Tag Archives: The Killing Joke

75 Years of Batman – Part IV

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Dave McKean’s more abstract approach divided readers upon its publication but has produced a rendition of Batman’s world that has rarely been matched for its visual style. Textured and more tactile than what had gone before, the final work was one that sort to be scratched at, much like the unhinged mind of Batman and Arkham’s inmates.

Psychology

‘The Scariest monsters are the ones that lurk within our souls…’ Edgar Allan Poe

The duality of Bruce Wayne’s persona is intrinsically linked to how he utilises a seemingly negative emotion to his advantage. There is contradiction and conflict and it is within these dark confines that Bruce discusses the need for justice and how to save Gotham from criminals at great personal risk to his own mental and physical health. His pragmatic approach and extreme focus is shown directly through his actions and ability to make the most of his surroundings – tempering mind, body and spirit in to the weapon he needs to gain an insight into the criminal mind and deliver his own, swift form of justice. To aid further, his privileged lifestyle has enabled him to have many resources at his disposal – a seemingly endless supply of wealth that has helped him to seek out the most effective teachers in their fields.

Yet, despite this commitment, his own dilemma lies in his own personal ambition and how unsure he is of revenge – a weakness and conflict that his antagonists more than often exploit. It is this moral dilemma that have been explored to great effect in seminal works such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke and Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. Not only did these stories reinvent the character but were also a major turning point in comic book history. Having now given birth to a much darker and morally ambiguous rendition of Batman, both Miller and Moore in particular helped to reshape the public’s perception of the world Batman inhabited and over the past three decades have formed somewhat of a Holy Grail for any version that has proceeded.

The extraordinary nature of Bruce Wayne’s physical abilities often overwhelm his own, mental discipline. In a scene from Batman: Year One (1987) he questions his ability by the graveside of his parents and, after leaving, lowers his moral guard that leads to him initiate a street fight. It is this moment that forms an important turning point in his career as a vigilante and, in assessing the situation, understands how much he must control himself. The scene also highlights how much he is still driven by similar adolescent urges that need to be tempered by discipline and the comprehension of why he must follow a strict morality.

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Frank Miller’s bold, iconic style was one of both clarity and brute strength. Influenced by Film Noir, Manga and European artists, Miller’s style is closer to the work of Saul Bass than conventional comic book illustrators. His depiction of Batman is a hard boiled outlaw – grisseled by his experiences and a fine thread away from becoming the very thing he fights against.

Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) paints a bleak, post-apocalyptic future Gotham that has fallen in to fear and violence – a Reagan era comment on excess and consumerism grown out of the control of a dystopian society. It is here, that the lack of effort in controlling the escalating violence, the retired Bruce Wayne must, once again, pick up the mantle of the bat, raising the concern: should Batman use violence to help change a society? It is here that his own personal conflict is highlighted once more: if those who are adverse to him are using similar methods then what justifies Batman’s own methods?

In Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1988) the exploration of fear is shown from the opposite end of the table where the Joker is presented as a yin to Batman’s yang. Saturated in the Clown Prince’s bright colour palette of green, purple, red and yellow, his presence throughout the book is constantly felt. Moore’s Joker is a terrifying Cheshire cat who exacts the most brutal acts on his victims while, with his trademark grin, flippantly laughs off the crime only highlighting his anarchic approach. With the Joker there is no rationality, no empathy – only highlighted further by a man who laughs at his own, sick jokes. Here, Batman doubts his own ability to fight his mirror image and in the book’s opening, while visiting Arkham Asylum, shares these doubts with his archenemy. ‘I’ve been thinking lately, about you and me. About what’s going to happen to us, in the end. We’re going to kill each other, aren’t we?’ (Moore p.1)

It is more than evident that Batman recognises that his vigilantism and the Joker’s terrorism take advantage of fear, presenting him with the unresolvable situation of how he can fight a villain who understands fear more than he does. The story concludes with both of them reaching their final confrontation where they share a laugh together over one of the Joker’s bad jokes as they realise neither of them will win. The end, according to writer Grant Morrison can be seen as the final story of these two adversaries and that the title alone hints at the potential of Batman killing the Joker as his laughter abruptly stops before the final panel. This has never been confirmed by Alan Moore and is often seen as one of a number of jabs the two writers have made towards each other during their career.

Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1987) marked his first foray in to the world of Batman and can be seen as a comment on the society at the time. Much like Alan Moore, Morrison, as a British writer, had come to prominence through the pages of 2000 AD and had developed a similar, cynical approach to his subject matter. The result was a more repressed Batman; a violent figure who was painted as a borderline psychopath that now cast him in a far more complex light.

Morrison’s own interest in the occult and use of symbolism is clear throughout the book. While it often references sacred geometry the main influence is the architecture of a house where Morrison structured the tale of Amadeus Arkham around the lower, basement levels while the long forgotten secret passages connect the wider concepts. The result is a journey through the floors, brought to life by the nightmarish, visceral illustrations of acclaimed artist, Dave McKean. From a visual experience the artwork is multi-layered and hints at the shadows and shapes that play at the back of our own minds; much like the solid execution of a horror film. Influenced by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Morrison’s own dissection of the character leaned more heavily towards European cinema such as the German Expressionistic masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). McKean’s abstract renditions of the Asylum and its inhabitants are enough to hint at the underlining themes, yet to a lot of readers at the time, including Morrison himself, was not a conventional approach to the story. Where Morrison felt his symbolic elements were lost in their representation, the final work has more than stood the test of time and has been a major influence on the mythos, recently spawning a popular line of video games, Arkham Asylum (2009), Arkham City (2011), Arkham Origins (2013) and next year’s Arkham Knight (2015).

Due to his reinvention through these seminal works a far more complex picture of this tragic hero has arisen. It has become ever more apparent how Batman is not a superhero but simply a human being who struggles to remain in control and shows us the full potential of what we can be. Born out of a decade of depression and violence, Bruce Wayne’s omen that he chooses the image of a Bat is intrinsically linked to those early incarnations of his psyche. As a wealthy crusader he cloaks a dark secret that symbolises how he has conquered fear – an ‘exposure’ that helps him remain with what he is afraid of until he is calm. One of the most influential writers who has contributed to the mythos, Dennis O’Neil states, ‘Batman operates in the shadows – outside society yet his values are that of a virtuous man.’ Therefore Bruce Wayne attempts to integrate the ongoing conflict he has between good and evil and presents the person he thinks he is over the person he wants to be.

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As well as the notion of a ‘Shadow side’, Carl Jung proposed and developed the concepts of extroversion and introversion; archetypes, and the collective unconscious.

The Swiss Psychiatrist, Carl Jung believed that a distinct, personal struggle wages between the socially acceptable self and the ‘Shadow side’ – a state that we project our dark sides on to. Bruce Wayne taps in to a childhood fear adopting the iconography of evil that resembles old medieval imagery of demonic figures clad in darkness, horns and batwings that personifies a disturbed fascination. As Batman he explicitly owns this identity and exposes it to criminals in his night time crusade as a masked avenger who works outside the law. There is an aspirational purpose as he masters fear, crushes the chaos and, instead, soars upwards above society.

Although there is what can often be seen as a glorification of violence in comic book culture, both history and fiction remind us that one person’s hero is another’s vigilante. However it is clear that this point would not match up in the real world – an idea that simply does not translate efficiently to the masses. While some would ask, ‘Why doesn’t Bruce Wayne just go to therapy?’ Most of us learn to realise that the truth is that the masks he wears are his other personas – the tragic Socialite behind the walls of his Manor and Bruce Wayne the Billionaire playboy. What defines the character is the central humanity that Bruce Wayne possesses and therefore Batman is not only a finely crafted tool but his true identity – he can’t stop being Batman but he can stop being Bruce Wayne as his behaviour prevents him from having any lasting relationship. As a man he is more than capable of falling in love and has often been an exploited weakness as it is the one thing that has no shield – he can’t love openly due to the fear of loss which could act as a reminder and distraction from his exposure.

As complex as he is contradictory, Batman must constantly battle with his own adversity which forms a core element of his humanity and without this conflict there would be no need for a Batman and therefore every right for Bruce Wayne to retire – with this in mind, it could be argued that he isn’t a superhero and simply a human being who demonstrates the great things we can accomplish. He shows that we can learn to understand this difficult world and pursue justice that provides the hope that all of us need where heroism is often found amongst the darkness and fear that resides in all of us.

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Bats and Ravens: Analogy of a Dark Knight

plate14On October 3rd, 1849, one of the great literary figures of the 19th century was found in a state of delirium on the streets of Baltimore. Four days later, Edgar Allan Poe passed away, not only leaving behind speculation and conspiracy surrounding his death but a legacy that defined both modern horror, science fiction and the birth of the Detective novel.

To say that Poe was an influential writer would be an understatement. References to his fiction, whether subliminal or not – have embedded themselves in most of the art forms that embraced such revolutionary times. Poe died at the height of the Industrial Revolution – heralding dramatic change in political, economical and social status where commentaries were circulated at an alarming rate through the rapid growth of newspapers and periodicals. These writers who followed Poe; such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells with their proto sci-fi tales; Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Detective, Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft’s distinctive horror were all a direct product of their time. It was during the late 19th and early 20th century that these writers’ own contributions to literature became hugely influential in their own right.

Poe’s influence was imbedded in modern literature. His stories had begun to forge part of the modern American myth, yet it would need less personal accounts to take his themes of loss and despair to a whole new level. It would take not just the death of a writer to spark this change and give birth to modern heroes, but the collapse and depression of a nation.

Where Superman was heralded as the beacon of light during the Great Depression – one that would give hope and strength – Bob Kane’s Batman was the antithesis that lurked in the shadows. One was a God raised by humble farmers whereas the other was born in to wealth and luxury only to witness his parents’ murder. The result is a man of deep torment who channels his loss to hone newfound skills to fight organized crime. Although there are traces of Poe through the character’s brooding, gothic nature, Bruce Wayne does not wallow away in self-pity as witnessed in Poe’s stories. Instead he channels his negativity in to a zen-like instrument of self-control that is unleashed and executed with necessary force. His choice of symbol is one to strike fear in to the heart of organized crime and the mask he wears allows him to hide behind that symbol. All the while the boundaries between the symbol and how much of the mask is truly Bruce Wayne, are blurred.

batmanyearone_06To view more parallels to Edgar Allan Poe, let us look at the iconic scenes of a man in mourning, the most famous of which, The Raven presents the writer alone in his study, where the infamous bird reminds him of the loss of his dear Lenore. Bruce Wayne, contemplating his future alone, witnesses a Bat, not so much a tapping or gentle rapping; but more of a dramatic crash through his window. The incident inspires a potent symbol of fear, a scene so similar to the works of Poe it seems somewhat awkward in its intent. But the story of Batman is one that has been reinterpreted through zeitgeist by many talented writers and artists, which is where such a character becomes an interesting analysis. This dissection of the character is a dissection of both a state of mind and the society it inhabits. Understanding this unlocks the layers and delivers the classic tales that are important and influential; whether it is the sadistic nature of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke; Frank Miller’s origin of Year One and bookend, The Dark Knight Returns; Tim Burton’s gothic pantomime, Batman; Warner Brothers’ definitive Batman the Animated Series or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy; each tale has it’s own, distinctive style and message.

What sets Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy apart from previous incarnations is the sheer scope and believability of the world – an earnest rendition that could be criticised for taking itself too seriously. Here we have a series of films that have embraced the mythology. Not only is Nolan conscious of the characters’ roots but also the commentary they have on today’s society. In Nolan’s universe, Bruce Wayne has never been closer to Poe as he mourns the loss of his loved one and hides away in his mansion burying himself in further remorse. In the final entry, The Dark Knight Rises, our hero is broken in mind, body and soul and is unlikely to ever recover until he is thrust back in to the pain and turmoil of his city. It is here that he must, once again, confront his enemies who are only a reminder of what he could become if he crosses the line.

Is it a coincidence that the Dark Knight returns during a time of turbulent, economic crisis throughout the world? There are many who would say otherwise. However, for an icon to become such a potent symbol it must survive particular social commentary, political views, ideals, age groups and universal language. All of these areas carry an interpretation and help build the mythology and the legend of any story worthy of standing the test of time.

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