Every Wednesday we take turns to delve into our trusty longboxes, pluck out a dusty back issue, and give you our thoughts. We’ll also try and place it in the context of the time it was originally published.
We’ve taken our fair share of pops at Jeph Loeb of late – it’s not something we’d apologise for, as he genuinely is writing some of the worst comics Marvel are publishing at the moment, but it is worth noting that in this industry, writers don’t tend to achieve his level of success and repute by being entirely worthless. There must have been a point at which Loeb was writing comics good enough to grant him his current reputation – and, indeed, there was. In his collaborations with Tim Sale, he’s turned in some genuinely great work – Batman : The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, Spider-Man : Blue, A Superman For All Seasons. But before his switch to Marvel (and indeed before his descent into a world of cack with his Superman/Batman run), his biggest success was Hush, the mega-selling twelve-part Batman story.
It’s not as fondly regarded now as it was at the time, mind – largely because it’s one of those stories that has far less going on than appears, once you begin to peer under the surface. Essentially, it’s a “blockbuster” series designed to bring together as many famous Batman characters as possible (plus Superman) for Jim Lee to draw – because, really, the book’s success was more down to the return of Lee to mainstream interior artwork than anything else. As such, Hush is seen as something of a “style over substance” effort. Not that said “style” is unwelcome – Lee’s artwork is gorgeous from start to finish, almost career-best work.
And it’s not as if Loeb doesn’t try to bring the substance. In this final issue, he finally brings together the disparate threads of his “mystery” – the identity of the murderer of Bruce’s childhood friend Tommy Elliott. The main problem, though, is that it doesn’t really work as a mystery at all – despite the assertion that “all the clues were there from the beginning”, and references to things like The Purloined Letter, it really isn’t a fair game. Essentially, the story is a succession of “ah, you thought it was them, but it’s not!” rug pulls – the apparent identity of Hush jumps from Two-Face to Jason Todd to Elliott himself, while characters such as Ra’s al Ghul and even Lex Luthor make appearances without it ever really being clear what their true role in the plot is. Even after Elliott is unmasked as his own “killer” (with some really quite ludicrous motivation for his hatred of the Waynes – because he’d engineered his parents’ car accident as a child in order to inherit their money, but Thomas Wayne saved his mother), there’s a further “twist” to come as it transpires that the Riddler, after a dip in a Lazarus pit, had figured out Batman’s identity and engineered the entire thing.
It’s not a bad ending in and of itself, but the problem is that it feels like an epilogue after one sudden “reveal” too many – and it’s hard to see what purpose it solves. Nigma having knowledge of Bruce’s identity opens a whole can of worms that even Loeb seems aware of, as he offers the flimsy cover-up clause that “a riddle that everyone knows is worthless”. It’s almost as if Loeb realised that Elliott made a less compelling villain than first thought (or that the dots didn’t simply join together as regards his knowledge of the double-life), and felt obligated to bolt on an even wider conspiracy. But unfortunately, it doesn’t really fly, and furthermore, it’s a difficult bit of status quo to leave hanging for the future (I’m not even sure how it was resolved for the Riddler to have become the money-grabbing celebrity detective he is in the current run) – even as Loeb cancels out the one major change that did seem to have legs (the intriguing Batman/Catwoman relationship, left in ruins at the end by such a hasty moment that you wonder if it wasn’t forced on the writer by editorial decree).
That’s not to say that the book is totally worthless as a read. While it suffers from one of Loeb’s most annoying tropes – masses of in-character narration that consists of little more than recapping plot or explaining who various characters are as they appear – it’s clear from this and other work that the mythology of Batman is one that Loeb gets. He has a good understanding of the character and his wide supporting cast, and it makes him a decent choice for this “pick ‘n’ mix” of a story, even if said story is more lightweight than it fancies itself. Of particular note, among the many twists that the story piles on, is the use of Harold, an oft-forgotten member of the early-mid ‘90s Batcave team, and the ending to his story is genuinely tragic.
In the end, though, while Hush was lauded at the time, and sold by the bucketload, reading it now leaves you with a similar feeling to an overdose of sugar – it’s oversaturated, too reliant on Lee’s artwork to gloss over the holes in the plot, and creates more problems for itself than it can solve. It’s certainly not without worth – and gets points for being a genuine, self-contained Batman story at a time when the Batbooks were still being used for endless annual interminable crossovers – but it does mark the beginning of the end for Loeb’s “golden touch”, and you can’t help but wonder if the hype and success of such a mediocre story may have set him down the road towards thinking dross like Ultimates 3 and Hulk was in any way acceptable.