A review of “The Long Halloween” comic book series

“The Long Halloween,” written by three times award winner Jeph Loeb, drawn by Tim Sale and lettered by Richard Starkings, is a continuation of the Legends of the Dark Knight series and was a big part of the inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Movies.

Released 1997, it tells the story of a heroic triumvirate who pit themselves and their integrity against the Gangster bosses of Gotham City, principally the Roman family.  That triumvirate are; Commissioner Jim Gordon, District Attorney Harvey Dent and the Dark Knight himself.

As they grapple with a well organised underworld and Police corruption, Batman and Catwoman find themselves suddenly involved in the same scraps, and out of nowhere a vigilante killer starts shooting crime figures dead, on different public holidays, and leaving the weapon and a holiday memento at the scene to signal their presence.  With good guys and bad guys desperately trying to unravel the identity of the holiday killer (named “Holiday” appropriately enough), the ‘freaks’ join the fray, including the Joker, Poison Ivy, the Riddler, Scarecrow and the Mad Hatter, all with an interest in the killer, be it stopping him because they resent the loss of limelight (the Joker) or relishing the distraction the shooter brings so they can advance their plans.

Through it all District Attorney Harvey Dent, Jim Gordon and Batman fight to stay sane and whole and defeat the evil without resorting to evil and corruption themselves.  Sometimes this evil and corruption will take a tangible, physical form, such as Ivy’s crawling, trailing, vines (there’s a superb image in the book where they seem almost to grow out of Bruce Wayne) and sometimes it’s the temptation to pursue dark paths to achieve good objectives, which Catwoman seems to symbolise for Batman with her seductive whispers to him for them to team up.  Dent’s is the most tragic corruption and you can see how Nolan took this and ran with it in his “The Dark Knight Returns.”  The birth of “Two Face” is shocking, even if you know what is coming, and the physical disfigurement echoing the spiritual one is a powerful image.

The art work is bold and powerful, with the colouring bound by stark black lines, and single frame dramatic images occasionally faded to negative colours splashed with blood red.  All this accentuates the ‘noir’ feeling of the story.  Batman is bound by a powerful musculature, dwarfing any screen representation, and Catwoman also is defined by a powerful, athletic physicality. The ‘freaks’ are larger than life and powerfully grotesque, from the giant Solomon Grundy to the long freakish limbs and teeth of the Joker.  Lettering is bold and emphatic, with a more subdued italicised style for Batman’s interior monologues that form part of the narrative.

I have two editions of this story.  “Absolute Batman:  The Long Halloween” is like a dvd box set with extras, an A4 hardback in a box case, with interviews with Christopher Nolan, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, and a feature on the covers, with a commentary.  Not to mention the original proposal notes for each edition.  It’s a wonderful publication, great to immerse yourself in.  The second is a rendering wholly in black and white to accentuate the ‘noir’ themes, called, quite understandably, “Batman Noir:  The Long Halloween.”  This is a striking visual representation but unnecessary.  It’s an experiment that I feel did not need to be published.  The noir themes do not need overstatement.

But if you are a fan of comics or superheroes or Batman, the films or the books, you can’t afford to miss this landmark tale.

poison ivyfathers daybatman noirdent

A review of C.S.Lewis’s “Fern-seed and Elephants and other essays on Christianity”

Fern-seed and Elephants is a short collection of essays of C.S. Lewis in which he vigorously defends orthodox Christianity against a range of challenges in secular and modern thought, including the ravages of various stains of liberal theology to which he objected.   His gift is to make clear that which has been made needlessly abstracted, rescuing from needless obfuscation.

The essays are taken from previously published addresses, sermons and periodical pieces from 1945-1959.

‘Membership’ looks at what it means to belong to the Church, the Body of Christ, organically as art of a whole, as opposed to a unit as part of a collective.  He brings out how the individual, with all that makes it unique, finds its fullest expression when part of this larger organic community.  In accepting with humility ones place in an ordained hierarchy and larger scheme of thing, one becomes for the first time fully and gloriously alive, truly realising the self.  It’s a wonderful paradox.

‘Learning in War-time’ meets head on the kind of existential problem that studying, and learning an academic discipline may have brought in a time of national and international crisis here hearth and home is threatened.  Is such learning in this context futile and selfish?  Not at all, Lewis replies, reminding his hearers (this was originally preached) and readers that we always at all points of history are learning whilst acing he greatest existential challenge of all; one’s own mortality.  The fact that this has never made learning futile gives own pause and puts ‘learning in war-time’ in its proper context.

‘On Forgiveness’ neatly draws out the difference between asking God forgiveness and merely asking Him to excuse our behaviour.  Lewis rescues forgiveness from being merely a nice idea to reinstating it as the supremely uncompromising, massive and redeeming challenge it undoubtedly is.

In ‘Historicism’ Lewis asks to be excused from the train of thought that purports to understand history as a symphonic whole, with a full grasp of the underlying causes and effects.  He sensibly points out that fully grasping everything that happens in the world in the present at any given moment is impossible, or even our own lives, with their exponential complexities.  So how then can we hope to look into the past and read it with absolute confidence, declaring that we understand the forces that have shaped our past?

‘The World’s Last Night’ is Lewis’s own “An Inconvenient Truth.”  Modern theological thinking may seek to explain away end-time teaching in the Gospels, he says, but it remains and is unambiguous.  The curtain will come down, suddenly, and prediction is impossible.  Lewis rightly decries those who have tried to nail it down to a date and time as foolish and way off the mark.  It is meant to be unknown.  Our modern comforts and tendency to rationality balk at the idea of God suddenly invading Creation again, but Lewis tells us that, like the above on Forgiveness, that is the clear teaching and really there are no ifs and buts.

‘Religion and Rocketry’ debunks the notion that other life in the universe challenges basic Christian theological assumptions.  To challenge our own redemption and primacy to God, we need to know, are these alien races sentient as we are?  Have they had their own ‘fall’ from grace?  If so does their redemption have to copy ours?  The hypotheses that seek to form a challenge to Christianity collapse under their own weight.

‘The Efficacy of Prayer’ looks at petitionary prayer and the challenges that are posed if it is answered, or unanswered.  Lewis rightly points out that we can ask for things in prayer and are obliged to do so, but we are praying with humility to a supreme power and intelligence who knows what we need before we ask and knows what can and can’t be granted.  And yet still we are obliged to pray.  Why?  Lewis draws out the dance between free-will and omnipotence.  We ask because that is relationship.  Asking helps to redeem and transform.  And even Jesus Christ did not find a particular prayer answered in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Finally the titular ‘Fern-seed and Elephants’ looks at the tendency of some theological and academic thought of not seeing the wood for the trees.  In other words, in seeking to find elaborate truths between the lines of the Gospels, the stark simple truths those lines tell are missed.  And the assumptions on which such critical reductionist thinking draws are too vast to be borne.   To say with confidence that such and such a teaching of Christ is a backward projection of the Church is to say with confidence that you can read the book of the past as with ‘Historicism’ above.

My little synopsis of the essays above are just that, highly reductionist summaries, and I urge you to read these complex, intelligent and yet clear as spring water essays in their fullness.

A review of C.S. Lewis’s “First and Second Things”

This collection of essays on Christian thought, life and apologetics contains a brief Preface by Walter Hooper, who outlines how the essays express the antithesis of modernist or ‘broad’ theology.  He also lists the original source of each essay.  As well as being originally published in newspapers and periodicals, some were introductions or prefaces to other books, for example his essay on ‘Modern Translations of the Bible’ was his preface to J.B. Phillips ‘Letters to Young Churches: A Translation of the New Testament Epistles.’  His essay on ‘Vivisection’ appeared first as a pamphlet from the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (1947).

Reading these essays is as refreshing as breathing the fresh sea air. Lewis gently provokes and stimulates us to really think through some of the most challenging issues for the individual and for society as a whole.  He has a knack for an allusion or metaphor that clarifies rather than obscures.  He is intensely serious and does not shirk from outlining how some behaviours and strains of thought could (and do) have a devastating effect on all our welfare.  And yet the tone of these essays is not oppressive or ‘preachy.’  Rather you feel a good friend is talking to you, engaging and entertaining you, whilst discussing issues and their view of them out of an absolute concern for your well-being.

So to the essays: ‘Bulverism’ outlines the paradox in contemporary thought, then and now, of skipping the proof of error or diagnosis of disease, before proposing the cure.

‘First and Second Things’ warns of making secondary things e.g. a love of the arts, and end in themselves.

‘On the Reading of Old Books’ urges the reader not to be afraid of older works, in that they provide the valuable foundation to much thought and have stood the test of time.

‘Horrid Red Things’ outlines the difference between ‘thinking’ and ‘imagining,’ how they inform each other and what happens when they are confused.  For example, how myths and mythic archetypes serve as short-hand for complex, multi-layered concepts and truths.

‘Work and Prayer’ is an exploration of the efficacy of prayer.

‘Two Lectures’ looks at opposing views of evolution:  does life come down from something bigger or develop from something smaller? Does the acorn come from the Oak or the Oak from the acorn?

‘Meditation in a Tool-shed’ is a warning against over-conceptualising and analysing things before you have looked at their most direct message or gift to you.

‘The Sermon and the Lunch’ looks at the challenge of family life; how it is not a panacea, it’s another front-line where we have to work hard to be principled and behave well, nourished, not absolved or excused by, love.  Personally I would single out this essay as especially helpful to anyone who has thought that things at home would all be better if only their own self, and only their own self, were a better person.  The essay is a tonic against the delusion that families are designed to be a harmonious refuge and any discord is a huge sin that probably springs from a fault in the self.  Good and proper thinking and behaviour will help, but the domestic utopia is not a realistic expectation.

‘The Transmission of Christianity’ looks at religious education, and makes the point that it’s a generational issue.  No amount of state or syllabus control will help if the teachers have been brought up by and are rooted in secular thinking.

‘The Decline in Religion’ looks at how most ‘religion’ was historically only forced observance or societal routine.  Once that goes, all that’s revealed are real believers; so no decline, only a clarification as to who was really ‘there’ in the first place.

‘Vivisection’ is an excellent and passionate attack on the dire results of what happens when we objectify life.

‘Modern Translations of the Bible’ puts clarity over poetry, and makes the point that the original Greek of the New Testament was pragmatic and functional as opposed to grand and high flown language.

‘Some Thoughts’ explores why we should bother to do good works in the world if we believe in eternity.

‘The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment’ explores the danger of abandoning concepts like ‘deserts’ and ‘punishment’ in favour of seeing all criminal behaviour in need of a ‘cure.’  Lewis doesn’t jettison rehabilitative approaches, but passionately argues that they need to lie in a punitive framework that gives people the dignity of deserving justice.

‘Xmas or Christmas’ explores the absurdities of the commercial ‘Xmas’ in the style of a piece by Herodotus.

‘Revival or Decay’ looks at the sustainability of roots of the (then) contemporary revival, and again, whether reported ‘decay’ really is that, or just a clarification of who really believes once a lot of the going through the motions of societal expectations drop away.

‘Before We Can Communicate’ looks at the different class uses of language (see also ‘Learning in Wartime’ in ‘God in the Dock’), and how they can be used in worship.

This is a varied and nourishing collection, helpful, challenging ad entertaining reading.

A review of Philip Kerr’s “Prayer.”

Philip Kerr is an established thriller writer, probably best known currently for his Bernie Gunther crime thrillers.  However, he has also written science fiction thrillers, for example ‘Gridiron,’ about a homicidal AI skyscraper, and ‘The Second Angel,’ a bank heist on the moon.  ‘Prayer’ belongs more in this fantastic fiction category, being a supernatural thriller exploring the use of prayer, no less, as a lethal weapon.

Special Agent Gil Martins is assigned to a domestic terrorism unit in Houston.  As such, he witnesses terrible crimes that lead him to question his Christian faith, based on his Catholic upbringing, and developed by his marriage to an evangelical Christian.

He begins to read atheist literature, and his wife’s discovery of his ‘atheist porn’ precipitates a disintegration of the marriage.  Meanwhile, his attention is brought to the weird deaths of a number of vocal and prominent atheists, whereby a mental breakdown is followed by a sudden, shocking demise.  One common factor is that they all died in the grip of unimaginable terror.  Then, someone is arrested and confesses to the killings, only they claim that the murder weapon was prayer…

This is an effective page turner.  The author knows how to hook the reader into a developing mystery, and builds an atmosphere of mounting dread.  The dialogue is snappy, and the pace of the narrative moves events along at an exciting gallop.  The central mystery is also intriguing enough to hook you.  What has scared these people to death?  Is it an Angel of Death summoned by prayer, or is there a rational explanation, a ‘Scooby Doo’ type unmasking?  “Mr Janitor!  So you were the Angel of Death!”  “Yes, and I would have got away with it if it hadn’t been for you pesky kids…”

At this point, I don’t want to write a complete spoiler.  Suffice to say, events do not lead to a cop-out.  The rational word does not explain all at the end, a mattress to break the fall.  But you’ll need to read the book to discover the full nature of the threat.

The question, fundamental to the success of the whole venture, is how successfully the central conceit wins your imaginative buy-in.  Wherever you are on the belief spectrum, does the book give an imaginary structure in which you can believe even if just for the duration of the story?  For example, I can enjoy a super-hero story without really believing people can fly.

For me, in this case, the answer would be no.  It is just too much of a stretch, lacking imaginative integrity.  Anything fuelled by anger and jealousy does not create and sustain, it is self-defeating.  Matters are made worse by a smattering of Biblical quotes in an ‘Authors note’ at the end where Philip Kerr seems to say “You see! It’s all there!”  Well, it’s not.

Kudos to not copping out, and skilfully building a mood of mounting terror and dread, delivering a pacey, imaginative read.  But the reveal is deeply unsatisfactory, for delivering something that just does not work.

A review of C. S. Lewis’s “God in the Dock” and other essays.

I read this at a time in my own Christian journey when I was holding onto my Christian faith by my fingernails, ready to embrace agnosticism.  Reading this book has been a gentle pull back from the ledge.

This volume is a short collection of essays from 1942 right through to the last thing Lewis wrote before his death, in 1963.  They show why Lewis remains a giant in Christian apologetics, someone on whose shoulders others stand.  His writing, his articulation of complex concepts and their interaction, be that ‘myth,’ literary criticism and Christianity, is crystal clear, and he communicates them with a patient excitement that enlivens the writing.  He has a love for the poetic and the power of the imagination, and this also shines through the writing.  He’s also a great de-bunker, shooting down straw men and misconceptions on themes such as the very nature of faith, faith and science, myth, nature and fact.

I felt, reading him, that the attic was being cleared, or that my hard-drive was being de-spammed and cleared of junk.  Space was being made for the light again.  This is what reading Lewis has always done for me.

But I certainly don’t agree with everything he said, and I don’t slavishly follow his thought.  But that’s healthy, to have one’s own views challenged in a vigorous, clear and intelligent way, even if at the end you are glad to disagree.  The essay that is the most challenging in this collection in this sense is the 1948 essay ‘Priestesses in the Church?’  Incredibly relevant still, it shows just how long this debate has been raging.  Lewis would probably have been dismayed by the progress (or regress depending on your view) made so far in his own Church of England on this issue.  Lewis certainly saw the ordination of women as a violation not only in Church order which he thought would be dismayingly divisive (which it has been), but that it is also a violation of the spiritual order and template, that male leadership is a fundamental expression of God the Father, and that the Church is the bride of Christ, and so on.  Ultimately, Lewis sees it as changing Christianity to the kind of ‘mother worship’ you would find in old pagan religions.  He communicates his distaste at the idea of women as priestesses, and underscores the importance of the masculine, authoritative role.  Now whilst many would find this offensive and silly, I have to say that this is a very clear, logical and well written piece, and I would urge even the most passionate advocate of women bishops to read it and to understand the arguments of the other side.  I believe that the key to this, and other controversies currently tearing at the Church, is a patient, prayerful and understanding listening to the other side, on both sides.

This collection is a fabulous exploration of a range of ideas, such as the importance of miracles.  ‘Miracles’ (1942) and ‘The Grand Miracle’ (1945) look at how miracles are not a violation of the natural order, and the confusion over what the ‘laws of nature’ are.

Lewis also looks at the vastness of space as a challenge to faith e.g. our apparent insignificance thereof, coupled with the notion that scientific progress has ‘out-grown’ the concepts of Christianity.  ‘Dogma and the Universe’ (1948), ‘Religion and Science (1945) and ‘The Laws of Nature’ (1945) speak to these themes.

‘Man or Rabbit?’ (1946) looks at the question of whether you need Christianity to be good, whilst ‘The Trouble with X’ (1948) calls on us to look hard at our own massive defects of character before condemning those of others.

‘What are we to make of Jesus Christ?’ (1950) is a clear and cogent presentation of the ‘liar, lunatic or Lord’ argument (often called ‘the Trilemma’) whilst ‘Must our Image of God Go?’ is a brief riposte to an article by a Bishop refuting the need to see ‘God in Heaven.’

‘God in the Dock’ (1948) reads as very dated, speaking as it does about the ‘proletariat’ and their use of language.  What Lewis would make of our current text speak and social media ‘LOL’ acronyms on the strength of this essay makes for an interesting reflection.  But this essay is an examination of the different uses and levels of language to communicate the faith.  It’s most relevant parallel today, I guess, is communicating the faith to young people.

Finally, “We Have No Right to Happiness” (1963) re-connects moral consequences to actions, and disentangles the ‘right to the pursuit of happiness’ from ‘at any cost.’ Here the particular happiness discussed is that of sexual happiness.

Read this collection wherever you are on the belief spectrum, if you like intelligent thought and argument clearly and excitingly expressed, and have the patience to feel challenged, and consider the challenge.