May 10, 2016
The 40 Years of Comics Project - Day 441: Batman #663, April 2007
There has always been something of the Noir to the Batman, especially in those early, pulp-detective-inspired adventures. In many ways, it's something that gets lost over the course of time, subsumed into the gaudy 50s and 60s, the brooding 70s and 80s, and the overly-technological 90s and 2000s. Yet all of these aspects are important aspects of the Batman. Today's issue, however, takes us back to the 40s, to the grimy (not gritty, but grimy) streets of Gotham, to the florid prose of early detective fiction, and to The Joker.
Batman #663 is a prose piece. It's illustrated by John Van Fleet (more on this in a moment), but really is a short story published in comics format, like Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children. Considering the subject matter (clowns, sideshow performers, asylum inmates), it would fit very well into that series. Morrison gives us the rebirth of the Joker, a character only briefly glimpsed in the opening of his run, and who all but disappears for the bulk of his tenure on the character. Sort of. We'll get there, don't worry. Morrison has often stated that he wanted to do stories about the various aspects of the character. The opening arc hearkens back to the R'as Al Ghul stories of the 70s and 80s, but this standalone story pushes even further, back to the introduction of the Joker, fittingly reintroducing him. This is the third time (that I can think of) that Morrison has tried to get inside the Joker's head, and each time it's been different, cleaving to the idea that the Joker is in a constant state of reinvention. Metatext becomes text, in a way. His first attempt, which I'll visit in a graphic novel post while I'm reading through his run on the series, is the critically-acclaimed Arkham Asylum graphic novel, though this trip into the Joker's mind owes every bit as much to Dave McKean's disturbing visuals as it does to Morrison's psychedelic writing. His second attempt, through the proxy of J'onn J'onzz comes during the "Rock of Ages" story in JLA, and involves probably the most interesting use of the Martian's shape-changing ability that I've seen yet in the DCU. But here, in this issue, we really get inside the Joker's brain. The list of things that make him laugh is by turns amusing and horrifying, and provokes that feeling of guilt one gets from laughing at the fact that someone can find such things funny.
As I mentioned yesterday, we also get Harley Quinn, actually dressed as a harlequin (don't the people who revamp her understand that the character's name is reflected in the costume? May as well start calling her "Cheery Leader" now.). And, despite Harley's insanity, this issue offers a heartbreaking tale from her perspective, as we come to understand, as much as we can, the Joker's constant reinvention, and Harley's inability to follow him down that path. Despite their homicidal tendencies, I kind of wish those two crazy kids could just settle down and be happy together.
A quick note on Van Fleet's art before I finish. It's interesting. I'm going to say it's computer-generated, though I'm not 100% certain of that. And I think that's the trouble. It kind of reminds me of the Batman: Digital Justice (I think that's what it's called) graphic novel, heralded as a watershed moment when it came out, but looking rather dated nowadays. I remember when that GN came out, and, sadly, that's all I can think of when I look at the art from this issue. There's one or two really cool moments (the Batmobile streaking toward the asylum, or the first full face shot of the "new" Joker), but I can't dissociate it from that 80s computer graphics look.
To this point, things have been relatively straightforward. Bat-fans are being eased into the Morrisonian perspective. But starting next issue, things get weird. Onward.