Aww, who am I kidding? I always loved the jokercopter.

Especially in the first issue of Grant’s new run. Now I don’t know if it was included as a direction in the panel description, but there’s something so Outer Church about the blank, *eyeless* goggles the pilot wears. I couldn’t help wondering, ‘Who is that guy? Where did the Joker get him from?‘ But it wasn’t in some wanky, anally retentive comics fan kinda way, it was more, uh…*fearful* is probably the right word. The dude was just plain creepy and his anonymity made the whole thing that little bit more delicious. Ditto the copter itself. No backstory. No explanation. Just like in the old days. We’re expected to just take the thing at face value. It’s the Joker, he has special supervillain vehicles: nuff said. But this is the post-DKR age and everything needs a rationalisation, doesn’t it? Providing a mature readers-style take on this shit has become so important over the last decade or so and it’s got to the point where things have come full circle. In this reader’s estimation, mystery has, once again, become the most important ingredient in any good superbook. Modern comics readers/stories are so overburdened by the weight of our need to justify and apologise for all the sumptuous, childish conceits (spandex, superhorses, Robins, etc.) that flooded the superstories of yesteryear, that in the end the only antidote for this exhausted trend has to be ? cranked up to the power of n.

Hmm, you know what, now I look at it I can’t help thinking I’m beginning at the end. The argument I’ve just put forth is really the last word on jokercopters, and I’m about to completely contradict myself by positing a whole bunch of reasons why weird vehicles actually make perfect sense as an integral part of the batverse, and how they can be reinterpreted through a modern lense. Ah, but that’s why I now post on a blog as opposed to Barbelith, you see? Because it’s okay to be inconsistent here in the shifting lands of dread Dormammu.

The inspiration for this post can be found in Zom’s ‘Rogues piece where he concludes that the Riddler is a showman and a megalomaniac, and in a conversation we had last Saturday about how the bat baddies are all super-rich. That’s right, comic-brunts, we finally figured out what these weirdos do with all that cash they nick. (Sure, it’s easy to dismiss the Joker(etc)’s bank robbing past as nothing more than an ignorable stepping stone to their latter day incarnations as scary mentalists, but I say keep it all in there! Make it work, unimagocock! The thievery really happened and it’s all about reinforcing these guy’s weird, terrifying agendas. We don’t focus on the grand larceny now because we have a clearer handle on what the crazies are about, and that stuff just isn’t as interesting as the Joker shooting Barbara Gordon in the spine and sending Gordon on a mindfucking ghost train ride. But, I ask you, where did the bloody money come from? Heists, that’s where. All that boring, boring low grade criminality funds the technicolour fantasies these weirdos nurture. And that definitely includes Riddlermobiles.)

So, yeah, these guys are setting themselves up as microcosmic rogue states or aggressive mini *brands* (their modern equivalent). The Joker’s a purple and green playing card flagged, temporary autonomous zone of madness and death, occassionally invading, colonising and recuperating its surrounding territories – indeed, from time to time making moves on entire continents – like some kind of leering, pint sized Rome or Nazi Germany. Some of the Rogues are probably billionaires, and, inspite of all that insane cackling, they can afford it.

‘Reaching’, you say? Well, if I can come to that conclusion, then so can the Penguin. Batman’s Rogues are comic book Bransons, obsessed with their own image, and, I’d argue, they’re more vulnerable to the notion of branding than just about anyone else. Superheroes/villains practically invented the idea, so why today are the Joker and co so often denied the latitude we afford the Caped Crusader? Why do we say yes to the Batmobile but no to the Jokercopter? Superman’s ‘S’ is as pure a corporate sigil as the golden arches, and he’s a goody. Imagine if you’re Mr Freeze and you’ve been driven mad by your own self-regard? What happens then? Ice-cars, that’s what. No, the bat-villain has better reasons than most for reiterating himself across vans, bikes and spaceships, especially because his arch nemesis is the king of bloody branding himself. Batman’s had more mobiles than there are Maccydees and his enemies are in direct competition with him on every level, and that includes who’s got the best gyro-copter.
I want to make it clear that I’m not making a case for some weak arse bat-writer to work this idea into his stories in a literal fashion, or to have the Penguin brag about how he’s set to be ‘bigger than Wallmart!’ Urrgh. No thanks. All I’m attempting to underline is that in the DCU there’s a culture of this kind of thing that historically the batbaddie would be expected to partake of, or so long reputation!

Riddler, Two Face and the rest are new money and they want to boast about who they are, how the fuck much they’re earning and, well, if they spawn copycat gangs and all that, then they’ve gotta keep their look fresh. Part of their power in intelligent, fun, modern comic books is their influence and their ability to set trends. The best sports cars complete with reason-wrenching, question mark reality tacks is an essential part of their mystique. Where would the Batman’s ultimate Moriarty, Mr. E. Nigma, be without a gorgeous, bepuzzled, green and black UFO to wow the crowds upon his escape? It’s possible that there’s a whole raft of crapper superbikes out there crowding out the city streets – the automotive equivalent of the Green Vulture, the ‘home-made supervillain’ we saw in part one of RIP. The traffic cops are probably beside themselves – so only the most ingenious vehicles, particularly the seaworthy or airborne ones, survive for long before they end up as just another freaky porsche cluttering the GCPD’s stolen/dangerous motor pool.

These things should never be overused, however. The whole point is that Two Face pulling up in his customised BMW should be impressive, audacious and not a little scary. Fans are always moaning about bollocks like ‘How does Batman get around traffic jams in that thing?’, so when his opposites make an appearance in their motors, we should always feel it’s the ballsiest, most flagrant statement they can make, and just like their villainous owners the vehicles should always have the air of the trans-possible about them. The Riddler’s car bends, unfolds, unlocks and reshapes like some weird, intricate, mechanical puzzle around the tightest roadblock, Two Face’s cruiser will inevitably be described by some eye-witnesses as a fucked up old jalopy but by others as the slickest sports car imaginable, Black Mask drives a light nullifying hearse, and as for the jokercopter, the tech of that, if we zoom in real close, should rival Galactus’s sink suit in the weirdness stakes – intricately latticed Joker faces wheeling around as moving parts, smirking rivets and dead, pale, robot faced steersman, and for every copter that works, there should be 10 that blew up or flooded the garage with smiley gas. And did you ever hear the story about the chap working for the GCPD crime lab who went mad dissecting one of these things? You might bump into him next time you’re in Arkham, mumbling to himself in his cell:

“It’s moving! Infested! It’s ALIVE! ALIVE!”

The Rogues are just as inventive as the Dark Knight, and often more terrifying and incomprehensible – their choice of vehicles should reflect this. Seriously, if there’s anything that’s missing from the conception of superhero’s/supervillain’s transportation, it’s the ‘super’ bit, and this is the best part of all to play with. The reader’s inability to understand exactly what’s going on inside these crazies’ heads should extend not just to the whys and the wherefores of their vehicles, it should also encompass the purpose and potentialities of same – their magical powers. If it did, I’m convinced they wouldn’t be hit by a wave of incredulity when these bizarre motors revved into the panel so much as a massive dose of the ‘whooahs!’. The jokercopter should feel as spooky and supernatural as its owner.

We’ve talked about the mysterious source of these vehicles, so what of their creators? It’s been suggested before that there’s a massive industry out there keeping them on the roads – mad inventors and superscientists who make a more than healthy living out of them. But, just like in DKR, I personally enjoy the notion that the bigger baddies have their own, dedicated mechanics working under them. I suppose it’s the difference between a small time director who has the studio choose his technicians, etc. for him and the Peter Jacksons. Imagine the strange, hideous/beautiful idiot-savant tinkering away beneath the bonnet in Two Face’s lair; or the deformed, owl-faced go-to guy the Penguin employs; the luridly graffitied, haunted garage from which the Joker’s latest toys emerge… There’s a whole story in this aspect alone, quite apart from the point at which these mutant machines are roadworthy. The vehicle’s creators would have their own twisted reasons for facillitating the Rogue’s evil schemes, apart from the obvious financial benefits, but whatever their motivations, they’re all, importantly, artists. Sure, the vehicles they build deal death by the dozen, but nevertheless they still form a significant contribution to Gotham’s aesthetic landscape.

I always resented the way Tim Burton’s cityscape reeked of film set, but I’m not sure I want it replaced by Nolan’s vision either. I’m looking for something inbetween. A plausible urban environment, but one where giant, elevated typewriters and the green, red and purple lights of jokercopters sometimes feature on the horizon. I don’t see why the mise-en-scene can’t accommodate both the everyday and the bizzare. Indeed, as a batfan I insist that it does. If the citizens of Metropolis are wowed by aerial fireworks and concussions ringing overhead, then Gothamites have their own brand of superfight, peculiar to their gothic metropolis, of which to be proud. One which might be less heavy on the shrinking rays and the heat beams, but is just as impressive. Once seen, who can forget the gleaming red and black blur of Batman’s downtown car chases, or the night the Joker laced the petrol stations with laughing gas capable of warping steel and iron, and the way Mum’s Ford lurched from dependable car about town to leering, cackling death machine straight out of Steven King’s Christine, or the Penguin’s latest eagleplane roosting on one of the Twin Towers, its golden headlight eyes scanning the city below for its prey? The high-tec wizardry of the Gotham superscene should produce automotive spectacle easily on a par with anything Superman’s backyard can throw up. And even though this stuff might sound crazy – the stuff of Batman cartoons, not Detective Comics – I think an economical sprinkling of far-out machinery would not only reinvigorate the city as an idea, a distinct environment in reader’s minds, but it also perfectly aligns with a forgotten tonality that, as I’ve argued before, continues to inform the batverse. The words of Arthur C. Clarke seem apposite here:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology would appear to us as magic.”

If it doesn’t freak us out, and have people questioning its plausibility, then the jokercopter has failed us.

Just as the rational lines of Batman’s rigid moral certainty are occasionally assailed by a plague of toxic-coloured psychoses masquerading as supervillains, then so, from time to time, should Gotham’s streets be hijacked by their vehicular extensions – a kind of lethal, sanity challenging detournement that erects a flaming pink question mark over the grey edifices of the commuter’s workaday week. Perhaps this is why Gotham’s one of the most notorious, transformative cities in the United States – because the impossible lies just around the corner, raising the level of aspiration.

And so ends another little sortie into the realm of the bat-glum. The Mindless Ones: charting, week by week, the possibilities of a batverse the rest of ‘em said was washed up in 1969.

OUR TIME WILL COME AGAIN.

14 Responses to “Gotham by gasoline – or why I stopped worrying and learned to love the jokercopter”

  1. David C Says:

    Wow, every time I read one of these columns, it makes me want to dive into a big pile of comics and not come for air in a long time.

  2. The Satrap Says:

    occassionally invading, colonising and recuperating its surrounding territories – indeed, from time to time making moves on entire continents – like some kind of leering, pint sized Rome or Nazi Germany.

    One thing that’s implicit in your analysis of the comic-booky applications of branding and reputation and that’s perhaps the trait that all the weirdoes of the Batverse –including the title character– is the visceral, fundamental, ultimately absurd drive to leave one’s mark on the world in general and Gotham in particular.

    This logic is taken to its hilarious conclusion in a couple of episodes of the “Tick”, where Chairface tries to write his name onto the moon. He ends up writing only the letters “CHA”, and later, after the Tick destroys the “C”, the “HA” is left inscribed on the moon.

    I want to make it clear that I’m not making a case for some weak arse bat-writer to work this idea into his stories in a literal fashion, or to have the Penguin brag about how he’s set to be ‘bigger than Wallmart!’ Urrgh. No thanks.

    By avoiding the trap of clumsy literality and highlighting the strangeness, the commentary –if any there be– on actual branding becomes richer and more open to interpretation. Are corporate identities merely a means to an end? Aren’t logos and brands really weird shit, in a sense?

    I always resented the way Tim Burton’s cityscape reeked of film set, but I’m not sure I want it replaced by Nolan’s vision either. I’m looking for something inbetween. A plausible urban environment, but one where giant, elevated typewriters and the green, red and purple lights of jokercopters sometimes feature on the horizon.

    While I still have a soft spot for Burton’s stylised pseudo-gothic cityscapes, the contrast between the grit and the uncanny obviously has more storytelling potential. It does require a careful cultivation of that contrast on the part of the writers and artists, though. The eye naturally tends to linger on a pimped Jokermobile and to ignore the grimy backgrounds…unless the creators make what’s happening there count.

    “we pwn batlosers” is fucking ace, BTW.

  3. The Satrap Says:

    Incidentally, and while your post is –as usual– quite bloody brilliant, I cannot resist pointing out that I’ve always thought that the Arthur C Clarke quote is a bit rubbish and half-arsed. The proper quote should be “any sufficiently advanced technology would appear to us as wondrous”, which is a monumental platitude or, as we say in Spanish, a perogrullada. But one that’s more than enough for the purposes of your essay.

    I don’t have any acquaintance of any kind with magic(k), but I suppose a reasonable attempt at a definition would be that magic is that activity that tries to translate (some of) the practitioner’s internal mental or spiritual states into actions in the outside world. It is bound up with assumptions about the receptiveness of the universe to people’s internal states (e.g. “you can barter with the spirits”) and/or about the correspondence between our internal states and those of the world at large (e.g. the “as above, so below” thang that is a cornerstone of so many mystical traditions and a central motive of Gennadiy’s “Invisibles”). Those assumptions are not necessary in high-tech environments.

    In other words, some user of even the most mind-bogglingly advanced sci-fi jalopies could do it with a “technological attitude”, among other things by not assuming/pretending that she herself is powering the jalopy in question.

    Furthermore, magic tends to be depicted as being part of specific worlds (including, in many accounts, ours), worlds where magic is said to work. Almost invariably, and in keeping with the above, those worlds will be worlds with prophecies, destinies, Chosen Ones and whatnot. Those are not necessarily the trappings of a technologically advanced world.

    A C Clarke = sorry excuse for a pretentious middlebrow writer. As I said, your point stands but you don’t need Clarke, and I get to bash him. It’s a win/win.

  4. The Satrap Says:

    What the fuck is that smiley doing?

    I’ll shut up now.

  5. The Satrap Says:

    Oh no, I do want to shut up but the voices, the voices won’t let me.

    “the trait that all the weirdoes of the Batverse…share”

    &

    non-native speaker mistake of the day = replace “jalopy” with “contraption” or “gadget” or whatever.

    And now, silence.

    No, really.

  6. adam a. Says:

    I thought that “Batman Returns” actually nailed this sort of aesthetic, so I am curious why exactly it didn’t work for you.

  7. The Beast Must Die! Says:

    Some of my primary experiences of Superheroes was through toys, and when I was a kid you could get a Spider-copter, Superman had a car…the works. I was a bit disappointed when they didn’t turn up in the comics.
    Just like I was disappointed that Nick O’Teen wasn’t Superman’s arch-nemesis, and that Spiderman didn’t hang out with his Amazing friends in his transforming Manhattan swank pad.

  8. Triplets Says:

    Bane should drive a muscle car…

  9. The Satrap Says:

    And Man-Bat drives the Mobile-Bat i.e. himself

  10. David Fiore Says:

    wonderful!

    I, for one, could really have used a few flying type writers in that Nolan movie–Batman’s been a blue-shirted fascist for so long that I often forget that he wasn’t always Dirty Harry with a no kill policy…

    and would it have killed Ledger to paint a few Joker faces on the wheels of that big truck?

    but let’s get our priorities straight here–what do you think of the Spider-Mobile?

    http://comiccoverage.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/2008/01/07/spidermobile.jpg

    Dave

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