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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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