April 4th, 2011
The second of three post’s looking at seminal takes on the Joker. Part 1 here.
I. Super Creep
“Do you want lipstick, sweet guy?”
I was five years old when Ashes to Ashes went to number one but I vividly remember how much the video disturbed me and continued to do so right up into my teens. There’s an intensity to it that few big name promos before or since have even attempted let alone matched, and why would they? Loosely centered around Bowie’s clown and a troupe of Blitz kids dressed in high fashion’s answer to mourning dress marching along a solarised beach, followed by a bulldozer, the video has the feel of a funeral set on some faraway peninsula of David Lynch’s imagination. The overall effect is alienated, surreal and ominous, reeking of drug addiction and mental illness, and while fans will detect an air of deep introspection this does nothing to create a more comfortable space.
Coming into his teenage years and young adulthood during the 70s and 80s respectively, Miller would have been steeped in Bowie’s career and protean flight through his various personae – aesthetically driven fiction suits which the mega star inhabited both on stage and to some extent in real life – so it comes as no surprise that a writer with his sensibilities would have produced a Joker that seems to borrow, intentionally or not, from Bowie’s iconographic legacy.
Particularly when you consider that on the evidence of X-Factor, Elektra Assassin, and Dark Knight, amongst other works, Miller, David Mazzucchelli and Bill Sienkiewicz did more to bring contemporary America to the world of superheroes than anyone else. DKR constantly gestures to the culture and concerns of the 80s, from a senile Ronald Reagan and Cold War terror, through Bernhard Goetz (take a look at the bespectacled vigilante in Chapter 4), inner city dystopia, androgynous women, shoulder pads, pleated trousers, big hair and David Letterman, to name but a few instances.
But in harnessing Bowie’s otherworldly energy (albeit perhaps only for readers familiar with Bowie’s career) Miller’s Joker does more than simply increase his ability to unsettle. Bowie’s recognition of the power of the image and its role in creating myth, be it Ziggy Stardust’s rock and roll apocalypse or the Thin White Duke’s blank cabaret, reflect’s Miller’s own reliance on visionary excess to underscore his mythic world. There’s a sense in which having a mash up of Bowie’s Pierrot and the Thin White Duke lurk just beneath the surface of his Joker is similar to having a monstrous bat underpin Batman in that both rely on a kind of externalisation, positioning the source of the character and ultimately the text’s power outside of the narrative, well beyond concerns such as interior and exterior.
Which is important because…
II. Batman isn’t mad. Frank Miller wants you to know this.
Most of the writers and editors who came after Miller sadly didn’t, or suspected something just as tedious spoke to the truth of the character, and so we were left with a skip-full of realist approaches to a man in pants that failed to channel any of The Dark Knight Return’s power. That said some people were clued into what Miller was up to. Alan Moore, in his original introduction to the DKR trade makes much of the passage of time and the passing of a hero as necessary components in legend, and draws our attention to Miller’s efforts to build Batman’s legendary status through careful use of imagery. I’ll be returning to that point shortly.
It’s all too easy to read Bruce Wayne’s reversion to his long renounced superheroic persona as a psychotic break. Miller paints him as a tormented man, possibly an alcoholic, dysfunctional, and demonstrably suicidal, but as in The Killing Joke there’s an ill-fit between the power of the superhuman, particularly his iconographic intensity, and explanatory factors like psychology. Unlike in TKJ however, Miller seems to be aware of this disparity and seeks to play it up.
To begin with DKR is awash with ambiguity, talking heads offer conflicting opinions about Batman, multiple points of view populate every page. Mostly Miller works with a broad brush: right wing libertarian Lana Lang faces off against lefty liberal Morrie, a white guy from the suburbs condemns Batman while a city dwelling black guy praises Bats for kicking “just the right butts”. While certain themes remain constant, the citizen’s right and duty to resist violence, Batman’s power as a symbol, amongst others, Miller regularly frames his pundits as in some way limited, and keeps their voices confined to tiny panels, or problematically contrasted while all around them the comic explodes with Bat-action. In fairness they provide context, exposition, and a deeper sense of mise-en-scene, and in doing so are invaluable, but the only real clarity offered in the book comes through the actions of Batman, and the only fundamental truths that are offered have mythological force.
The first chapter is perhaps the most thoroughgoing example of this approach. In forty or so pages the text explicitly belittles not only the explanatory power of psychology (Dr Wolper’s ineffectual treatment of Harvey Dent, his assessment of Batman and the Joker), but the crippling effects of age (Batman’s return), and the utility of the political lens when attempting to assess Batman* (Lana and Morrie, the street pundits versus the weight of Batman’s return on the page). More importantly, and to go back to Moore’s point, Miller offers up a set of symbols that dominate the text with their iconic power – the demon bat, the shattering pearl necklace. This imagery, through it’s scale and force and careful deployment suggests that although various factors might explain Batman on some causative or relational level, he isn’t reducible to them**. Miller even has his demon bat narrate the comic, explicitly stating that it cannot be stopped “…with wine or vows or the weight of age”, and reduces the status of Bruce’s mind with the line “you try to drown me out but your voice is weak”. Let’s not forget that this a character who rides the mother of all storms into Gotham, bathes the city in his light, and battles a god.
This, says Miller, is Batman’s ultimate reality.
Just as this is Harvey Dent’s
Just as this – and let’s be clear the Joker doesn’t arrive until precisely this point – is the Joker’s.
*I’m not suggesting for a moment that DKR is apolitical, there’s streaks of libertarianism and neo-conservatism running through it, but that’s a topic for another essay.
**More thoughts on the relationship between psychology and myth in the comments
Unlike Moore, Miller isn’t very interested in what’s going on in his Joker’s mind. We catch fleeting glimpses of the character’s thoughts through Miller’s use of caption boxes, but these are very few and far between, and there’s no effort made to create a connection between the reader and the character. Cleverly Miller puts the only ostentsibly relatable instance to particularly chilling effect after the Joker has blown up a tower block, where we find him restless in bed unable to sleep thanks to the prospect of his forthcoming jailbreak, and, one presumes, the enormous body count that will follow it. The only other instances articulate an interest in smiles, uniformity, and an obsession, possibly sexual, with Batman, via green captions that both delinate him as a major player (Varley uses coloured captions with all the the major characters) and suggest strangeness and toxicity.
Where we can infer the Joker’s thoughts – in fact in all instances where we see him act in any capacity other than for a practical purpose such as escape – he’s either fixated on causing mayhem, killing people, or, once again, the Caped Crusader. Put simply in DKR the Joker’s interior world is there to disturb us, not to aid any understanding beyond the fact that he’s a scary monster.
But perhaps the most important point about this Joker’s life, inner or otherwise, is that he doesn’t have one until Batman shows up. He’s a pale zombie, “catatonic for ten years”, only reanimating when he catches a news report heralding the Dark Knight’s return. Miller probably didn’t intend this but there’s a nice echo here of the character’s relationship to his origin, or more accurately lack of one: there wasn’t a Joker and then there was Batman and then there was. This wonky mirroring reminds us that Miller wrote DKR in an era prior to The Killing Joke or Arkham Asylum, when no-one had put any serious effort into explaining the character, and in doing so we are encouraged to re-consider him as a phenomenon in and of himself. Not made but in some way apriori. A force of madness and evil rather than their product.
Ah, but Miller does offer an explanation for the Joker.
An argument which despite Miller’s constant refrain of individual responsibility is reinforced by an abrupt cut to the Joker behind a wire mesh, which could conceivably be described as an intersticing pattern, or indeed a net, and the Joker’s persistent use of the term “darling” when describing his relationship with Batman.
It’s difficult to know how seriously to take the psychological angle here. As I’ve noted, psychology comes in for a real bashing in DKR, it’s even subtley ridiculed in the scene above. Wolper is opened up to distrust and suspicion thanks to his failure to take any responsibility for Harvey Dent’s escape, his patronising manner (his talk of the layman’s difficulty with complex issues), and his tendency to psychobabble. Most tellingly, the “psycho erotic” explanation comes in for a direct piss-taking in Book Three when the Joker shares the talkshow stage with Wolper and a Dr Ruth analogue. A farcical scene which quickly turns into a vision of hell when the Joker murders the entire studio audience. If anything is given primacy it’s the immensity of the Joker’s evil, and catagorically not humorous and increasingly hysterical references to sexual repression as the force underlying his actions.
“Whatever’s in him rustles as it leaves”
This point of view is further reinforced during the Joker’s final confrontation with Batman, which lest we forget is prefaced by the him killing a scout troop, and his efforts to massacre “thousands” more at the County Fair. While we are left more than uncertain about the value of psychology when it comes to the Joker (just as we are with Batman), Miller is unequivocal with the demonic imagery, dialogue and techical flourishes that constitute the character in the tunnel of love. If there is any uncertainty left about what makes the Joker tick, about what he is, then it’s blasted aside by the mythic power of his diabolical laughter, his inhuman suicide, and that rictus smile wreathed in flames, which can’t help but bring to mind Miller’s vision of Batman’s own demonic essence.
“There’s something supernatural about that one”
IV. STOP. STOP LAUGHING
“Twice as big as you can possibly imagine”
I wanted to juxtapose this look at DKR with TKJ because I think they approach the question of character very differently, and I think something can be learnt through the contrast. Where TKJ is impressionistic and bound up with conceptions of character that start with psychology, TDK subordinates character to a mythic framework. Psychology is present, inner lives are in evidence, but they pale in comparison to four panels of the Joker laughing himself into extinction, or something shuffling in the dark of the Batcave, and this is why The Dark Knight Returns is better than The Killing Joke. Because, as Bowie and Miller understood, when dealing with something larger than life, something “twice as big as you can possibly imagine”, then the best way into it isn’t through narrative modes better suited to more grounded fiction, but to spotlight and work with its grandeur. That isn’t to say that I think TDK is an unequivocal success, or even that it’s Joker is better than other incarnations. As a friend over on Barbelith once pointed out, a Joker who isn’t constantly on the edge of hysterics can hardly be described as definitive, and it would be a poor reader who didn’t at least poke at what could be seen as the character’s homophobic subtext. I don’t even consider the book’s mythic dimensions to be perfectly executed or indeed unproblematic – myths are hazardous material after all, as Bowie found out. However I think it’s a shame that so few writers working within the genre have grasped the Miller was trying to do, particularly when tackling a character as far removed from reality as the Joker.
Is it simply a down to age that Bowie career is now coasting, albeit spectacularly successfully, rather than flourishing? Or does it have something to do with leaving the burnt remains of a rock-god far behind him?
Next time: Morrison and the Clown at Midnight