Today, Drew and Michael are discussing Batman 14 originally released November 14th, 2012. This issue is part of the Death of the Family crossover event. Click here for complete DotF coverage.
Drew: Batman and the Joker are timeless. That is, they shift and adjust to the times. It gives them longevity, but it also makes pinning down the true nature of their conflict difficult. The Joker has been everything from a harmless prankster to a genociding psychopath, and Batman can range from avenging creature of the night to kid-friendly crime-stopper, so the fundamental nature of their relationship must lie deeper than superficial proclamations about color scheme, or even “seriousness.” The Dark Knight tilted at the deeper levels, but left them as overtones to the physical conflict. In Batman 14, Scott Snyder takes that subtext and makes it the text, delivering a surprising rumination on the nature of both detective stories and humor in general.
The issue opens with Bruce trapped in a slowly filling vat at ACE Chemicals. He escapes, of course, but not before insisting that the Joker shouldn’t have been able to survive his own encounter with those chemicals all those years ago. It’s the first hint of the Joker defying a sense of order Bruce is attempting to impose on the world, but it certainly isn’t the last.
Back at the manor, Bruce can’t find Alfred, and instead discovers a personalized message from the Joker. It’s a deliberate breadcrumb left by the Joker, but Bruce has to follow it, because it implicates Gordon is the next victim. It’s the first hint of Batman falling into a sense of order predicted by the Joker, but it certainly isn’t the last. In fact, Joker’s attack on Gordon — through a blood-thinner he somehow exposed him to — is another clue, which leads Bruce to the reservoir, where he’s convinced the Joker is attempting to relive yet another one of his early crimes.
Sure enough, the situation is almost exactly like it happened before, only this time, the Joker knows what’s coming, so he went ahead and arrived at the conclusion — which includes a handful of innocent yuppies — before Bruce can arrive to stop him.
It’s a shocking twist that smashes those two themes I highlighted above — Batman is predictable while Joker is unpredictable. Those strongly echo the “order vs. chaos” theme of The Dark Knight, but take a step to explain why those should be respectively tied to Batman and Joker. At his core, Bruce is a detective, someone who attempts to make sense of the world, following point A to point B to find order in the chaos. The Joker, on the other hand, is a, well, joker. Humor is a slippery subject, but most textbook definitions rely on some element of the unexpected to thwart our expectations. Any joke-smith will surely tell you that jokes are far from chaotic, but unpredictability is an inherent point in any punchline.
And that’s really what that twist is — a punchline. It’s the interrupting cow of evil villain plots. Bruce can’t see it coming, because he’s so caught up in figuring it out. He’s the ultimate straight man, which I think is a far more compelling reason for the Joker’s obsession with him than the fact that he dresses up and fights crime. More importantly, because Bruce is always going to follow point A to point B, it doesn’t take much for the Joker to predict his actions, even while the opposite is essentially impossible. It sets up an imbalance of knowledge that no amount of pre-planning on Bruce’s part can ever really prepare him for.
That imbalance of knowledge is the point of the rest of the Joker’s plan: he claims to know the identities of all of Batman’s allies, and he says Batman is going to kill them all within 72 hours. That reveal seems like falling action in light of the thwarted climax of their battle, but since Bruce ends the issue in Joker’s grip, you can bet this isn’t the end of it. It’s a thrilling second act, rich in the kinds of heady themes we’ve come to expect from Snyder.
Of course, it isn’t all about the themes. Snyder delivers some crushing emotional moments as Bruce fills Dick in about Alfred, or as Gordon looks back on the events of The Killing Joke. I was particularly moved by Bruce getting lost in his own head without Alfred to talk to. Bruce believes that the Joker is bluffing about knowing everyone’s secret identities, and that he really does want Alfred to serve at some kind of celebration, so he may be safer than it seems, but even having an issue without him has profoundly changed the way Bruce operates.
It’s also a gorgeous issue, with the entire artistic team coming together to create striking image after striking image. Penciller Greg Capullo and inker Jonathan Glapion consistently earn our praise, but I was particularly impressed with FCO Plascencia’s colors in this issue, from subtle lighting effects to his appropriately wet handling of water. My favorite moment has to be this one, as the blood-thinner takes hold of Gordon.
I can’t get over the impressionistic background — this scene takes place in Gordon’s bedroom — which gives the image a painterly quality that freezes the drama as a significant moment. That effect is enhanced by the black gutter that frames the page, a subtle detail that a lesser penciller might have ignored in favor of a full-page bleed.
There are other great panels and pages — including a number featuring imagery based on the Joker, which implies just how far he’s gotten under Bruce’s skin — but I’m already starting to ramble. Mike, this issue was so jam-packed, it’s hard to know where to point you to start. Maybe with the back-up I completely neglected to mention? I’ll leave that up to you.
Michael: When I was a kid, I was always most terrified of the Joker. As a 10 year-old, I hadn’t made any mortal enemies, stolen anything of value, or gotten in anyone’s way, so I really wasn’t too concerned with anyone exacting vengeance on me, righting any wrongs I’d committed, or wronging any rights I’d facilitated. And I wasn’t afraid of being an endangered bystander in any conventional sense; my 10 year-old-self managed to see True Lies at some point and it never occurred to me to be afraid of terrorists — kids are like the opposite of animals when it comes to premonition — since it never really seemed to serve the narrative to cause these people any real harm before the hero had a chance to save them. That left me with only the Joker as the single biggest imaginary threat in my life. I was his perfect target. No one would see it coming and I knew I didn’t deserve it.
In retrospect, what I was really afraid of was dramatic irony — the stuff out of Greek myth that makes the unexpected seem inevitable. This is where the Joker draws his power. As you mentioned, Drew, the Joker is not simply pure chaos, but more like perfect anathema to planning and precaution — more reactionary than random — as seen in his idea to “logically” get the casualties out of the way so he and Batman can have some fun. At this point in the series, Batman knows the Joker very well, and he seems to be worse off for it. He gets in his own head by trying to predict his enemy’s madness and trying to protect his allies by concealing emotion.
But just like Oedipus, the more he tries to plan ahead, to fortify, to outmaneuver, the more doomed he becomes. The patterns he seems to recognize conspire against him when he attempts to extrapolate, because those patterns are false. The only thing the Joker cares about is a fresh, unexpected punchline — any expectations you have only serve to make it that much funnier when you’re wrong.
Oh. I’d meant to talk about the back-up with the Joker and Penguin, but perhaps that’s for the next issue. Suffice it to say, I’m always delighted when the Joker goes to great lengths (killing every crime-boss in Gotham and framing Penguin as blackmail) to do something burlesque (like planning a fancy villain party with Batman’s butler).
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