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