DC’s decision to essentially relaunch and, therefore, reboot its output three years ago met with as much praise as it did criticism. Despite proceeding in the wake of Grant Morrison’s seven year labyrinthine run, one of the titles that was an instant success with both fans and critics was BATMAN. I have to say when I read these comics I like what I see. The collective work of writer Scott Snyder, peerless penman Greg Capullo, and their ever growing family of backup writers, artists, colourists, inkists and letterers has by and large remained a consistently decent and solid title. Some of my first forays into online journalism before joining Sequart were articles looking at this title and its’ various narrative arcs.
The current story arc, Endgame began in issue #35 with a homage piece that was equal parts Tower of Babel and Dark Knight Returns wherein Batman finds himself fighting off his fellow Justice Leaguers. I’ve always felt BATMAN under Snyder et al to be a very noirish, almost claustrophobic title. Having Wonder Woman, Superman and the like gatecrashing the comic switches the dynamic of both the narrative and the artwork into something of a cinematic blockbuster. Much in the same way Zero Year traded the muted tones of the series thus far for garish dayglo and primary colours as it told us yet another, but still compelling interpretation of the Batman origin trope.
By Batman #36 however, just before we return to the colorful Miller-esque clashing of titans, we are immersed once more in one of Bruce’s recurring nightmares. This is a return to the grimy chiaroscuro of the series as a whole. Two things might essentially slip past the reader as they take in this single page. Firstly, in this particular nightmare Bruce is old, as in Dark Knight Returns or Batman Beyond old. The second thing, which is the more important to the essence of this article, is the revelation that in every single nightmare, as Batman dies, the spirit of the city is laughing at him.
Snyder’s Batman is as far away from the omnipotent and transcendent James Bond in tights Morrison gave us as could be possible. The difference between these two characterizations can, at first, seem incongruous and grating. The thing to remember is that the conceptual strength of characters, such as Batman, lies in the ability for writers to interpret them in any number of ways. Snyder’s Batman, like the male lead of any Film Noir, is a perpetual victim of his own hubris. More importantly, he is an immensely enduring everyman. The transition from Morrison’s indefatigable psychological heavyweight to these almost all-too-human errors can seem like an intellectual step backward. However, this actually frames some wonderfully emotional content. Morrison’s run was about transcendence—Batman as a concept, as an ideal. Snyder’s Batman is a return to the idea of Batman, the sometimes all too human individual: Bruce Wayne.
Perpetuating the idea of the relatable everyman are Snyder’s Gordon and Alfred, who in this run become protagonists with their own narratives once more. Under Morrison these two were peers, integral but ultimately peripheral characters among a worldwide extended Bat Family that was both literal and symbolic.
The Bat Family itself also comes under scrutiny, nowhere more prominently than in Death Of A Family wherein Bruce’s pride and misplaced certainty threatens the immediate core members just as much as the Joker does.
For all this however, no other character gets as much scrutiny in Snyder’s run beyond its’ titular character than the Clown Prince of Crime himself: The Joker. Appearing explicitly in the aforementioned Death Of A Family and the on-going Endgame arc, Snyder’s Zero Year is as much a Joker story as it is the origin of Batman. Yet the Joker’s origin is still left somewhat vague and uncertain reinforcing that kookiest of canon origins. Furthermore, with the reveal found in the past month’s issue it turns out that between Zero Year and Endgame we had been reading yet another Joker story without even knowing it.
So what is Snyder’s take on this most mercurial of mass murderers? I would argue that forgetting the immense body count it is, like any good portrayal of the Joker or indeed any villain, a not entirely unsympathetic one is key. Aside from a few appearances in single issues, one offs, and tie ins, most of the Joker’s appearances since the launch of the New 52 have been in Batman and, as conceived by Snyder and his sometime writing partner James Tynion IV. Whereas their interpretation of Batman is a world away from Morrison’s, this team’s interpretation of the Joker in some ways takes cues from Morrison’s Thin White Duke of Death.
Gone is the comical foil and fool of the Caped Crusader as we return again to the sociopathic master of macabre mirth. Morrison may have evoked the idea of the Joker being the Devil, but Snyder and Tynion are reveling in it. True, Death Of The Family can be interpreted as something akin to a slash fan fiction, but The Joker earnestly expresses his love and desire to better Batman in the most sadistic of ways.
By Endgame however the lover, having been spurned, seeks to destroy that which he cannot possess. The interesting thing with Endgame thus far is that Snyder and Tynion seem to be taking Morrison’s exploration of Batman as an immortal archetype and applying it to the Joker, albeit imbued with far more sinister and supernatural allusions. Where Morrison implied that through a sort of retroactive enchantment Batman was a part of Gotham’s history, so Snyder and Tynion seem to conjecture that the Joker is nonetheless intrinsically deathless and tied to Gotham. Thus far this is nowhere more prevalent than in Batman #37 with a possible explanation given in Batman #38.
Reading two essays about the Joker in Robert Arp’s anthology The Devil and Philosophy only encourages that admiration by further cementing the marriage between the two archetypes in my mind. I want to dislike this radical reinterpretation of the character as immensely as many others have but I just can’t. I love the Devil and I love the Joker. Win win.
Of course the DC multiverse has many devils. Darkseid, wherever he may be, Lucifer, who we last saw passing the Source Wall into the Overvoid, and so on. So in a way it’s silly to state a character is that particular boogeymen, but damn if it isn’t fun to evoke and allude to that idea. Even if the whole thing turns out to be a hallucination born of either madness or chemical means. The methods by which this idea has been conjured, both inside the narrative and in how that narrative is communicated to us, are impeccable if not admirable.