On "Batman: Hush," Vols. 1 & 2 (2003)

Once in a while, there comes by, a work of creative energy that changes the rules of the game, so to speak. It redefines, through association, the products of like creative output. More importantly though, it forces the observer to learn afresh, a novel way to examine, and thereby, appreciate what it offers. It would not be a hyperbole to state that "Batman: Hush," one of the most successful Batman stories published so far, belongs in that rare company of game-changers. When it was first published in 2003, "Hush" redefined the comic book storytelling for a newer (and also, returning) legion of fans. Jeph Loeb's story, Jim Lee's artwork, with Scott Williams providing the ink, Alex Sinclair, the colors, and Richard Starkings, the letters, took the comic book industry by storm - receiving critical as well as popular acclaim. The first printing (seen in the image above) was later collected in two trade-paperback graphic novels, and these graphic novels marked my return to the genre (as an aficionado) after decades.

I was an avid comic-book fan as a child, but quickly outgrew the bland formulaic stories that were the norm (with some very notable, and very rare, exceptions) in the 80's and 90's. I was introduced to the superhero genre through Lee Falk's Phantom, and Mandrake the Magician, and a host of other mythological/heroic characters through the "Amar Chitra Katha" series. Eventually, I found my way to Superman (thanks, Christopher Reeve!) but it was Batman that I found the most fascinating of all characters. Though my young mind was then incapable of understanding the complex psychological scars that compelled playboy millionaire Bruce Wayne to don the cowl-and-cape at night, it was nonetheless thrilled to witness the exploits of the Caped Crusader - defeating troublemakers and villains that terrorized the innocent citizens of Gotham. To my naive sensibilities (I was 10!), Batman was the best of both worlds, a swashbuckling Zorro combined with the intellect of Sherlock Holmes.

(Sherlock Holmes? Really? I hear you say) For let us not forget that before Frank Miller gave us the 'Dark Knight' in his brilliant 1986 collection "The Dark Knight Returns," (one of the rare exceptions mentioned above) Batman was popularly known as "The World's Greatest Detective." His superpowers, as it were, were his knowledge of forensic methods and on-the-street detective work with a healthy amount of action. This was a hero who walked in the dark, embraced it as his home, and brought ruffians of all manner to justice. One of my most enduring childhood memories, one which I can recall vividly to-date, is the three-panel sequence in which he gradually steps out of the shadows to face an armed goon with the words - "You dare? You dare to pull a gun on me?" ( "There is no hope in Crime Alley", DC Vol 1 #457) The quote neatly encapsulates everything that was Batman -- a gun-averse vigilante who prowled the darkness in search of justice (that he could not provide to his parents.) It was a shame that over the next decades, this dark, gritty image was replaced by a James Bond wannabe who relied on gadgets and gimmickry than his native intellect. Batman became superhero-Bond.

"Hush" is, I think, an attempt to return to Batman's roots. First and foremost, this is a mystery, a detective story that tests Batman (and Bruce Wayne) at every turn. The story begins with a routine job for the Caped Crusader -- rescuing a boy who has been held hostage by Killer Croc. But what starts out as a routine outing soon turns into a near-fatal mishap due to the surprise involvement of Catwoman, and a mysterious figure - a villain who hides his face under a mask of bandages and quotes Aristotle! We learn that the scope of this operation is far-reaching, touching upon every person around Batman, friend and foe alike. The story travels to Metropolis and to the far deserts where Ras Al'Ghul holds domain, with twists and turns (and brilliant easter eggs -- Leslie Thompkins makes a cameo appearance!) We find Batman's world turned upside-down, his innate paranoia heightened by a personal tragedy, and new connections formed with ambiguous allies, until a climatic, explosive finale that leaves the reader asking for more.

"Hush" received stellar reviews, from fans and critics alike, and it is easy to see why the comics had such a huge impact.

Jeph Loeb: The meat of this project is the story, and Loeb delivered a stunning journey into the mind of the World's Greatest Detective. As said earlier, the story is primarily a mystery. The superhero element is played down to give it more immediacy. The action and the gadgets are kept to a minimum necessary level. At the same time, the story also manages to avoid putting in too much exposition. The dialogue is pointed, and crisp - almost like a Quentin Tarantino script. The absence of longer expositions also allows a side-benefit of keeping the gorgeous artwork unoccluded by voice bubbles, thereby directing the viewer's attention to the visual presentation. Speaking of which ...

Jim Lee: Jim Lee lent his distinctive style to this collaboration, a sample of which can be seen below. The gallery however, does not do justice to the full-page spreads that capture the scenes in a frankly astounding amount of detail (see some spreads at the bottom of the page.) The treatment is quite cinematic, and a visual delight that pairs quite nicely with the taut script. The art is definitely stunning, but does suffer from some style defects that are unfortunately,  quite representative of the genre's suspension of human anatomical principles (the male characters are unusually beefy or lean, the female characters often have impossible proportions.)

A sample of the artwork by Jim Lee, Scott Williams, and Alex Sinclair

Scott Williams: If Jim Lee's artwork defines the foundation of the visual landscape, it is Scott William's inks that give it life. The shadows seem deeper, and the lines are fluid, yet maintain an edge that is so distinctive of Lee's style.

Alex Sinclair:  The color palette is gorgeous and consistent, the lighting on the faces conveys more than a page of exposition could. Williams transports the reader into the center of a dirty, grimy city, and takes the immersive experience to a whole new level.

Richard Starkings: Respected British font designer, and the man responsible for conveying Loeb's words to the readers provides a perfect foil to the artwork. Starkings' words float over the pages without obstructing the visual lines, and in most cases, support the eye as it travels through the page. It should not come as a surprise then, that for the "unwrapped" edition of Hush, DC opted to keep the letters in color.

Pages from the 'unwrapped' edition of Batman: Hush, showing detailed pencil sketches by Lee, and letters by Starkings.

Overall, I really loved this work, and cannot recommend it enough.

Also check out Jim Lee's ICONS, an extensive collection of Lee's artwork for DC and Wildstorm. And then contrast it with Alex Ross's Mythology, for a peek into realistic depictions of superheroes.

Sample double-page spreads:

All images sourced from the Internet. I do not own any copyright to the artwork.