Batman 14

Alternating Currents: Batman 14, Drew and Michael DFToday, 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.

"Yuppies are people, too!"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.

Gordon bleeds in Batman's armsI 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).

For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page.  Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore.  If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there.  There’s no need to pirate, right?

23 comments on “Batman 14

  1. My heart fell into my gut when Alfred said he was blindfolded. Snyder is spinning this into an old-fashioned horror flick; there’s gore, to be sure, but the real horror comes from the tension of suspense and the (usually terrible) reveal.

    • Mine as well. Putting Alfred in the crossfire is horrifyingly logical for a story arc titled “Death of the Family”. I keep wondering how, if he does get out of it, Alfred will return to 100%. Maybe Batman and Cyborg could fashion something up for him… an ocular substitute?

      I don’t know. What I do know is Scott Snyder is playing my heartstrings like a skilled professional, and that knowing suspense is both intriguing me and destroying me.

  2. An important thing about the backup we failed to mention: It looks like Joker really is planning a celebration of sorts, which mean’s it’s possible he really did just need a butler, and has know idea Bruce Wayne is Batman. I guess this is as good a time as any: do we think that book actually contains their identities, or do you think this is all a bluff?

      • But they’re not guesses, they’re informed assaults on known allies of Batman (and Batman, Incorporated). I actually really like the idea that the Joker doesn’t need to know secret identities – he can play this deeply personal game without them. That only further demonstrates his point about Batman getting too chummy with people.

  3. In Grant Morrison’s Batman run, Bruce breaks in to save his love at the time [Jezabell Jet] and his mask is off. She discovers he is Batman and sort of shouts it, like an idiot. In the cell next to her was none other than The Joker.

    Grant never has formally said if Joker overheard it or not, and I’m assuming his run is still in continuity with Batman & Robin 0 showing major plot vignettes and beats from it. So… that might be the place where Joker first started suspecting Bruce was Batman–since before I doubt he even cared.

    • I mean, there are lots of places in that story where he could have figured it out — including much of the action of Morrison’s Batman and Robin taking place in and around Wayne Manor — but I’m not convinced the specifics of Morrison’s run are canon. Like, I think Dick was Batman for a while, but I’m not sure it’s because Bruce was skipping through time. At any rate, the Joker claims his knowledge revolves around some secret only he and Batman know. If such a secret exists (and I’m really not sure it does), my guess is that we also don’t know it — it’s not going to come from something Dick would also know (like the events of Batman RIP), or any of the rest of the family. Bruce says the Joker is lying about that secret, and I tend to trust his instincts.

      • I think this issue proves pretty well that Batman’s instincts are not to be trusted 100% when it comes to the Joker, though.

        • Well, sure, he’s not really equipped to anticipate what the Joker is going to do (because nobody is), but he does know what interactions he’s had with Joker. If he says there’s no way based on their interactions that the Joker could know, then I believe him.

  4. The Joker may be unpredictable when it comes to specifics, but there is one constant: his fixation on Batman. That in itself is a huge potential weakness that I can’t believe Bats hasn’t used in some way against him… yet. I mean Batman will at some point figure out that his usual methods are worthless against the Joker… he simply has to. Then things will get very interesting indeed.

    Actually, your assertion about Batman being the ultimate straight man reminds me of how Terry McGinnis managed to defeat the old clown using unconventional tactics…

    By the way, you guys are by far the most intelligent comic book readers I’ve stumbled across on the Net! Really fascinating and insightful analysis, guys. Bookmarked. I think retcon is going to become one of my regular haunts. Keep up the great work!

    • Glad you found us, and thanks for commenting!

      Yeah, it seems like Snyder is really railing on Bruce’s predictability vs. the Joker’s unpredictability — a theme he’s subtly enhanced by having the Joker repeating his crimes, giving us a frame of reference only to throw it out the window. I’m not sure how Bruce will overcome that, though it’s interesting that between Damian and Jason, he’s got some of his own unpredictable agents, too.

      What’s really interesting to me is how Snyder wraps these themes up in the end. I assume the Joker is defeated, but exactly how is going to have some pretty profound repercussions, philosophically. Will logic and reason triumph over chaos outright, or will Bruce have to compromise his values to win it? Is it as black and white as Joker and Batman play it, or is there room for shades of gray? Even if nobody dies (as I suspect no one will), the conclusion of this story is going to have a profound impact on Batman going forward.

  5. I find I have a hard time really drilling into these issues. If I don’t take the time to sit back and appreciate the story as a whole, I’m afraid I’ll miss the forest for the trees; I don’t want to get so caught up in the minutiae that I lose sight of the arc.

    • It’s always a tough balance, but for a smart writer like Snyder, a lot of the enjoyment lies in the details. Not saying we need to scrutinize just how the Joker got the Heparin into Gordon’s system, but there’s a lot of substance to dig into here. Obviously, we can’t digest it thoroughly until we have a broader context for it, but so much of Snyder’s writing is about the themes, that there’s enough to think about even without that context. That’s probably why I like thinking about his issues so damn much.

      • I personally like that I don’t need to worry about whether I’m paying attention to the forest OR the trees – I’m going to have an enjoyable read either way. That’s what Snyder has such an awesome handle on – this shit is scary and fun and exciting, even if you’re not digging for the juicy bits. But it’s all in here, and it’s all a delight.

  6. There’s a lot to absorb here, and I’m not sure I’ve done it yet. The issue is a home run on a lot of different levels (the rumination on the Batman/Joker relationship, the Alfred phone call, the Gordon hospitalization) but if I felt that the issue had any flaw for me then I think it was the cliffhanger: “Every member of the Bat family is going to die within 72 hours, and Batman is going to be the one to do it” is a pretty straight-forward mandate punctuating a sometimes obtuse and delirious change in MO for Joker following his return. Juxtaposed to how much I loved the ominous two-headed-cub in the lets-hammer-Alfred cliffhanger, this one has me feeling more like I did after the zero issue: what’s the fun in spelling it out? I suppose it’s just the set-up for Joker’s version of a punchline like analyzed above. I just don’t think it makes a great cliffhanger. Let’s be clear though, I love this book and this issue on nearly all fronts, its just that you guys already touched on all of the positive stuff

  7. Hadn’t posted about this issue so far because it’s so good I basically have nothing to add, but I just noticed a fun visual tidbit I thought I would share. Go to the page where Batman listens to Joker’s tape (p.7 or 8 I think), the panel to the right in the middle of the page show’s Bruce’s stereo, and the level columns above are green like joker’s hair, the volume knobs look like eyes and there’s a red line sort of like a smile below where the tape goes in, just as the words “hahaha!” are heard on the tape, I caught it on my second read and thought it was super clever.

    One thing I don’t get though, is on the previous page, what’s with that one panel where the tape is in a plastic bag that wasn’t shown in the previous or the following panel? Anyone understand what that was about?

    • Yeah, I really wanted to include that image, but I was already starting to ramble. The purple wrapping paper with the green ribbon was also incredibly effective Joker imagery.

      I think that was an evidence bag. Bruce was going to take it down to the lab to analyze it, but then his need to know what happened to Alfred won out, and he listened to it right there in his living room. It’s an understated beat, but it speaks volumes about how the Joker has gotten to Bruce, cracking his stony facade.

  8. Pingback: Swamp Thing 15 | Retcon Punch

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