Friday, 4 November 2011


When Bob Kane and Bill Finger were producing the Batman, the villains were influenced heavily by Chester Gould's Dick Tracy. They were often bizarre, barely human creatures which reflected a perception that criminality was an aberration, out of pace with normal human behaviour. In one sense, they were ogres from children's bedtime stories; think of the Riddler, the Penguin, or Catwoman, yet not really threatening in a real-world sense. Yet even in those days of more straightforward comic books, and even through the Sixties rebirth of the Batman as an icon of ironic camp culture, there were a few villains who hinted at darker depths, and touched more sensitive areas. Two Face is a brilliant creation, a basic psychological trauma personified, but the key adversary for every version of the Batman has always been the Joker, and no matter how camply the caped crusaderwas portrayed, no matter how comic the Joker became, he was the one villain who can never quite hide the basic frightening instability that serves as the perfect foil to the Batman's obsessive quest for revenge against crime itself. He was and is the one villain who personifies the chaos which is what we all ultimately fear.

This is the spirit which is captured brilliantly in Batman: Going Sane, written by JM DeMatteis and drawn by Joe Staton and Steve Mitchell, in which the Joker, having 'killed' the Batman, discovers both 'normal' life and love. DeMatteis' story pulls no punches, but is based on the perilous ying and yang between hero and villain; without the Batman, the Joker remains haunted by an emptiness even love cannot fill, while the 'reborn' Batman cannot conceive of a world in which a Joker reborn as an ordinary man can exist. The artwork plays this dichotomy well: often harkening back to the simplicity of 'comic' books, but always bordered with darkness that occasionally is allowed to take centre stage, as in the dramatic moment when the Batman announced to Jim Gordon 'I'm back'. But the studied plainness of the Joker's life as a citizen makes a strong contrast, and the way he edges back to his Joker-madness is an intercut sequence of rough brilliance.

The real key to the modern Joker is the embrace of his madness; some of the artists who've approached him recently assume there is no top over which they cannot go. But he's such a brilliant creation, such a representation of the appeal of the madness, that they may be right. But notice the story's title: this is not really the story of the Joker's 'going sane', it is the struggle of the vengeance-stoked Batman to regain his sanity, and not surrender to the Joker's world. Mitchell's heavily-inked lines remind me of Frank Robbins, and serve here to remind us of the harsh borders of the world these two antagonists inhabit, and the equally wide lines that delineate order from chaos. It's that response to chaos that makes this such a touching, and indeed powerful, story.

Appended to it is a story called 'Gotham Emergency', written by From Hell artist Eddie Campbell and Darren Sears, and drawn by Bart Sears in a style nearly as dramatic but somewhat slicker as Going Sane, which draws on the thing that has lain at the centre of all Joker stories—the Batman's need to inhabit the Joker's mind in order to defeat him—this is Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter stuff, and like Lecter the Joker is the more flamboyant character. The other connection with Going Sane is the presence of an attractive woman doctor who is drawn to the Batman, and who can be used, if only for an instant, to establish his own somewhat tenuous humanity.

With the Joker stowed away safely at Arkham Asylum, it was another stroke of brilliance to make him the narrator of short stories. These stories work best when we remember, or indeed forget but are reminded, that they are told from the Joker's own unstable and untrustworthy perceptions. In Volume Two of Joker's Asylum the most impressive tale features the Mad Hatter, and is drawn by Keith Giffen and Bill Sienkiewicz in a wonderfully tormented style that only dimly recalls Tenniel. Like Going Sane, it revolves around the Hatter's efforts to make himself 'normal' through love, and of course it fails for the same crazy reasons the Hatter is what he is. What brings it to a bravura conclusion, however, is the Joker's own presence as narrator, as writer Landry Quinn Walker catches his function perfectly. In other stories the Joker presents you with a riddle in a story about the Riddler and leaves you to figure it out...or not. Penciller Andres Guinaldo reminds me a lot of Gil Kane. There's also a little comic relief from James Patrick and Joe Quinones, when Harley Quinn breaks out of her asylum to spend Valentine's Day with the Joker, and a rather familiar film noir version of Beauty and the Beast with Killer Croc playing, of course, the Beast. I was also taken with Kelly Jones' art in Kevin Shinnick's tale of Clayface, 'Midnight Madness'. But it's the Joker who unifies all these stories, and makes them work.

Batman: Going Sane DC/Titan Books 2008 £9.99 ISBN 9781845768638
Joker's Asylum, Volume 2, DC/Titan 2011 $10.99 ISBN 9780857681676


ascohen said...

Hey Mike,
Love the piece. I am definitely going to check out this comic. What are your thoughts on the new comics (the relaunch of the DC Universe)?

Also, what would be the best way to get in touch with you? Do you have an email you regularly check? I would love a few words of advice.

-Andrew Cohen
Wesleyan '14

Michael Carlson said...

Just was sent Batman and Blackhawk to review for Crime Time. Sometime soon...tks