Back in the Batcave: Loeb returns to Gotham City with 'Batman'

Just in time for Halloween, one of the Dark Knight Detective's most popular adversaries returns to the pages of "Batman" this month.

It's a foe who is as crafty as Ra's al Ghul, can be spookier than the Scarecrow and has a body count as high as the Joker's. Well, maybe not that high. But it's up there.

That's right, folks: Jeph Loeb is back on The Bat.

Now, before you flood Comic Book Resources with e-mails defending the honor of this fan-favorite writer, ponder these questions: Who's the guy who poisoned the Caped Crusader in "Batman: Fears," driving him to the brink of death? Who's the guy who ensnared Bruce Wayne with toxic ivy in "Batman: The Long Halloween?" Who's the guy who gruesomely murdered a slew of Gotham City police officers in "Batman: Dark Victory?"

Jeph Loeb, that's who.

Sure, you could argue that it was the Scarecrow, Poison Ivy and the Hangman who committed those crimes, and that Loeb merely was the writer of those particular tales, but don't fool yourself. This is a twisted, twisted man, a scoundrel deserving of a padded cell at Arkham Asylum if there ever was one.

All right, maybe that last bit was over the top. But you've got to admit: Jeph Loeb knows how to push the Dark Knight's buttons.

And now he's back in Gotham City, teaming up with celebrated artist Jim Lee for 12 issues of the "Batman" regular series. They debut with the highly anticipated #608, which hits stands Oct. 23. As is his style, Loeb isn't willing to reveal much in the way of the plot for the yearlong story - "I've grown incredibly tired of reading online how everybody knows the story three months before it even ships," he grumbles - but he will say that the run, called "Hush," will be broken down into smaller arcs, and that the first mini-arc features Killer Croc, Poison Ivy and Catwoman as the Dark Knight's antagonists.

"Hopefully, these characters will do something unexpected and that will keep the long-time readers happy," Loeb told CBR News. "And with equal verve, I'm hoping that folks who have never read "Batman," or who haven't in a long time, can pick this story up and start reading there without a lot of background or continuity checkpoints."

The monthly gig is Loeb's fifth Batman project, following three Halloween specials, "The Long Halloween" and "Dark Victory." As a writer, Loeb is attracted to the hero's struggle with the catastrophic events of his childhood. We can all relate to Batman's personal suffering, Loeb says, because we've all had our own childhood traumas, although usually they're not as horrifying. Bruce Wayne's efforts to deal with his emotional pain by donning a costume and fighting crime also strike a chord with readers.

"In Batman's case, it's blown way out of proportion. His parents were murdered before his eyes - his childhood was ripped away from him," Loeb says. "And he made a promise to his parents that he would rid the city of the evil that took their lives. It's a promise he can't possibly keep, but he continues to try. All of that fascinates me.

"It's very much a comment on human nature, that we continue with behavior that we know is unhealthy, but we cannot stop. Bruce probably should have gotten himself some therapy and lived a long and happy life with any of the many women he met as he grew up. But then I guess we wouldn't have our hero and I'd be out of a job."

The new project is Loeb's first Bat-book with an artist other than the venerable Tim Sale, who's also teamed with the writer on projects including "Superman For All Seasons," the current "Spider-Man: Blue" and the upcoming "Hulk: Gray." Loeb says working with Lee is dramatically different than working with Sale. Not better or worse, mind you - different.

"It's like writing music for two very different singers who both sing the same kind of music," Loeb explains. "Tim has very little interest in drawing anything from 'present-day continuity.' He likes having the creative freedom to reinterpret the world and do his work with the caveat that this story takes place in the past and it can look like anything he wants it to be. Tim also has a very specific way he wants to tell a story. Many people think that (putting only) three to four panels on the page is my doing, when in fact this is Tim's preference. He'll gladly fill the panel to your hearts content - just don't ask him to draw a six or eight panel page.

"Jim, on the other hand, doesn't have any such qualms," Loeb continues. "He's very into the mechanics of the drawing - the equipment, the gadgets, etc. It's a little like telling a Batman story with the lights on: You have to see it all. Whereas Tim would cover him in shadows - and in reality, a great deal of ink - Jim wants you be sucked in by the power of each individual panel. That puts the onus on me to come up with enough detail to fill the page."

Another challenge, Loeb says, is to set his work with Lee apart from the work he's done with Sale. "I try to write toward an artist's strengths," he says. "The story I'm telling with Jim, I wouldn't tell with Tim. They are, in many ways, different Batmans - or is that Batmen? At least, I'd like to think so."

Loeb's stint on "Batman" begins just a few months after his 2 1/2-year run on the monthly "Superman" wrapped up with issue #183. It's not as if he traded one title for the other, however, although it may look that way. Loeb says his move to "Batman" was in the works for a while.

"I knew, because of the timing, it would look like I'd left 'Superman' to go to 'Batman,' but I had been on 'Batman' for nearly a year when the story broke," Loeb says. "We had a great deal of lead time. I also left 'Superman' to go to (the upcoming) 'Superman/Batman' - or whatever it's going to be called - and not to go to 'Batman,' for whatever that's worth."

Working with penciler Ed McGuinness, Loeb definitely left his mark on the Kryptonian hero. He made Lex Luthor president, brought back Krypto the super-dog and added new villains such as Braniac 13 and Imperiex to Supes' rogues gallery. "We told some really fun tales, and I think brought Superman back into the public eye just before the explosion of 'Smallville' and the next Superman movie," Loeb says. "That alone was an accomplishment. I could have gone on, but it felt like the time was right to step away and let the others play. I've seen what (new creative duo) Steve Seagal and Scott McDaniel are doing and it's very, very exciting."

Of course, Loeb isn't done with the Man of Steel just yet. Loeb will re-team with McGuinness on that aforementioned "Superman/Batman" project. True to his earlier word, Loeb isn't willing to say much about the comic, other than to describe it using very broad strokes.

"It will have some of the feel of the Superman title, but with the added juice of the 'Batman' cast available to us," Loeb reveals. "And we won't stop there. It allows us to tackle how both these characters not only interact with each other, but with the DCU at large. It's a 'big canvas' book, dealing more with the hero aspects of the characters than the supporting casts."

And speaking of Superman, Loeb also has joined the staff of the WB's hit TV show, "Smallville," as a consulting producer. Loeb - who worked in Hollywood long before he began writing comics, writing and producing films and TV shows such as "Commando," "Teen Wolf" and the still-in-production "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" cartoon - has been a vocal "Smallville" fan since its inception and is thrilled to be part of the production team.

"Who died and made me lucky?" Loeb jokes. "('Smallville' creators and executive producers) Al Gough and Miles Millar have been very generous in saying that 'Superman For All Seasons' has been one of the influences on the show. I could see it, but having the men themselves say it was very rewarding. We had met right after the pilot was shot. I was wowed by it then, and I still am today. I left the door open to them that if they ever needed someone to come in and pitch stories, I'd be thrilled to do that. Sometime during the end of the first season, they called. I went in and we talked for hours. After I left, they called and asked if I would come on staff in the second season. I know that sounds like it was easy, but in a weird way, it was.

"I love the show," Loeb continues. "It's very different from writing the comic because we work as a writing team, and 'Smallville' isn't 'Superman.' It's part of the mythos, but not the same thing - it's a different medium, different ideals and different characters. There are 10 of us on the writing staff, including Al and Miles, all in a big room breaking the stories. That means a little bit of everyone is in all the tales. Fortunately, Al and Miles have picked incredibly talented folks to write the show, so I'm very lucky to part of the group. Honestly, they are working their butts off to top last season, and as any fan of the show knows, it's not an easy task given how good last season was. But we're off to a fantastic start from the premiere and we'll only build from there."

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