Batman 39

Alternating Currents: Batman 39, Michael and Drew

Today, Michael and Drew are discussing Batman 39, originally released February 25th, 2015.

Michael: When it comes to Batman, Joker stories are pretty much hit or miss. We’ve seen great successes and failures in film, animation, television (I’m looking at you Gotham), and of course, comic books. He’s an iconic character that has been built up to mythic proportions equal to (or greater) than Batman’s. Counting the Joker’s brief appearance in his Detective Comics run, this is Scott Snyder’s third stab at the Clown Prince of Crime. To make a truly remarkable Joker story, the approach to the Joker and how the story is told have to be changed.

Batman 39 begins with the image of an upside down bat-signal: Joker’s secret pact with the rest of Gotham’s villains as a tribute to Batman on the day he dies. From there we return to a few hours prior, where Batman is confronting the Court of Owls about the Joker’s supposed immortality and Dionesium — the chemical that has given Joker said immortality. Batman doesn’t have time for the Court’s bullshit this time, and cuts off the leader’s monologue with an explosive batarang. He then faces Uriah Boone, one of the oldest Talons, and gets some answers about the Joker that aren’t shared with us readers. We discover that, back in Batman 38, the Joker took his deep dive into the river to find his way into the batcave, where he steals the majority of Batman’s trophies and severs Alfred’s hand. The Joker is throwing a “day of the dead” type parade and Batman calls upon the family as well as some of his worst enemies to help him extract the dionesium from the Joker’s spine and save Gotham.

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One thing that really caught my attention was the amount and frequency of narrative time jumps. I went back and checked the previous Endgame chapters; the only one that employed this technique was the first, Batman 35. That issue only had one or two time jumps — a typical comic book technique where we are the reader is thrown into the action in medias res, and all is explained later. Batman 39 has SIX of these narrative time jumps. We begin in the present with the upside down bat signal, transition to four hours ago in the Court’s lair, back to the present, then to three hours ago, back to the present, one hour ago and ending at the present once more.

The short answer for why Snyder used this particular technique is the reason most writers use it: it’s a concise and simple way to convey important story information. But as much info that is provided by backtracking a bit, there are missing beats to this story. One particular plot point is obviously missing — the answer to Batman’s question: “Is the Joker immortal?” Endgame has been pretty linear storytelling thus far, so for Snyder to switch it up before the big showdown throws us off a bit — probably intentionally. Each chapter of “Endgame” has had one big shocking revelation or another. Not to downplay Alfred’s hand getting cut off, but I feel that Snyder is going for a different kind of shock here in this change in storytelling approach.

Like any Batman writer worth his salt, Snyder knows that the Joker never comes back the same. He’s described “Death of the Family” as Joker’s love letter to Batman, while “Endgame” is the exact opposite. This is the Joker as I want to see him — an unrelenting force of nature that has absolutely no fear. The conclusion of Death of the Family saw a “break in character” for Joker when Batman threatened to reveal his identity. That type of nerve is nowhere to be seen here.

Nothing can stop the Joker from performing his latest joke, including whatever it was that tore through his face in the Batcave entrance (it kind of irked me that we didn’t see that part btw.) This is a Joker so confident in himself and his plan to defeat Batman that he’s already throwing a funeral parade for his still-living nemesis. It’s a scene that’s somewhat reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Batman, if the entire crowd had been previously Joker-ized. That’s not the only reference to other Joker stories of course. The speech that the Joker makes about the futile struggle of life feels like its straight out of The Killing Joke. The Joker has overrun the city, and it seems that he has installed some of his own artwork as well. If you look at Greg Capullo’s double-page spread of the parade, you can see a laughing fish, an owl (?), Joker with his face mask and a mouth eating a bullet with chopsticks. Pure Jokerish anarchy.

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I’ll let Drew dive into things a little more, but here are a couple other things that struck me: Alfred vs. the Joker was a battle of performers; the Joker even dubbed himself an improviser so it could be improv vs. script. When Batman is narrating about how the last time that he believed he was going to die when he was in the cave:

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He mentions a fly landing on his lip. Throughout “Death of the Family” and when we finally saw Joker in the flesh in Batman 36, the fly was a symbol Snyder and Capullo used for the Joker. It can’t be a coincidence that it’s used here, right? Basically what I’m getting at is that Snyder is saying that Batman will never let himself go into that tempting, peaceful darkness; the Joker will always bring him out of it. Awesomeness. Alright Drew, give me your thoughts! Did you think it was kind of whack that we didn’t see what hit the Joker in the face in the cave? I thought it was a misplaced page at first. Also, tell me your thoughts on flies.

Drew: Michael, you’re reading on Snyder’s use of flies is compelling, but my take is actually slightly different. I’m totally with you on the significance of the fly in pulling Bruce from the brink, but I’m less convinced that they represent the Joker, specifically. In fact, I might argue that they represent some kind of greater elemental force — perhaps Snyder? — that threw Bruce a lifeline when he first fell into the cave. For me, the difference boils down to how the flies functioned in “Death of the Family” — they didn’t represent life so much as the decay we associate with death. For me, that decay was indicative of Joker’s overuse as a character, and that he was waling around in spite of it hinted at Snyder’s attitudes about him. That’s not to suggest that the Joker needs to be retired permanently, but he may need some cooling off to regain the kind of visceral horror Snyder was able to evoke during his Detective Comics run.

And that seems to be Snyder’s attitude, as well. He’s been very open about this being a farewell of sorts to the Joker, and I think that’s fitting with my read of those flies — Joker’s “death” came in “Death of the Family,” making this his eulogy. In keeping with that idea, Snyder and Capullo have packed this issue full of tributes to classic Joker stories in quite the same way Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert did for Batman in Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? As Michael already pointed out, there are references on references in this issue from classic comics stories to tv and film incarnations. In that way, Joker’s unexplained cheek scars don’t strike me as a skipped beat so much as a tribute to one of the more distinctive characteristics of The Dark Knight‘s take on the character.

Of course, Joker’s mysterious wounds may also highlight one of the features of all this time-skipping: it’s easy for Snyder to elide some important detail until it’s convenient. We see this play out in miniature with the reveal that all of the baddies are helping with the plan — we’re shown only Batman’s allies fighting their way towards Joker before that reveal happens a couple pages later. Michael picked out the big one left hanging over the issue — namely, Boone’s answer to Batman’s question — but I’m also struck at the way the backup inverts that expectation.

I’d suspected all along that none of the Arkham patients’ stories were right, but I didn’t expect James Tynion IV to dig back to “Zero Year” to question the quasi Joker origin told there. Specifically, it invalidates the theory that the Joker is Liam Distal.

The story you wanted

This is particularly significant for me, since my read of that detail suggested Snyder and Tynion’s opinion of Bill Finger’s role in Batman’s origin (“Liam” being the irish variant of “William”, and “Distal” is a term used to describe parts of limbs furthest from the center mass, like toes or fingers). That Distal played such a pivotal role in Batman’s in-universe origin was a tribute to the role Finger played in Batman’s real-world origin, but I was particularly intrigued at the lengths Snyder and Tynion wend to obfuscate this nod. Could such a tribute be subversive or even banned for a character whose every appearance still featured “created by Bob Kane” in the credits? In spite of Tynion and Snyder both assuring me that it was nothing so scandalous, I still had my suspicions (what can I say? It was an exciting theory!), but Joker’s assertion here that Liam Distal’s role was entirely fictional pretty well puts that theory to rest.

What’s ingenious about that backup is the way it doesn’t quite say that none of the origins are true, which I think is important, even if I don’t like the idea of Joker having a concrete origin. I mean, wouldn’t making it 100% clear that he isn’t Liam Distal reduce the list of possible origins (however imperceptibly), making his actual origin less mysterious? In making every origin a story Joker told, it pulls the same trick that Heath Ledger did with his scar story — any of them could be true, many of them must be false, but what story is told when seems to depend on the person he’s telling it to.

That kind of context dependence circles back to all of the references Snyder and Capullo cram into the feature. The Joker is different every time he appears because the audience needs him to be. In that way, he doesn’t really have any feature of his character that is concrete. I suppose that’s fitting for a character who might functionally be dead, already, but that doesn’t mean I have any clue how the next issue will play out. I can’t wait.

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?

26 comments on “Batman 39

  1. I love your theory on Liam Distal, Drew, whether it’s in canon or not. And your breakdown of his name is something straight from the deductive reasoning of Batman himself. (“You’re right, Alfred–I never even considered the Irish variation of ‘Liam’… And Distal–of course!”)

    Meanwhile, where the influences and legacies of past creators’ Joker stories are prevalent–laughing fish, gaudy parade, etc–what do you think Snyder and Capullo’s defining mark will be? The facial mask tied to his head? Surely that’s been a distinctive characteristic for much of new 52 Joker, but wasn’t that a conceit brought about by Tony Daniel in Detective Comics’ early run? Mind you, Snyder and Capullo have no doubt taken that idea and made it their own, but still… maybe it will be Joker’s a creature of myth and immortality. Who knows, eh?

    • Yup, the faceless-Joker is totally a Daniel invention. If Snydies and Capullo claimed it in some way, it’s in how Joker insisted on strapping it back on his own non-face. Of course, that’s all gone now. But I think that’s mostly them just being good with the elements they’re handed, so I’m not sure I can put my finger on what makes their specific take something that will be emulated or called back in the future.

      Maybe this immortality angle is all theirs? That takes the “no origin” concept and stretches out – now you can’t even pinpoint a decade of origin.

  2. The time jumps are a pretty solid way to communicate the disorientation Batman must be feeling in all this. I mean, he’s allying himself with Owls and debating Joker’s immortality – that’s some confusing headspace to be in. Plus, even Drew’s super-fun detective work starts to get muddier! We just can’t nail down Joker and we just can’t nail down this story, which is pretty rad.

  3. You know, I would’ve swore that Joker’s face scar came from Alfred shooting him, but no, that only took off part of his ear. Hm. Now I’m wondering if that will be significant. Nice catch, Michael — I spent that entire issue just assuming Alfred took off half his face.

  4. Hey, so I never addressed the scene with Alfred, but it’s super weird, right? I mean, I appreciate why that scene is there — Snyder needed to explain how Joker got all of the trophies from the Batcave — but the confrontation with Alfred is really strange. Why don’t we see him after this? I’m used to off-camera deaths that turn out to not be deaths, but I’m really not sure what to make of an off-camera survival. I don’t necessarily think that Alfred’s dead, but that very well could be the shake-up Snyder has hinted this arc ends with. I could see Julia lying about this to Bruce to keep him going. Then again, I’m still not convinced this isn’t all a Scarecrow Toxin nightmare.

    • Yeah, I was trying to work out that scene too. The chopping off of hands is such a standard HORRIBLE THING to happen to comic book characters, but I’m not sure if they’re making a statement about that practice or just engaging in it. Alfred’s gonna live through this, that’s where my money is.

      • I think he’ll live through it, too, but I expect to see Julia remain in his role while he’s on the mend throughout the storyline beginning in issue 21 (which promises different landscapes, so I’m kind of hoping for a new costume, some plane/vehicle action, lots of daylight action, and some mission statement reason to be galavanting around the globe like Bond.)

    • He already sorta handwaved the face thing away in his explanation of being Doctor Whatshisface, right? I think that’s actually a pretty compelling piece of ambiguity – if he is some immortal agent of chaos, regenerating his own face should be no problem. OR there’s a logical explanation. WHO KNOWS!

      • Here’s my big question with the whole face regeneration bit. He gets his face cut off in New 52 Detective #1, and is gone from comics for a year. His absence is referred to in-story as having been lengthy. He comes back 12 issues later, and his cut off face hasn’t healed one bit. He leaves for the same ammount of time between Death Of The Family and Zero Year, but this time it’s 100% healed when he comes back. Those seem to be 2 identical periods of time with vastly different regeneration results (none, and then all). I wonder if this is something they overlooked or evidence that he has only recently gotten his regeneration abilities.

        • I’m not holding my breath on that one. He’s dispelled that notion in interviews with the statement “It’s all absolutely real. It’s really happening” or something very straightforward to that effect. Of course, he could be having a J.J. Abrand “Benedict Cumberbatch is not playing Khan in this film. The rumors are false.” but I’m reticent to believe it.

        • Eh, Snyder himself said something very similar about Rotworld, and we all know how “real” that ended up being.

        • I didn’t even read that, but I was extremely suspicious from the get-go that a storyline with drastic effects to the overall DC universe wouldn’t be exclusively playing out in 2 low-to-moderate-circulation cult titles. I mean that would’ve been a more drastic shake-up than Zero Hour, which was billed and promoted as being a Crisis-level event. Here, at least, Snyder has earned a huge amount of editorial leverage and his decisions seem to only be effecting Gotham. I dare say he has carte blanche.

        • To be fair, we don’t really know what’s going on under that meat-mask during the Death of the Family. He may have already had the facial reconstructive surgery at that point and was just healing?

        • Not to be too gruesome about it, but we do see a lot of meat under there; no lips, side-head meat. LOL.

        • Now I’m just really interested in the idea of Joker as a horror FX superfan, like little Tommy Jarvis. He did create fake face skins for the Batfamily in that very arc!

        • Dollmaker would have to be in on it of course BUT we do see the Dollmaker being in on his plans at the end of Death of the Family anyway. MOGO – WE JUST BLEW THIS THING WIDE OPEN.

        • It’s totally plausible, you’re right! It would be curious to see Snyder directly following up on Daniel’s abandoned plot threads. Daniel is a very nice man but I did detect a hint of resentment about the whole business when I asked him about it at a signing. DC obviously made the right move handing the plot to Snyder, regardless.

  5. Well, we got our announcement: As of Batman 41, Bruce is no longer Batman. It’s about as shocking a developement as I could expect. Sure, Bruce was “dead” for 2 years after RIP/Final Crisis, but I get the feeling that Scott Snyder doesn’t plan to write Bruce as Batman at any point during the remainder of his run, which leaves me both excited and a bit sad. I suspect now that both Bruce and Joker will be killed in Endgame’s final chapter in the vain of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem, to be revealed as having survived in Snyder’s final issues.

    • I still think he might kill Joker and then step down as Batman — I like Bruce’s emotional journeys whenever he leaves the mantle to someone else for a while.

      • Yeah, that’s definitely a possibility. I do think it’s strange that Bruce Wayne is omitted from the Batman Beyond book in June’s relaunched and singular future DCU timeline. I also expect Bruce to be Batman in Darkseid War and in Bryan Hitch’s JLA, so I think we’re getting into the murky waters of DC’s abandonment of continuity in favor of canon. How long and how successful will Snyder’s All-New Batman have to be for a mandate to force that iteration into the wider DC team books, if ever.

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