Complex relationships in Batman: White Knight

Batman: White Knight #1 & #2,

Sean Murphy, Matt Hollingsworth,

DC Comics

I somehow missed spotting the first issue of White Knight last month. Fortunately we had a copy still on the racks, so when issue #2 came out this week I could grab both for a catch-up. I’ve admired Sean Murphy since the blistering Punk Rock Jesus – I think that marked him out as a writer and artist to watch out for, so I was intrigued to see what he was going to do with one of the iconic relationships in all of comics history, that of the Joker and the Batman. A word of warning, since I am catching up two issues here there may be spoilers…

The title White Knight hints at subverting the normal Gotham set up, and the opening pages of the first issue begin with what appears to be a fairly normal (for Gotham) scene of the Batmobile (a design reminiscent of the Burton movies era) pulling up to the infamous Arkham Asyum, the guards welcoming the occupant, who replies dryily that he knows his way around Arkham. It’s only on the third page that we see that the visitor who stepped from the Batmobile is “Mr Napier” – the Joker without his make-up and psychotic persona, almost unrecognisable – and the inmate he is there to visit in Arkham is the chained-up Batman. This isn’t just subversion, this is inversion.

We flash back a year to a more regular Gotham scenario – a clinically insane Joker on the rampage, fleeing Batman, Batgirl and Nightwing. Along the way the Joker invites them to play a hit-list of Bat-stereotype moments: jumping a raising bridge, pursuing (in the car!) over rooftops and so on, until the Joker is finally cornered in a warehous full od secret drugs. Batman chases him in, roughly pushing a security guard out of the way, but is not content with capturing the Joker, as the Joker starts explaining his theory about their relationship to him, an angry Dark Knight beats him repeatedly, before finally grabbing some of the warehouse drugs and forcing them down the Joker’s throat as a horrified Batgirl and Nightwing watch, and Commissioner Gordon and the police stand by but do not intervene.

We’re a team, Bats. Admit it! That’s our dynamic, all that’s missing is the make-up sex. I don’t expect you to acknowledge it. You are, after all, the distancer, I’m the overly complicated one.”

The Joker carries on telling Batman that they are part of the same system, and that far from fighting crime, his vigilante approach has made Gotham a crime hell, a form of therapy for him, perhaps, but victimising the very city he claims to protect. Or at least he does until the beating and forced drugs almost kill him, in a horrific, brutal sequence, drenched in red. Unfortunately for Batman and the GPCD this is all caught on camera, and it doesn’t make either of them look good. And when the Joker recovers after hospital treatment, the secret drug seems to have restored his brain to a normal balance. He is Mr Napier now, not the Joker any longer, and he soon turns his fierce intelligence to the law books, suing the city for the vigilante treatment and expanding on his argument that the Batman is actually a force for evil in Gotham.

These first two issues are absolutely fascinting. I’d go so far as to say this is the most compelling psychological exploration of the dynamic between the Joker and Batman since Moore and Bolland’s The Killing Joke. The thing is, the newly reminted Napier does actually conjure up some compelling arguments against the Batman (and the GCPD’s complicity) – even Batgirl at one point yells at Bruce during the earlier pursuit as they roar over an apartment block roof “there are people living in these buildings, Bruce! How do you know they won’t crumble?” Even his friends and allies are deeply concerned about Batman and how he is fighting his war on crime. All of which makes Napier’s arguments all the more convincing.

The inverted roles continue: Bruce Wayne continues to spiral more out of control as both the Batman and as Bruce, while Napier, now freed, is becoming something of a folk hero (pointing out most of Batman’s fights take place in the poorest parts of town, and afterwards those areas are worse off so predatory capitalists move in and buy cheap, a practise confirmed later by a wealthy associate of Wayne’s, that the crime fighting spree is good for buying cheap real estate).

And Napier himself, returning home to find Harley waiting for him but Harley as mad as ever and not too happy about this sane version of her “puddin'” and convinced at first it is a trick. Only to be confronted by a second Harley, this one in the original jester’s costume. It appears when insane as the Joker he had the real Harley walk out on him, fed up with competing with Batman for his attention, and this replacement in sexy cut-offs took her place (none of which he can now recall). Ohhh, but this is juicy stuff, girls and boys and other intelligent lifeforms, it wades deeply into the messy lives and psychologies of the main characters, and it is hugely compelling, while happily riffing on previous Batman tales like Killing Joke or the media and pop-psych evaluations of the Joker and Batman in Dark Knight Returns.

It’s well versed in Bat-history, with obvious love for these characters, with wonderfully appropriately moody artwork by Murphy (and very complimentary colouring by Hollingsworth, right down to lovely fine details like flickering flames coming out the side of the revving Batmobile), crumbling cityscapes of Gotham that look like something from Kelley’s Elseworlds Batman art crossed with Will Eisner, and some scenes which just encapsulate the inner turmoil of the characters perfectly (a splash page of Harley waking in their bedroom to see the Joker has left her side and instead kneels in a nearby room which is a shrine to all things Batman is powerful).

And of course you are left wondering – how much of this is true? Is the Joker really gone for good, is Napier a reformed man reclaiming his place in society? Or is it part of a greater scheme to destroy his old nemesis? Even if this is all true, will Napier stay as Napier, or will the dark Clown Prince of Crime reassert himself in the end? So many murky shades here, no Dark Knight, no White Knight, endless combinations of grey. And red….

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

DC 52: Batman #1

Another review I penned from the huge DC relaunch of 52 of the main DC Comics titles for the Forbidden Planet Blog:
Batman #1

Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion

DC Comics

Gotham is...”

Opening with an impressive triple panel of Gotham we get three fractured glimpses of this troubled city, from filthy, rat-infested Crime Alley to a towering, modern (and yet still with gloomy, brooding, Gothic overtones) business block and finally an ornate, vast mansion (presumably Wayne Manor). One city, but a town broken up, fractured, haves and have nots thrown together often quite closely and a city that should be a powerhouse and yet feels broken, damaged; welcome to Gotham City. Over-running this a voice over from the Batman – the Gotham Gazette for many decades has asked Gothamites to complete the phrase “Gotham is…” in three words or less. The more optimistic responses of yesteryear are drowned today by negative, despairing replies – “Gotham is damned”, “Gotham is cursed”, “Gotham is Bedlam”. Others respond with the names of the multitude of bizarre villains who plague this troubled city: “Gotham is Killer Croc”, “Gotham is Two-Face”.

Some others respond slightly more hopefully – “Gotham is Batman”. “Answers I’m partial to myself” the Dark Knight comments, dryly. It’s a nice moment, having its cake and eating it, explaining the complex nature of Gotham, those who menace it and those who defend it to the new reader, but at the same time it is also subtly pointing out that the two – supervillain and superhero – seem to go together, leaving you wondering if perhaps the poor city might be better off without both sides of that coin… This voice over takes place against an enormous brawl – there’s been a mass break out at Arkham Asylum and the Batman is faced by a whole ensemble of his most famous enemies (a neat way for Snyder to introduce them rapidly), save for a certain chalk-faced Clown Prince of Crime. Batman is holding his own to begin with, but the numbers are slowly taking their toll when finally his most famous nemesis makes his appearance – The Joker. Except the Joker appears to be fighting on the side of the Dark Knight against the other Arkham inmates – what is going on?

Cut to the roof of the police headquarters after the battle and Batman is filling in Commissioner Gordon on events. It wasn’t a break-out after all, he tells him, the cells were opened deliberately by a guard who was on the take, realised Batman was on to him and released the inmates in a desperate attempt to fend him off from himself. Which guard, Gordon asks. Dan Matthews, Batman replies. Gordon can’t believe it – he’s known the man since he was a young police cadet, an outstanding and honest man, he can’t understand who even someone as good as he was can succumb to that rot of corruption that so riddles the city. Expensive divorce pending a fling with a woman (with a criminal record), mounting health bills, he was desperate, he took dirty money… Gordon sighs in despair.

Dan Matthews on the take at Arkham… There’s nobody the scum of Gotham can’t get to, is there?” asks dejected Gordon

I wouldn’t say that,” answers the Batman, getting almost a smile from Gordon.

And again it is a nice touch from Snyder, just a few panels, but it establishes for the new reader just how endemic the corruption is in Gotham, what an uphill task both these men undertake and also nicely reminds us that Gordon is, in his own unassuming way, a real superhero himself. He doesn’t have a cape, or hi-tech lair, but he fights the good fight and doesn’t give in to the easy path of looking the other way, he chooses to take on those who poison their society head on. And the Batman knows it and with this short compliment he’s letting the other man know how much he trusts in him.

Back to the Batcave, which reboot or not is still instantly familiar to older readers – the giant coin, the enormous Joker card, the T-Rex, multiple Batmobiles and other items. Batman is trying out a new optical interface, special contact lenses which let him receive a feed from the Batcave on the go – he intends to try them in his Bruce Wayne role at a society fundraiser in his own home. As he changes into evening dress he is joined by the Joker, who it turns out was actually Dick Grayson using a special digital mask. You left me in Arkham an extra day, he complains. You looked tired, I thought you could use the rest, Batman replies. Only you would think a night sleeping in Arkham was a day off, Dick responds with a wan smile…

The two head up to the Manor above where the meet Damian Wayne (yes, he is in the new continuity) and Tim Drake. The contacts feed Bruce the names and details of everyone of his guests at his fundraiser where he announces massive Wayne Corp investment in Gotham’s future to reclaim the city and asking other rich Gothamites to join him, alogn the way being introduced by Vicki Vale to another wealthy Gothamite with a record of philanthropy and a desire to run for mayor, Lincoln March – is he as decent as he seems or is that a front? Such is Gotham that the reader is never sure if they should take such a character at face value and I’m sure that was quite intentional – I imagine Lincoln will show up again in later issues with more of a role to play. The special contact lenses also function as a quick way to introduce characters like Grayson, Damian, Vicki Vale and so on to new readers, although to be honest I thought, although a different way of doing the necessary introductions, it became awfully repetitive as a device after the first few uses.

Of course no social event ever ends with Bruce enjoying himself among friends and true to form we see him observing Gordon being called away urgently and soon enough he has made his excuses, left the party and in cape and colw once more is following. There’s a nice scene where he materialises from the gloom right behind eternally downbeat but honest Gotham detective Harvey – when Batman does the appearing silently behind him Harvey doesn’t start, doesn’t even blink, he knows only one man can creep up on him like that and merely asks him what took him so long. It’s a nice little character scene handled in just a couple of frames. The crime scene reveals not only a gruesom and rather convoluted murder but an almost invisible message which only Batman notices at first. It declares that Bruce Wayne will die tomorrow. No chance, says Harvey, no-one could get through Wayne’s security – not unless they had an inside man, someone who would have to be very close to Wayne…

And I’ll leave it there rather than blow the ending, but it’s a good one and does make me want to read the next issue. The only problem I really had with this was that, as with Detective Comics #1, this doesn’t feel like a reboot. But as I said when reviewing Detective Comics Grant Morrison was asked about this at the recent Edinburgh Book Festival and replied that yes, in most reboots over the years it was true that Batman really doesn’t change much, but he was so well put together to begin with that you simply can’t change too much of him or his world without ruining the character, so yes, although it doesn’t feel that different from previous Batman I see his reasoning and to be honest I think he’s right on that score. But the story is solid – not remarkable or brilliant, mind you – but good, introduces a number of comrades and opponents quickly and showcases the relationship between Batman and Gordon rather nicely, as well as leaving you thinking you need to know what happens next.

The new DC 52: Detective Comics and Batgirl

I penned this for the FP blog recently as part of the ongoing DC 52 coverage, where we’ve been lucky enough to have several folks kindly pitching in to help review the massive reboot DC Comics is doing of its main line of superhero comics and characters, effectively re-starting the DC universe (DCU as it is called in comic speak) which makes it open and more accessible to readers who are either not familiar with them already (and the decades of continuity and back history – some characters like Batman date right back to the 1930s, after all) or who used to read them but stopped a while back and aren’t up on recent events, meaning new readers can come in at thr ground floor as the characters are largely restarted.

Detective Comics #1

Tony S Daniel and Ryan Winn

It’s pretty rare these days for me to pick up a weekly or monthly comic – I’ve collected them for years, still have boxes of them, still have a lot of love for them, but these days more often than not I tend to pick up the collected editions further down the line, but with all the DC 52 titles coming out and with all the various guest posts that have joined the regular blog contributors (thanks, guys!) to cover this enormous re-launch, I was too curious not to pick up some, so I thought I’d delve into an area that has always been one of my favourites in the DCU – the world of Gotham city.

Detective Comics #1 starts well for me right from the disturbing cover image of the Joker and broken dolls, a suitably appropriate and creepy bit of art, backed up inside by the first page which is slashed into a sort of triptych giving us a jagged, splintered view of this world, while the Batman’s voice over laments the sheer number of deaths the Joker has been responsible for, and how even if the courts can’t deal with him properly, he can and he will (shades of Miller’s Dark Knight and his grim determination to end the Joker’s murderous spree once and for all). He also seems to hold himself partly responsible for those deaths because he has failed to stop the Joker in time, something reinforced later when he tells Alfred, after the Joker has given him the slip, that any further murders he commits since escaping him means blood on his own hands too.

It’s an extreme form of survivor’s guilt, the child who lived when his parents were brutally slain, sworn to try and defend the innocent, to prevent more deaths, feeling endless guilt because he lived and trying to assuage that irrational guilt by saving others, by feeling the guilt of the criminals he tries to stop if he fails to prevent them from harming others. And that’s spot-on for the Batman, it is a major part of his psyche after all, an important part of what drives him to do what he does.

The brutal, casual, almost randomly sparked violence of the Joker is highlighted early on when a strange visitor to his room, clad in some sort of sinister flesh mask, rubs him the wrong way, despite being an invited guest, and the Joker snaps and turns on him, not merely killing him with a knife but stabbing and slashing him multiple times in a frenzy. But he isn’t just an insane psychopath – as Batman trails then battles him (leading to a great throwaway scene where both are on a train, a little girl looks past the Joker and says that man is scary, mummy, her mother tells her not to stare, the kid says, no, not the clown man, the monster bat man. He is scarier to her than the Joker) the Joker tells him that he is too fixed on dealing with him and can’t see the bigger picture, but it’s alright because that picture is being drawn up for him…

I enjoyed this – a well paced piece of work with good, moody art highlighting the brutal nature of Gotham and the grim determination of the Batman. As he pursues the Joker in a train he sees the Joker release some of his gas and clears the innocent travellers out safely but takes a whiff himself in the process. Even with his head reeling though he won’t quit his pursuit of the Joker:

I hold my breath, but the toxin penetrates my pores. Dizzy in seconds. But I can take it. I’m Batman.

This Batman is still officially a vigilante, with the cops after him as well as the criminals, on the orders of an electioneering Mayor, much to the disgust of Jim Gordon, who is on his side, at least covertly, and who already has the bat-signal lamp on the police HQ roof, so it will be interesting to see how the obvious tensions that sets up work out. My only quibble here is that frankly it doesn’t feel like a relaunch – this is great stuff, don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed it and want more – but it is also very familiar stuff to anyone who’s read Batman over the years, not as different or as fresh as say the version of young Superman in Action Comics. But then I recalled a question Grant Morrison was asked at the Edinburgh Book Festival – one reader asked him why in the various reboots and changes to the DCU over the years the Batman was usually the least altered. Grant thought about it and answered that Batman is one of those characters who was so well put together originally that there really isn’t much to reboot without messing up a well running engine and I suspect that’s the case here. In any case it certainly didn’t affect my enjoyment of this first issue.

Batgirl #1

Written by Gail Simone, pencils by Adrian Syaf, inks by Vicente Cifuentes, Adam Hughes cover

Barbara Gordon, my boyhood Batgirl, back in her cape and fighting crime after years in a wheelchair? Yeah, I had to pick up this part of the rebooted Gotham corner of the DCU too. I remember Barbara before her Oracle/Birds of Prey days, I remember when Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s hideously creepy Joker shot her, quite deliberately aiming the bullet to her spine to leave her crippled but not dead in The Killing Joke. And I am delighted to see her literally back on her feet again, although wondering how she managed it.

Her miracle recovery isn’t explained in this first issue, so I presume we’ll find out as this new universe slowly reveals itself, but her vicious crippling by the Joker is a part of this new DCU history. In fact it plays an important role, the awful memory constantly tugging at Barbara’s mind as she forces herself to move past it, to refuse to stay living with her father despite acknowledging how much the thought of staying there with him where she feels loved and safe (especially as she still suffers traumatic nightmares of that Joker incident), is so tempting, but she knows she has so reclaim her life and so moves out into a shared apartment (luckily her new room-mate works nights!).

The issues starts nicely with a good red herring, as we see a caped figure approaching an old man in his garden. We see this suited figure only from behind and at first the inference is that it is Batgirl or another caped hero, until we find out that this is a new figure, Mirror, and he has an agenda, perhaps some form of brutal, extreme justice? At least that’s what it seemed to me – his first victim seems an innocent old man pruning his roses, but Mirror confronts him demanding to know how it is he is the only one to survive a ship sinking in mysterious circumstances.

Barbara herself is very well handled, as you’d expect from Gail Simone who knows her so well, deftly balancing her reclaiming her personal life as Barbara and her crime-fighting return as Batgirl. She’s as determined in her own way as Batman – she may be using her legs again, but we know Barbara is strong and determined, even being crippled never stopped her fighting the good fight after all. But she is more human than Bruce Wayne in some ways – determined, yes, but she has doubts and she is fighting them as surely as she fights the criminals she is stalking:

I’m not Barbara Gordon. I have to keep remembering that. Tonight I’m not Barbara. Tonight I’m not the police commissioner’s daughter. Tonight I’m the only one who pored over the details of the confidential police reports when her dad wasn’t looking. I’m the one who recognised the vintage costumes you wear.

Tonight?

Tonight I’m Batgirl.”

She has anticipated a group of burglers/serial murderers The Brisby Killers and tracked them to the location of their next planned crime. As a couple are held by the criminals they are taunted, being shown a scrapbook of their previous crimes and what they did to those unfortunate families they encountered before. It’s very nasty stuff, slightly leavened by some gallows humour as the husband protests they don’t even live in Brisby. We’re not geographically constrained, the lead criminal explains, that’s just a media label. And then the window shatters as Batgirl smashes through taking out one of the gang instantly. Yes, that is almost a cliché of a scene, but it fits nicely here and there is something satisfying about our heroine smashing into the scene just in time to protect the innocent.

But all is not well here – we have hints Barbara is still adjusting to being back on her feet, she acknowledges luck as well as her training aided her in this fight, and she’s still not entirely sure she’s really back to her top game, but there is a nice aside where she comments that she has some serious upper body strength, a hint to the arm and shoulder muscles she developed pushing her own wheelchair about previously. But that crippling is still there in her memories and dreams, as I said, and she’s right to be worried about the effect it may have on her, because at some point that hideous memory is going to have a very direct consequence for Batgirl…

Good, strong opening, with Barbara an engrossing combination of the determined, strong hero and the flawed, doubting human being trying to overcome the past and her own fears. And the backstory of how she recovered the use of her legs and how she will deal with the trauma of memories of the Joker’s attack is going to be an intriguing one, I think. More, please.

Reviews from the past: Batman – the Long Halloween

Batman: the Long Halloween (new edition due this autumn)

Written by Jeph Loeb, art by Tim Sale

Published DC Comics

This old review was originally penned for The Alien Online many moons ago:

This is predominantly an ‘origin’ story, dealing with the fall of District Attorney, Harvey Dent, and his re-emergence as the hideously scarred (physically and psychologically) psychopath Two-Face. It is also the story of three men – Chief Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent, and the Batman – and the common cause, justice, which brings them together, and how that trust is ultimately shattered forever.

The Long Halloween combines several strands of plot into this main arc. There is the serial killer, ‘Holiday’, who strikes, as the name suggests, on vacations – Xmas, Valentine’s Day. There is the ongoing battle for supremacy between Gotham’s crime families. Carmine Falcone is the head of the largest crime family. His money can buy most police and courts, but not our triumvirate of heroes. The Catwoman becomes involved in his activities, although, as ever, it is hard to discern if she is a force for good or ill. Her alter ego, Selina Kyle is seeing the Batman’s daytime self, Bruce Wayne. Wayne, in his ‘normal’ capacity as a leading businessman, is involved in trying to block Falcone from using the bank, upon who’s board he sits, from opening a vast account to launder his mob money. Successions of Arkham Asylum’s finest criminal inmates are released upon Gotham and the Dark Knight. Poison Ivy uses her skills to infect Bruce Wayne, controlling him for Falcone, so he will stop blocking the bank’s move to allow in his money. This leads Gordon and Dent to suspect Wayne of being in league with the Mafia (they are unaware of his identity as Batman). Falcone has to deal with the death of several of his crew, including his son, supposedly by Holiday – or is it a disguised turf hit by other mobsters, or even his own sister, Carla? Scarecrow and Mad Hatter are loose on a spree, and the Joker simply can’t stand the thought of another outlandish psychopath in Gotham, stealing his thunder. He attempts to track Holiday, and, failing that, decides he can stop Holiday doing his job of terrorising Gotham by killing the whole population … With me so far? This is a big book!

At the heart of this sprawling narrative, is the story of Dent, Batman and Gordon. All increasingly frustrated at the tide of crime, all seeking to stop it, all fighting for justice with their best intentions. All three trust each other. That trust will be broken when Dent crosses the line, being prepared to kill those who escape justice. He contrasts his approach with the Batman’s, who rejects this. He may be a vigilante, but he does not kill – that would be to lower himself to the level of those he has sworn to fight. Harvey Dent has succumbs to the Neitzchen nightmare – those who fight monsters must take care not to become monsters themselves. All three men have stared into Neitzche’s abyss, but Dent has allowed the abyss to stare into him. Events reach a climax when Dent is prosecuting a court case, trying to bring down the mob with an insider willing to talk. But this is a mere plot, and the witness attacks Dent in court, throwing a jar of acid in his face. Half of Dent’s head is burnt horribly, but the psychological scars are far deeper. Already pushed to breaking by his frustrated attempts to bring down big crime, his mind snaps. Escaping from hospital Dent now becomes the hideous villain, Two-Face. His journey from hero to demon is complete. Gordon and Batman are left to face the ongoing war on crime themselves. But Batman believes in the integrity of Jim Gordon.

This large Batman work may not be quite up there with The Dark Knight Returns (what is?), but it is still and extremely interesting read. The 20s style gangsters and molls give Gotham a suitable period style, and the artwork is rendered in a manner that is reminiscent of Frank Miller’s hard-boiled, neo-noir Sin City series. Loeb freely acknowledges the debt to Miller in his introduction. If readers are reminded of Miller’s excellent Batman – Year One, this is because he gave permission for Sale and Loeb to use some of this Batman ‘history’ for The Long Halloween. Dark, brooding – a Gothic whodunnit, and an excellent addition to any Batman reader’s shelves.