Saturday, September 27, 2014

Superb Heroes: Batman: Going Sane

Superb Heroes is a semi-regular column celebrating comics that are exemplary and/or exceptional in their treatment of superoheroism.
The notion that superheroes and supervillains need one another is exceedingly familiar in the comicbook world, even trite. In fact, the idea that good and evil are mutually inclusive is much older than comics as a medium. How can you have light without its corresponding darkness? Would we even know what goodness looked like if there was no evil to which we could compare it? You know what I mean. You've been stoned in college.
     In the Batman mythology, the theme of the Joker and Batman needing each other has been perhaps over-explored. More specifically, there is the well-worn concept that the existence of a Batman creates the necessity of a Joker, that the hero causes the villain. Both live-action Batman films to include the Joker used this causal relationship as key pieces of their stories, though in admittedly very different ways, and numerous Batman comics of varying popularity and influence have done the same. What makes Going Sane stand out for me is that it offers the characters an actual escape from their unending battle. Rather than simply discussing or displaying how Batman and the Joker feed into one another, Going Sane gives us a look at a world where one of them believes they've reached a definitive end to their conflict, and shows us what life could be like for the Joker if Batman was permanently out of the picture. Of course, it ends up being only a temporary condition, and there's some question as to whether or not the identity that the Joker creates for his new bat-free lifestyle is even ever "real," but the fragility and short-lived nature of the situation is all part of the appeal. We as readers know the new state of affairs can never last, even though both Batman and the Joker would be happier if it did, and therein lies the tragedy for everyone in-story and out.
     Going Sane is split into four chapters (having originally been published as issues #65-68 of Legends of the Dark Knight; I own the collected TPB) and the first part reads pretty much like any other Joker story. It is, in fact, nearly boring in its simplicity and lack of originality, which ends up being the point. It needs to be a run-of-the-mill experience right up until the end, so that the end can catch the Joker and the reader off-guard. After pulling some fairly lame tricks—a public explosion and then a violent kidnapping, neither of which are exactly minor offenses but they're no great feats for Batman's greatest villain—the Joker sets up a predictably booby-trapped cabin for his inevitable confrontation with the Dark Knight. Only, unlike ever before, this time the Joker's plan works. Batman finds himself distracted by his own furious distaste for the Joker's antics. He is so fed up with this bad guy, and so angry about Joker's persistence, that he ends up slightly off his game, just enough that when the cabin explodes, he's still inside, instead of making it out in the nick of time like he usually does. The Joker doesn't expect or especially want this outcome, and even with the thoroughly defeated and seemingly deceased Batman at his feet, Joker assumes his old foe is playing possum at first. When he realizes he's finally won the battle he thought would go on forever, he's delighted but also a little scared, panicked, and even madder than before. His already screwed-up psyche breaks in a whole new way, unable to cope with the idea of Batman dying, and he develops a new personality: Joseph Kerr, a quiet, unassuming, shy accountant.
     That's where we find Joker in chapter two, living his life as Joseph, having nightmares about a clown and a bat that he can't understand but we realize are the distorted memories of his real past, as opposed to the imagined past that came with this new identity. Joseph hates his dreams, but seems fairly content otherwise, and is a quite likable sad sack. His story is one of new love; he meets and falls for Rebecca, and she for him, pretty much instantaneously. We see their relationship develop from both points of view, with Joseph and Rebecca each narrating different parts of the story. Their affection is so genuine and pure, it's almost overly saccharine, but J.M. DeMatteis does a good job selling it by making both Rebecca and Joseph such delicate, decent, relatable people. They're looking for someone to connect with and trust in, and they find that in each other, so their love is believable and satisfying if perhaps too sweet at times.
     DeMatteis also wastes no time in breaking Joseph down and revealing the villain hiding underneath. Because the reader meets Joseph largely through Rebecca's eyes, we come to know and root for him rather quickly, so when his dark side starts to push through and he struggles to reign it in, we're already on his side, already sad for what we know the end of his story will have to be. He loses his temper with Rebecca to the point of nearly striking her, figures out that his name is an weak pun, and gradually deteriorates as time goes on, his true self too big and forceful an entity to contain. Then in chapter three, Batman returns, and when Joseph discover this in chapter four, he loses all control and effectively dies as the Joker reemerges.
     Batman's recovery is the focus of chapter three, and it's the weakest part of the narrative. Though there is a pseudo-romantic dynamic between him and Lynn Eagles, the doctor who rescues him, it's way more restrained, uneventful, and uninteresting than Joseph and Rebecca's, so it doesn't do well in comparison. It is important, though, because it represents a "normal" life that is tempting to Bruce Wayne the man if not Batman the hero. Though Bruce never seriously thinks he could give up being Batman, his time spent healing is also time spent relaxing, maybe the first relaxation he's had since his parents' death, so he toys with the idea of staying there for good. In the end, though, he heads back to Gotham almost as soon as he's able, eager for vengeance against the man who nearly took his life. That's all seen via flashback, while in the present Batman starts to search for wherever the Joker has been hiding, and does eventually find Joseph Kerr and peg him as a suspect. Invading Kerr's apartment, Batman sees a picture showing the obvious love between Joseph and Rebecca, and learns from the building's super that they are on their honeymoon. Knowing the Joker would never be capable of anything even resembling love, Batman decides to rule Kerr out. It's another mistake, but this one caused by Batman staying level-headed and Joker acting as uncharacteristically as possible, whereas the first time Batman was unfocused and Joker was super-extra like himself.
     That turnaround also marks the start of a turning point, since chapter four is pretty much entirely devoted to reestablishing the regular status quo. Joseph learns that Batman is back, snaps, and disappears into a stormy night, believed drowned by the authorities but never by Rebecca, not completely. She holds out the depressing hope that Joseph will come back to her somehow if she just continues to love him, and as far as she's concerned, she has no choice. He was a once-in-a-lifetime find in her mind, and her faith in his eventual return may well be all she has to keep her going. As for Batman and Joker, the conclusion of their shared story is as typical as the beginning was: Joker re-kidnaps his previous victim, Batman determinedly hunts Joker down and bests him, Joker ends up in custody. There is a moment where Batman has to show that he's better than the baddies by saving the Joker's life rather than letting him drown, but...the reader understands that Batman essentially killed Joseph, so he ends up as much a villain as the Joker. He might be the worse of the two. After all, Joker is just doing his Joker thing from top to bottom. Batman's stubbornness, his unwillingness to do exactly what the Joker did and transition into a new, peaceful life based on love rather than hate, it kills and innocent man and breaks the heart of an innocent woman. And yes, ok, the innocent man was just a false persona the Joker's brain manufactured to protect him from the shock of killing Batman, and the Joker identity would probably have bubbled back to the surface at some point even if Batman stayed away, indeed was starting to do before Batman returned, but still. Batman ends up being the cause of the Joker's victory over Joseph's will to keep existing, and that makes me kind of hate Batman. Joseph deserved a better ending, and Rebecca damn sure did.
     Of course, the tragic endings for all the characters are also part of what make Going Sane so good, because we see them all coming from the start, yet they still hurt when they finally arrive. DeMatteis builds the story intelligently, giving himself a lot of space to make the Rebecca-Joseph romance click as fast and fully as it needs to for the rest of the story to succeed. Artists Joe Staton and Steve Mitchell (pencils and inks, respectively) also do really strong work with Joseph's design and whole physicality. He is a little hunched and withdrawn, with sunken yet soft facial features. It's all built on what is recognizably the Joker's frame, but in such a way as to set the two characters apart as well. That's important, because we need to believe that Joseph is the Joker, but also feel for him the opposite of what we feel for the Joker, seeing them as separate people while knowing they share a body. The art is more responsible for that than the script by far.
     It all comes together to make for a brief but beautiful look at the whole Joker-Batman thing, the mutual dependance and two-way corruption that are the core of their relationship. Going Sane doesn't just suggest that Batman might be responsible for the Joker, it places that responsibility square on his shoulders by making his reappearance the final straw for Joseph. Yet Batman knows nothing about it, and thus has no reason to even consider that he might give the Joker a reason to be. And the good that Batman does is underlined, too; Lynn tells a story about Batman saving her once from what would most likely have been her murder, not just by pummeling her attacker but through providing her comfort after the fact. She calls him a healer, and it's a valid point, but I'm not sure it makes up for the demolition of Rebecca's whole world or the destruction of Joseph Kerr as a person. That's the main attraction of this story, and the reason I picked it for a Superb Heroes column: the hero and villain each get to play hero and villain at different times along the way, and they're both equally compelling and effective in both roles. This comic erases the average superhero genre good-evil dichotomy and presents a reality in which the scales can slide dramatically with any shift in circumstances. That's a nicely nuanced, entertaining, frustrating-in-a-good-way approach to superhero storytelling, and it goes especially well with the classic Batman-Joker rivalry.

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