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Batman #608

writer: Jeph Loeb
artists: Jim Lee and Scott Williams

The cover blares DC's triumph. "IT BEGINS HERE!" They mean the storyline "Hush," but what really begins here may not just be Batman's return to being a top-tier character, but a top-selling book as well.

Before it even hit the stands, this hotly anticipated (thus highly ordered) issue had sold out, according to a DC press release from yesterday. Fans haven't wanted a Batman title this badly since…well, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Strikes Again.

However, this time around we have a few differences that make this issue a real ground-breaker.

This isn't a special mini-series; instead, this marks the first of twelve (minimum) issues in the title's regular run. The only real production acknowledgment that we've got something special on our hands is in the book's fine quality paper. Nothing new to that, you say, but DC has offset the cost of the book by running a few ad pages at a much cheaper grade, thereby giving fans high-quality at the lowest price the company has to offer: $2.25.

Unlike the recent controversial Frank Miller mini-series, superstar Jim Lee has put himself under pressure to maintain a monthly schedule. Somewhere in there, a bet has been made, and he aims to win it. Rather than skimp on quality, though, Lee did the smart thing. He started working on it a few months before he let DC announce that he would do the book.

And so the artwork is beautiful, and worth the wait. As fans, though, we've been burned enough by pretty books that mean nothing. (Earth X, anyone?). Luckily for Lee and readers, the guy tying it all together is an underrated master.

No stranger to Batman, Jeph Loeb has proven himself as having a unique insight to the character again and again, usually teamed with Tim Sale as artist. Though writes entertaining regular monthly books (including a recent run on a Superman title), Loeb excels when doing a story unfettered by the demands of continuity.

Well, guess what? Let's call it less than a week before Bill Jemas proclaims Batman to be Marvelized. And it doesn't just start with putting two dynamite creators on an old book. Within the confines of a regular series, Loeb and Lee have begun a maxi-series that plays to the writer's strengths. He doesn't have to worry about everything that's going on in the other Batbooks (a welcome, welcome change after a series of mediocre crossovers). Instead, Loeb will obviously be playing with what Grant Morrison calls "consistent characterization," an approach that has cleared up the X-Men morass quite well.

Batman behaves like Batman. You don't have to worry about how this might ripple into the other books. Whatever you need to know about a character comes out of the writing, not references to earlier adventures.

It's also pretty good. The book starts with Batman on a rescue mission, taking down mercenary thugs one by one. As each minion goes down, Batman's thoughts betray just how many mental moves ahead he stays at all times.

Of course, you don't give Jim Lee just thugs to draw. By the sixth page, Killer Croc makes a savage appearance, in one of the few two-page spreads this year that doesn't seem gratuitous. (Lee got in at the ground-floor of the artist-driven comics craze, but few who came after him remembered to let the art still serve the story.) He draws a monstrous Croc, and thankfully Batman acknowledges that he seems to have mutated.

From there we get one heck of a well-done fight scene, followed by a dizzying trip through Gotham's rooftops in pursuit of Catwoman. It's almost like a videogame, an effect which might bring in a few new readers. Loeb manages to keep that structure still serve the plot. Maybe some screenwriters and directors should take a look at this.

Just like the Loeb/Sale Batman books, "Hush" is purposely designed to let Lee give us his take on the majority of Batman's rogues gallery. (There's a third villain by the end of this issue, but you should just buy the book to find out who.) But Loeb is too good a writer to just trot them out one by one. Already a fine thread appears woven through, as this issue sets up several mysteries. The only thing breaking up the flow is that it's only 22 pages. "To be continued," indeed.

Where Loeb's earlier work on the character took on a Batman defining the beginning of his career, this series has the feel of the hero fighting to stave off the end of it. In a poetic but still kinetic moment, Batman admits "…first, my body betrays me. Then, my city follows suit. We have both grown too old together."

Let's see: plague, earthquake, isolation, Lex Luthor, too many true loves…yep. In just a few sentences, Loeb sums up that really, Batman and Gotham City have suffered more than a "ten-year" career should hold. And again, new readers don't really need to know what those tragedies were; in Loeb's deceptively simple writing, it's enough to know that Batman suffered.

The Batbooks have been consistent of late; neither too great nor all that bad. If you liked the character, you bought the books. But with "Hush," Batman absolutely deserves its status as number one.


Derek McCaw

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