That Cowardly and Superstitious Batman, That Heartlessly Persecuted Joker:

On Batman #17

Well, why doesn’t the Batman simply kill the Joker? You’d think the answer would be obvious. Yet fans the blogosphere over appear quite flummoxed, if not dangerously apoplectic, about the matter. The Joker can’t be reformed or contained, they howl! If he’s allowed to live, even more innocents will inevitably be tortured and murdered! Ipso fatso, reasons the reactionary mind, the only truly heroic response to the Crown Prince Of Crime’s continued existence is to end it.

Obviously, the fact that it’s both ethically and legally unacceptable to murder our fellow civilians doesn’t register with these representatives from the hang-’em-high fraternity. Similarly, the indisputable truth that the Joker is demonstrably criminally insane, and therefore quite obviously blameless for his crimes, appears to be considered irrelevant too. Even Bruce Wayne’s traumatic aversion to both guns and killing shouldn’t, it appears, hold him back from what’s seen as the greater good. The reasoning seems as obtuse as it’s heartless, and yet the meaning is clear; a true hero will always struggle to overcome moral, physical and psychological constraints in order to murder in the name of justice.

In the climax to the “Death of the Family” crossover that appears in Batman #17, writer Scott Snyder flirts with this very issue. The Joker himself spins out a theory of why he’s not been murdered by the Batman. Could it be that Bruce Wayne is simply scared that he’ll not be able to ration himself to a single assassination of a super-foe? It’s not an argument that Snyder has Batman recognize as valid, but it does touch upon the underlying logic of the fannish belief that the Joker must die. For if the protection of civil society demands the slaughter of perpetually-escaping and murderous super-villains, then none of that breed can be permitted to remain alive. If the Joker must be put down, then so must the rest of Batman’s gallery of costumed and uncostumed antagonists alike, and the necessary killing could hardly stop there.

Oddly enough, Snyder never again refers to any of the legal, ethical, cognitive, or even logical issues that his story quite deliberately raises. When it comes to the matter of whether to liquidate the inconveniently and dangerously insane, Snyder’s Batman relies on a stance equally mixed from a petulant machismo and a worrying degree of cod-mysticism. Indeed, the closest the writer comes to referencing the fundamental objections to arbitrary murder occurs when he has the Batman declare that he will not break his “code”. No matter how the Joker goads him to do so, he’s not going to be ignobly bullied into changing his mind. “Why have you never killed me?” demands the Harlequin Of Hate, to which Batman replies not “Because you’re blameless”, or “Because there’s a law about that”, or even, “Because I don’t believe that’s moral”. Instead, Snyder has his hero offer the rather pathetic retort of, “Because you’d .. win”. Reducing an ethical conflict to a matter of uber-blokeish stubbornness, the Dark Knight expresses his determination not to be forced to change what he stands for. What that platform might actually consist of is left to the imagination of the reader, although the evidence of the script is that it’s anything but informed and humane.

For this is a Batman who’s even entirely ignorant of the most basic facts of criminal psychology. To him, the Joker isn’t to be pitied for his insanity, but loathed. Once the Batman was able to clearly differentiate between the suffering individual and the appalling consequences of their disorder. Now he’s shown raging at his opponent as if the Joker were entirely responsible for his behavior. “I’ll destroy you for this” he distastefully growls, before later declaring, “I hate nothing more on this Earth than you, Joker. Nothing.” This is, of course, the language of rightful, noble, crowd-exciting vengeance, and it suggests that this version of Batman is as callous as he’s ignorant. After all, Snyder has also included a scene set in Arkham Asylum which shows that Wayne has long understood that the Joker ‘s quite insane. But then, how could the baying audience’s desire to see the Joker pounded and humiliated be fulfilled if there was mercy and understanding at the story’s core? Only by conspiring with the popular prejudice that the criminally insane deserve to suffer, and suffer terribly, for their actions can this story please the peanut gallery.

In truth, the climax of Batman #17 simply won’t deliver the requisite degree of catharsis unless the reader has been longing to see the Joker not simply defeated, but beaten and demeaned. It’s a scene that relies on hatred and nothing but to make it work. Indeed, the entire structure of the issue works to place Batman into a position where he can mock and beat his opponent while still appearing heroically hard-done by. Accordingly keen to drag out Joker’s vicious humbling, Snyder presents us with a Batman who remorselessly prolongs the final set-to. Not only is there nothing to be gained by doing so, but the younger members of the Bat-family have been drugged into fighting each other to the death elsewhere. Showing not the slightest desire to turn away from his satisfaction, the Batman knowingly chases Joker towards the dead-end of a precipice above a subterranean river. As he does so, he effortlessly brushes off Joker’s attempts to overcome him. Even the arrival of a very big axe from out of nowhere fails to cause the Batman to break sweat. Yet despite having Joker at his mercy, the Batman chooses to tool up from the fists which have served him well. Having cornered his prey, he opts not to use his evident physical superiority to put an end to things. Instead, he chooses to beat Joker with what appears to be a metal rod. Fisti-cuffs are too civil a matter for the punters at the DC Comics Colosseum, it seems.

Of course, Batman #17 is revenge porn and little else. For all its creators’ undoubted skill, it’s a pitilessly manipulative experience which relies upon its audience ignoring the hole-ridden plot and its thoroughly unpleasant values. Vengeance and the longing to see vengeance acted out is what drives this story, and it’s that rush towards revenge which carries the audience over every ill-considered absurdity. When Snyder has the Batman declare to his foe that “Everything that happens to you tonight happens by my hand”, he’s emphasizing the exquisite pleasures of dominating a despicable opponent. Such thrills don’t come from the restoration of order and the fulfillment of justice. Instead, the story’s charged up by the sight of the Batman cowing the Joker. As such, the matter mustn’t be dealt with quickly and with compassion, because the excitement is being generated by the protracted suffering of the entirely irredeemable Other.

And so, spinning out the confrontation, the Batman pushes Joker towards the edge and then, holding him over the abyss, delivers a typical Snyder deus ex machina. For the Batman suddenly reveals that he knows who Joker was before his super-villainous career began. Somehow, this previously unmentioned fact means that the Dark Knight has gained the ability to shatter his enemies’ self-regard. Why such knowledge would cause the Joker to so fracture is never explained, but then, there’s a host of senseless scenes in Batman #17 to which Snyder pays no attention to. What counts is the public emasculation of the Joker. As he’s made the Bat-Family suffer, so Batman will do to him, and there’s no suggestion that sanity brings with it an obligation to behave humanely. Even stooping to mock the Joker by calling him “darling”, Batman delivers what he believes to be a shattering psychological revelation while also holding his foe above a dead fall. That the Joker should respond by pushing the Batman away was surely to be expected. Bruce Wayne is, after all, a super-genius, and presumably remains so despite his ignorance of matters of social science. As such, it can hardly have been a surprise to the Caped Crusader that the Joker should have ended up plummeting into the darkness below. At best, Batman’s actions are disturbingly negligent. At worst, it seems as if Wayne has simply placed the Joker into a position where he was likely to get rid of himself. Only an idiot can have thought that such an outcome was in any way unlikely.

Of course, this climax is presented as a triumph for good old day-saving Batman. Yet Snyder still has time to deliver one last baleful twist to this aspect of his callous tale. For he adds a scene in which Wayne explains to Alfred why he’s never opted to kill the Joker. Once again, it seems initially to touch on some familiar and laudable ethical concerns, before unexpectedly speeding away in the direction of black magic and devilry:

It’s true I don’t do it because of my code, because of what I stand for, but there’s another reason too… I truly believe that if I did it, that if I killed Joker, Gotham would just send me someone worse. Maybe even send him back, worse than before…

How refreshing it would have been to have a superhero express an unconditional allegiance to the most fundamental of legal and moral issues. Regrettably, Snyder leaves these central, and so often demeaned, principles and laws unmentioned. Of far more importance, it appears, is the deterrent value of Wayne’s suspicions that ill-defined, and perhaps even entirely non-existent, occult powers will punish him for any ill-doing. How better to close an issue which often seemed designed to resemble an ethical debate than with a great reason-undercutting slab of hooey?

And so a character who began in 1939 as a rational crimefighter preying on the superstitions of criminals has become an irrational brute whose actions are determined by vague, untestable superstitions. Of course, having such a Batman allows the audience’s taste for shock and blood and avenging to be pruriently and profitably indulged in. What behaviour can’t be justified by such an absurd belief system? But just as Snyder’s stories so often sidestep sense for the pleasures of throw-them-to-the-lions spectacle, so too have the ethics of his epics slipped free of their traditional moorings. By chance or design, the text and sub-text of Batman #17 work together to appeal to those who want to be flabbergasted and titillated by illiberal behaviour. In that, Snyder’s is a Batman for a new dark age, and not so much a champion of the downtrodden as a representative of the darkness itself.

Sympathy for the so-called devil will sound like a ridiculous idea to those who’ve loved this disturbingly callous issue. Yet for all that Snyder and artist Capullo’s work has been effectively constructed, its values are cruel when they’re even coherent. The Death Of The Family Event was ultimately about “shocking” the rubes before satisfying them with an Other-stomping conclusion. But there’s no compassion or logic here beyond the fuzzy sense that the good super-people have been saved and the very bad man satisfyingly punished. There’s definitely not the slightest hint that Snyder has ever once thought of the pernicious labels which society applies to the psychologically disordered. Why challenge labels when they can be so lucratively reinforced?

Batman #17 is a prime example of the super-hero book brilliantly reduced to a reactionary’s wet dream. As such, it will sell and sell and sell.

Reposted from Colin Smith’s blog, TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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1 Comment

  1. Ben Marton says:

    Once again, I find myself in awe of your linguistic prowess and absolutely aligned with your principles on this one, Mr. Smith.

    I am reminded that for all the accusations of brutality and cold rationalism leveled at Alan Moore’s ‘The Killing Joke,’ at the very least the narrative ended with a wry acknowledgment of the Joker’s victim-hood and Batman’s culpability in ‘activating’ his psychosis. This current Mr. Wayne seems yet another example of cold, flinty ossification of character in the slate-grey Nu52.

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