by Spencer Irwin
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
It takes quite a bit of hubris to think you can singlehandedly end crime, even in just one city. I’ve never been a fan of the interpretations that paint Batman as insane or as the genesis of his own enemies, but I do think there’s some merit to examining the negative effects his crusade on crime may create. That’s exactly what Tom King and Mikel Janin seem ready to do in “The War of Jokes and Riddles,” a storyline pitting the Joker and the Riddler against each other in a city-wide gang war that, of course, Batman blames himself for.
In fact, Batman’s guilt is built into the very foundation of Batman 25, wherein King and Janin frame their flashback story as a confession of sorts from Bruce to Selina Kyle. Bruce seems to feel guilty for something he does to end the war, but it’s easy to imagine that he feels just as bad about his role, unwitting as it is, in starting it in the first place.
Essentially, Batman’s so good at his job that he’s robbed Joker and the Riddler of the one thing they love most: humor and a challenge, respectively. Both these compulsive men feel the need to kill Batman themselves to reclaim what they’ve lost, and that drives them to war because, of course, they can’t let the other kill Batman, right?
Of course, Batman’s “crime” isn’t that he’s foiled these criminals’ plans; it’s that he was unable to anticipate how his actions, as necessary as they may have been to save lives and save Gotham City, would fuel his enemies’ madness. It’s that Batman thought he had “pushed [Gotham] into the light,” when all he had done was survive the first salvo.
This “nap of satisfaction” — which you could easily rename the “nap of hubris” — is one Batman will likely regret for the rest of his days, and is almost definitely the source of much of his more paranoid and obsessive behavior. So, the fact that Bruce is now confessing his guilt to Selina is a good sign, right? A sign that he’s trying to change, trying to live up to the commitment he’s made to Selina? That would be wonderful, but alas, Batman doesn’t change that easily. Let’s see the rest of the guilt King and Janin have planned to dump on Batman by this arc’s conclusion before we jump to any conclusions.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?
It feels like a weird elseworlds story because of king’s disregard for continuity I think. This doesn’t fit anywhere in the timeline. He says its after long Halloween, but that ends in tragedy and Batman realizing he doesn’t have a full handle on the city. In this issue, Batman says Gotham is bright and almost saved though, and Batman can rest peacefully in the evening. Batman is being all peaceful and bright after Harvey turned into a villain, and a ton of super powered villains who kill are loose because of Batmans fault? That has never happened. I also have a huge problem with joker saying he is losing to Batman, and that makes it no fun. Joker has killed tons of people and makes a victory in battle with Batman,whenever he kills a single person, and Batman wins when he stops it. Joker is winning at this point becaus he has killed more than Batman can stop him. I don’t get why Joker would be unhappy, when he is winning his war. Also, this war of jokes and riddles feels pointless since the joker needs Batman and game would be over if Batman died.
I haven’t read King’s interview mentioning the Long Halloween, but I can’t really fit Long Halloween into New 52/Rebirth continuity anyway; Tomasi already gave Two-Face an entirely new origin in Batman and Robin and, as far as I’ve seen, the Batman books haven’t been actively retconning away New 52 history the way that, say, the Flash has. As far as I can tell this storyline is taking place a year after Zero Year, and is probably the first time a lot of Batman’s rogues have started to interact and team-up. If anything, I feel like this storyline may be King’s ode to Long Halloween — in spirit, if not exact plot corelation — but I’ll hold off for a few issues before committing to that interpretation.
Joker, meanwhile, is a character with so many differing motives and personas that Grant Morrison had to invent some sort of hyper-insanity in order to reconcile them all. The Dark Knight Joker needs Batman and would never try to murder him — the animated series Joker wanted only to kill Batman, and would become violently jealous whenever another villain tried to take that honor away from him (“The Man Who Killed Batman,” “Mad Love”). A Joker who wants to kill Batman is just as valid a take as one who doesn’t, but I can also see it being a bit of progression on Joker’s part. At this early point in their relationship, Joker sees Batman as an impediment to his humor, an obstacle who must be killed, but by the time “Death in the Family” rolls around he essentially loves him. What happens to get Joker to that point? Maybe this storyline will show us that progression? We know he won’t remain laughless forever, so something’s gonna happen in this story to change that.
Honestly, to me, the Dark Knight made very clear that all versions of the Joker do have a single motivation. The Joker wants proof that he isn’t alone, that he’s not different from everyone else. That he isn’t an aberration.
The Dark Knight Joker changed his mind about whether or not he wants Batman dead, because ultimately, it isn’t about Batman. He wants to prove that everyone is as ugly as him, and every action he makes is designed to place people in a series of moral choices designed specifically to prove that people are just like him.
The animated series Joker doesn’t want to kill Batman, he wants to kill Batman in a funny way. And since laughing together is an act of empathy, he is trying to connect to others and prove his fundamental humanity through the brutal murder of Batman.
The Killing Joke Joker wants to prove that everyone is like him, and they just need one bad day. Morrison’s Joker is constantly trying to get everyone to understand that there is no great meaning, no great plan. That everything is a farce (red and black means nothing, Hurt defeated by a banana peel). Snyder’s Joker tries to build a world where he is part of the family in Death of the Family, and Endgame is him sulking because he was rejected. Arkham Origins’ Joker, my favourite example of an early Joker story, initially doesn’t care about Batman, wanting to kill him solely for revenge for pushing him into the vat of acid. But then he truly meets Batman for the first time and gets obsessed. Unable to reconcile Batman with his new worldview, he has this impossible need to prove that Batman is not what he appears to be.
It always come down to a need to prove to others that he is like them. That he’s not crazy, just ahead of the curve. The idea that everyone else isn’t secretly a murderous, egotistical nihilist is too scary to comprehend, and so he does everything he can to prove that everyone, especially Batman, are just like him. Because if they aren’t, there is something wrong with him. And he refuses to admit that.
The way this manifests changes a lot. He’s the Joker, and part of his insanity is the how his very personality is inconsistent. But in every story that counts, that is his goal. His motivations, his goals are very consistent. It is literally everything else that is changeable.
The thing that struck me was how unmotivated the Joker shooting the Riddler was. The Joker may be insane, but that doesn’t mean his actions are illogical. It means that they run on logic that doesn’t make sense. From what I saw, Spencer is wrong. The War of Jokes and Riddles didn’t start because the Joker and the Riddler couldn’t let the other kill Batman. Because the whole point is that both of them are depressed because neither of them can get the success they want. So why shoot the Riddler? What possible reason does the Joker get from shooting the one guy who has offered a solution?
Because the Joker isn’t utterly random. He has wants and needs just like anyone else. And they generally come down to finding ways to kill/corrupt Batman or prove Batman wrong. Why the hell would he act against both his wants and his needs?
This arc was already a fundamentally bad idea to follow up last issue (if you are going to successfully pull of a romance between Bruce and Selina, you need to actually do something with Selina. Not just find more excuses to wallow in Bruce’s manpain). But we should at least expect things as simple as ‘motivated character actions’