Batman Comics: Best Halloween Specials to Read

Dive deep into the mouth of madness with these three great Batman Halloween specials from the '90s!

In 1993, writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale, now famous for Batman: The Long Halloween, performed a mad experiment to remind us that the Dark Knight’s worst fears were gravely domestic and close to home. And how else to achieve this, but in Batman’s own tales of horror and madness.

The creative team produced three Batman Halloween specials from 1993-95 for the Legends of the Dark Knight anthology series. The original Legends ran from 1989-2007 and featured a rotating team of artists and writers, including Grant Morrison, Klaus Janson, Mark Millar, Dennis O’Neil, Mike W. Barr, Warren Ellis, Mike Mignola, and many, many more all-star creators. The stories in Legends were meant to be self-contained arcs, set in the early days of the Dark Knight, before Robin but after Batman: Year One, and could be described as the “weird tales” of Batman.

In the pages of this series was the opportunity for these unique creators to treat Batman like they had made him up, to play with his mythos, and delve deep into his psyche. It’s no wonder Loeb and Sale’s Halloween specials fit so well within these guidelines. The series was indeed very popular in the ’90s, and the three stories I’m about to discuss are among the biggest factors of its success.

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A Lonely Man

I’m in no way green to Batman comics, but I do have to say that good Bruce Wayne stories have eluded me for the most part. In other words, I feel that, while there are plenty of great Batman adventures, there aren’t as many memorable stories about Bruce Wayne the man. Yes, there’s Frank Miller’s iconic work on the character in both Year One and Dark Knight Returns, which has pretty much influenced every comic book since, but beyond that grand scale, there aren’t many smaller stories that tackle the character as efficiently. We’ve seen a few great contemporary examples, including Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s work on Batman since 2011, and there’s plenty to be said about Grant Morrison’s take on Batman of Zur-En-Arrh (this is what happens when you take Bruce out of the equation and all that), but even these take the form of epics. 

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What about a great intimate story about what it is to not only be Batman but Bruce Wayne? It surely takes as much courage to fight the monsters of the night as it does to live a life unfulfilled during the day. This is at the center of Loeb and Sale’s stories, which focus heavily on Bruce as Batman’s greatest strength and weakness. 

In the first special, titled “Choices” when originally released and “Fears” in the Haunted Knight collection, which contains all three Halloween stories, Batman faces his greatest challenge ever: the promise of a romantic encounter and domestic bliss as Bruce Wayne. Fittingly enough, the story begins with Batman chasing Scarecrow through Gotham. Scarecrow’s latest fear gas is the most potent he’s ever created, and he manages to give Bats a very strong dose. Yes, it seems that the story is going in an expected direction: Batman must fight his greatest fears in a gas-induced fever dream…and for the most part, it’s true, but not in the way you’d expect. Batman doesn’t go under the spell when first gassed, instead punching out the bad guy and delivering him to Gordon. 

Back on the homefront, Bruce Wayne is having a costume party with the most distinguished guests in all of Gotham, the rich, the pampered, the gluttons, all of the people Bruce despises but has to keep tabs on in order to stay in touch with his city. But he never expected to meet Jillian Maxwell, a mysterious woman clad in red who immediately grabs Bruce’s attention, as they share a dance. Almost immediately, Bruce is intoxicated with her. Even when Scarecrow obviously escapes and Bruce has to once again give chase, all he can do is think of her, the way he had to leave her after a night of romance to save his city, how he can’t quite figure her out.

During his second fight with Scarecrow, we get flashbacks of his time with Jillian, who is good at invading every single nook and cranny of Wayne Manor. When he comes home tired, defeated, Jillian is waiting for him in his bedroom—much to Alfred’s chagrin, I might add. When faced with a situation where he might have to use force as Bruce Wayne, Jillian shows him another way, that all that matters is protecting those you love and living your life with them. These things put Batman’s mission in doubt. Is he wasting his life saving a city that he feels has never been kind to him when he could be happy and have someone to love? Has he squandered the love he has? 

Symbolism runs heavy in this story, as you have to read between the lines to understand how the Scarecrow’s gas has affected the Dark Knight this time around. Batman’s biggest fear is giving up on his mission, that one day he’ll no longer be around to protect his city. Yes, he’s going to die one day (we’ve seen it happen plenty of times), but there is no good death for him. It’s tragic that he’ll die fighting for his cause, a victory in most eyes, but even that means giving up on tomorrow. On saving one more life. Stopping one more crime. So in this way, as Bruce considers taking a vacation with Jillian and leaving Gotham behind, he is facing his greatest fear. 

At one point, Batman has his symbol ripped out of his chest and finds himself trapped in a hedge maze of poisonous thorns, unable to escape, as the walls grow higher between him and Gotham. He hallucinates his wedding day with Jillian, who asks him to finally take off his mask because he has finally made his choice to live as Bruce Wayne. While Batman figures out his escape—he eventually does escape, of course—Alfred has grown more suspicious of Jillian and decides to run a background check on Ms. Maxwell. What he discovers is tragic for Bruce, but also snaps him out of his spell.

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Jillian marries wealthy men in order to murder them for their money. Bruce is angered by this revelation, frustrated that he can never have a normal life. He believes he lives without choice, chosen by Gotham to protect it. Batman takes his anger out on Scarecrow. The story concludes with Bruce realizing why he’s chosen to live a life unfulfilled in order to fight crime. He knows he’s made a choice and that it’s the best one he could possibly make. 

The Orphan

The second story, “Madness,” is a neat trick. A play on Alice in Wonderland, Batman faces off against Mad Hatter, who the Dark Knight considers to be his most disturbing adversary—at least in this story. Hatter, a violent schizophrenic who lives in a fantasy world, affects Batman (and more importantly, Bruce) in a very personal way: the villain has perverted a good memory he has of his mother, specifically when she used to read him Alice in Wonderland as a boy. In fact, Batman considers that remembering his mother at all is dangerous to his mission. It’s interesting that the story begins with Bruce thinking a mother’s love is a weakness because by the end it proves to be his greatest strength. 

As a brilliant parallel, little Barbara (yes, that Barbara), who is Jim Gordon’s orphaned niece in this continuity, also plays her part in the story. Like a younger Bruce, Babs wonders if she belongs in her new life with the Gordons. Would she be better off on her own without guardians to care for her? Babs, like Batman, considers pushing that love away. 

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When both Batman and Babs fall into the Hatter’s clutches, they’re forced to reconsider letting it all back in. Batman is shot by Hatter and goes “tumbling down the rabbit hole,” so to speak. Seriously injured and alone, he is apparently aided by the ghost of his mother in Crime Alley. Of course, it’s actually Leslie Thompkins that saves him. Batman recalls the days after the death of his parents—the infamous murder scene is drawn to perfection by Sale, by the way—when Dr. Thompkins arrived at Wayne Manor to comfort him and act as his surrogate parent, along with Alfred. 

A beautiful line spoken by Thompkins acts as a refrain throughout the story. In past and present, she asks Bruce to let him in: “I’d like to help you…if you let me.” Batman understands that she is a big reason why he was able to go on after his parents’ deaths. A mother’s love was his guiding light. He uses his newfound strength to save Babs from the Mad Hatter, who’s made her his Alice in a sick tea party.

Besides the main bits of the story, there are two other things that will catch the eye. The first is the way Loeb and Sale compare both Gordon and Thomas Wayne as fathers. In separate sections we see Gordon and Thomas express their distaste for baby-ing children. Gordon tries to convince his wife, who’s also named Barbara, that she should take their infant son off bottles. (Might’ve prevented the kid from becoming a serial killer, in retrospect.) Thomas also asks Martha to stop reading Bruce “fancy tales” and also suggests they skip The Mark of Zorro for something “more inspirational.” (That might’ve saved their lives, actually.) 

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It’s interesting to consider how the latter might have affected Bruce’s psyche and opinion on weakness. His mother shrugs his father off, telling him she’s excited to go see Zorro. Of course, by going to see that movie, they’ve doomed themselves. Might Bruce be angry at his mother’s sympathy for him, at her insistence to show him a fantasy world? The scene cuts to little Bruce asking his mom to please wear her pearls for the occasion…followed by the pearls being ripped from her neck and the muzzle of a gun…”I never saw her again…” Batman narrates to conclude the memory. After that, when Thompkins tries to read him Alice in Wonderland, little Bruce pushes her away, shouting that he doesn’t want anybody to help him. An adult Bruce realizes that his entire life has been populated by people who have helped him. He ponders that without the death of his parents, without that fateful night, he would never have met such “a remarkable woman” in Leslie.

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We must also quickly consider the Hatter’s own obsession with the Queen of Hearts, which runs rampant in this story. In several instances, he is waiting for her or believes to be standing before her (he and Batman get into a fight in the Gotham Playing Card Co. because comics), and he is desperate in his admiration for her. He even hosts a big tea party full of kidnapped children for her. It’s a great juxtaposition between a man who wants to forget his mother and a man who is obsessed with his. 

In my opinion, “Madness” is the strongest of the three stories, a good play on a classic tale that also provides deeper, unexpected looks into several characters. Loeb and Sale find a unique angle to explore Bruce’s relationship with his parents, and that’s always impressive when it comes to a character that’s been around for over 75 years. 

A Serious Man

The third and final Halloween special is a play on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and has a much more clear message than the other two stories. In fact, the message clashes directly with the conclusion of the first story. The ghosts of Batman’s past, present, and future arrive on Halloween to show Bruce that living only for Batman and forgetting the good things in life is a mistake. In a way, Loeb and Sale bring their tales full circle in the story fittingly titled “Ghosts.”

I will say that this story is the weakest of the three, in part due to its setup. Bruce is attending a charity gala with Lucius Fox when the Penguin attacks. You have to have Batman’s most Dickensian villain for this story, after all. While Penguin seemingly kills Bruce during the robbery, Batman shows up to save the day, savagely beating Penguin with his fists. As he captures the Penguin, Batman tells us that “justice must be blind” and that “his decisions cannot be encumbered by one’s personal indulgences.” So basically, he’s about to learn a valuable life lesson, courtesy of his rogues gallery. 

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Bruce arrives victorious to Wayne Manor but suddenly comes down with what seems like food poisoning. We see him about to eat a gnarly looking shrimp in the opening page of the story, and that puts him down for the count. Yes, this is the story where Batman is temporarily defeated by bad shrimp. I told you I’d be talking about Bruce as a weakness, right?

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Whether it’s a fever dream or the supernatural, the ghost of Thomas Wayne appears to Bruce (the scene above is rendered expertly by Sale, whose close-up on Thomas’ face is quite creepy) to set him on the journey to past, present, and future. His father also expresses regret for his obsession with medicine, which he says was the reason he lost sight of what was really important: the people he loved. Thomas carries heavy chains all over his body as the burdens he brought over from his life into the afterlife. “Your obsession with Batman creates an even greater and more thunderous chain!” Bruce’s father warns. 

The first ghost takes the form of Poison Ivy, who shows Bruce two moments from his past. He is reminded of one Halloween when he was a boy and his father didn’t show up to take him trick-or-treating because of a medical emergency. Little Bruce is determined to wait by the large windows of the mansion until his father returns. “Even if it takes all night.” (Interestingly enough, little Bruce is dressed as Zorro for this particular Halloween.) She also shows Bruce the night he met Lucius Fox, who he saved from a group of thugs in Paris. Fox makes him a proposition that Bruce declines—a decision that is in large part the crux of the entire story.

Batman’s present is best represented by the Joker’s madness, as he shows Bruce how he’s shut out the outside world and even turned into a bit of a monster for those on the outside looking in. Bruce and Joker stand on the gates at Wayne Manor, looking down at little trick-or-treaters who are too afraid to enter the grounds because they think the house is haunted. And in a way it is, right? Bruce has allowed nothing but monsters to fill his life and bad memories to live in and under his home. The Joker shows Bruce how he has become an extension of all that. 

The final ghost sees Bruce face Death itself, as he’s led to his lonely grave in the future. His tombstone is cracked and vines grow thick around it. Only Alfred ever comes to visit. Presumably, Bruce has died in his mission as the Batman. Bruce asks Death, “How was I so easily forgotten?” He understands what his father was trying to tell him all along: “For all the good that Batman does, have I left nothing for myself?”

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In the morning, Bruce awakens to set things right. Alfred assumes that he should prepare the Batsuit for another Halloween “fraught” with all sorts of criminal activity,” but Bruce suggests things might be different this year. He finds Lucius to take him up on the offer from years ago, establishing the Wayne Foundation “to help the less fortunate.” Finally, Bruce decides to stay home on Halloween for once and open his doors to trick-or-treaters.

“Ghosts” serves as a pretty satisfying coda for Loeb and Sale’s cycle of stories. Bruce goes full circle, from obsessing over a singular mission to realizing that a life outside of Batman is also worth living. And that’s why these are great Bruce stories: Loeb and Sale, as a perfect companion piece to Year One, want Batman to embrace Bruce. They take the obvious symbol of terror (just look at how Sale draws Batman in these stories and in later adventures) out of these Halloween tales to reveal the real fear: the very vulnerable man underneath the cowl.

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John Saavedra is an associate editor at Den of Geek. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @johnsjr9

A version of this article first appeared on October 27, 2015.