Hush to judgement

Warning: Spoilers ahead, provided that, semantically speaking, one can spoil something that’s already rotten. (There’s spoilers for New X-Men, Daredevil and Wolverine: Origin mixed in there too.)

The big event of mainstream comics 2003, the number-one best-selling book month after month, the title that’s supposed to be DC’s entree into the battle for superhero supremacy unilaterally initiated by the New Marvel regime of Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas (with hires like Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Brian Michael Bendis and J. Michael Straczynski riding shotgun) has come to an end. And it sucked.

As a matter of fact, the conclusion of “Hush,” the 12-part storyline written by Jeph Loeb and illustrated by Jim Lee in Batman’s eponymous flagship monthly title, was offensively bad. It was much, much, so much worse than even I thought it would be. I suppose that saying this is akin to saying I was shocked–shocked–to discover, upon watching MTV’s reality series Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica, that pop sensation Jessica Simpson maybe has had a somewhat sheltered life and also is maybe not too bright,. But I am a superhero comics fan, and as such have a capacity for willful self-delusion rivalled only by Scientologists and Boston Red Sox fans who think it’s “their year.” The conclusion of “Hush” was like Bucky Dent and Bill Buckner rolled into one, if, that is, Bucky Dent and Bill Buckner were dressed up in spandex and then had the bottoms of their shoes drawn in awe-inspiring detail.

“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. Ladies and gentlemen of the Batman-buying public, if you think this random-ass character, who appeared in Batman’s life at exactly the same time as the mysterious villain and wore exactly the same trenchcoat as the mysterious villain and made a big point of using the word “hush” which is the name of the mysterious villain, is in fact that very same mysterious villain–you’d be wrong!

Ha ha, no, I’m just blowin’ smoke up your ass. He’s the villain.

But writer Loeb was not satisfied by the depth of ineptitude to which this “mystery,” in introducing a brand new stupid-obvious character no one gives a tuppeny fuck about and then making him the big top-secret villain of the piece, has sunk–a depth which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is already pretty fucking shockingly low. Any mystery writer worth his salt will tell you that the reader must be thrown off the trail; Loeb, as a “mystery” “writer” who created a trail about as difficult to find as the Vegas Strip, had to go above and beyond the call of duty to throw us off of it. He therefore took the bold, clever, brilliant, not-at-all-cheating step of killing the brand new stupid-obvious character no one gives a tuppeny fuck about, but then–get this!–through a series of Batman-universe wonky sci-fi/fantasy plot devices, it turns out he wasn’t dead at all! He was just hiding! Ha ha! Fooled you, stupid readers! I’m a genius, I tell you!

Fortunately for us, Loeb didn’t blaze into this uncharted, not-an-enormous-gyp-at-all form of storytelling unprepared. Oh, heavens no. From what I’m told, this master storyteller actually honed this bold, daring, kill-the-villain-but-keep-your-fingers-crossed-when-you-do-it approach in not one, but two previous Batman projects. These projects, The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, are part of his long-time collaboration with (legitimately talented) artist Tim Sale, a collaboration which nine times out of ten yields paint-dryingly dull, consequence-free rehashes of early-years continuity in the lives of various superheroes created several decades ago. Alas for me, I have not read either of these Batman books, and therefore cannot describe to you how Loeb refined this stunning, shocking, ground-breaking, not-an-humongous-motherfucking-lazyass-fraud-in-the-slightest method of funnybook magic from one to the other. But I’m quite sure that it’s an inspiring journey to take. And by “an inspiring journey” I mean “I wonder if there’s a class-action lawsuit pending because centering your story around a completely unearned surprise twist that you have to cheat like a bat-corking home run king to arrive at should be grounds for legal action on behalf of all the people who paid money to have their shoes pissed on and then get informed by the pisser that no, in fact, it’s Hurricane Isabel.”

I don’t want to give you the impression that Loeb is alone in concocting a plot the shocking surprise of which was possible only because the writer put no effort into setting it up in an even remotely plausible way. I direct you to Origin, the Paul Jenkins-scripted Wolverine story that spent two full issues following around a surly little funny-haired kid named Logan, who any reasonable reader would expect to be the earlier self of the surly little funny-haired mutant named Logan, whose code name happens to be Wolverine. But on the last two pages of issue number two, a second kid, one who neither looks nor acts nor is named nor (up until that moment) did a single goddamn thing to make us think that he might be Wolverine, has claws pop out of his hands. I can only imagine the back-slapping and high-fiving that went on in the Marvel offices upon the devising of this “shocking” “twist”–because I’m so distracted by my complete flabberghastation that grown men could congratulate themselves as brilliant writers for sticking a plot twist in the middle of a book without putting a single clue, a single character trait, a single goddamn anything that would enable a particularly perceptive reader or a reader who’s rereading the thing after discovering the twist to believe anything other than the initial deceptive direction that the author forced us into that even if I were at the back-slapping session in question I’d just have to sit there scratching my head and saying “what the fuck?” (A reaction similar, no doubt, to your own in trying to unravel that grammatically torturous sentence. Do you see what bad writing does to me? It’s contagious!)

Another comparison might be instructive here. In a recent issue of New X-Men, writer Grant Morrison revealed that the zen-spouting masked healer known as Xorn was, in fact, the presumed-dead Alan David Doane Magneto in disguise. Like all good twists, it was one that almost no one saw coming. Also like all good twists, it was one that, upon re-reading the issues that led up to it, almost everyone would smack themselves in the head and say “how could I not see that coming?” Morrison did a real purloined-letter on this, peppering Xorn’s words and actions with clues as to his true nature and identity. But his talent at misdirection was such that we a) never felt that this was too obvious (as might be the case if, say, you introduced a brand new character no one had ever heard of before who dressed exactly like the secret villain of your piece); b) never felt that this had been done by cheating (as if, for example, you introduced that character only to shoot him in an alleyway in full view of like five other major characters, then say “ha ha, no, that was actually a guy made out of clay using his magic powers to make himself into a clone of that character”; c) never felt that the surprise twist made a reductive mess out of the preceding storyline (as if, by way of a for instance, you’d kept everyone buying a story religiously for twelve months promising that “nothin

g is what it seems,” only to reveal in the final issue that, in fact, everything was exactly what it seemed, you dumbasses).

There’s more to “Hush” than this awful phony non-twist, though, I hear its proponents saying even now (they’re not using the words “awful phony non-twist,” but the sentiment is roughly the same). There’s the art by Jim Lee! Ah yes, and, um, art it is. I’m not part of the cult of Jim, a cult formed primarily through his work on X-Men and his co-founding of Image Comics in the early 90s. Though his hyper-rendered artwork doesn’t do all that much for me, I don’t find it offensive, as some others do. But what bothered me was my ever-increasing conviction that Lobe’s “plot,” such as it was, was simply an excuse to publish “How to Draw Batman the Jim Lee Way,” enabling Lee to create almost comically labor-intensive portraits of Batman villains (given slight revamps so that they look REALLY BAD-ASS!), Batman sidekicks (an ever more redundant clique of S&Mish nitwits who clutter up this supposed loner’s life like the world’s worst-dressed in-laws), and Batman shoes. Lee at his worst is not unlike Neal Adams at his worst, obsessed with “realism” yet divorced from reality, consumed with what and how he is drawing yet never really stopping to consider why. Why, for example, do we need to see painstakingly accurate portrayals of the bottom of Batman’s boots not once but twice? Unlike the identity of Hush himself, that one really is a mystery.

So you had the offensively stupid and badly-constructed “twist,” the plotless plot, the occasionally Yngwie-Malmsteenish art. What else is there? Oh yeah–the fact that not a goddamn thing that happened in this book matters a goddamn bit. Sure, Batman and Catwoman are now “together,” but if you asked nine out of ten non-fanboys (they’re easy to spot–they’re the ones who didn’t read this book) I’m sure they’d tell you that Bats and Cats were already an item. Capitalizing on the sexual tension between two gorgeous PVC-wearing nocturnal vigilantes–ooh, that’s a tough row to hoe! And sure, the brand new character (whose name was Thomas Elliott, if that matters, which I assure you it does not) was killed too–no, for real this time, it was in the last issue after he’d already come back from the dead so they couldn’t possibly bring him back again, hey we all saw him get shot right in the bulletproof armor and fall off the conveniently placed bridge into the flowing river that i guess moved his body downstream and out to sea where no one could find it, but he’s got to be dead, I mean, would Jeph Loeb lie about something like that? Another major, sure-to-be-permanent change in the Bat-mythos is that Two-Face is now one-faced once again. (Funny thing, though–why does this plot development seem so familiar? Oh, right.) Yes, a little plastic surgery and the bipolar baddie is suddenly handsome and one of the good guys, pretty much. Gee, that’ll last