September 13th, 2009
Confession time: I’m not too comfortable with the kind of language I frequently use around here to descibe the mentally ill. Over the years I’ve known a fair few people, some of them very close to me, who’ve had to contend with one difficult condition or another so not only am I aware just how inappropriate and insensitive throwing words like ‘loony’, ‘mad’ and ‘bug-eyedwhackedoutfuckmind’ [yep, sounds like your average mindlessism - ed] is, but also how completely useless they are as descriptors, quite, quite as bad as the much maligned by mindless’ *weird*, in fact worse because this terminology is generally applied to people.
It doesn’t help anyone to other people suffering from mental illness, not only because by doing so we effectively marginalize those aspects of ourselves that don’t *fit* but also because, like with ‘weird’, it shuts down understanding.
And not only is this dangerous, it’s also BORING.
Seriously, an inability to shake hands and enter into a dialogue with the stranger aspect of ourselves is, above and beyond any moral and civic obligations, totally dull. It’s the enemy of creativity.
Nimbies do not good artists make.
I think we’ve touched on this before, but one of the reasons most bat-writers have, historically, failed the Joker is because they reduce him to the status of a cackling, camp, homicidal goon. Seriously, it doesn’t matter how painterly the art, how lavish and ‘adult’ the production, most writers are simply taking the shortcuts, or should I say adopting the shorthand, bemoaned above and it doesn’t work. So many batbooks represent insanity via a series of well worn cliches – maniacal laughter, speaking in non-sequiters, sudden, random acts of violence – all of it, the height of banality. There’s no invention, understanding or empathy there, just a series of well worn signs and signifiers, to the point of tautology: he’s mad because he looks/says he’s/is mad, etc….. There’s nothing genuinely disturbing about these shoddy portrayals because there’s nothing human about them. Nothing true. Nobody’s *gone there*.
Which is bollocks ’cause we all have.
Thank god for the 2000AD and the british invasion. From Peter Milligan through to John Smith, these writers comics were defined by an interest in self-transformation, psychotic and psychedelic states, who, very often, seemed unconcerned with depicting anything else. In the early nineties their’s was the most interesting extension of the then new psychological depth embraced by the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore. From the scrambled identities of Shade The Changing Man to the rambling free poetry of the caption boxes littering Scarab, the focus started to shift from physical to metaphysical action and comics were all the better for it. Sure, some of this stuff was a little gauche, gaudy, even naive, but it was early days. The writers were still flexing their muscles, trying things out, and it didn’t matter because by and large they were still confined to the Vertigo ghetto anyway.
It would be a long time till Grant Morrison got his mitts on an ongoing Batman title.
Before we proceed, I want to make one thing crystal clear. I’m not claiming the work we’re discussing has any claim to psychological realism. This isn’t some essay about how the memplex maps perfectly across schizophrenic states or anything like that, just that this stuff does attempt to go there, does have at least something to say about our inner workings, and is often informed by the writer’s interest in this area, their struggles with their own mental health issues and their own attempts at brain change via pharmaceuticals, psychological techniques, mysticism and magick.
Because whatever conclusions you draw about Morrison’s Kathmandu experience, it’s pretty out there, and, arguably, it changed him forever, defining his obsessions from that moment on (as evidenced by his work. The focus really shifts after 93).
So, yeah, this stuff I’m talking about, it does have the whiff of the genuine about it, either of lived experience or at the very least a cataloguing of current theories surrounding these subjects. It’s rare we see abstraction employed for abstraction’s sake in a Milligan or Morrison book. If it is employed, a la the weird poetry of Pyg’s speech, it’s purposeful and used to define the contours of the character’s internal environment. You can read it on the level discussed above – he’s mad because he sounds mad and mad people sound like that – but if you can be arsed to look a little deeper, there’s method there. Something’s being described, not just by the words but how they’re boltholed together. And as I said in my last post, I think we all, at some level, pick up on that.
And somehow we arrive, breathlessly, back where I wanted us to be. Yeah, ish 3 of Batrob. And that cover.
I never felt entirely satisfied by the explanation commonly trotted out for the Joker’s origin, that upon glimpsing the clown leering up at him out of the chemical goo his psyche somehow imploded, transforming him into the super-psychotic we know today. It just didn’t ring true, even if you did add all that Alan Moore stuff about dead babies and living in a rundown tenement. No, the really interesting thing about that most famous of origin stories, as everyone knows, is the line ‘Sometimes I like to remember the past one way and sometimes another…’ That’s where the action is, and, I would argue, the inspiration, amongst other things, for Morrison’s reimagining of the ‘character’ as an endlessly rotating selfplex, a 21st century schizoid man. Killing Joke did come out before Arkham Asylum, didn’t it?
Actually, I would argue that the only element of the Joker’s origin story we can *rely* on is the image of him staring down into the whateveritismysteryliquid, but, like with a David Lynch film, this imagery doesn’t have to be taken literally, it could be viewed as a profound, soul shattering encounter with the psyche. The Joker’s Philadelphic Door, so to speak, where he finds himself confronted with a vision of himself, of what he is, that just doesn’t fit, that explodes any semblance of identity he once possessed, transforming him from individual agent to unbeing, freefloating and drifting, with ‘his’ only way of anchoring himself to the world grand gestures, vast theatrical detournements and acts of savage comedy and violence.
If Batman is defined by the crosshairs of Joe Chill’s gun, then the Joker is exploded by whatever it is that created him. Batman can’t forget, the Joker has become forgetting. Or, put more accurately, Bruce Wayne defines self as rigid continuity, the Joker, well, he detonates the idea of a continuous self altogether. Far more modern.
So, with the Joker I find most interesting there really isn’t a lot you can say about his past, what pushed him to the edge. All we can talk about is the view as he fell.
And I think the cover of 3, and in some ways the issue itself, just about nails it.
This is a freeze-frame of Jack Napier (?) losing it.
This is his mind at the time.
Ah, where to begin.
Morrison is documented in more than one interview talking about how his new Batman title would have a ‘bad drug’(gy) vibe. That it would concern itself with the portrayal of states so psychotic they would have the air of the supernatural about them. This is best exemplified by Pyg’s speech where he’s constantly invoking gods, otherworldly beings and creepy monsters. These creatures representing not some kind of corporeal evil but frighteningly deranged internal conditions and ways of seeing. They embody his struggle with the wriggling chaotic mass where his self should be, and, arguably with the Joker’s also. In this sense, then, it’s easy to understand Pyg as a tiny homunculus of the Joker himself. Afterall we know nothing of his origins, and it seems somewhat likely that on a literal level the Joker may be pulling the strings behind the scenes, to the extent that he may even have created Pyg in the test tube alembic of the fairground where this new villain of the week makes his lair and where the Joker originally failed with Jim Gordon. Mr. Aaron, far below in our comments section, could well be right when he identifies the ‘he’ at the beginning of Pyg’s rantings as the Clown Prince himself. Look again, the bit about the ‘Despair Pit’ is a quote, and, yeah, the Joker, when he confronts Batman in Arkham does equate the Asylum with a bottomless hole, through which you can fall ‘down, down….’ But whereas Pyg attempts to do battle with the ceaseless noise of existence through the creation of perfect, mindless autonotoms incapable of being effected by its clamouring, the Joker just gives in completely.
Probably the best way of handling a trip really.
I never got on with mushrooms or acid, largely because I’m a control freak. I just couldn’t cope with the way it kaliedoscoped everything – the endless transformations discussed above. So, yeah, bad drugs. The collapse of the centre common to the psychedelic experience and bad trips in general. The experience you don’t walk away from unchanged. Bruce Wayne’s conducted years of yoga and meditation grounding the essential experience of not-self his practice provides, Pyg the Joker and myself haven’t. In my case this led to panic attacks, in the Joker’s it led to something else entirely. The stink of psychedlic chemicals are all over the Joker, right there in his wayward origin story, and the way he wears them above and on his skin. He infects the comics he’s in with their colour scheme.
There’s been a lot of talk about how the new colourist has, whilst having a cool pallete, screwed up with his transitioning. This is, from where I’m standing and the purposes of my argument, tommyrot. If Batrob is Batman as pop icon, as kid’s toy, then it makes sense that it should incorprate the colour scheme of a video-game – kid’s really aren’t playing with that much else these days. One could make the case that the abrupt gradations of colour and their vibrancy and luridity transform the panel into a monitor, but that’s not what interests me here. What interests me are hallucinations.
Anybody who’s ingested any hallucinogenic drug will be struck by the flourescent lightshow that erupts across the retina. The glowing, intricately latticed patterns. The internal CGI. This, whether the colourist knows it or not, is the other reason his electric paintpot works. Sure, it’s Gotham, and the vivid greens, pinks and purples wrestle with the murk, but that’s because this is, as Morrison himself put it, ‘dark psychedelia’. Although they don’t wrestle with it on the cover, do they? Here the colours practically blaze off the page.
What’s happened to his face?
Now we’re going to talk about it.
Here everything is inverted. Distinctions between inside and outside evaporate. His flailing hands, grasping for the seat of his identity, invert, and wind up groping away at a luminous void where a person should be. The smile becomes a branded logo, disinctions between subjecthood and objecthood no longer clear. Colour, neon, bleeding everywhere, eating… eating… In that vat. In the factory. Drowning in a sea of toxic information. Everything illuminated in the sickening dayglo of plastics and synthetics. This is acid ascendant, the chymical wedding of man and modernity, scorching a blistering, sparking hole in the soul.
This cover is the real origin story.
This is the burning ‘face’ in question and what tears him to shreds.
And now let’s turn our attention to the eyes, the windows of the soul, the most expressive organ we have, where the self resides…. Or so we thought. For those of you unfamiliar with it here’s a brief overview of the new science (if you can call it that – there’s a debate raging right now) of memetics. Memetics argues that with the emergence of a particular kind of brain this planet, actually this universe, saw the production of the second and to this date only new replicator after the gene itself, the meme. The meme can best be described as a unit of supra-physical information. Some people confuse it with ideas, but they’re getting mixed up, ideas being clusters of memes. Memes depend on self-aware consciousnesses to reproduce in that they can only incubate in and transmit themselves via minds able to reflect on received information. Memetic theory is revolutionary – at least in neurological terms, zen buddhists have gone on about this stuff for ages – in that it argues for a discontinuous self. It postulates that our sense of me-ness is in fact a hologram formed by overlapping memes, competing clusters of information, each vieing for control, for total domination, transposed across our automatic (or should I say automated) psychic relex action to fill in the gaps, to construct a stable narrative of selfhood.
Honestly, our brains are amazing at this shit. Put down your funnybooks and check chapter 12 of Oliver Sacks’s brilliant The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and gawp at the relentlessness of human identity. It’s not so much gaps filled in as grand canyons.
Regardless of what you think about memes Grant Morrison has evinced a long standing interest in them, and having a sense of what they’re about – what they mean – is an interesting way into the cover image. Because here so much of the face, and it’s spiritual core as represented by the eyes, is constructed out of a sea of mindless, endlessly replicating automotons. Remember, at the heart of Meme theory is the idea that the packets of information that perform the optical illusion we call Me contain no selfhood whatsoever. They’re empty, the closest lifeform they’re comparable to is a virus. Anthropomorphised they become zombies, or, in this case, dollatrons.
Earlier on I described the Joker’s transformation – or more precisely his general state – as an implosion, an endless collapsing in on himself, and the cover sums this up beautifully. Because it’s a tunnel, isn’t it? A bottomless burrow, with all the individual units of the face/selfhood streaming away into the singularity at the centre. Around about the nose. Batman and Robin duking it out. Remember how John a Dreams interpreted the human body unravelled across time as a biomass endlessly devouring and fucking itself? Well, this is the same vision applied to the human mind. The Joker’s ‘self’ can be found only where he identifies with the dominant memes in this swaying, brawling mass. And oftentimes that’s dictated by where and when he comes into contact with Batman’s fist.
How well this image articulates the dynamic between the Joker and Batman! The sea of raging chaotic data and it’s eternal surging towards, and repulsion from, the diamond hard singularity that is Batman at the centre, the one thing that really defines it, that gives it shape. Self vs Not-self. The famous image of the Joker clutching his head and cackling is a Batman’s eye view, the Joker as being, possessing integrity and form, but this is a snapshot of the topsy-turvy world Pyg inhabits where there’s nothing to hold onto, the mind laid bare, identity as a discontinuous, looping root winding its way back into the primordial, luminous ooze.
The reflection in the puddle.
So before I go I want to say, let’s privilege Morrison’s take on the Joker not just because presenting him simply as a giggling, murderous oddball is offensive and perpetuates cruddy stereotypes, but because in seeking to understand and unpick the character we add more depth and make him more interesting, more fun. More superheroic.
But having sad all that…
ALL THIS IS BULLSHIT. I HAVE IT ON VERY GOOD AUTHORITY THAT FRANK DIDN’T PURPOSEFULLY SET OUT TO PAY HOMAGE TO THE IMAGE FROM THE KILLING JOKE. IT’S NOT INTENTIONAL.
And that’s one more reason to respect the Joker. Grant’s talk about an aura of the supernatural pervading his stuff? Maybe in the end the Clown Prince of Crime is irreducible. Maybe there really is something going on here that doesn’t make sense. Maybe the virus has infected the page.
You can’t get any better than that.