While Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne were busy learning how to adjust to their new identities, a secret war was being waged between Dr. Thomas Hurt and the Joker. Reading Morrison’s run on Batman & Robin for the story of their titular characters is certainly a satisfying and complete experience, but upon subsequent readings, the clues to the game between villains become more apparent.
But, before discussing the game itself, one must delve into the history of the conflict between the Clown Prince of Crime and the Devil Himself and it is rather extensive.
Though Dr. Hurt wouldn’t be introduced into much later into Morrison’s run on Batman, the game between Hurt and the Joker technically begins with Morrison’s first issue (#655). The Joker stands with bloody crowbar in hand before a broken Batman and proclaims, “I did it! I finally killed Batman! In front of a bunch of vulnerable, disabled kids!” Everything about this image is classic, iconic Joker:
The purple suit complete with absurd green bow tie.
The wild green hair.
The crowbar to remind readers of “Death in the Family” and the Joker’s triumph in killing Jason Todd (Batman’s worst failure).
In the background, a group of children impossibly tied together and dangling from a helicopter sporting the Joker’s smile.
Even the subject of the image itself (the Joker’s hubris allowing him to believe that he had finally conquered his nemesis under such absurd, bizarre circumstances) just screams of classic Joker.
All of these work in concert together to form one final image of Batman’s greatest villain before his transformation. Suddenly, the fallen Batman pulls a gun out of his utility belt and says one word, “die,” and then he shoots the villain in the head which is a significant symbol because it specifically calls attention to the Joker’s psyche.
Wait . . . in order to understand this development, it’s perhaps more important to go back even further.
During a conversation between Batman and Dr. Ruth Adams in Grant Morrison’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, the doctor explains the Joker’s condition as possibly being,
a neurological disorder, similar to Tourette’s syndrome. It’s quite possible we may actually be looking at some kind of super-sanity here. A brilliant new modification of human perception. More suited to urban life at the end of the twentieth century . . . unlike you and I, the Joker seems to have no control over the sensory information he’s receiving from the outside world. He can only cope that chaotic barrage of input by going with the flow. That’s why some days he’s a mischievious clown, others a psuchopathic killer. He has no real personality. He creates himself each day. He sees himself as the lord of misrule, and the world as the theatre of the absurd.
While Arkham Asylum is more of a Batman story than a Joker story, this explanation for the Joker’s behavior serves as the foundation for every story that Morrison has written about the character. It establishes a psychological reasoning for why the Joker can have so many different incarnations. The Joker shifts personalities because he has none. Our world moves at such a fast pace that the Joker has developed a hyper-personality that allows him to cope with the information overload. He can be anything he needs to be given the situation.
The next time the Joker appears during Morrison’s tenure is in a very different kind of story altogether – the first prose issue in a comic book “The Clown at Midnight” in Batman #663. The Joker’s transformation is so complete that it requires a total change from the standard comic book in order to fully capture this change.
Chapter 1 begins with a funeral for Bozzo the Bandit (a former henchman for the Joker) and ends with the deaths of everyone at the funeral. While the funeral may be for Bozzo on the surface level, it’s clear that Morrison really means for this funeral to be for the Joker’s old personality. This is also the first time the “red and black” motif appears and it will be not only a driving plot point in this story, but it will continually reappear all the way through Morrison’s Batman and Robin run. Here, there are black and red flowers as well as a reference to “black and red voltage” as a clown dies. Each of the locations in the story follows the motif as well as each murder site features one of these two colors.
In chapter 3, Batman visits a broken and bandaged up Joker in Arkham Asylum much to the dismay of Jeremiah Arkham. Under his bandages, the Joker isn’t ready to be revealed just yet. He is like a pupa in his chrysalis; patiently awaiting his development to complete. Even as an invalid, the Joker insults his doctor by blinking inappropriate things in Morse code. Arkham reveals that the Joker has been working with a speech therapist by the name of “Miss Wisakedjak” and she apparently graduated from “The Rose Bruford School.”
Batman notes that “Wisakedjak is the name of the Cree Indian trickster god,” but he neglects to inform Arkham that the Rose Bruford School is an acting school in Southeast London or that the Anglicized version of Wisakedjak is “Whiskey Jack” which is another name for a type of bird known as the “Gray Jay” – the Joker, of course, being pale skinned and called “Mister Jay” by Harley Quinn).
This reference to the Cree Indian trickster god isn’t simply a wink and a nod to show how clever Morrison is with his names nor is it meant to show how clever Batman’s mind is. Morrison is deliberately including this god in order to help establish a mythological connection between a trickster of the ancient world to the trickster god of comics. Morrison further tries to establish the Joker as a kind of God through the invocation of the Joker’s various nicknames. Throughout the issue, he is referred to as; the Clown Prince of Cruelty, the Picasso of Crime, the Master of Mirth, the Deathly Dandy, the Laughing Leper, the Clown Prince of Pain, and finally, the Clown at Midnight. All of these nick-names act as epithets in the same way that Greek Gods were called upon by different names depending on what people were requesting.
In chapter 4, two little people named Solomon and Sheba are introduced. They are described as dwarves from “the Joker’s short-lived ringmaster-from-Hell phase” which shows that this latest transformation for the Joker is just one in a very long line. After the dwarves are murdered by toxins combined from red and black flowers, Commissioner Gordon seems to feel no pity towards them.
“You remember what this little creep did to me?” He shudders. “The Joker and his whole circus can go to hell as far as I’m concerned.”
From this little bit of dialogue, one can reasonably assume that the reason for Gordon’s hostility stems from The Killing Joke and that Solomon and Sheba were the dwarves he abused Gordon as he rode naked in a car through a fun house of pictures of his shot and tortured daughter, Barbara. The Joker’s motivations in The Killing Joke and in this story are similar; he wants to break the heroes and bring them to madness. For all of his intelligence and emphasis on his own personality, the Joker is strange in his motivations. Considering that he is comfortable in his madness, it’s odd that he would be so insistent in others sharing in this madness. To bring others to his way of thinking would destroy the idea of his autonomy and self-reliance because he would be making others to be just like him.
Chapter 6 is a brief and frightening look into the mind of the Joker and the cocoon imagery is explicitly spelled out, “like a grub growing all wrong in a tiled cocoon, like a caterpillar liquefying to filth in its own nightmares, or a fetus dissolving in sewage and sour milk, the Joker dreams, awake.” This is also the first mention of an epithet for the Joker – the first moment where Morrison begins to assert the Joker’s role as trickster god.
During chapter 7, there is a bit of a retcon of Morrison’s own Arkham Asylum (depending on one’s perspective) as Batman says, “He’s changed again. You know how he changes every few years. You wrote the book, Doctor Quinzel. He has no real personality, remember, only a series of ‘superpersonas.’ That’s what you called them, right?” If the reference is to Arkham Asylum, then Harley has replaced Dr. Ruth Adams, but perhaps the Adams conversation still occurred and Quinn wrote her book outside of that interaction. Then again, since Dr. Ruth Adams is actually the same name of the female lead in the classic B-movie This Island Earth and Harley Quinn is known for disguises, it would be fun if she had taken the name as a joke (this is impossible, of course, given that Arkham Asylum was written four years before Harley Quinn’s appearance in Batman: The Animated Series, but it’s still fun to think about).
In addition to solidifying the psychological background to the Joker’s transformation, this chapter establishes Harley as a blind follower to the Joker’s insane ideology. She is a woman who has been transformed into an almost religious fanatic who worships a trickster god and is unable to see past the flaws in her own dogma.
Finally, the Joker is revealed in Chapter 8 as he removes his cocoon, and the Clown at Midnight is revealed at last. He first cries out, “I’m a cockroach!” and begins to dance the can-can in celebration. The scene is a dark reflection of Franz Kafka’s own revelation of his transformation into a bug, but whereas Gregor Samsa was horrified by being changed into a monster, the Joker is thrilled to see his change. Samsa was alienated by his transformation, but the Joker never feels alienation because is without a conscience to feel alienated. Perhaps it is put best a few paragraphs before in the narrative:
He tries to remember how the doctors in Arkham say he has no Self, and maybe they’re right , or maybe they’re just guessing. Maybe he is a new human mutation, bred of slimy industrial waters, spawned in a world of bright carcinogens and acid rains. Maybe is the model for the 21st-century big-time multiplex man, shuffling selves like a croupier deals cards, to buffer the shocks and work some alchemy that might just turn the lead of tragedy and horror into the fierce, chaotic gold of the laughter of the damned.
The red and black motif is explained as the Joker telegraphing that he plans to kill Harley Quinn, and one can’t help but feel sorry for her as she realizes that she had been worshipping a false god all along. The Joker and Batman finally face off as the Joker “drags his foot like Asmodeus, the lame demon, the tempter and destroyer.” Again, Morrison is being deliberate by invoking a demon and connecting it to the Joker. He is far more explicit, however, when the Joker thinks, “Why be a disfigured outcast when I can be a notorious Crime God?” It’s at this point that it’s clear that the terrifying transformation of the Joker is complete and he has solidified his status as a trickster god of a new era of crime.
One gets the sense that Morrison isn’t presenting the Joker as a villain so much as he is the next step of evolution. He respects the Joker perhaps because he sees some of himself in the character. Of course, Morrison isn’t a homicidal character, but he is a man who has undergone many transformations in his own life (Talking With Gods is evidence of this). Whatever the case, Morrison seems to hold the Joker in high-esteem; in a kind of reverence. One almost gets the sense that the Joker could very well have been part of the Invisible Army if he would just drop the whole “homicidal psychopath” act. He doesn’t need a fiction suit to change who he is because the Joker’s personality can shift so dramatically and powerfully that he is already enlightened toward the world around him; and if he’s not, then he surely could be very easily.
Whereas Bruce Wayne will later go through a transformative experience in Return of Bruce Wayne, the Joker has already attained enlightenment. He is able to attain his god-like status through his own actions while Bruce Wayne had to endure the Omega Sanction caused by Darkseid in order to attain his own status as “Bat-God.”