Boy, a lot of people sure seem to hate this one, huh? In some cases I can see why this is, and can even agree to a certain extent on some of the story’s flaws. For example, Morrison certainly does go a bit over the top with his metaphors and use of alliteration. Sure, such bizarre use of language made me wonder if there were a particular narrator behind the tale – the Black Glove of our next hardcover collection seeming a likely candidate – but it doesn’t mean he had to write long winding sentences for every little thing. But although I understand that particular irritation some people seem to have with this story, I’ve read a lot of stupid crap as well, such as the suggestion that the same story could have been told in the usual comic form. That’s true, of course, but what the people who say that don’t seem to realise is that it wouldn’t have been nearly as good or effective, and would’ve taken up at least two issues, though three or four sounds more likely. What we have instead is compressed storytelling at its finest, for managing to put together those several issues worth of comics into the one story, but also for doing so pretty well in my book.
Before we dive into an analysis in which I compare the Joker to Chigurh of No Country For Old Men (yes, really), here’s a basic story summary: some henchmen of the Joker are all mysteriously killed at a funeral, prompting Batman to confront the recovering lunatic at Arkham Asylum, which turns out to be fruitless since the chap can hardly talk after, you know, being shot in the head and all. But he does realise that the Joker’s speech therapist is actually Harley Quinn so goes off in pursuit of her before she can carry out any more of his plans. Alas, this ends in her escape just as Alfred tells Batman that the Joker’s causing mayhem at Arkham. We then follow him instead as he not only carries out his brutal escape, but re-imagines himself as a new Joker, one who has no need of Harley and attempts to kill her. Too late, though, as Batman intervenes, saving her. Which is bad for the Joker because Harley shoots him and Batman must drag him to an infirmary, at which point our story ends. It sounds simple, I know, but there’s actually a lot that goes on here. There’s throwbacks to other stories; there’s very clear themes brought to the surface; it’s a sequel, in a way, to Morrison’s own Arkham Asylum; and, most importantly, there’s the character study of the Joker, the whole point of it all.
We’ll start with the easiest thing to talk about: that it’s a sequel, in a sense of the ideas prevalent, to Arkham Asylum. Well, not only ideas within the story, I mean – Morrison brings over some familiar writing techniques, such as his emphasis on pattern, which we see here as a chessboard and in the focus upon the colours red and black. We’ll get to those, but I’d first like to talk about the parts of Arkham Asylum’s story that we see make a return. For one, there’s the concept that the Joker possesses a “super sanity” and, indeed, it plays a large role here. When I say he “re-imagines himself”, I mean that he really changes himself, in a rather freaky sequence. But what makes it frightening isn’t that he at one point during the transformation, for instance, goes through several spasms where his other incarnations wrestle for control, seemingly even changing his voice. No, what’s terrifying is that he’s actually in control – that the whole thing is planned, hence the title specifically referring to this reincarnation we’re presented with as “the clown at midnight”. It’s so planned, in fact, that Harley, who acknowledges his twisted genius quite a few times, shows up exactly as he planned her to – and ready, though not to her knowledge, for sacrifice.
That’s another thing making a return here – there’s a ritual in both stories, and they both almost end with a sacrifice. In Arkham Asylum it was the sacrifice of Batman that was nearly carried out, the ritual having been the attempt to drive him insane. But this time the Batman may as well be irrelevant, except for the Joker wanting him to witness his transformation. This is the ritual, and Harley, “the last and best of his lackeys” is nothing more than a “playing card” for Batman to witness the Joker lay out, like the checkmate on a chessboard – the sacrifice that will see the Joker reborn…or perhaps not. What’s really interesting from following the Joker so intimately in this issue is that we get a lot more insight into his own thoughts on the matter of his “super persona”. We know Harley believes in it – after all, it was she who created the persona phrase (“super sanity” is said by Ruth Adams in Arkham Asylum), to which Batman reminds her of. Likewise, Batman himself sees the patterns in the Joker’s plans. Indeed, when he rescues Harley, he already realises that he plans to kill her, having deduced it from the red and black pattern of her outfit, the very same colour pattern used in the poisonous roses he killed his former henchmen with at the beginning of the story. Back to Harley again, she at one point calls him “her Saint” after imagining that she sees a “radioactive light” emanating from his eyes.
That latter part is similar to a comparison the Joker makes of himself, or more specifically his mind, which “feels like it’s 8.15 am at ground zero in Hiroshima”. In other words, his mental state is that of a devastating atomic explosion that was destructive in an apocalyptic sense, one thing we’ll shortly get back to. But, yes, he goes on to daydream of himself “giving birth from his mouth to pestilence and desolation”, and that he could be a personification of the bogeyman from which children will hide. To fully illustrate my point, we need to back a few pages to the transformation itself. Before the spasms begin he actually contemplates on his supposed super sanity, but his only answer to the question of it being true is a simple “maybe”, which is repeated at the start of each sentence in this particular passage. Going forward again, until the very end of the story, the Joker at that point tries to explain to Batman that there is no red and black pattern to what he’s doing, at least not intentionally. How he tries to explain that it’s little more than a fantasy that Batman’s making up, like someone trying to find logic behind the world’s more sadistic actions, curiously enough is by mentioning “a bat in a window”, which is of course how Batman is “born” in Frank Miller’s Year One, the point there being that even then our Dark Knight saw something, some act of fate apparently, that just doesn’t exist.
Before actually saying that – which Batman can’t even make out, by the way, or just doesn’t seem to understand (it’s difficult to tell but it may well be the latter since the Joker goes on to say that he could never kill him because he’s his “straight man”) – he even considers telling Batman that it’s the man himself who makes laugh the hardest because, as has been the subject of many Batman / Joker stories, they’re actually both very similar, “trying to find meaning in a meaningless world”, the Dark Knight by representing Order, and the Joker, Chaos. Shortly after saying this he does indeed say that he “simply wants Batman to give in to chaos”. Which led to me to think of this Joker as being quite like Cormac McCarthy’s Chigurh, of No Country For Old Men, in a way. That character’s a destructive force of evil too, and the other characters in that book also have a difficult time understanding him – why he kills, mercilessly and without any hesitation, anyone who gets in his way; and how he decides who lives and dies.
Which in turn reminds me of the philosophy of Frederick Nietzsche, particularly the idea that tragedy itself isn’t what gnaws at people’s minds, driving them to react in horror or disgust or what have you – but pointless tragedy. Kind of like the atomic bombing of Hiroshima that the Joker compares himself to, or the school shootings we hear about too often. Whatever the case, although the Joker perhaps thinks of himself in the same way as McCarthy’s Chigurh – as someone who acts through what they believe is common sense, and as someone who is a necessary evil – both characters actually share the same irony of being just as futile as any other human being. In No Country For Old Men it was a car crashing into Chigurh’s at the end of the book and film, as well as suffering multiple gunshot wounds before. So far in this run we’ve already seen the Joker get shot in the head by an impostor, that he probably should have seen through the guise of, and here again he is shot, this time unexpectedly by Harley, the same person he’d been planning to kill.
It’s an utterly fascinating portrayal of the Joker to me and I’m really excited to see where Morrison will take the character next. In fact, one terrifying thing I didn’t even mention is that Morrison has had the Joker’s face stuck in a permanent smile, something which even surprises Harley at first, and something which seems quite suitable. If I’m right in my comparison to Chigurh, or simply the idea of him from this point onwards existing solely for destruction’s sake, then I can’t think of anything more fitting for a character like him, killing because, as far as he’s concerned, life itself is one meaningless joke, moving forwards on his apocalyptic path with a great big smile plastered on his face. To put it simply: whenever we next see him, I expect that it will not be good at all.
Before I leave you with some additional notes I made, there’s a few more things worth talking about briefly. First of all, I mentioned that there were throwbacks to other stories involving the Joker. The brunt of these are seen during his transformation stage, but the earliest reference is of two of the dwarves from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke making a return appearance. Well, one’s killed straight off the bat, but the other, called Sheba, a name I’ll come back to, survives and we briefly read from her perspective where she recalls the Joker’s “short-lived ringmaster-from-Hell phase”, which is where she was involved in tormenting Jim Gordon at a carnival the Joker had stolen for the purposes of driving that character insane. That’s only one though. During his reinvention I mentioned that the Joker appeared to vocally change into his other other persona’s. Whether he does or not isn’t really relevant, but he does repeat familiar sounding dialogue. Alas, I only recognised two such lines. One, from The Killing Joke, is “And I’m looony like a lightbulb-battered bug”, part of the song he sings to Gordon during his little ghost train ride. The other I recognised is from Arkham Asylum, naturally, and is his “Aren’t I just good enough to eat?” line that he says on his first physical appearance in that story. There’s more, which sound like probable references as well, but either way, my point is that “references” may not be the best word. Although they could just be that, I actually think, like the character of Batman, Morrison is making all previous Joker stories canon as well. Obviously I don’t expect that he’ll go into as much depth, but I do believe that this is the case anyway, which is quite interesting.
The other thing I want to mention, quickly, is that Morrison springs up some themes here, ones that I expect we’ll be seeing more of. Most obviously, there’s the idea of transformation, emphasised further than I’ve mentioned so far with the comparison to a snake shedding its skin. The reason I bother to mention it again after already talking about the Joker so much is that I wonder now if it’ll be something that isn’t already applying to Batman. As I’ve been pointing out for a while now, this Batman is a little weird, and I can’t help but think that any major change that happens, such as my suggestion that he may go insane at some point during this run, could actually be permanent – the birth of a new Batman. Indeed, one of the later trade paperbacks is called The Return of Bruce Wayne, taking place after he’s somehow killed by this Darkseid character in Final Crisis, strongly emphasising this possibility.
Another noticeable theme, which I predicted when we first met Jezebel Jet, is that religion would be playing a role. There’s quite a lot of religious references going on in this tale, believe it or not. For one, there’s another comparison the Joker makes of himself to Shiva, a Hindu god often referred to as “the destroyer”, although also “the transformer”, I guess for the changes it can make to the world. Don’t worry – I won’t pretend I know anything about this particular religion, but I would like to mention one other god. You see, “the destroyer” seems to be more like what Morrison is referring to if you connect it back to Hiroshima, which the Joker already compared himself to. This video is an excerpt of an interview with Oppenheimer (look him up), years after his atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, in which he compares his feelings at the time to a Hindu god called Vishnu, also confusingly called “the destroyer of worlds”. So again, the Joker’s comparing himself to some hellishly angry gods. In fact, one small thing I forgot to do in my comparison of him to Chigurh was to go in depth into how the latter uses the flip of a coin, much like Harvey Dent, to decide who lives and dies to which a few character’s, particularly the main one’s wife, angrily respond to as his decision as some kind of deity who can decide who to kill and not kill.
Aaanyway, before I go off on a further tangent, the other religious reference is to the Queen of Sheba. To be honest, I cheated here and looked up some reviews of this issue going as in depth as I am, in which I found someone point out that this queen is from the Old Testament, and not the New, significant because that the character with this name, one of the dwarves from The Killing Joke, is nearly killed by Harley as part of the Joker’s rebirth. In other words, killing the Old Testament to bring in the New. Clever, eh? The only other reference, which might not even be one at all, is the line “fish being gutted” that the Joker repeats at one point. Though not certain, I could swear that has something to do with Christianity, vaguely remembering some symbol of a fish in a church I used to go to. If so, “being gutted” could be a way of saying, “In with the new religion [chaos, I suppose], out with the old” again.
The last theme ties back to that one line I said the Joker made when attempting to get Batman to understand that there was no bat that made him who he is, and that’s this belter: “Life…and death. The joke…and the punchline”. It’s literally just as it sounds – pure existential nihilism coming from the Joker. But, also, with the way he directs this at Batman in reference to that character’s birth, he’s trying to suggest that the Batman is the opposite of this philosophy, trying to create meaning out of every little detail. Which in turn ties back to what I found curious about Batman’s concern when Tim Drake was nearly killed by Damian recently: that being that he seemed more concerned about losing Robin than Tim himself. This in turn reminded me of V For Vendetta, funnily enough, in which the lead character tells the detective who kills him, “Ideas are bulletproof”. And what is Batman and Robin, if not an idea? If not a personification of Order against the Chaos of the Joker? But what if they’re not concrete at all? What if, like the Joker in this story, things will change? It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if that were actually the case, if what Morrison is really intending to do with this run is reinvent the Batman mythos itself. Alas, we can only wait to find out.
Some small notes then to close us off:
– In a section in which Batman stands atop one of Gotham’s buildings and just surveys the city there’s a curious focus on the neon colours of red, purple and yellow. It surely isn’t a coincidence that these are the colours of Tlano’s costume, the Batman from Zur-En-Arrh, the name of which we’ve seen graffitied on walls already. Not really sure what it could mean here though unless it’s merely foreshadowing through colour.
– Morrison refers to this new iteration of the Joker as “the Thin White Duke of Death” at one point, a very clever David Bowie reference. You see, David Bowie isn’t only a great singer – he’s a great showman too. And by comparing the Joker to him Morrison is thinking of other writer’s approach to the character; how he’s a fan favourite because of all the ways he’s been reinvented over the years, as has Bowie re-imagined his image.
– “I’m a cockroach!” is a phrase the Joker cries as his transformation begins and I think it might be a reference to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which the lead character wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into the insect.
– Contrary to what I said above about references not really “existing” in that way, there is one that I doubt is supposed to be part of the Joker’s entire canon, and that’s a reference to Frank Miller’s much-parodied Batman of All Star Batman and Robin: “He simply wants the goddamn Batman to finally get the goddamn joke”. This follows, if you’re wondering, the section where he considers telling Batman that he’s the person he finds funniest, meaning that the joke he refers to here is actually life itself, or more specifically, their lives as the embodiments of good and evil. Still, the “goddamn” part seems like a jab at Miller.
– With all the nods to The Killing Joke that I’ve mentioned, it may not come as a surprise that this story also begins and ends with a focus on rain. Seems Mr. Moore has himself a big fan in the form of Morrison.
Well, that’s all I can muster up for now. No doubt that this will be a story we’ll be revisiting during this run, though, as I’m sure some of the small details that I’ve mentioned, and failed to, will prove significant later on. And for the record, though this may seem like blasphemy when speaking of comics, this has been my favourite issue so far. Honestly, I just don’t understand how people can hate it so much. The only big piece of criticism levelled at it that I can perhaps get behind is that it’s retreading old ground in a way, you know, as another study of the Batman and Joker being so similar. Still, I think Morrison made it more interesting than most writers could, and I’d hope it’s a story that opinions will change on over time. It certainly kicks The Killing Joke’s ass as a Joker story, that’s for sure.
However, we’re now going back to the good old comics, starting with The Three Ghosts of Batman which I assume will pick up the pieces from where we left off in Absent Fathers. After that we only have two more issues before we round off this book’s chapter in the run. Hopefully I can get through them more quickly, as I’m eager to move on to the next book. Either way, see you next time.