From Thesis and Antithesis … Synthesis?Posted: December 22, 2008
Okay, so I was never very good at turning in assignments on time, or even following the directions I was given. Like the proverbial “dog chasing cars,” I simply did what I wanted to do, and let my own barely understood nature dictate my actions.
That said, I have enough self-awareness to know that I cannot analyze “The Dark Night” or “The Killing Joke” with the alacrity that has been already displayed – I would rather examine something I have noticed about how the characterization of the Joker in both works has been played on and fed by in the works of my favorite comics writer, Grant “Godlike Genius” Morrison.
However, I will stop along the way to my point to talk a teensy bit about Batman, who has not gotten enough attention, in my own humble opinion, in these postings.
I think of the major similarities between “Knight” and “Joke” is the character of Batman, who I think is treated with a fairly similar characterization in both works. In “Joke,” the people Batman is closest to are threatened by a homicidal, grinning maniac who is trying to make a point – all that stands between sanity and insanity is one bad day. In “Knight,” not only Batman’s city is threatened, but the people Batman is closest to are threatened by a homicidal, grinning maniac who is trying to make a point – all that stands between anarchy and order is a series of very bad days. The main difference in the conflict is the size of the brush the Joker is using to paint his own twisted picture of the world. Batman’s reactions fit the threat: in “Joke,” the threat is more personal, Joker maims Barbara Gordon and kidnaps Commissioner Gordon – Batman’s response is similarly personal; in “Knight,” Batman reacts a bit more like a post-911 government facing a terrorist cell, because Joker is essentially trying to take down the status quo of one of the largest, most powerful cities in the DCU.
In both stories, Batman learns that he can not cross the line between hero and villain by murdering the Joker in cold blood, even though it would remove the threat. In both works, this line becomes blurry: in “Joke,” Batman acknowledges that his vendetta with the Joker is a death struggle, but agrees ultimately to follow the path of law and order after the victimized Gordon pleads with him to “do it by the book” and “show him our way works,” creepy shared laugh aside. This scene is revisited in one of the last good moments in “Hush,” in which the Batman seriously considers beating the Joker to death, only to be stopped by Gordon, who has suffered more than anyone at the homicidal clown’s hand.
In “Knight,” Batman similarly comes to terms with his desire to kill Joker, acknowledging that it is something he can never allow himself to do, even though he must also take the fall for Harvey Dent and become a de facto villain in the eyes of Gotham City – and I like Gordon’s speech, hammy as it may be.
But the major, completely ignored comic-to-film relationship this seminar overlooks is the relationship from “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth” to “The Dark Knight” back to “Batman R.I.P.” – in this case referring to Morrison’s entire run on Batman thus far.
Christopher Nolan has acknowledged that “Arkham …” played a role in his characterization of the Joker, I would argue to a much greater degree than Moore’s take. In this book, we are first introduced to the idea of Joker as a kind “glam-punk” rock icon, an evil(er?) David Bowie whose murders and crimes change as a means of “reinventing himself.”
Indeed, Heath Ledger, who can not be praised enough for his truly chilling performance, said Nolan gave him “Arkham…” to read, and that he could not finish the book. However, some of that characterization made it into the story: Nolan’s Joker is much more a Morrison villain than a Moore Villain. His speech is witty and clipped, always alluding to philosophy and sociology without directly quoting anybody. He looks much more like Sid Vicious in clown makeup than a Brian Bolan scribbled Cesar Romero meshed with Tim Burton. And his plans work out like clockwork, again the hallmark of Morrison’s emphasis on cool plot points over plausibility.
But what is more interesting – and appropriately metatextual given the source – is that Morrison’s own characterization, both physical and mental, of the Joker in Batman R.I.P. seems to explain that the Joker from the film could still be the Joker in the DCU. “R.I.P.” is – as we now know – most probably the result of a virtual reality torture being conducted on Batman, but as with any Morrison work, it serves as a means to examine why we love comics books and the over-the-top characters within them. The Joker’s reinvention of himself as the “Thin White Duke of Evil” – with a Bowie-esque hairstyle, a somewhat androgynous frock and a Chelsea Smile reminiscent of Ledger’s Joker – is deliberately referred to as a manifestation of the original personality. Joker’s first appearance in 1940 was decidedly more violent, frightening and psychotic than the “harmless” clown seen in most of his incarnations from the early ‘40s through the early ‘80s. Batman seems to think that this was because he was so brilliantly insane that he “reinvented himself” to fit each challenge that the forces of order threw at him, but the Joker himself gives a different analysis as his threatens the Black Glove: he has gone completely insane by trying to get the Batman to laugh.
However, as “Knight” shows, the Joker is a compulsive liar who has reinvented his own origin story so many times that this could be a fabrication or a convenience of the moment, but as “Joke” shows, getting the permanent frown off Batman’s face may be the only source of pleasure and accomplishment in the Clown Prince of Crime’s life.
Sorry for the rambling, off-topic response, but as I said, I was never very good at following directions.