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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Guest blogger, Annie Walker.

The kind of relationship that Batman and the Joker have mostly depends on whether or not the Joker is crazy. Today, insanity seems as basic to the Joker’s character as green hair. But in earlier comics the Joker was not literally, consistently crazy, and this caused Batman and the Joker to have an unexceptional relationship where their interest in each other was purely professional. But the Joker did have a tendency to imitate Batman, and in later comics where the Joker has lost his mind, this morphs into a relationship where Batman and the Joker represent two sides of the same coin. The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum are two examples of later comics where Batman represents sanity and the Joker represents madness, but the dynamic between them is still very different depending on how basic the Joker’s craziness is to his personality.

In early comics the Joker was not consistently portrayed as insane. In the very first Batman comic where the Joker makes an appearance he’s said to be a “madman” and a “crazed killer,” but only in a scene where he is frantically trying to kill Batman and Robin. In other parts of that same story he’s described as “cunning” and “clever” which paints a different picture of him entirely. But a more conclusive proof that the Joker used to be sane is the story “The Crazy Crime Clown” (published in 1952). In this comic the Joker fakes insanity by stealing worthless objects just so he can get sent to Arkham Asylum and find out where one of the patients hid his stolen money. Obviously, this plot would not occur to someone who didn’t take the Joker’s sanity for granted.

In these earlier comics where the Joker is not consistently crazy Batman does not take much personal interest in him. At first he seems to take a professional interest in him as a villain who gives him a challenge. In the very first Batman comic featuring the Joker (“Batman vs. the Joker”) he remarks, “It seems I’ve at last met a foe who can give me a good fight! However, I’m not licked yet!–Not quite!” However, Batman quickly becomes bored with the Joker. A striking example of this is the last panel of “The Case of the Joker’s Crime Circus” (published 1941). The Joker has just plummeted down a trap door into the sewer below his mansion. “Looks like the Joker won’t get out of this so easy!” Robin remarks. “Perhaps… perhaps…” Batman replies, “but he always seems to have a way of cheating death! Well… it’s all over anyway. Let’s go home.” You can almost hear the yawn in Batman’s voice as he says this. Of course Batman cares about the Joker’s crimes (why else would he sacrifice his quiet evenings at home?) but he seems remarkably indifferent towards the Joker himself.

The Joker takes a professional interest in Batman too, but it mostly takes the form of jealousy. There are several stories where the Joker tries to imitate Batman in some way only to have Batman and Robin use it against him. Two examples are “The Joker’s Crime Costumes” and “The Joker’s Utility Belt.” In “The Joker’s Crime Costumes” the Joker becomes jealous of Batman’s costume collection and decides to get one of his own, but Batman and Robin eventually catch him by disguising themselves as Santa and Little Jack Horner. In “The Joker’s Utility Belt” the Joker decides that the reason Batman keeps beating him is because he has a utility belt, but when the Joker gets a utility belt of his own Batman gets hold of it and captures the Joker using its contents. The common theme in these imitation stories is that Batman and Robin prove they are better than the Joker even when he adopts their superior tactics.

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But this imitation is significant because it sets the stage for later comics where Batman and the Joker are more-or-less the same… except for the crucial difference that Batman represents reason and the Joker represents madness. In comics where this sanity-insanity duality is clear Batman and the Joker take a more personal interest in each other than they do in earlier comics. The Killing Joke is an example of this. The plot revolves around the Joker’s attempt to drive Commissioner Gordon insane and thus prove the superiority of his nihilistic worldview. Commissioner Gordon, realizing what the Joker is trying to prove, tells Batman,  “I want him brought in…by the book! …We have to show him that our way works!” Commissioner Gordon says this because he realizes that the struggle between Batman and the Joker is not just a struggle between a superhero and a supervillain. It’s a struggle between sanity and insanity, each vying for the position of superior worldview.

But despite the fact that they stand for opposites, Batman and the Joker are portrayed as having a deep similarity because of the circumstances that produced them. In The Killing Joke the Joker is an ordinary man who went crazy and became evil after his wife died and he fell into a vat of chemicals. This convinced him that the only difference between a sane person and a crazy person is “one bad day,” and while Batman disproves this by staying sane despite the death of his parents, he still feels a sense of kinship with the Joker because of the similarity of their pasts. “I don’t know what it was that bent your life out of shape,” he tells the Joker, “but who knows? Maybe I’ve been there too. Maybe I can help.”

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At the end of The Killing Joke Batman and the Joker are standing in the rain laughing together over a joke that the Joker has just told. The moment is symbolic for the kinship that they share despite their differences. Batman and the Joker both had “one bad day,” and they bond over that commonality despite the fact that, according to Batman, they will eventually kill each other.

In Batman: Arkham Asylum the relationship between Batman and the Joker is less personal because the Joker’s hatred and insanity constitute his most basic personality instead of being a distortion of it.  This can be seen in how the Joker is drawn as well as in the font that was chosen for his voice. Instead of a regular font, the font for the Joker consists of red slash marks, and this contributes to the overall impression that the Joker has a different nature entirely from other people.

ArkhamJokerHowever, even though Batman and the Joker don’t have a personal relationship Batman still has a personal interest in him because of what he represents. In all of these other comics the main conflict is between Batman and the Joker. In Arkham Asylum the main conflict is between Batman and his own mind, and the Joker functions less as an antagonist and more as a disturbing image of what he himself might be like. “I’m afraid that the Joker may be right about me,” Batman confesses at the beginning, “sometimes I… question the rationality of my actions. And I’m afraid that when I walk through those asylum gates… it’ll be just like coming home.”

The fact that Batman in Arkham Asylum questions his sanity makes him different from Batman in The Killing Joke, but he still represents reason. Having Batman question his sanity is a twist added onto the basic premise that Batman is sane and the Joker is crazy.  There is a theme in Arkham Asylum of people who are supposed to be sane–Batman, doctors, the founder of Arkham–actually being crazy, or at least having a sanity that is questionable. The implication is that everybody is a little crazy, or as Batman puts it at the end, “Sometimes it’s only madness that makes us what we are.”

When the Joker is not fully insane his relationship with Batman is fairly straightforward: he commits crimes, Batman tries to stop him, and besides a little jealousy on the Joker’s part they don’t take any interest in each other beyond that. When things start to get interesting is when the Joker stops playing with a full deck.

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