May 2nd, 2011
The third of three posts looking at stand out appearances of the Joker
Part 1 here (The Killing Joke)
Part 2 here (The Dark Knight Returns)
I. Quiet in the back row
“It’s quite possible we may actually be looking at some kind of super-sanity here. A brilliant new modification of human perception, more suited to urban life at the end of the twentieth century Unlike you and I, the Joker seems to have no control over the sensory information he’s receiving from the outside world. He can only cope with that chaotic barrage of input by going with the flow. That’s why some days he’s a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality. He creates himself each day. He see himself as the Lord of Misrule and the world as a Theatre of the Absurd.” ~ Dr Ruth Adams, Arkham Asylum
Strangely enough we’ll need to begin this critical excavation not with a Batman comic but with Morrison’s last true commercial failure for DC. Co-authored by Marky Mark Millar and drawn by N. Steven Harris, Aztek the Ultimate Man (ably assessed by my fellow Mindless, The Beast Must Die, here) was Morrison’s first ongoing superhero gig and his only man in pants book to implode in a mere ten issues. As the sales plummeted parachuting in big draw characters like Batman and the Joker must have been as much an editorially mandated necessity as a creative choice, but Morrison made it work and gave us a glimpse of a Clown Prince that wouldn’t be fleshed out for another decade.
Looking at Aztek #6 I’m struck by just how fully formed Grant’s Joker is. In just under two pages Morrison manages to upload everything you need to know about his character concept, all of it familiar from his Batman run ten years later. This Joker tells us that he wears “…everyday a different head. Sometimes a killer, sometimes a clown, never a yawn.”. This is an idea that Morrison went some way to developing in Arkham Asylum and would go on to bolster during his Batman run: the Joker as hyper-sane, a dark echo of the far rosier Me-Me Plex that constitutes human being at the end of the Invisibles. The thought, put simply, that that the Joker has a super-adaptive psychology, a new kind of mind for a new kind of world, better able to cope with the stresses, strains and speed of contemporary existence.
But it’s the second beat that really interests me, that this most recent incarnation, “Cosmic Joker”, is holidaying in Aztek’s city because every year he likes to go somewhere worse than Gotham. It touches on a feature of Morrison’s Joker that remains constant, and its got nothing to do with an inner life or origins. It’s much more unusual than that.
Ask a fan of Morrison’s JLA what they like about it and I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts at least half of them will cite his Batman as the prime mover of their affections. Ask someone who isn’t a fan and they’ll probably give you a similar answer. The most common complaint is that Batman is at his best when he’s fighting litter in crime strewn alleyways not battling cosmic bad guys, but there’s a more subtle criticism that has less to do with grim and gritty essentialism than it does with execution. To quote Jamaal over at Funnybook Babylon, “‘hyper-competent’ Batman often feels like he’s ‘access to the script’ Batman.” and Morrison’s Batman is nothing if not hyper-competent, able to take down White Martians and Shaggy Men without breaking a sweat. It’s not that hyper-competent Batman knows what’s going to happen next so much as there’s an element of collusion between the character and the form of the story. His logical leaps are perhaps a little bit too accurate, his strategies a little too effective, his plans a bit too flawless, and their resolution just a tad too convenient. As we discovered in Final Crisis, need a god killed? Call Batman.
These objections are debatable of course, I’m not coming down on one side or another, I’m just using this as a way of illustrating the closeness between text and character in Morrison’s Batman stories, a relationship that arguably reached its apotheosis in the climax of Morrison’s Return of Bruce Wayne*.
This relationship is nothing new. Morrison has long indulged metatextual tendencies, from the messy, half-formed textual war that was Final Crisis, with the superheroes trapped in a tragedy until Superman switches on the miracle machine and brings down a plot warping happy ending, through Animal Man’s dialogue with his author, G-Moz himself, to The Invisibles’ rejection of definition both on the level of plot and character, a mirroring which cuts to the heart of the comic’s philosophical message.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that if Morrison’s Batman is cosy with the text, shouldn’t his arch enemy be up close and personal with it too? Surely that’s the only way he can be a serious threat?
III. Divine fool
But back to Vanity. How does the Joker know that Vanity is worse that Gotham? Did he read it in the Rough Guide? The comic doesn’t offer up anything like a straightforward explanation, but it remains the case that Vanity *is* worse than Gotham, much, much worse. The suicide capital of the world, apparently, designed from the ground up to function as the cradle of the Apocalypse. One has to assume that the Joker’s been hitting the occult section at the local library or he just vibes on that shit, which given that he claims to be a “holy fool” who can “…see it all! The whole game! The wiring under the board! The man behind the curtain pulling the levers…” seems like the answer the text wants us to settle on if not entirely commit to. Morrison has the get out clause that a more mundane account of Joker’s assessment of Vanity could be produced. The fellow is a lunatic after all, and there must be concrete ways he could have come across the information in question, villainous networks and suchlike. Morrison’s not insisting that the Joker has supernatural insight, he’s merely encouraging us to think along those lines.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t stop here and point out that, as with the Honor Jackson character in Batman #678 and his unfortunate debt to the magical negro, Morrison is treading on thin ice. Like Moore with his theatrical lunatic and Miller with his alien psychopath, Morrison for all his talk of “super-sanity” is to some extent falling back on a stock type with his Joker, namely the mad man as seer, and it’s not a move that’s without its problems. I’m well aware that in some cultures the mentally ill have found a degree of acceptance, indeed prominence, as magical practitioners, but in the context of our contemporary Western culture that kind of thinking is at the very best troubling. As I’ve pointed out in more than one essay, mental illness isn’t glamorous or exciting, and describing it as magical risks real harm to suffering individuals.
Putting that not insignificant caveat aside, all of this begs the question, what does the word supernatural mean in Grant Morrison’s universe? The answer being that Morrison’s deep supernatural – not Etrigan’s hott mouth blasts or whatever – is usually tied to the story itself and any mythology that happens to underlie it. To take an obvious example, in Final Crisis the narrative convention that insists that superheroes always win (explicitly reified as a universal law in Morrison’s DCU within the pages of JLA Earth One) is reversed by Darkseid’s fall. Here’s Morrison in a Newsarama interview explaining it.
“…my idea, in Seven Soldiers and now in Final Crisis, was to start from a place where the battle is already over…and, quite unexpectedly, Darkseid has won. Evil won. So now evil can break the rules. Radical, spiritual Evil can worm its way effortlessly into every aspect of life in the DC Universe in a way that it’s never really been able to before.
…there once was a particular relationship between Good and Evil, with the good guys tending to come out on top, now the moral ground of the universe itself has shifted underfoot and anything can happen“
“Spiritual evil”, it doesn’t get more supernatural than that, especially when you consider that this was a comic written for a world where morality is thought, by vast numbers of people, to be intrinsically linked to the divine.
Or to take another example, in the final issue of the Return of Bruce Wayne, we have a scene which starts with the Caped Crusader in Hades facing off for one last time against Darkseid, and ends with him, in Metron’s words, taking “control of Darkseid’s design” by summoning the All-Over, by ringing that bell, and coming back from the dead. Supernatural, you say? I give you resurrection – the supernatural power that causes it being a radical reframing of Batman’s origins that substitutes the mythic force of Miller’s demon bat, with its connotations of a monstrous and lonely warrior, for a golden bell signifying community and mutual support. The bell is Batman allowing that he needs help and recognising that he has always had it. It’s a realisation which resonates down into the story when *his friends revive him* (the concrete plot based mechanism which “explains” his resurrection), and up out of text, changing, perhaps redefining, how we as readers understand the character.
But there’s another salient feature of the supernatural in Morrison’s comics specifically relevant to Cosmic Joker. To quote me in Return of Bruce Wayne 6 annos:
“[Morrison's magic] is resonant, coincidental, synchronicitous and, crucially, ambiguous. Did Batman’s escape from Hades because he beat Darkseid or because Superman and Wonder Woman resuscitated him? Is God-Bats cold because he’s returned from the heat death of the universe or because supernatural things lower the temperature? Is Darkseid the void [the hole in things he’s defined as in Batman: Last Rites] or a guy that Superman can punch in the face? It manifests subjectively, as things characters experience (Bruce in Batman #673 ‘a black hole in my heart’), and objectively, as things in the world (eclipses that look like holes in the sky, black holes at the end of time, etc…).”
Did the Joker go to the library or did he just know that Vanity is worse than Gotham because he can “see the wiring under the board”? Did the letters just randomly fall like that or did Cosmic Joker – who in the very next panel, a large splash page close up of his cackling face – decide to send the heroes a message? You’re not supposed to be able to answer these questions definitively, so don’t try.
IV. 21st century big-time multiplex man
“His remarkable coping mechanism, which saw him transform a personal nightmare of disfigurement into baleful comedy and criminal infamy all those years ago – happily chuckling to himself in the garage as he constructed outlandish joker-mobiles which gently mocked the young Batman’s pretensions in the satire years before camp, and new homicidal, and all the other joker’s he’s been – now struggles to process the raw, expressionistic art brutal of his latest surgical makeover he tries to remember how the doctors in Arkham say he has no self, and maybe they’re right, or maybe just guessing. Maybe he is a new human mutation, bred of slimy industrial waters, spawned in a world of bright carcinogens and acid rains. Maybe he is the model for the 21st century big-time multiplex man, shuffling selves like a croupier deals cards, to buffer the shocks and work some alchemy that might just turn the lead of tragedy into the fierce, chaotic gold of the laughter of the damned. Maybe he is special and not just some gruesomely scarred, mentally ill man addicted to an endless cycle of self-annihilating violence. Stranger things have happened.”~ The Narrator, Batman #663 (the text issue)
While Moore’s old refrain, that there’s tragedy behind that smile, is kept front and centre, Morrison blows the tragedy up into something impossibly grand: not a dramatic psychological reaction to one man’s terrible memories but a response to the entire world, forcing upon his mind super adaptation after super adaptation. This totalised reinterpretation of the Joker’s pain is undeniably radical, especially when considered in conjunction with Morrison’s claims that the character has no personality but in some way channels the text. Some might argue that, as with so much of what Morrison attempts, it’s never entirely lived up to on the page, but efforts in this direction are self-evidently there.
So what to make of the “Satire years”, “Camp” and”New Homocidal”? What Morrison’s describing isn’t simply the Joker’s incarnations. Lest we forget this is a writer who wants to insist that it’s all true and introduce a kind of super-continuity that encompasses every Batman comic ever. He’s throwing out a loose taxonomy, terms that describe different bat-eras, bat-eras which, his in-story logic insists, the Joker mirrored or somehow processed. A metatextual dimension here is undeniable. These taxonomic conceptions hail directly from the real world, meaning that there’s a sense in which Morrison’s Joker is hard-wired into our view of the DC Universe, or at the very least the writer’s.
How well this retro-active account of the Joker works is debatable when you bear in mind that every one of Batman’s top tier foes could be re-imagined in a similar way. I seem to remember a lot of cat-mobiles and penguin-planes back in the day, were those satirical responses too? Were the New Homicidal tendencies that afflicted Batman’s entire Rogue’s gallery back in the 90s a direct response to a post Image landscape of guns, claws and chains? The truth is that, although super-sanity is a fun way to think about the Joker’s history its utility as a continuity polyfilla is questionable at best. It’s real value is as a tool in Morrison’s writing armoury because it gives him the ability to constantly reinvigorate the character (Clown at Midnight, the Gravedigger), helps to legitimise the Joker’s cosiness with the text (for example the way the apocalyptic Clown at Midnight, reintroduced post #663 in a sequence that positions him as a monster of world ending proportions, anticipates and reinforces the doom-laden tone of Batman RIP), and brings some Morrisonian fuzziness to the supernatural reading that lurks behind that smile.
I don’t think it’s any accident that the red and black colour motif that trails Batman RIP‘s Clown at Midnight like blood and death also mimics the dominant red and black lighting of cabaret performance and the traditional colours of the roulette wheel, not when you take into account the Black Glove’s gambling activities, or the Clown at Midnight’s Thin White Duke stylings – a look that owes a direct debt to cabaret. Stir in the constant references to the Joker as “Maestro” and there’s a strong sense that this Joker is being presented to us as a performer of sorts. Like Bowie in his prime he’s wearing a particular persona for his audience, and while it seems as if the Black Glove fill that role, I’d say that the Joker has another group of people entirely on his mind.
In stark contrast to text’s efforts to build Le Bossu as a threat and a climatic sense of danger, the Joker above offers us a yawn. Not only does he seem to be peering between the cracks in the fourth wall, he’s acting to undermine the power of the story, the net result is a humorous feeling of incongruity that sets the character at one remove from the fictional world he inhabits. Doubly interesting when you consider that it’s a commonly held view amongst psychologists and philosophers that humour is largely *about incongruity*. We laugh at things because they don’t fit, in some suitably absurd and dramatic way, with our expectations, but our laughter also serves to legitimise incongruity, to make it safe, which isn’t unlike the role the supernatural plays in legitimising metatextual elements within Morrison’s comics. We laugh when the Simpsons criticises Fox, but it’s not a suspension of disbelief destroying deal breaker, just as when the Joker (a fool, a jester, a comedian. DO YOU SEE?) enters into a knowing song and dance routine in a Fred Astaire in Top Hat get-up and hurls a Joke out of the frame, we don’t immediately feel as if the fiction has ceased to have any weight.
Incongruity is at the heart of Morrison’s Joker because it’s through incongruity that his autocritical super-sanity becomes viable. After all autocritique, defined by Wikipedia as a “methodological attempt [by something/someone] to step away from themselves through a process of self-objectification”, insists on distance.
It would probably help at this point to remember that super-sanity was almost certainly inspired by the role of the Fool in the tarot (yes, guess what, Grant Morrison has been known to practice teh magycks!), and the role of the Joker in modern card decks. He can be whatever is required at any given time. Required by who? The only possible answers being the author or the text. With that in mind it seems to me that the Joker, in the context of Morrison’s definition (if not always in practice), could be uncontroversially described as the text stepping away from itself, an in-text objectification of the critical response, and it’s through the constant reinforcement of the Joker as incongruous, as well as references to super sanity and similar, that the text helps to signpost this action.
So in addition to having the Joker make a lot of knowing nods to the camera, Morrison takes care to style the character in such a way as draw our attention to the character’s performer aspect, his artifice-iality, as if he’s trying to encourage us to think of the comic book as the Joker’s stage. His noir-camp Clown at Midnight not only speaks to cabaret – a highly self aware, theatrical form of entertainment – but also draws our attention too that arch performer David Bowie’s habit of switching stage personae, something he and Morrison’s Joker share in common; I’ve already mentioned the Gravedigger and Fred Astaire, but seen through the same lens the purple-suited (mauve?) Joker of New Camp starts to look, to British eyes at least, suspiciously like Kenneth Williams. Without wishing to digress too far, but in full knowledge that the Joker has been repeatedly framed as gay throughout his history, I should probably point out that concept of homosexuality has always had difficulty fitting into broader conceptual frameworks, be they moral, social, political or indeed fictional.
Perhaps, in part, what Morrison means when he says that the Joker is “so human” is that he’s the only character who he feels can, via his autocritical function, enter into a dialogue with us at any given moment. Morrison has penned story after story equating freedom with life (see Final Crisis, see Rock of Ages, see The Invisibles, etc…), so his Joker’s ability to step outside the text – to mock it (le Bossu’s rant), to tease us (“No, Batman, that’s just Wikipedia”), to joke with us, to offer up critical taxonomies, to peer at the wiring under the board (the Clown at Midnight’s reference to Miller’s “A bat. In a window. In a dream”) – could be seen as humanising, and never more so than in the climax of RIP.
VI. Big Mike
Up until this point the Joker has been a font of evil wisdom about the nature of Batman, Dr Hurt and himself and the story they find themselves in. In the previous issue he even acted as the guarantee of Batman’s decent into Hell, lurking at the bottom of Arkham Asylum and simultaneously at the climax of Batman’s in-story ordeal. Here’s he’s simply discarded, his entire satanic contribution to the arc stoved in like the front of that ambulance and flipped off the figurative road. This moment is particularly poignant in light of an earlier scene where the Joker explains the nature of his relationship with Batman
“…every single time I try to think outside his toybox he builds a new box around me”
Which in turn is made more telling by the ostentatious red gutters that hem in the largely black panels on the page. A feature which is amplified when considered next to a scene from two issues earlier when the lunatic Batman of Zurr En Arr notices the “grids” over Gotham City, “a machine to make a Batman”.
With all that in mind the scene where the Joker plunges into the river strikes me the status quo reasserting itself: Batman’s box/his grid/his story finally overtaking the Joker. The character is totally depowered, his ranting loses it’s transcendent force, all metatextuality, and crashes down into the text, becoming the banal, egomaniacal blitherings of a mad man crashing a vehicle we associate, not with evil-bindi wearing apocalyptic Jokers given to impossible insights, but with *ill* people. Robin’s hilarious obliviousness simply serves to hammer home the moment’s perfect dismissiveness. The Joker who trumps the Devil, “the Maestro”, the worst villain of them all has become less than inconseqential in the eyes of the story.
But what’s fascinating is that Morrison goes a long way to mirroring the scene in question, along with its build up, in the climax of Batman and Robin.
Hopefully DC will excuse my excessive use of their imagery…
“Gros Michel, often known as Big Mike, is an export cultivar of banana, and was until the 1950s, the main variety exported to the United States.”
I love how Big Mike elevates the humble banana to a level far better suited to the Joker’s talk of primal gags. One can’t help but assume that Morrison’s deliberately making reference to the biblical fall here, which would make sense when you consider that prat-fall and it’s close relation the banana peel slip represent a fundamental loss of dignity. A catastrophic change of state from a superior to an inferior one. Rather a lot like what happens to Dr “The Devil” Hurt at the climax of Return of Bruce Wayne when he’s reduced from his exalted status as a villain capable of co-opting the Wayne legacy, and ultimately the Batmythology (see the opening pages of Batman and Robin #13, a perverted re-telling of the Batmyth, for the most overt, but far from the only, demonstration of the metatextual threat Hurt poses), to a defeated, bleeding, in Batman’s word “barely human” creature who stumbles fleeing into the night only to slip on the Joker’s banana peel and crack his skull on the crypt’s steps.
How did the Joker know where to place that banana? Well that’s the question isn’t it, and one which I’ve gone some way to answering. At risk of cluttering up metaphors as much as Morrison clutters subplots at the end of the arc (the Joker’s nuclear bomb really is a subplot too far), Hurt was simply the last domino to fall in the Gravedigger’s game. The last bone in the boneyard, to paraphrase the Joker as he buries an uncharacteristically… er… cheerful Hurt in the grounds of Wayne Manor, just before this happens.
Not content with building a box around Hurt and gobbling up the textual threat he poses, Batman’s story overtakes the Joker once again. To get the full force of this we need to spend a few seconds thinking about the role of the Gravedigger. Yes he could be described in purely psychobabbleistic terms as the Joker attempting to keep Batman alive by taking on a persona that tackles threats to Gotham (Hurt, the Black Glove) or whatever, but perhaps a more enjoyable reading is available to people who have been paying attention to how Morrison’s been playing his Joker.
If it makes a degree of sense to describe super-sanity as a way for the text to assess, critique and respond to itself, which I believe it does given the fact that Morrison repeatedly has his Joker operate in that capacity, then it starts to look like Morrison intends the Gravedigger to be read, on some basic level, as a textual urge to bring back Bruce. He is after all the Gravedigger, a guy with a dirty connection to the dead, and it’s at least arguable that he’s the real force behind Hurt’s defeat – a Batman analogue manipulating all the players towards the inevitable conclusion except for one, the guy who owns the game. One might even argue that this interpretation of events is signposted as the right one by the Joker’s claim to have beaten Hurt “…at cards… at chess”. In the absence of Bruce Wayne there were only two real players, Dr Hurt and the Joker, everyone else was a “pawn” . Maybe.
It’s with that reading in sight that the panel above has so much force. We know that “Joker fights crime” is a still-born mission not simply because Batman is on his way to stop him (Batman is always on his way to stop the Joker), but because the Gravedigger persona is necessarily exhausted the second the game is finished and Hurt is put in the ground. The Gravedigger’s autocritical function, his very reason for being, just makes no sense now that the real Batman is back and the story arc is done. As with RIP, Batman’s narrative trumps his attempts to stand outside it, and he’s smashed by that inevitable fist back into the gutters. Just a useless loon with delusions of grandeur… until it’s time once again to peer under the board and discover a new role.
Like the Lex Luthor of Morrison’s Earth One, the one good man in a world where evil always wins, Morrison’s Joker is doomed to fail. Like Luthor he tries to escape the confines of his textual prison (Luthor journeys to the JLA’s universe where the rules of the text are different: good wins), but the best he can hope to do is fiddle with the wiring, in the end he’s always in Batman’s story, never his own. I suspect that Morrison, with his urge to freedom equals life schtick, feels there’s tragedy in that. A strange kind of tragedy to be sure considering we’re talking about a mass murderer – a guy totally deserving imprisonment and the odd smack in the face – but tragedy nonetheless.
For Morrison the painful truth about the Joker isn’t rooted in psychology or myth or evil, it’s rooted in his fundamentally tragic relationship with his world. It’s, in short, existential, and in that way the Joker looks rather a lot like us.
The text always catches up with us too.
Question is, where next? Only the grids can answer that.