The Trouble With a Mask

“The trouble with a mask is it never changes.” – Charles Bukowski

So, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman #13 re-introduced The Joker, who we last saw having his face removed by Dollmaker before going underground for a year, effectively sitting out the first 12 months of DC’s New 52 relaunch. Taking away the Joker’s face raised a lot of interesting possibilities, leaving fans like me wondering if this would introduce a new design for the Joker when he finally returned to the rebooted Gotham City. Or perhaps this means that someone who’s in Batman’s titles right now, someone potentially very close to Batman or his loved ones, is secretly the Joker with a false face. That could’ve been cool. Or maybe it just meant that the new Joker would just run around without a face altogether, like some kind of unified version of Two-Face.

Well, what we got was something pretty different from all of those possibilities. When we next see The Joker, he’s got his old face back, but it’s still not reattached to his head, he’s just wearing it over his exposed facial muscles with a few strings and like a leather belt or something. Which doesn’t seem all that sanitary to me, to be honest. So, this guy went without a face for year, kept quiet, maybe traveled a bit, saw the Grand Canyon and everything, then came back to kill people again, but he couldn’t do it unless he went and got that face that he didn’t want or need for a whole year? And then he gets it back and just ties it on with a belt holding it in place? This is starting to sound a bit like shark-jump territory.

I know, I know. Joker’s a wild card. He can change his motivations and personality on a whim. He can doesn’t have a plan, he just “does things.” He’s crazy! Nothing he does can be rationalized and when we read his stories, we aren’t supposed to find any sense in his actions. But honestly, upon reading this issue, I initially felt like they must have started with a creepy design — Joker as Leatherface — and worked their way backwards based on that. I don’t know if that’s what actually went into creating this particular incarnation of the Joker, but that’s the way I felt coming away from the comic.

I’ve always enjoyed the fact that so many different versions of the Joker could exist side-by-side. He could be a dark, vaudevillian (that’s the proper, big-sounding word I want to use, right?) murderer or a goofy trickster tying Batman and Robin to the keys of a giant typewriter. One minute, he could be a wannabe pop artist, wearing berets and listening to Prince all day, and the next he could be a Tom Waits-sounding, knife-wielding domestic terrorist. He could be David Bowie in the eyes of Frank Miller and Marilyn Manson in the eyes of Grant Morrison. He’s adaptable, as Selina Kyle would say. I like that the Joker is constantly changing, that he’s some kind of chaotic force of nature rather than a fully-defined character, but turning him into a horror movie reject kind of throws the baby out with the bathwater, in my opinion. Now it’s his weird 70’s slasher movie face-mask thing that defines him, not his strength as a character.

And that’s the other thing that really did irk me about this new direction. I’m a big Joker fan. Lots of people are. Most Batman fans are. Most moviegoers are. When they make a Batman movie with the Joker in it, he’s usually the focal point of the movie. He’s an amazingly admirable, even adorable villain, even though he’s a known killer and a terrorist. That’s why he’s always worked so well. He’s a bad guy, he’s objectively evil, but for some reason we always wind up rooting for him. We always leave the theater wanting to buy his toys before we get the Batman ones. Hell, I’m wearing a Heath Ledger Joker shirt as I write this, and one with a particularly abrasive, maybe even violent quality to its design. I’ve been on the train before and wondered if this shirt gave people a bad impression of me. But I still dig the hell out of it, and not because I’m a violent guy or because I want to make people on the train uncomfortable, but because I am a fan of the Joker. I’m a fan of the bad guy, in this case.

I believe that’s an indication of a definite core to this character that exists no matter how many times he might change on the surface. The Joker is charming, whimsical, hilarious, and at times even seductive, but then before you know it he’s cutting your heart out and feeding it to his pet hyena. He’s vicious and destructive, but it’s in balancing that with his charisma and cartoonish-ness that he becomes the Clown Prince that so many people adore. That’s why I don’t understand who benefits by turning him into a scary, stoic Michael Myers-wannabe. It just seems kinda dull. To me, this just seems like DC taking the whole idea of Joker having scars on his face and then just going crazy with it because they think that’s why people liked Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the character (once again, I don’t know if any of this jives with the reality of how Snyder concocted Batman #13’s story, but this was my knee-jerk reaction).

But the truth is, it’s been a few days, and I’m actually kind of intrigued to see where this story might be headed and what Snyder could potentially be saying by taking the character in this direction. Joker is now wearing his own face as a mask, he’s essentially parodying himself. He’s in the process of destroying his old identity and finding out where he fits into this New 52 world. That’s something that could potentially really resonate with me right now. I’m currently feeling pretty ashamed of myself for a series of unrelated failures that I’ve endured in the last few days. I’m also struggling to reconcile who I am within New York and find where I fit in amongst the big city. I know from numerous experiences that starting over and making friends in a new place takes months, even years, and I am okay with that, I guess. But I’m also beginning to feel kind of annoyed by myself and my own personality in the process. The symbolism of entering a new world with your old face as a mask and raw, unguarded flesh underneath is not lost on me.

So, there you have it. While I spent the first 900 words of this column pointing out the flaws with Capullo and Snyder’s new direction for the Joker, at the end of the day they’ve actually brought me closer to the character than I’ve ever been. Which, to be perfectly clear, is not to say that I sympathize with his evil, fictitious acts, or that I would ever want to change to be more like him. Just that it’s always better to read stories that you can understand a little bit, stories that make you feel like other people know what you’re going through, especially when you’re feeling kinda down on yourself.

I guess the takeaway here is that while a mask will always stay the same, life is constantly changing around you, and you’re not going to be able to face the new challenges coming your way if you’re still wearing yesterday’s face.

(And for the record, I haven’t read much Bukowski, if any at all, but many of my friends love him, so that quote is really for them.)

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Mike Greear is a journalism graduate from the University of West Florida currently living in New York City. During his time as an undergraduate, he reported on everything from Presidential campaign stops to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, eventually working his way up to being the editor-in-chief of the University of West Florida’s student newspaper, The Voyager. Since graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire, reporting on crime and municipal stories in the city of Rochester as well as interviewing Republican primary candidates, before returning to Florida and freelancing for the Pensacola News Journal. He now resides in Long Island City, writing weekly columns for and hoping to break into the comics scene.

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  1. Zach Berlin says:

    Chuck Dixon was an advocate of the Joker being an idea rather than a man. Morrison explains the Joker’s transitions as a sort of hyper-sanity, making him the most perfectly evolved “him” for every era. Dixon had the concept that maybe the Joker wasn’t always the same person. That, like the Dark Knight Trilogy, the character was bigger than one man and was a concept that different people fell into from time to time. This would explain the variances, sometimes wild, in his behavior and characterization.

  2. ...David Whittaker says:

    How have I not read this article before? Wonderful stuff.

    Thank you.

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