Deconstructing Batman & Robin:

A Game of Villainy, Part 4

Once the transformation into the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh is complete, the comparisons to the Joker are apparent and numerous. First, Batman’s costume has gone from the traditional dark tones to a gaudy, ridiculous, and comical red, purple, and yellow. Next, Batman’s dialogue balloons are in white lettering over a blue background and while the Joker’s text is written in green, they remain the only two characters with different colors for their lettering. Finally, the first image of the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh features the hero crashing through a door with a baseball bat. The bat is a pun as Bruce has become a literal “bat” man – a hint that the character has embraced a more ridiculous persona.

And, in case anyone forgot who is responsible for Batman’s transformation into the Joker, Bat-mite kindly reminds Bruce, “All this stuff came out during the trauma of the space isolation experiment you took part in for the army, remember? Which is when Doc Hurt got the idea to use ‘Zur-en-arrh’ as a hypnotic trigger phrase that would give him the power to switch off Batman any time he wanted.”

Dr. Hurt did what the Joker could never do; he destroyed Batman’s mind. However, Hurt didn’t understand how empowering identity can be because Hurt has used different identities to obscure who he is. While Batman and the Joker embrace identities to empower themselves, Hurt hides behind them; never adopting one long enough to truly know who he really is.

Then again, being stuck to one identity isn’t ideal either as Batman explains to Charlie Caligula, “You like people to think you’re some brilliant, unpredicatable criminal mastermind like the Joker, don’t you? Funny, all I see is a set of uninspired tics – a played-out act you can’t escape even if you wanted to.” Charlie Caligula will never be anyone because his identity is a charade of the Joker’s. A cheap imitation that won’t grow, shift, or transform with the times. But the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh is “what you get when you take Bruce out of the equation” and the Batman who returns from the time stream and creates Batman Inc. is what happens when Bruce is totally in control of Batman. He survives because his identity can shift, but he will always ultimately be Batman.

Batman #680

The Satanic imagery of Dr. Hurt comes to a head in this issue. He had previously put on Thomas Wayne’s bat costume, poured champagne on Alfred and called him “betrayer” (a not-so-subtle allusion to Hurt being Lucifer), and had taken the batcave as his own personal headquarters (the new lord of the underworld). Also, the ideas that Morrison had established about identity will end in this arc, but will be picked back up again during Batman and Robinas the heroes adjust to their new lives and also during Return of Bruce Wayne as Batman establishes the new identity of Bat-god.

Le Bossu explains to the Joker how in his normal life, he is a respected neuro-surgeon and that no one knows who he is on the inside. He envies the Joker because the Thin White Duke of Death never hides his identity. The Joker embraces who he is while Le Bossu cannot.

Finally, Batman fights his way through Arkham to face off against the Joker. The story reaches a feverish climax as Batman tries to piece together all of the obscure symbols that have plagued him thus far. “Diamonds, clubs, rich people! Hearts and spades, love and death, the joke and the punchline, the Harlequin’s motley, red and black! Cupid and the devil! You gave it all away in the dead man’s hand!”

But the Joker says, “The real joke is your stubborn, bone deep conviction ithat somehow, somewhere all of this makes sense! That’s what cracks me up every time!”

On a black and red checkered floor, Batman and the Joker finally meet and the Joker calls back to Morrison’s first issue when he says, “you and I, we had a special arrangement. A yin/yang thing. Holmes and Moriarty, Tweety and Sylvester, hates, and gloves, but you … you shot me in the face.” Batman tries reasoning with the Joker by explaining that the Black Glove is responsible for the shooting, but the Joker merely cuts his own tongue to resemble the forked tongue of a snake – more Satanic imagery.

The Joker goes on to say that there is no order to the chaos that he inflicts onto the world and that Batman can never truly understand him, but the forked tongue is a dead giveaway that he is a liar. Of course there is some sort of order, because the Joker had been diagnosed as a sort of “superpersonality.” In this scene, the Joker is simply upset that Batman succumb to the madness and that the Joker himself wasn’t responsible for it.

Then, as Batman saves Jezebel Jet, Dr. Hurt makes the mistake of telling the Joker, “Stop there. My good and faithful servant.”

Batman #681

With Batman buried alive, the Black Glove plans on waiting until oxygen leaves his brain and he becomes permanently damaged before they exhume him. Meanwhile, the Joker executes one of the Black Glove’s members so that he can join. Almost immediately after he suggests joining, the Joker changes his mind and begins discussing the symbolism of red and black.

“It’s simple, it preys on the mind … the ultimate gag … now you here, now you ain’t … Get it?! But it doesn’t matter, see, because every single time I try to think outside his toybox, he builds a new box around me. Apophenia. I’ve been driven literally in.sane. trying to get him to loosen up.”

Apophenia is the experience of seeing meaningful patterns in random information. Batman’s mind is trained to find patterns and associate the symbolism with everything while the Joker is able to create meaning from seemingly meaningless information. In the realm of semiotics, the Joker creates signifiers, and Batman interprets the signified and together, the two are one. Not only does the Joker change personalities and identities, but Batman has done the same to keep up. The shifting identities is what keeps the two characters connected to one another, and also what has kept fans interested in the characters for years. Each generation gets a new Batman and a new Joker.

At the end of his confrontation with Dr. Hurt, the Joker says, “I’m saying adieu. Pleased to meet you, admire your work but don’t. Don’t call me servant. I’ll collect my winnings from all of you in due course.” And with that, the Joker disappears and hauntingly foreshadows his role in Batman & Robin.

During the final conflict between Bruce and Dr. Hurt, the identity of the Black Glove is further muddied. Dr. Hurt still claims to be Thomas Wayne, but he also refers to himself as Mangrove Pierce and “the hole in things.” As Batman attacks Hurt’s helicopter, he begins to wonder if he isn’t battling the devil himself – an answer that won’t come until the end of Batman and Robin.

The most significant motif to come from R.I.P. is the idea of gaming as a narrative. The conflict between Batman and Dr. Hurt is a game of chess and the scene where the two finally face off against one another exemplifies this through the use of the checkerboard red and black motif. Even the characters involved can be considered in relation to particular chess pieces. Jezebel Jet is the black queen, while Talia al Ghul is the (albeit unconventional) white queen. Dick Grayson and Tim Drake are rooks.

One of the most interesting comparisons is the first ghost of Batman that shoots the Joker could easily be a knight given that they move unconventionally and the character might dress as Batman, but he is far from conventional. The second ghost of Batman could also be a knight, and the third ghost could be considered a bishop considering that in Batman #666 he acts as a prophet for the devil. The Club of Heroes and the Club of Villains are all pawns in the game and are taken out as such in the Black Glove storyline and R.I.P.

Comparisons between the characters and chess pieces are numerous and could be pondered on for quite some time, but game really is afoot during Batman & Robin.

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Cody Walker graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelors and a Masters of Science in Education. He is the author of the pop culture website and the co-creator of the crime comic . He currently teaches English in Springfield, Missouri.

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Also by Cody Walker:

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


The Anatomy of Zur-en-Arrh: Understanding Grant Morrison\'s Batman


Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide

editor, contributor

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