by Patrick Ehlers & Mark Mitchell
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Patrick: Outside of dance-able club hits, which state their desire to make you dance, very few works of art tell you what effect they intend to have on you. Batman Who Laughs has one purpose and one purpose only: to shock longtime Batman fans with a violent, evil twist on the Dark Knights’ mythos. And the book cockily asserts that it is going to surprise its readers, by having the titular laughing Batman address the camera directly and saying as much. “You really thought you had it all figured out. That you knew every combination in the deck.” The work assumes the reader is skeptical of its goal from page one — the remainder of the issue is spent trying to prove that this is the darkest, most twisted Batman story ever told.
Which is a weird starting point. Only the most confident magician will look you in the eye, state their intention to surprise you, and then surprise you. Writer James Tynion IV and artist Risely Rossmo do precisely that. That opening monologue may as well say “no, seriously, this story is fucked up” before flashing back to the doomed adventures of the Batman on Earth-22. Joker has Gotham City on the ropes, enacting a sort of pastiche of all the biggest Joker plots. People are Joker-gassed, hospitals are exploding, Jim Gordon is tortured and murdered — all the worst stuff all at once. But this is still all within the realm of what we might expect from “a dark Batman story.”
Rossmo’s cartoony designs go a long way toward affecting a familiarity that sets the readers at ease, even amid this kind of grim storytelling. When we do eventually reach the point-of-no-return, and Batman snaps Joker’s neck, Rossmo’s characters retain their softer aesthetic.
Colorist Ivan Plascencia keeps things bright — Joker’s outfit bears true greens and purples, Batman’s cape and cowl show more blue than black, the sound effect is so bright is almost acts as a light-source in the scene. A lot of the shadows are accomplished by digital stippling, and those dots accomplish two things: 1) they evoke an earlier era of color printing in comics and 2) they allow the un-darkened color beneath the dots to show through. I know it’s weird to make the claim that the scene of Batman punching Joker’s teeth out of his face and snapping his neck isn’t as dark as it could be, but this is all still within the realm of “imaginable.” If The Batman Who Laughs–and by extension, Tynion and Rossmo–have something genuinely shocking to show us, it isn’t this.
The set-up to this point is basically perfect. Batman’s morality is tested, as it has been so many times before, only this time he fails. On the very next page, Superman shares his concern that this may be the start of a slippery slope: kill one supervillain and maybe it makes sense to kill all supervillains. But Bruce, rightly, waves that away. “I’m not sorry he’s dead, but I won’t give him the satisfaction of becoming what he wanted me to be.” Which is great news, right? There’s a very real fear that any of Batman’s more brutal or authoritarian qualities would lead him to being a bad dude, but Bruce has just assured us that that’s not what we’re witnessing in this story.
So what are we witnessing? Joker-gas, by another name, by another delivery method, infects Batman and turns him in to this:
Rossmo and Plascencia are using the same techniques they did a few pages previous, but the action is so much worse. Batman wields dual automatic weapons and a Joker smile as he murders the entire Bat-family. And while that’s a shocking image, it doesn’t read as Batman crossing a line we’ve never seen him cross before. If anything, this is Batman crossing a line that never existed before. And honestly, there’s no psychological reality to Bruce’s experience right now — it’s just the Joker with Batman’s ability to plan ahead.
So like, is this the darkest-Batman story? Or just the most-successful-Joker story? My vote is the latter, but I’m not sure the book itself agrees with me. Tynion makes an attempt to link the behavior of the Batman Who Laughs to the man Bruce Wayne used to be, but abandons it almost immediately in favor of some expository monologuing.
I love Rossmo’s drawing here, particularly the corpse of Plastic Man strung up from the ceiling. But the carnage here is presented without context — how and why did Batman do this? “Because I want to. Because I don’t have to hold back anymore.” Had “holding Batman back” been established as a frustration of pre-Jokerized-Batman, this might have carried some kind of weight, but it stands out here as generic villain motivation.
And “generic villain” is basically what follows. Batman moves on to destroy the whole world and then another, and another, and eventually sets his sights on our Batman. All the while, a bandaged man watches and listens to the tale. Presumably, this is the reader, horrified by what he has seen and heard. So, let me ask you Mark: are you horrified by this? Does this issue do anything to make the character more compelling than the simple pitch “Jokerized Batman?”
Mark: In that The Batman Who Laughs wants to be horrifying, I find it to be very successful on its own terms. Tynion and Rossmo deliver a gutpunch to readers with an issue that revels in evil. It’s an interesting thought exercise, successfully rendered, but one that I find difficult to fully appreciate. Lovingly depicted violence — sometimes against children — it’s the comic book equivalent of an Eli Roth film, and I can’t help but wonder what’s the point of the exercise?
But, yes, on a purely mathematical level the issue succeeds. You’ve already mentioned it, Patrick, but there’s a definite method to the way Tynion and Rossmo move readers through the issue. The moment Bruce turns his gun on his protégés is markedly different from his confrontation with the Joker mere pages before, and the horror continues to build on each successive page until Superman and his son rip Lois Lane to shreds.
So as far as effective grotesqueries go, mission accomplished. Still, there’s something hollow in the victory — the issue manages to jolt the audience, but that seems beside the point. Every day the real world is filled with many shocking acts of random terror. With such evil in the world, turning Batman, a prototypical agent of good, into a vessel of violence strikes me as mean and meaningless. Yes, it can be done, and done effectively in this instance, but successful titillation is a low bar for art.
(The Metal event as a whole is feeling more and more like a dark rumination on regrets, and secrets, and darkness. I’m not loving it, but I’m also interested in revisiting it removed from the present. When the world once again sees happier days, I wonder what it will reveal about the time it was written.)
I recognize that Tynion and Rossmo are hemmed in here, since they’re merely telling a single chapter in a larger narrative. No doubt by the end of Metal evil will get its comeuppance. As for right now, after reading The Batman Who Laughs, I preferred the mystery of the Joker Batman.
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?