by Ryan Desaulniers and Mark Mitchell
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.
Jim Gordon, The Dark Knight
Ryan: Since that line was uttered in lamentation of Gotham’s corruption, I feel as if it’s almost become a canonical outlook on the Caped Crusader. The thing about that line, though, is that it’s purely subjective on Gordon’s part, and particular unto the circumstances of that Batman story in that film. And almost every statement can be used against the point for which it was originally made, right? Even scientists with objective data sets can use the same numbers to support the opposite side of an argument, or the same verse of scripture used to prove opposing points. In Batman: White Knight 1, Sean Murphy takes Jim Gordon’s iconic statement and uses it to sow the seeds of a Gotham wherein the Joker justifies his action with that logic, both as a villain and a hero.
Sean Murphy drops us into this idea with a nice little bait and switch as the top of the issue. We see a figure approaching Arkham Asylum in the Bat-mobile, being ushered in by guards, and going to an occupied cell. The mini-reveal is that it is the Joker — called “Mr. Napier” by the guard — coming to a shackled Batman, tapping the World’s Greatest Detective for help in what we can assume is a case on which Mr. Napier needs help solving. While I’m still unsure as to why the administration in Arkham would allow an inmate to continue wearing their costume — as it’s Batman we see, not Bruce Wayne in an orange jumpsuit — this opening still sets the tone very well for the places which Murphy wants to take us.
Then we hop back a year to a seemingly by-the-books Batman chase scene as he, Batgirl, and Nightwing pursue a recently escaped Joker through the streets of Gotham. This time, however, something’s off. Batman seems reckless in his ways, endangering civilians as he tries to catch the Clown Prince, and callous as both Barbara and Dick try to cool Batman down. The end result: Batman brutalizing the Joker in front of the GCPD, his teammates/family, and a woman taking a cell phone video. While this inciting incident took more time than I anticipated, the importance of the reader believing that Batman is indeed in a particularly volatile place — which might actually justify the Joker’s new tactics — is paramount to the storytelling.
This is when we first see Joker’s new rhetoric come to light. While the idea that much of Batman’s rogues’ gallery arose from the actions of Batman/Bruce Wayne is nothing new by this point in the Dark Knight’s tenured career, I enjoy seeing how Murphy implements it here as the rationale behind the new challenge Joker lays down: Joker can fix Gotham.
As the issue goes on, I’m glad that Murphy isn’t endeavoring to give readers an entirely sympathetic view of Jack Napier’s past to try to pluck at our heart-strings. Thus far, he’s shown us this nice little page to sum up what the Joker’s all about:
I really enjoy Murphy’s pencils, here. He has this very linear, kind of geometric quality which couples well with his ability to send up certain distinguishing features in a character. Pairing his up with superstar colorist Matt Hollingsworth, who I note for his incredible ability to mat h the colors of an issue with its thematic tone like in Fraction/Aja’s Hawkeye run, seems like a huge win for a Joker story.
I think it’s pretty great that DC put their trust in such a big “Elseworlds” kind of story in the hands of a writer/artist like Murphy — the writer/artist being a bit of a dying breed in mainstream comics, which often makes me miss the likes of Mike Mignola. There’s a lot of stuff happening in this title, though, and I’m keen to read on. Perhaps my biggest curiosity, though, is with the idea that both the audience and the city of Gotham will be able to suspend their disbelief over the fact that the Joker, with his prolific history of domestic terrorism, can turn into a hero within the span of one year while Batman devolves into another Arkham inmate. Mark, do you think it’s do-able? They’re using the idea police brutality and corruption to try to help the process along. Do you think that the politics under the surface of the issue will or should take a larger role as the series continues?
Mark: I’m surprised how easily I bought into the idea of the Joker as sane and reformed. I think a lot of the success of creating a (for lack of a better term) grounded Joker comes from Murphy’s decision to not make this version of the Joker the most popular incarnation of the Joker: an unknowable, birthed in mystery, force-of-nature. Mystery Joker can be incredibly compelling as a villain, but wouldn’t be convincing as a protagonist. Readers need to understand a hero’s motivation to really root for their success. It makes sense, then, that Murphy’s Joker is not a mystery; he has a name, he has a history, he has motivations for his actions outside of chaos and destruction. In essence, Napier is relatable — surprisingly relatable — in a way Batman can never be. Batman can be aspirational, but he’s not really relatable.
It also happens to be that Napier speaks to something I think a lot of people are feeling right now. Speaking outside of comic books, the world is filled with news of abuses of power, police brutality, inequality, and despicable acts of hate all masquerading as some grotesque caricature of Justice. It feels like in the real world there are no consequences for these perpetrators of injustice, and that their cruelty and malice are just being rewarded with more power. There’s a certain catharsis, then, in seeing Murphy’s power-crazed, unhinged Batman get taken down a peg. Why is Batman above the law? Why does Commissioner Gordon allow the police to be complicit in Batman’s actions? Commissioner Gordon is supposed to be one of the good guys, so why doesn’t he do something as Batman grows dangerous?
It makes too much sense right now that the Joker, normally a violently chaotic variable in a world striving for order, would be the most rational element in a world spinning out of control.
Well, seemingly the most rational. My worry is that this is all going to end with the world “righting” itself—with Batman exonerated and the Joker back behind bars in Arkham Asylum. It’s not like we haven’t seen that story before, where a villain appears to be reformed, only for it to be later revealed that they’ve been pretending all along, the better to get one over on our hero — it feels like every second Lex Luthor story is predicated on this idea. But while my current hope is that there’s no such reveal planned here, maybe that’s too cynical. Maybe it’s better to hope that eventually the world will right itself, and that heroes really can be heroic.
As Nolan’s The Dark Knight ends, Gordon and Batman have devised to destroy Batman’s reputation in order to give the people of Gotham hope in something better. Batman: White Knight 1 neatly subverts the feel-good heroics of that ending, and I’m already anticipating the next issue.
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 Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?