Believe it or not, Grant Morrison’s “The Clown at Midnight,” published in Batman #663 (Mar 2007), has a lot in common with J.D. Salinger’s final published short story, “Hapworth 16, 1924.”
Having crafted The Catcher in the Rye, one of the most celebrated American novels of all time, Salinger was at the apex of his profession when he wrote “Hapworth.” But when the story first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker in June of 1965, the initial critical reaction was one of distinct outrage.
The crux of the problem was Salinger’s unconventional use of language. “Hapworth,” which is the sixth published tale in Salinger’s series of stories focusing on the eccentric Glass family (the others include “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “Franny,” “Zooey,” “Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenter” and “Seymour: An Introduction”), is extremely long-winded, with paragraph-length sentences often encompassing dozens of only tangentially related ideas. The story is written in a manic, rambling, almost incoherent stream-of-consciousness style, in this case as a letter from seven-year-old “wise child” Seymour Glass to his parents from summer camp. The voice Salinger evokes is so academic, so laden with obscure literary references, faux-religiosity and neo-classicism (which, even allowing for creative license, seems implausible when attributed to a seven-year-old) that most readers, even those with Ivy League educations, felt lost and frustrated with the “impenetrable text.” As Janet Malcolm of the New York Times Book Review writes, “it was greeted with unhappy, even embarrassed silence….The critical reception…was more like a public birching than an ordinary occasion of failure to please.” As a direct result of the story’s unprecedented critical backlash, Salinger famously decided to stop publishing his writing.
Of course, the comparison of J.D. Salinger and Grant Morrison, a literary master to, of all things, a Batman writer, may sound absurd, but the strong public outcry against Morrison’s story within the online comic community is not unlike “the public birching” that Malcolm describes. For example, FreakComics.com’s Joe Louis writes in his review, bluntly titled “Batman #663 Sucks REALLY Badly,” “For those of you who didn’t have the extreme displeasure of reading Batman #663, don’t bother. It is not a comic book, it is a novella, and a badly written one at that. Yep, that’s right I said it: Grant Morrison wrote a terrible short story and it got shoved in to the pages of Batman #663 with some horrible art by John Van Fleet.” Tucker Stone, of the Factual Opinion, writes a similar, if less reactionary assessment, stating that the story “seems a bit thrown together, like a late night prequel while (regular artist Andy) Kubert finishes penciling the upcoming chapters,” and goes on to call the issue “a bit off-putting.” Even Joe McCulloch (of Jog – The Blog), the comic blogosphere’s critic-laureate, proclaims that the book “winds up about fourteen pages over my personal limit of overextended metaphors and raised-eyebrow faux-pulp.”
But as Janet Malcolm wrote about Salinger’s reviled and misunderstood “Hapworth,” “negative contemporary criticism of a masterpiece can be helpful to later critics, acting as a kind of radar that picks up the ping of the work’s originality. The ‘mistakes’ and ‘excesses’ that early critics complain of are often precisely the innovations that have given the work its power.”
“The Clown at Midnight” features the highly anticipated return of the Joker, who has been absent from the DC universe after being shot in the face. More significantly, however, the issue marked Morrison’s return to the character after 18 years; since 1989′s Arkham Asylum graphic novel with Dave McKean. Though critics remain divided as to the quality of Arkham (interestingly, Jog describes it as “the single shittiest comic Morrison has ever written on his own”), few can dispute that its portrayal of an insane Joker leading a veritable circus of lunatics running loose in the asylum was, if nothing else, unforgettable.
Yet within days of its release, the flood of critical disdain for Batman#663 began. Like Salinger, by far the overwhelming majority of these criticisms focused on Morrison’s unusual prose style. At his excellent blog, “I Am Not the Beastmaster,” Marc Singer writes that “the faux hard-boiled narration…is just bad,” also describing it as “overheated” and “overbaked.” Other critics found similar dissatisfaction with Morrison’s excessive use of metaphors and description. Jog calls the book a “soggy shock show” that’s “just badly written,” while Don MacPherson, at his “Eye on Comics” blog, complains that the book is “marred by… unnecessarily verbose descriptions of peripheral details.” Several critics even extracted individual sentences which struck them as particularly potent examples of Morrison’s “mistakes” and “excesses” and cited them, out of context, as evidence of their conclusions.
While these criticisms are not without some merit, Morrison’s language is actually perfectly suited for its subject matter. The writer uses this “overheated” narrative style not simply as a vehicle for moving the story forward, but as a tool to infuse it with a frantic mania, giving the story an overall sense of insanity. While, admittedly, on an individual sentence by sentence basis, some of Morrison’s conjured images do fall flat (Chapter 2′s descriptions of Gotham City are probably the most glaring examples), the onslaught of outlandish metaphors has the overall effect of creating the sound, rhythm and mood of a madman’s ranting. For example, in Chapter 6, Morrison takes us first inside the Joker’s cell at Arkham, and then drops us right into his head, at the height of his madness. Morrison’s prose matches the chaotic mood one would expect of such a bizarre setting. He writes:
In the white empty cell, the flat, pressurized silence is relieved by these three things only – the crawling ticks of fluorescent lighting, the slow crackle of breathing – if breathing sounded like paper being torn and torn again and torn again, obsessively, into tiny scraps – and the pin-thin whine of a mosquito that rode in on Batman’s cape and now finds itself locked in a madhouse with something bad for company.
No movement registers either until you look very closely to see the jaws working in stealth beneath surgical gauze and pins. Don’t even think about those sly mandibles chewing down on some poison mantra as the dreadful eyes track the poor mosquito’s lazy flight-path, the way a spider’s might, triangulating its victim.
He’s scrolling through a list of things that make him laugh. Blind babies. Landmines. AIDS. Beloved pets in bad road accidents. Statistics. Pencilcases. BRUNCH! The Periodic Table of the Elements.
Morrison’s style here is as intentional a device as it is fitting, and, like the Joker has done time and time again, it happily calls attention to its own eccentricities. The sheer stylistic madness of the narrator shares an element of the Joker’s madness, crafting wildly imaginative, disturbing and hallucinatory metaphors that are both cringe-inducing and absolutely perfect for this particular tale. Despite the many complaints about Morrison’s use of “purple prose,” it is this wholly distinct and original voice that is the book’s greatest strength.
Another of the common criticisms leveled at Batman #663 is that Morrison offers nothing new in the Joker / Batman paradigm. Jog refers to the issue as “a rather typical Joker story,” adding that “by the final page it’s pretty clear that it’s just more Batman, more Joker, more Harley Quinn, another slugfest, another imprisoning, another run around themes that have been worked out a dozen times before.” Marc Singer expresses a similar sentiment, citing that “Instead of break out of that paradigm, ‘The Clown at Midnight’ looks for a new way to present the same old homicidal Joker” (referring to the classic take on the character established by Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams in the late ’70s).
Of course innovation in mainstream superhero comics is a difficult proposition. The editorial constraints inherent in writing superhero books are daunting. You cannot kill off characters (with the rare exception), good must triumph overall, status quo (usually that which was established within the character’s first year of existence) must always, eventually be restored, and action (specifically violence) must govern each story. In addition, most of the more well-known mainstream books have been around for nearly a half century – Batman for more than seventy years – so the volume of back-story, continuity, and popular understanding of a character of such iconic stature greatly limits a writer’s options. This sentiment was perhaps best expressed in Steven T. Seagle’s classic Charlie Kaufmann-esque graphic novel, It’s A Bird, in which the writer’s struggle to find anything original to say took center stage, while the character of Superman became merely a prop.
Yet, despite the claims of some critics, this latest Joker story is much more than a simple variation on a familiar theme. Morrison has delivered a unique and wholly original take on the character which not only takes this weight of history into account, but attempts to do something new stylistically as well. The key to Morrison’s new Joker is the concept that he is perpetually reborn, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Using this idea, Morrison has found a clever way to reconcile the cumulative history of the Joker without changing the fundamental elements of the character, nor discarding any of the variations that have come before. He has also created a novel approach to explain the Joker’s progressively deteriorating state of mind, while also commenting not only on the fixed, cyclical nature of the Batman / Joker duality, but on the nature of mainstream superhero comics in general.
This concept of “perpetual rebirth,” as applied to the Joker, was first introduced in Morrison’s own Arkham Asylum graphic novel, though back then he referred to it as a “superpersona.” Buried in the middle of Arkham‘s erratic script, Dr. Ruth Adams, a psychotherapist to the criminally insane, first introduces Batman, and readers, to this theory on the Joker’s “super-sanity”:
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 with that chaotic barrage of input by going with the flow. That’s why some days he’s a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality. He creates himself each day.
Though Arkham Asylum did not explore this idea of the Joker’s perpetual self re-invention further, (focusing rather on the duality of Batman’s identity), the concept of rebirth remains a familiar theme in Morrison’s body of work. As Timothy Callahan, author of Grant Morrison: The Early Years, points out, “ritual and transformation are the centerpieces of (“The Clown at Midnight”), just as they are in Arkham Asylum, only this time it’s the other side of the mirror that’s featured.”
But what exactly is this transformation the Joker undergoes? How exactly does he “create himself”?
The key to understanding this concept requires an understanding of another related theme that pervades much of Morrison’s body of work: the blurring of the popularly understood concepts of space (the “universe”) and time (“continuity”) in the fictional world of comics. In Morrison’s classic run on Animal Man in the ’80s, the writer deconstructed the largely artificial concept of “continuity,” expanding the borders of the superhero universe to include, quite literally, everything that has ever been written (though, no doubt for legal reasons, this concept was confined to the DC “universe” only), regardless of continuity. His “comic book limbo,” where long forgotten characters reside, waiting until they are resurrected by modern writers, was one of the most novel concepts from that revolutionary series, and the idea that stories could intersect in ways that were previously unimagined, is a theme that continues to influence Morrison’s current writing.
In “The Clown at Midnight,” Morrison returns to this idea again, but here the writer takes it one step further, granting the Joker, not macro-awareness of the real world, as he did with Animal Man (in the classic final issue of Animal Man, the main character meets Morrison, his creator, face to face and suffers the ultimate revelation: that he is merely a fictional character), but rather an acute self-awareness of his broader context, his full history. Jog picks up on this as well, noting that “the Joker is acutely self-aware of his many different characterizations over the years, and…his lack of any ‘core’ personality has dropped him into a pattern of necessary reinvention.” This is a key point the casual reader may have missed in the deluge of prose. Morrison’s Joker is not only aware of his colorful history, he has full memory and perspective of his many different incarnations throughout his seventy years of existence. Indeed, in Morrison’s story, this revelation is the very source of the Joker’s madness.
Morrison sheds light on this self-awareness in Chapter 8 by acknowledging the major historical transitions in the Joker’s character:
His remarkable coping mechanism, which saw him transform a personal nightmare of disfigurement into a baleful comedy and criminal infamy all those years ago [he is, here, referring to the Joker's origin and early exploits in the late '30s and '40s] – happily chuckling to himself in the garage as he constructed outlandish Joker-Mobiles which gently mocked the young Batman’s pretensions in the Satire Years [presumably the '50s] before Camp [undoubtedly the '60s], and New Homicidal [from Denny O'Neil forward], and all the other Jokers he’s been – now struggles to process the raw, expressionistic art brutal of his latest surgical makeover.
In a scene which Marc Singer describes as “arresting,” Morrison goes on to describe the Joker’s frightening transition and rebirth:
Multiple Joker voices vie for control as he prepares to give blasphemous birth to himself like the Word of God in reverse. His only regret is that Batman isn’t here to witness his obscene display, his rampant pathology in full flower.
Ultimately, the Joker’s rebirth is a physical manifestation of the creative process, a painful awareness of new hands pulling the strings, accompanied by a profound sense of disillusionment that none of it matters, for the cycle will begin anew before too long. This new spin on the Joker explains not only his varying depictions over the years, but casts the character’s evolution and 70+ year history into a new light. The ultimate irony, of course, is that Batman has not been granted such self-awareness, and, as the Joker points out in his endless frustration, all he wants is for “the goddamn Batman to finally get the goddamn joke.”
Morrison also uses this concept of “rebirth” as an interesting and unique way to pay homage to many of the past Batman creators. His prose narrative with scattered spot illustrations, which is more short story than sequential art, is not actually a unique concept. As Timothy Callahan notes, “this issue pays homage to a prose Batman story, entitled ‘Death Strikes at Midnight and Three’” published in 1978 in DC Special Series #15 by Denny O’Neil and Marshall Rogers. “Both titles share the word ‘Midnight,’ which probably isn’t a coincidence,” Callahan notes. Callahan also points out that Morrison himself attempted a similarly-styled Batman story in an obscure UK publication very early in his career. “Two years before he published Animal Man and Arkham Asylum with DC Comics, he contributed a prose story entitled “The Stalking” to the 1986 Batman Annual published in England. The story, a three-page narrative with illustrations by Gary Leach, describes Catwoman’s excursion into the Batcave as she attempts to uncover Batman’s secret identity.”
But “The Clown at Midnight” actually pays tribute not just to the prose writers of the past, but to every creator who has worked on the Joker since his first appearance in Batman #1 in 1940. From the more obvious artist references like “Aparo Bridge” and “Finger Street,” to the more obscure inclusion of two minor characters from Alan Moore’s classic one-shot, The Killing Joke (circus sideshow henchmen, Solomon and Sheba), Morrison is clearly going out of his way to acknowledge the many great Batman creators of the past. In fact, this issue contains many familiar elements that can be traced all the way back to the Joker’s earliest appearances. In Chapter 2, for example, Batman displays a playing card discovered at the clown funeral massacre which is a clear indication that the Joker was behind the murders. The card Batman holds contains the very first image of the Joker from Batman #1, the famous playing card face by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson. Marc Singer also calls attention to the similarities this current Joker story has in common with the classic “Joker’s Five Way Revenge” (from Batman #251) by Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams, which “recast the Joker as a vicious murderer for the first time since the early forties.” In that story, which was deservingly included in DC’s Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told anthology, the Joker murders four of his ex-henchman, each in a cruel and creative manner, all the time leaving carefully crafted clues to lead the Batman on a chase like some helpless rat struggling through yet another booby-trap-laden maze. “The Clown at Midnight” clearly draws its underlying “henchman murder” sub-plot from this classic issue. And as noted above, Morrison even pays homage to himself. “Morrison attempts to canonize his Arkham Asylum interpretation of the mutable multiple-personality Joker who burns through ‘superpersonas’ like a Vegas dealer runs through decks of cards,” Marc Singer notes.
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, Morrison’s concept of “perpetual rebirth” is also a keen commentary on the enduring status quo of iconic comic book characters. Mired in countless origin stories, series re-launches, new creative teams and endless retreads, the classic DC and Marvel characters (not to mention all the superhero rip-offs published by others) are all, in a sense, stuck in a cycle of endless rebirth. Each writer and artist brings to the character a slightly different voice, a different look, a nip here and a tuck there, but for the most part, these changes are cosmetic. They are never drastic enough to fundamentally change the character’s core personality or appearance, which, in the strict editorial shackles of a licensed and copyright-protected corporate property, cannot be altered. But it is these subtle variations, the result of decades of storytelling by hundreds of different creators, which Morrison refers to when he discusses the “multiple Joker voices” (in fact, it is these varying styles that infuse most superhero comics with what little entertainment value they still retain). It is a particularly apropos analysis of the state of superhero comics, and Morrison’s exposure of this deeper truth within the thematic layers of his “rather typical Joker story” shows the writer’s superb understanding of the nature of the industry.
John Van Fleet’s artwork has also been the subject of much scorn by several prominent online critics. Marc Singer referred to it as “plasticine” while Jog wrote that “the thoroughly disappointing illustrations…weigh the story down with computer-augmented chintz.” Don MacPherson calls the art “stiff” and “confusing,” while Joe Louis complains that it “looks like bad video-game screen cuts (which) don’t capture any sort of drama, suspense, or action that normal comic art might do.”
While, of course, in comics, as in all art, there is always subjectivity and bias on the part of critics regarding the aesthetic value of the work in question, there is no doubt that Van Fleet’s computer animation style is well-crafted. The artist’s style, which relies heavily on photo manipulation, painted art and CGI-like effects, may not appeal to everyone, but his compositions, figure poses and characters are competently rendered, and his use of colors, lighting and perspectives is impressive. At its best, it’s imaginative and downright creepy. His image of the Joker, having just removed his facial bandages after extensive reconstructive surgery, is perhaps the single most horrifying portrayal of the character, and certainly conveys the insanity that befits Morrison’s script.
The main problem is that Van Fleet’s art struggles to justify its own existence. In such a dense narrative script, the artwork is almost irrelevant. In a more traditional comic, with actual panel to panel action, the artist’s digital style works much better (see the artist’s work on the Vertigo mini-series Shadows Fall for an example), but here, Van Fleet is forced to punctuate a story which already overwhelms the reader. As a result, the art feels crammed into the text, squeezing out what little space it can find on the crowded pages. At best, these are visually striking spot illustrations whose sole purpose is to give readers a breath before the next dose of “overheated” prose.
The other area where the book falls short, inevitably, given the volume and function of the script, is the interplay between art and text which the best comics use to convey story elements. Here, Van Fleet’s art carries absolutely none of the storytelling responsibility, and, as such, serves simply to break apart long blocks of words at its best, and as a distraction at its worst. If there is a failing in the book’s execution, this is it. Even in Neil Gaiman’s similarly-formatted illustrated novel, Stardust, the author knew when to step aside and let his artist convey that which simply could not be as effectively or beautifully conveyed with text.
The other main failing of this particular issue lies not with Morrison or Van Fleet, but with DC’s editorial and design staff who chose the utterly banal and “pedestrian” Andy Kubert cover to hide what is one of the most original Batman stories in years. The stock cover is nothing other than another in an endless string of clichéd Batman vs. Joker images, with nothing new or interesting whatsoever about it. There is no hint of what a radical departure from the previous 662 issues lies behind its cover. It’s not even an aesthetically appealing image, with Batman in an awkward, shadowy action pose staged against the backdrop of a giant, hovering Joker card, inexplicably crying tears of blood. When the editors were willing to take such a bold step as to green light a story which is so far outside the norm of the typical Batman comic, it seems preposterous to then shackle the book with such a mundane cover. It undermines the creators’ attempts at innovation, and is the kind of frustrating, counter-intuitive decision that induces fits in longtime readers and retailers.
If there is one other complaint that has been written time and time again about Grant Morrison, it is that he often bombards readers with dozens of new and interesting concepts, but never lingers on them long enough to flesh them out. This was his fatal flaw in Arkham Asylum, in which he never (until now) explored his own concept of the Joker’s madness. His New X-Men and Marvel Boy runs, for example, were also riddled with seeds of ideas that were never developed. At his best (We3, Kill Your Boyfriend, Animal Man), Morrison has focused on his “bizarre ideas” long enough to deliver a clear and logical conclusion, but whether he fleshes out his new “Clown Prince of Cruelty” long enough to take advantage of his own interesting premise will go a long way in determining this issue’s place in history. Twenty years from now, if readers have a better sense of a Joker whose multiple identities can manifest themselves into a single, ever-evolving character, then perhaps this issue will be looked upon as one of the greatest Joker stories of all time. However, if Morrison simply abandons this idea (as he is prone to) and moves on, then this issue may forever be seen by readers as, at best, a curious anomaly, at worst, a self-indulgent excess and a failure. Don MacPherson expresses this skepticism of Morrison’s commitment to his new Joker, stating that “it’s a novel and compelling take on the character, though I honestly don’t expect the notion to be explored beyond this self-contained story.”
In general, superhero comics are usually too afraid to branch out this far from the norm, and, judging from the general reaction of righteous, nerd-rage, for good reason. Comic fans, for all their posturing and angry demands for new and innovative storytelling, do not embrace change. Sure, some minority of them does, but the continued survival of corporate superhero books proves that a built-in nostalgia market will continually consume the products and stories it loved as children. This is not necessarily bad, but the point is that it is often difficult for a market so classically conditioned, so Pavlovian in its blind loyalty, to swallow such a strange and bitter pill as “The Clown at Midnight.” In reality, superhero fans want just enough maturity and characterization sprinkled into their children’s stories to make them feel good about their childish hobby. They want to delude themselves into thinking that comics have grown up, and that the stories are much better than we remember them as kids (which is debatable), but the fact is that superhero comics have not grown up and will never grow up. The “Ultimate Universe” is no different than the regular Marvel universe, and Infinite Crisis is just a repackaging of Crisis on Infinite Earths.
So in the end, I understand why readers had a hard time with this issue. It’s different, and takes the typical comics reader way outside of their comfort zone. There are no panels, text balloons, or any of the familiar storytelling tropes, and where readers are used to consuming their comics in quick, ten minute snacks, this issue demands your attention for an hour or more.
In that sense, Morrison’s Batman story fails. It is not a comfortable, familiar, predictable reading experience. Nor is it consistent like a bag of Doritos or a Big Mac, where we know what we’re getting even before we’ve consumed it. What’s worse, it’s smart and sarcastic and not quite straight-forward. It looks and feels like no other Batman comic that has ever been published, and like the best David Lynch movies, it requires real thought, a second (and perhaps third) reading, and certainly some degree of imaginative interpretation. It is different, and it is challenging and it knows exactly what it is doing.
While it may not be perfect, “The Clown at Midnight” is utterly original, and as Salinger’s young Seymour Glass writes to his parents in “Hapworth,” “close on the heels of kindness, originality is one of the most thrilling things in the world, also the most rare!”