about_faces (about_faces) wrote,

Hugo Strange returns to less-than-greatness in Doug Moench's "Batman: Terror," the sequel to "Prey!"

Okay. I've put this one off long enough.

One of the reasons why I've come to love Hugo Strange is because of how the character was uniquely developed over the decades by a handful of writers, each of whom directly built upon the previous stories. While Joker, Two-Face, Penguin, and other villains varied wildly in how they were written (Continuity? Character consistency? BLASPHEMY! MOAR EVIL PLOTS AND DEATH TRAPS!), Hugo was the only character to have a linear progression from the Golden Age all the way to the early 2000's! It was so rare, so precious, so goddamned unusual, that it was well past time for SOME writer to come along and fuck things up. That writer happened to be Doug Moench.

Now, I know I've ragged on Moench a lot, but until this point, his track record with Hugo Strange had been stellar! He wrote two fantastic Hugo stories, including one of the greatest Batman stories ever. I suppose it was only inevitible that his general Moenchness would catch up with him by the time he made the foolish decision to write a sequel to Prey over a decade after the fact, so he could properly depict the return of Post-Crisis Hugo Strange.

Yes, Catwoman, spines work that way.

Here's a thing, though: Devin Grayson already told Hugo's return a few months earlier in the pages of Gotham Knights, in her fantastic Transference storyline. That story, set in modern continuity, made it clear that Hugo hadn't been seen since the events of Prey way back around the Year One continuity. Got all that? Well too bad, because Doug Moench decided to make that even MORE convoluted with Terror, which clashed with established continuity!

More importantly, though, is the fact that Terror sucks. The main problem is that Moench tries to cram in several plotlines--all of which he's regurgitated lazily from earlier in other, better stories--and falls flat in every instance. But I don't want to undersell its quality, nor conversely, oversell its entertainment value for awfulness.

Note: Scans are from Legends of the Dark Knight #137-141.

Again, this is a sequel to Batman: Prey, which you can read here if you haven't yet. Also, good news everyone, it's FINALLY coming back out in trade paperback! Wa-hoooo!

The scene opens in the creepy seaside home of an old man, sleeping peacefully in his bed, realizing far too late that there's an intruder in his house. The old man awakens to find a blade being shoved into his chest, courtesy of the nightmarish "Bat-Man" at his bedside:

For all the times Hugo's dressed up as Batman, I think this is the only time he's ever worn the glasses over the cowl. Well, that's damn silly-looking, that is. Shortly thereafter, the real Batman and the usual Captain Gordon investigate the murder, and they deduce that this indicates Hugo's return after his apparent death at the end of Prey.

Even putting aside the fact that "transference" was the actual title of Devin Grayson's previous, awesome Hugo story, Moench pulled the same psychological motivation a few years earlier with his abysmal Two-Face story, The Face Schism. Even if the diagnoses of transference is apt (and I'm not knowledgeable enough in these areas to judge either way), that connection doesn't exactly fill me with confidence this early into the story.

Oh, and in case you were thinking, "Wow, that Batman looks a lot like Michael Keaton's version from the Burton movies!" you're not mistaken. Scroll down here and you'll see several comparison panels where Paul Gulacy clearly copied off of Batman Returns. I like to imagine Gulacy over his artwork, one hand holding a pencil and the other on the pause button of his VCR, just waiting for the right poses.

So yeah, these two pages serve less to further the plot than to catch up new readers on Hugo's deal. Here, Moench has Batman blatantly spell out the themes of what Hugo wants with (and represents for) Batman, something he *showed* rather than *told* in Prey. I'm not sure why Moench is bothering, since as you'll see, he's pretty much writing a water-down version of the same story anyway. We're off to a rough start, and it's about to get rougher once we check in with Hugo himself, secluded in his current hideout.

Yep, Hugo's brought along his mannequin girlfriend from Prey! Or more likely, it's a new mannequin, since I imagine the previous one was seized by the police. And burned.

The mannequin was one of the iffier aspects of Prey, a plot device used to show Hugo's private madness which ran the risk of making Hugo far too skeezy. Remarkably, Moench was able to pull it off thanks to a number of factors. First, Hugo was still genuinely brilliant and threatening to balance his creepy, otherwise-cartoony insanity. Secondly, it was foreshadowing for Hugo's use of both the mannequin as a gas-filled weapon against Batman, as well as the Thomas and Martha Wayne mannequins he planted in Wayne Manor to screw with Bruce's head. Finally, while it was hinted that Hugo would wine and dine with the lingerie-wearing mannequin (his "perfect woman," since Prey's Hugo was an insecure little man who loathed women), Moench never showed any indications that Hugo ever actually fucked the mannequin. She/it was mainly used as a sounding board for Hugo's ranting and raving.

That's the same purpose this new mannequin seems to be serving with Hugo's return. But by bringing it back too, Moench once again runs the risk of making Hugo too skeezy. Can Moench pull off that tricky balance a second time? Will the mannequin serve to foreshadow some new devious plot? Let's find out, as Hugo proceeds to set his plan into action using a dash cunning disguise and a totally inconspicuous name that doesn't sound fake in the least! CRIMINAL MASTERMIND IN ACTION, PEOPLE:

Seriously: cunning, cunning disguise! A bad hairpiece and an awkward pseudonym?

Also, yes, we're about to get the first-ever encounter between Jonathan Crane and Hugo Strange, who used a type of fear toxin decades before the Scarecrow made it his trademark! Do you suppose that's why Moench had brought these two characters together? Is he going to go somewhere with that connection? Or no, wait! Is it because they're both "professor" villains rooted in psychology? That'd make sense too! Really, those are both very logical, sensible reasons why these two would team up! Yep, they sure are! Surely, Doug Moench HAS to be using one or both of those! I mean, why else would he bother teaming them up? Without those reasons, a team-up between Strange and Crane would just be silly and pointless!

In Prey, Hugo used hypnosis to turn corrupt cop Max Cort into his pawn against Batman. He's now apparently trying the same with Crane, thus showing that Hugo has learned absolutely nothing from his last defeat. Anybody else starting to get the feeling that they've read all this and that they knew exactly where this is going?

Also, Crane has apparently been reduced to a meek shell of his former self, rather akin to when John Byrne did the same with Doctor Octopus. In that instance, Byrne showed Otto Octavius and Doc Ock as being two different personalities, and now I'm wondering if Moench is doing the same here with Crane and Scarecrow:

At this point, I should probably mention that this isn't the Scarecrow most people know. This is Doug Moench's Scarecrow. Doug Moench's Scarecrow is a very specific take on the character, defined by an entirely different origin and set of motivations. Whereas even Moench himself once understood Crane as a consummate intellectual, psychologist, and general man of science, by the time the Post-Crisis reboot era came about, Moench reimagined Crane as the ultimate dark bullied revenge fantasy.

In Batman Annual #19 (selected scans of which you can find over here at EmpireGrotesk's Tumblr, currently being posted day by day in order), Moench borrowed from the Penguin's origin of childhood bullying and ramped it up to making it Crane's lifelong bane, making him a villain driven by paranoia and emotion rather than cold, detached scientific logic. This wasn't a huge leap from the character at the time, since Alan Grant had already been writing the Scarecrow as a prancing, goofy, giggling sadist for a few years, but it solidified Crane as someone in it for revenge rather than for the intellectual pursuit. The above pages echo that same story in both plot details and art, including Paul Gulacy crecreating origin artist Brett Blevins' take on Jonathan Crane as an even lankier Sterling Holloway.

So yes, that's the Scarecrow we're dealing with in this story. Which is to say, this is Crane's equivalent to Moench's "THE DEATH SENTENCE!!!!1!!" take on Two-Face. You were warned.

After hypnotizing Crane's guard, Hugo manages to secret his "patient" out of Arkham, and the two head to Hugo's new headquarters: the seaside house of the old man whom Hugo murdered in the beginning! Isn't it a little risky to turn your recent crime scene into your new hideout? Eh, who am I to question Hugo's brilliance?

Y'know, I don't want to be "that fan" who nitpicks things like out-of-character dialogue... but still, Professor Jonathan Crane would never... ever.... ever utter the word "cool." Not unless he was quoting somebody else, his words dripping with academic disdain.

Also, I'm guessing that the hallucinogen used in "certain experiments" was the same that Strange used on Batman in Prey. Perhaps this is meant to be liquified Fear Dust? Could Moench finally be making a connection here? Maybe? Possibly? I'm doubtful, but eh, judge for yourself.

"Don't you be touchin' my beautiful mannequin wife, y'hear?" See, now this is just getting silly. I mean, sillier. It's kind of amazing how all of Hugo's presence as a threat is getting chipped away with every panel.

This is seriously, like, the third or fourth time that Hugo has broken into Wayne Manor and assaulted Alfred. Between Hugo, Ra's, Bane, and Hush, Alfred should just hand out punch-cards.

So hey, until today, I didn't realize that "mannikins" and "mannequins" were different things, with the former being used for medical purposes! Suddenly, Hugo's use of them actually seems less random! That said, the female ones who keeps for company always seemed more out of a department store than a medical school, but still, that actually makes some sense now!

Y'know, when Hugo broke into the mansion and left mannikins of Bruce's parents, it was a powerful and unnerving psychological attack that showed just how ruthlessly effective Hugo was at hitting Bruce where it hurts. That was awesome. But this just feels rehashed and pointless even from a psychological perspective, since Bruce doesn't seem at all affected any worse than usual. So what's the point? By not bringing anything new to the table, Strange went from being a dangerous psychological opponent and instead is now downgraded to a creepy stalker. But wait, it gets worse!

In case you're wondering why Hugo is speaking about the Scarecrow as if Crane were some kind of physical threat, Moench's Scarecrow is actually an adept physical fighter. Inspired by Ichabod Crane's dancing in Sleepy Hollow, Jonathan Crane invented a form of--I shit you not, Moench calls it this--"violent dancing," which he eventually combines with Crane style kung-fu. I suspect that Moench decided to make the Scarecrow a formidable opponent in battle because it was just easier than trying to write him from a psychological aspect. So yes, this Scarecrow is a fighter, but as Hugo notes, he still has a brain too. "Always thinking."

So seriously, what the hell is Hugo's plan here?! Does he have a solid purpose for bringing in the Scarecrow, and if so, shouldn't he already be prepared for the fallout that comes from trying to "cure" Crane? In any other Hugo Strange story, he'd already be three steps ahead of whatever's percolating in Crane's skinny little brain there. But no, I think that this Strange is being written like a typical dime-store villain whose arrogance isn't equal with their abilities (a fault from which classic Hugo has never suffered), and will thus prove to be their downfall. Hugo is literally better than this. He may be crazy, but he's never been stupid. But wait, maybe this Hugo isn't as stupid as he seems. Maybe he has a backup plan just in case the clearly-inevitable happens! Hell, look at that last panel above: he clearly suspects something! Surely he won't ignore that!

Yeah, what I was saying about Moench's use of the mannequin in Prey working because of how he used it for the plot, because otherwise it would have just been creepy for the sake of being creepy? Yeah, that.

So while any other Hugo Strange would have been seriously clued in by suspicious noises if not already well prepared for the Scarecrow's plans, this Hugo instead decides that it's a better use of his time to fuck a mannequin, and promptly pass out. That way, he can be taken completely unawares when faced with a shocking, totally-unforeseen betrayal!

Let's put this "twist" aside for a second and look at that line: "Jonathan Crane is gone for good, Dr. Strange! There's only ME now!" Looks like Moench went with the Byrne Doc Ock idea after all, even though it doesn't work for Crane at all. There's this bizarre idea going around fandom that Crane and the Scarecrow are separate personalities, something which Moench never indicated even in his previous origin story. It's a stupid idea, one not at all supported by most reputable fandom, and anybody who opts for this as their fandom instead is, quite frankly, an idiot. Crane is Scarecrow, Scarecrow is Crane, and that's that. If you doubt it, here, I'll let the Scarecrow himself (as played by Henchgirl) school you.

In the meantime, let's check back in with our regularly-scheduled pwning, already in progress:

Yes, Scarecrow, you sure "outwitted" the idiot who let you into his house, gave you full access to a chemistry lab, and decided to leave you to your devices while he fucked a mannequin. Yes, Professor Crane, that was surely a feat of considerable cunning and intellect!

Seriously: Moench has reduced Hugo Strange to this. After decades of being an unshakable, unbreakable master criminal, Hugo is now a skeezy pervert with no new ideas, no real plans, no foresight, and no skill, left to scramble and beg for mercy by the Scarecrow. Not just any Scarecrow, but THIS Scarecrow. Seriously, Hugo wouldn't have seen this coming from the moment he gave Crane access to fear toxin? He wouldn't have already inoculated himself with the antidote? It's not just stupid, it tears down any cred that he has as a villain in an attempt to build up Squishy here.


Seriously, that's "jumping on a bicycle with the seat missing" levels of ow.

Aaaaaaaand it all comes right back to the Scarecrow going after his old bullies. That's his big plan. Here's the thing: this is one of FIVE times that Moench has told this story. This is instance #4. The first instance was the origin, the second was a silly two-parter by Kelley Jones (the same run as The Face Schism), the third was in the vampire Batman Elseworlds Crimson Mist, this fourth was this, and the fifth was in the prose collection, The Forensic Files of Batman. Five stories, all the same story. You'd think Crane would have finally run out of high school bullies by this point!

Speaking as someone who was bullied relentlessly in school myself, it sickens me to see the persecuted become the persecutor, so I didn't really like this take on the Scarecrow the first time, much less the fourth. It's not even fresh by this point, but re-re-rehashed with the only addition being a house of horrors.

The Scarecrow tracks down one bully in an alleyway and slices the guy's head off with a scythe, because Crane knows subtlety. Batman intervenes, and we get an actual Batman/Scarecrow fight scene because Doug Moench really, really wants use to believe that Crane could take Batman in hand-to-hand combat:

That kick in the first panels made me realize something: Monech wants the Scarecrow to be the Rag Doll. Suddenly, everything makes sense. Also, that doesn't work at ALL. Stop trying to make these characters something they're not, Doug Monech!


Seriously, I know it's tricky trying to make the Scarecrow into a viable threat, but this is just insufferably annoying, all contemptuous YAP YAP YAP that won't end until he gets a bat-boot to the burlap. This right here, THIS is why I hated the Scarecrow until Henchgirl and captaintwinings came along and set me straight with their version derived from better canon.

Soon after this, Catwoman shows up to intervene. Actually, Catwoman's subplot with Batman is probably the biggest driving force of this story, which is why it's so popular with certain questionable aspects of Bat/Cat fandom. Considering how we're already established my feelings on Moench's handling of Batman/Catwoman flirtybantersexyangst, I see no reason to bog down this already-lengthy entry with those pointless scenes, do you? We're here for Hugo, after all! I mean, he's still alive, right? Has to be!

God, Batman's so bossy. "And while you're at it, Gordon, make me a sammitch!"

Yeah, in case you were thinking, "Psshh, Hugo Strange is a master at faking his death, surely he survived being impaled on the spike and has already made his escape," Moench already has you covered. And by you, I mean Hugo. And by covered, I mean "with rats." Also, apparently Hugo's grown fangs for some reason. Okay, then.

Well, then if Hugo's out of the picture, let's just fast-forward through the Catwoman angst and the Scarecrow's bully revenging, skipping past a whole issue or so straight to the big climax. Hope you don't mind me wanting to wrap this up.

Batman breaks into Hugo's patent's house Hugo Strange's hideout the Scarecrow's house of horrors, where he's been tormenting a pair of bullies from his high school days. Reeling from the effects of the new fear toxin, Batman frees the bullies (whom Moench have explicitly shown haven't learned a goddamn thing) and battles the Scarecrow, accidentally pulling them both into the cellar with Hugo's still-impaled body. The whole gang's there!

Fucking finally. I know that I said I'd try not to swear so much on this blog, but seriously, I can't restrain myself with this story.

Y'know, the idea that Moench!Scarecrow sees Batman as another bully is okay, but this too was something handled much better by other writers with Doctor Octopus. In a couple stories, Ock has been shown to assume that Spider-Man is just another handsome, popular bully jock, which we obviously know isn't the case with nerdy, persecuted Peter Parker. This misconception on Otto's side adds a whole new level of poignancy to both characters. Not so much with Moench!Scarecrow and Bruce, who's never been bullied in his life. In some ways, there's potential to this idea, addressing whether Batman is any kind of bully considering that he spends much of his time beating the crap out of the mentally ill, but Moench isn't interested in exploring that. Back to the death trap!

"Tatterdemalion of Terror?" Moench!Crane, either hire a publicist or stick with "Master of Fear," this isn't the 60's. Combine that with his shrieking and begging, and neither Crane nor Strange come off looking good in this story.

WHAT A TWIST! Okay, maybe not, since I'm sure you all figured there was a reason why I kept going with this story, not to mention Hugo's generally-unkillable nature. But seriously, this is the kind of awesome ridiculousness that I wish Moench used more in this story. Biding your mid-impalement time by eating rats and playing dead, all while still suspended mid-air by a weather vane through your back? That's kinda glorious, and something I could really buy only from Hugo.

Gotta admit, that's a pretty great escape. Whee!

Batman can't find Hugo's body in the dark water, but shrugs it off with a "Surely he HAS to be dead now, right?" Really, Hugo's Rasputin-like unkillability is the only real highlight of Terror for me, which ultimately feels like Moench rehashing two or three storylines from previous, better comics he's also written. Terror is a wholly pointless story, and what's worse, Hugo was never the same as a character.

Not that I actually blame Terror for all the shitty Hugo Strange stories that followed. I really don't. Moench's only real fault was in breaking Hugo's decades-long streak of awesomeness by clashing with Devin Grayson's superior Transference, and reducing Hugo's character to a sniveling sleazebag instead of a gloriously creepy bastard villain.

No longer was Hugo Strange the villain for the discerning Batman writer, popping up to be awesome and reference classic stories before drifting back into limbo. Hugo soon became just another member of the rogues gallery, and in that company, a nondescript character like him fades into the background as just being a crazy mad scientist. That said, there have been exceptions of greatness (or at least potential) amid the mediocrity, but we'll look at them all in future posts.

If you'd like to read Terror in full--including the extensive Catwoman subplot and full details of the Scarecrow's revenge campaign--both it and Prey are finally being collected in one single volume. It's probably the smartest thing to do, even if the sequel is vastly inferior, but the whole collection's worth tracking down for the first story alone.
Tags: catwoman, doug moench, hugo strange, jim gordon, non-two-face-related-ness, reading list: the complete hugo strange, scarecrow

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