of a mysterious new foe, the mastermind behind a serious of surprisingly sophisticated attacks by the vigilante’s rogues gallery. In the first few issues, Batman balanced this detective work with the pressing need to become reacquainted with a childhood friend who apparently played such an important role in young Batman’s life that decade upon decade of Batman writers felt unequal to the task of portraying this relationship, because “Hush” marked this character’s first appearance.

Well, I actually loved the early going. Batman rescuing a kid from Killer Croc, every step of his rescue plan obviously orchestrated to a second, worked for me. So did the whole Catwoman steals the money, takes it to Poison Ivy routine. And I really enjoyed the whole Batman goes to Metropolis sequence, including the Batman/Superman fight and Batman’s willingness to put an “innocent” in the line of fire to pull Supes out of his Ivy-induced zombie state.

As for the Tommy Elliot character – well, yes, I did have to scratch my head at first and wonder, “Where did this guy come from?” I mean, Bruce Wayne’s childhood has been mined pretty extensively, I’d have said it would have been rather difficult to find a new vein of material. That said, I was willing to accept Tommy as initially written (i.e., a old friend Bruce had largely forgotten) but I think that the ultimate resolution of the story reflects exactly what I meant: there wasn’t a viable vein of valuable material around for “Tommy Elliot” to really pan out.

And that’s where the problems started arising. Rather than appearing to be part of any coordinated activity, “Hush” devolved into a series of seemingly random attacks. Even the ultimate explanation – that an “unknown” adversary was utilizing Batman’s normal rogues’ gallery against him – didn’t justify the twists and turns of this tale. The biggest complaint leveled against the series was that it seemed like an attempt to bring all the birds home to roost, as if to allow Jim Lee to draw every one of Batman’s baddies in this one storyline. The problem was, by doing so I think they really stretched the storyline and left holes so big you could drive a Hummer through them (or a fleet of Hummers, side by side).

For example, the whole crux of this twelve issue arc was the notion that a “new villain” was in town orchestrating these attacks against Batman, and that everything that happened was part of his “plan.” However, the notion that events were “planned” suggests (i) that there was a grand purpose behind what happened and (ii) the strategist was acting moving in ways that would reach specific goals.

Early in the storyline (in the first issue, actually) Batman is chasing Catwoman and his “batline” is somehow cut. He plunges to the street, ending up badly injured (and with apparent head injuries). That suggests – to me, at least – that the villain simply wanted Batman dead (since a very likely outcome of his fall could have been death). Since we now know who the villain was (i.e., Tommy Elliot, Batman’s childhood buddy), there was really little reason – at least demonstrated in the story – for Tommy not just to let Bruce die on the operating table. Okay, Tommy had actually wanted his parents to die in the horrific accident that took his father’s life (and in fact, he apparently planned it). He was mad at Bruce for somehow interferring and “preventing” his mother’s death (note here that Loeb seems to forget that this accident would have occurred before Bruce’s parents died, which seemingly undermines Tommy’s resentment of Bruce being able to be alone). In any event, the crucial thing is that from a story perspective, the revenge Tommy seeks to exact also has to make sense. And it didn’t.

If the motive is somehow twisted revenge, then the question becomes, how does the character achieve it? Here, Tommy appears to have no particular goal at all, other than to somehow contact all of Bruce’s old foes and send them on various missions, all of which lead essentially nowhere. Contrast this for a moment with say the storylines that Collins mentioned, in which the “new” villain Bane breaks Batman’s back. Or the storyline in which Bruce Wayne is labelled a “murderer” and hounded by those who think he’s a criminal. For Tommy to either truly exert pyschological pressure on Bruce, or to drive him “batty” (poor pun, I know), or to take from him something or someone Bruce loves – those would have been goals that might have made sense. But Bruce didn’t descend into any particular madness (contrast that for a moment with say, Kevin Smith’s take on Daredevil where the horned one seems to be going nuts or even Batman: The Cult where Batman’s perceptions appear to be altered due to drugs or some other outside source).

Instead, Tommy Elliot somehow (it is never really explained how, other than to throw the Riddler into the mix in a lame attempt to explain everything after the fact) got ahold of Batman’s old enemies and brought them, one by one, into conflict with Batman. That’s not a “grand purpose” – that’s a means to an end, but the end was never satisfactorily articulated. There was never really even any explanation of why the attacks occured in the sequence they did, or what the intended “result” really was. Arguably, they should have built to some sort of logical crescendo, but there was no identifiable rhyme or reason to what happened.

“Hush” (the villain) was somehow wherever Batman was (and yes, the notion of some sort of tracking device implanted in Bruce’s head was fine, but they really didn’t do much with it). And “Hush” kept talking about friends and enemies and all that – maybe, just maybe, it would have been an interesting storyline if Batman had ended up in conflict with his “friends” because of all the “subliminals” from the computer system. Or that Hush somehow put all of Batman’s friends at risk, or did something in an effort to strip away all of the things Bruce found important.

It’s easy to nitpick the storyline, and ponder issues like how Two Face just sort of wandered in and out of the tale, appearing here and there without warning. Or why we had Batman learn the “bad thing” about the computer system in one issue but we the readers didn’t until much later – very very bad form, I say, in the context of a mystery story. We should learn what the protagonist learns with him, not later. It’s okay to see characters (such as Oracle) try to warn Batman about what they know (which we don’t know yet) but it’s really a cheap shot to have Batman know something that we don’t discover until it’s convenient for the author to tell us. I don’t mean something like the fact that Batman brought his kryptonite ring to Metropolis with him; I mean critical investigatory information that supposedly advances the story.

I also never understood the whole thing about the bandages on the face of “Hush,” or why “Hush” was the name of the series at all (I expect there is a reason, and it has to do with that word being spoken by the villian, among others, but I can’t remember it right now and so it makes me wonder how well it was portrayed).

Ultimately, though, these are just minor complaints. The larger problem was the story structure itself, and I have to fault Jeph Loeb for it. The best Batman stories tend to direct our attention to a specific storyline. Here we have the “Hush” character, we have the Batman/Selina relationship, and we have all the subordinate characters, each changing every issue. There was no global consistency to the tale, no real glue to hold it together. This can be immediately spotted by raising this question: what was it that “Hush” was trying to do?

Can’t answer it. Kill Batman? Make him suffer somehow? Prove he could still “beat” him in a strategy game? Well, if it was the latter, there has to be a way to keep score. In Stratego, for example (the strategy game that somewhat resembles the game played by Bruce and Tommy as children), the goal is to capture your opponent’s flag. What was the “flag” here? The end result seemed to just be Tommy showing up to try to shoot Batman – that’s it? That happens to Batman everyday. There was never any “flag” here. There was no way to demonstrate that Tommy was winning.

This leads directly back to the second point I raised: in a battle of wits, or a game of strategy, you have to be moving your pieces toward a goal. The other villains were being moved about, but there was no goal. Nothing the Joker, or Clay-Face, or Killer Croc, or any of the others did had any apparent bearing on what Tommy wanted to do with Bruce.

In the end, I think the story suffered because there was no sense of purpose, no sense of a battle between Bruce and Tommy over something specific. I think that in an effort to show us Jim Lee drawing all the Batman baddies, they missed an opportunity to really identify and build a new villain for Batman. And so, like Sean Collins, I have to conclude by saying, “Man, that sucks.”

Note: The author wastes a fair amount of time blogging about a variety of subjects at Walloworld, where this post originally appeared.

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About Bill Wallo