Sunday, September 21, 2008

I'm going to ask myself nine questions about Batman: Lovers & Madmen

1.) Why are you writing this in this lazy-looking Q-n-A format?

Well yesterday I wrote it in a more traditional, straightforward format, and it ended up being over 3,000 words long. That’s an awful lot of words to ask someone to read (or skim), particularly when they’re not very good words. I just kind of wandered around the points too much, and when it came time to reread it to check for spelling and grammar mistakes and suchlike, I wasn’t interested in doing so. That’s usually a good indication that I should just scrap--

2.) Wait. You wrote a first draft for a blog post that was over 3,000 words long on a weekend, and now you’re re-writing it? Do you even have a life?

Well, of course I do. I, um, hey, let’s try to stay on topic here! Ask me something about Batman: Lovers & Madmen!

3.) Okay, okay. So, what is this graphic novel, and who’s it by?

This is a slick, hardcover collection of the six-issue story arc “Lovers & Madmen” that ran in Batman Confidential #7-#12 toward the end of 2007. This book was released in April of this year, and includes an introduction by Brad Meltzer, which is kind of cool. My dislike of Meltzer’s comics writing is probably pretty evident, but I always like it when trades have introductions—I think they all should.

It’s written by Michael Green, who is currently writing Superman/Batman and whose prior writing work has been in television. He wrote for Heroes, Smallville and Sex in the City, none of which I’ve ever seen an entire episode of.

It’s penciled by Denys Cowan and inked by John Floyd.

4.) What’s it about?

Get this: A retelling of The Joker’s origin and his first conflict with Batman.

It’s hard to imagine a more audacious Batman/Joker story to attempt to tell in 2007 than one that seeks to cover the same ground as the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland classic Batman: The Killing Joke (pretty much the definitive Batman/Joker story, and the closest we’ve come—or probably should come—to explaining who the Joker is and how he came to be).

As for the first Joker/Batman conflict, that was also covered in the recently re-released Batman: The Man Who Laughs, written by Ed Brubaker, and quite a while ago in Legends of the Dark Knight #50, written by long-time Batman writer and editor Denny O’Neil.

And I say audacious not only because of the focus of the story, but because this story contradicts all of the above pretty heavily; it’s as if Green were saying, “No, no, no…this is how Killing Joke should have gone! This is the new Killing Joke!”

5.) Well, that would only be true if this were meant to be in continuity. Is it?

Who even knows anymore?

The company line seems to be that this is canonical rather than apocryphal. It lacks the usual indications that it’s not to be considered part of continuity: There’s no Elseworlds stamp, no “This is an imaginary story” note, no notation that this is taking place on Earth-51, not even an unreliable narrator along the lines of Killing Joke.

Additionally, the other Joker origin stories and the other stories detailing Batman’s first encounter with The Joker all pre-date the latest Crisis On Infinite Earths-style reboot of Batman continuity, that which occurred in Infinite Crisis and the end of 52. Because what exactly has changed in those reboots wasn’t made explicit—the only Batman change that was explicit was that Batman did catch his parents’ killer—the only way to discover what’s changed is to see how stories told after the reboot differ from those that came before. Stories like “Lovers and Madmen.”

Finally, this appeared not in a standalone miniseries or original graphic novel, but in Batman Confidential, a relatively young title devoted to telling untold tales set in Batman’s past (There have only been four story arcs in it so far; the first two were set during Batman’s first year, the other two involved Barbara Gordon as Batgirl and a recently-minted Nightwing).

Ultimately, I don’t think it will matter, as what is and what isn’t continuity tends to depend almost as much on the quality and popularity of the stories as much as the intentions of the editors and writers at the time.

I can’t imagine it will ever replace Killing Joke, however, whether it was meant to or not.

6.) So is the story any good?

Well it’s…okay, I guess. It’s really kind of hard to get past the fact that Green significantly re-writes the Joker’s origin and his first encounter with Batman in ways that, taken on their own in a vaccum, might be okay, but don’t quite compute with the Batman we know from his other ten billion comic book appearances.

If this was a graphic novel adaptation of Green’s rejected script for The Dark Knight or some Batman vs. Joker movie, it would be fine, if full of clich├ęs and some embarrassingly purple narration (no wonder Meltzer liked it).

Cowan and Floyd’s art isn’t very good—something that sort of surprised me, as I usually dig Cowan’s pencils in the smaller doses I usually see it.

The nervous energy of the artists’ shaky lines might fit the insanity of the characters well, but the costuming choices are incongruently cartoony, the character design is amorphous (Alfred’s face shifts from panel to panel), and some page layouts are shockingly difficult to read

Near the end, for example, there’s a two-page layout flows in a semicircle, from left to right, diagonally down from right to left, and then right to left all the way back. I spent minutes reading different panels, trying to puzzle it out. Perhaps it was an experimental attempt to make us feel “crazy” like The Joker, or shape the page layout as a crescent shaped moon (Green’s Joker keeps talking about the bunny on the moon, as he notices the Japanese version of the man on the moon on the night he’s reborn as The Joker).

Even if those were the intentions, I think it failed, as any experiments in form have to serve the story on some level.

I should point out that they draw excellent teeth, though.

7.) Okay, let’s talk about some of those changes. What was The Joker up to before he was The Joker?

The Joker’s real name is “Jack” something or other. His pre-Joker life wasn’t one of a frustrated, failing stand-up comedian with a pregnant wife he couldn’t support who got mixed up and bullied into a plot to rob a chemical plant he used to work at while decked out as the mob invention of “The Red Hood” as in Killing Joke’s maybe true, maybe not version of events.

Instead, he’s a mob hitman who is an absolutely perfect shot, a real killing machine. But he finds no challenge or job satisfaction in killing, and, in fact, is considering ending his own life, as it has no real meaning.

Things start to turn around when he meets a blonde waitress, working at a bar to help fund her way through medical school to someday become a psychologist. Her name? Harleen Quinzel. Yes, pre-Joker Joker had met pre-Harley Quinn Harley Quinn, and not only had she helped convince him to keep at killing, but he later anonymously pays all her tuition bills with loot he’s stolen.

(This isn’t the only unlikely retcon adding a pre-villain villain into the mix; Green also has Batman turn to psychologist Dr. Jonathan Crane for advice on dealing with the criminally insane. Crane is working to re-open Arkham Asylum, which he ultimately does with funds from Bruce Wayne; in Man Who Laughs, the Asylum is opening as Joker debuts, devoid of any involvement from pre-Scarecrow Crane, who, in his other origins, was always teaching at Gotham University when he decided to become the Scarecrow).

Then Jack encounters Batman, and finds new purpose in his life (Green does play with the Joker and Batman as dysfunctional lovers undertones that Moore, Grant Morrison and others had previously explored). He starts committing a string of seemingly insane and incredibly cruel crimes in order to attract Batman’s attention.

8.) And how does he go from being Jack to being The Joker?


Okay, get this: During one of Jack’s crimes, he attacks a museum fundraiser attended by Bruce Wayne’s love interest Lorna Shore, and he stabs her pretty badly, before running off, leaving Batman to decide between saving her life or catching him.

Batman decides to stay, but throws a razorsharp batarang at Jack, and it cuts deeply into one of his cheeks then, circles around the back of his head and, on its return to Batman’s hand, cuts deeply into Jack’s other cheek. How did The Joker get his smile? Batman carved it there with his batarang.

This is, of course, original to this story; generally The Joker emerges from his chemical bath with the smile. It may be more realistic to have a smile carved into a man’s face rather than being some sort of side-effect to a chemical that also bleaches flesh and turns one’s hair green, but is realism a virtue in a Batman/Joker story? I didn’t understand how exactly the gypsy surgeons of 1928’s The Man Who Laughs gave Gwynplaine his unceasing smile, but that didn’t exactly ruin my enjoyment of the movie, you know?

Naturally, putting his girlfriend on life support in the hospital pisses Batman right the hell off, and when he finally figures out where this “Jack” will be—there are only so many surgeons in the city who will give medial attention to a killer who has a large section of his face ripped off by a batarang—he stakes them out and pounces. You might think.

But no, Batman instead calls a group of gangsters whom he knows are pissed at Jack, and he tells them to kill Jack for him, and to “make it quick.”

This is the weirdest fucking thing I’ve ever read in a Batman comic (And let the record show: Batman comics have been pretty fucking weird over the course of the last 70 years).

Not the fact that Batman would want to kill the Joker because, hell, we’ve seen him angry enough to beat The Joker to death about 15,000 times since 1980; usually Nightwing or Robin or Superman pull him off at the last minute, or he comes to his senses. But Batman being ready to kill him…and sub-contracting to criminals? That doesn’t seem very Batman-like, does it?

Anyway, Batman told them to “make it quick,” but, being a-holes, they decide to make it slow, taking Jack to a chemical plant and working him over. Being a total super-killer though, Jack escapes and starts murdering the hell out of them all, until the last one standing fires at him, misses, and the errant bullet dumps a huge vat of green sludge labeled “anti-psychotic” on him. This washes Jack down a drain or something, and there Jack must decide one more time if he wants to let himself die or fight on. He decides to swim to safety and devote himself to Batman.

Obviously, this differs from all the other Joker origin stories. The fact that the chemical plant is here a factory devoted to making the neurological medicines that are so common now (and were all but unheard of in 1940) is actually rather inspired, and more meaningful then the Joker-to-be plunging into some random chemical sludge. But the rest of it changes a great deal about the Batman/Joker relationship.

There’s no Red Hood, which might be one of the reasons why this won’t be considered canon for long (if at all), as we know that The Red Hood exists in the current, official version of the Batman story, and that he was almost definitely the guy who became the Joker (see all those Jason Todd stories in which he adopts the name Red Hood).

And while Batman is still to blame for creating The Joker—both by attracting him with his own colorful persona and making sure he nearly drowns in the chemicals that disfigure him—here he doesn’t scare him into the vat or accidentally push or punch him into it, he hires criminals to kill him, and they decide to do it in a chemical plant. Batman can still be angsty about that, but why would The Joker blame him/credit him with creating him? (In this story, The Joker does glimpse Batman, who decides too late to stop the hit he put on Jack, as he plunges into the chemicals, but the causality wouldn’t be apparent to The Joker).

9.) So what was your favorite part, other than Cowan and Floyd’s drawings of teeth?

I found the Bruce Wayne romantic conflict pretty amusing. Lorna Shore is a woman who works at an art museum funded in part by Wayne, and they have a meet-cute reminiscent of the Bruce Wayne/Vicki Vale meet-cute in 1989’s Batman film; wherein she disses Wayne to his face without realizing who he is.

Throughout the story, Batman is conflicted over his feelings for her and his feeling of duty to his mission to eradicate crime, finding himself torn between the desire of a normal life that the Lorna represents and the life of Batmanning we know he’ll ultimately choose.

Off the top of my head, this is at least the fourth time Batman faced that exact same conflict during his first year on the job ( Jillian Maxwell in Batman Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special, Selina Kyle in Batman: The Long Halloween/Dark Victory, Julie Madison in Matt Wagner’s Batman and the Monster Men and Batman and the Mad Monk…and that’s just in the comics. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm had the exact same conflict).

Apparently those first couple months Batman was constantly falling in love and thinking about quitting; I bet Alfred was sick of hearing him moan about that by the time Year Two rolled around…


Hdefined said...

Sounds like a terrible story.

But Caleb, did you REALLY like Killing Joke? It just didn't work for me, especially the ending. Even Alan Moore regrets having written it.

Ryan said...

On the positive side, hardcover is very pretty. Nice use of spot gloss on the cover.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Carved the smile with a razor-sharp batarang? Oh, god, I wish I thought you were kidding...

snell said...

I had thought that the Confidentials were specifically not canon...but i can't remember who said tghat or where, so I could be trippi'...

brandon said...

I'd STILL be into reading this unedited, 3000 word review!

I thought the cutesy, kinda winking encounters with pre-villains Crane and Quinn were annoying, but I thought the batarang face cut was so over the top it actually worked.

I hated Killing Joke and I tried to re-read it again recently and shut the book once Joker's got Gordon in S & M gear and midgets are poking him.

LurkerWithout said...

Batman engages in Conspiracy to Commit Murder. Wow. Thats Someone doesn't get the character at all...

"O" the Humanatee! said...

A preamble: I have no real objection to such "alternative continuity" stories in principle, especially where Batman, a character with more than a 60-year history, is concerned. Personally I think one can regard stories like this almost like myths, potentially shedding light on different aspects of the Batman "legend." (Say, wasn't there a Batman title that used that word?) There's no reason that all stories about, say, Zeus need to conform to some linear history, and I feel similarly about Batman, especially stories early in his history or lacking in any explicit time references. And I especially feel this way about Joker origins, since I'm of the opinion that there should be no definitive Joker origin. As I once wrote in a printed letter to the editor (under my real name), I prefer the Joker be treated more as a force of nature, an incarnation of chaos, than as a real human being. Which doesn't mean I mind stories that show him as such, so long as they aren't treated as canon.

All that said, I thought this particular story started out very promisingly as an interesting new spin on the Batman-Joker relationship. But then, you're right, it pretty much went out of control. I very much had the feeling that it was based on an unused screenplay; the introduction of Harley/Harleen in a rather different version than we've seen before (which I liked), and the shoehorning of Crane into Arkham Asylum, just screamed of an attempt to pack a lot of (freely adapted) comics content into a single storyline, as well as setting things up for a sequel - much as Batman Begins did by putting Crane (at Arkham Asylum!), Carmine Falcone, and Ras Al-Ghul into one film.

Finally, Caleb, aren't you a big Kelley Jones fan? Because if you had problems with Cowan/Floyd's inconsistent rendering of Alfred, I don't know how you've been able to tolerate Jones's Batman work. Back when he was the regular Batman artist, Alfred (and other characters) fluctuated just as wildly.

Caleb said...

But Caleb, did you REALLY like Killing Joke?

I did. I just reread it this summer, and noticed that it hadn't aged all that well (it's certainly noticeably a product of its time), but was also a little surprised at just how strong the art work was. That thing is just really well put together.

I think it's probably still the definitive and ultimate Batman vs. Joker story (as in, it makes later ones almost irrelevant beyond the pleasures of any well-done genre story) and, whether or not it completely deserves the esteem its given, I can't imagine anyone else coming along and challenging it for the top spot of the Batman/Joker story heap.

I have no real objection to such "alternative continuity" stories in principle, especially where Batman, a character with more than a 60-year history, is concerned.

I hear you. The first draft of this was a long, rambling piece that started out talking about Batman and Superman as the equivalent of oral tradition heroes, despite being corporate owned, but I was talking in circles.

I think DC kinda creates a problem for itself by at once focusing so much on continuity (i.e., spending 9 months worth of their output tellin ga story about how to think about DC continuity, etc), which unfortuantely invites people to be displeased with it.

Finally, Caleb, aren't you a big Kelley Jones fan? Because if you had problems with Cowan/Floyd's inconsistent rendering of Alfred, I don't know how you've been able to tolerate Jones's Batman work. Back when he was the regular Batman artist, Alfred (and other characters) fluctuated just as wildly.

You know, that's a really good question. I don't think I have an answer. But yes, I love Kelley Jones' art, despite how inconsistent his character portrayals are (basically, anyone who isn't a monster or dressed like a monster looks different from panel to panel). I guess it might be because his style is so over-the-top that I tend not to think about his art as at all representational; like maybe I read Jones Batman stories as essentially un-serious, whereas I was taking this graphic novel more seriously (due to the writing more than the art).

But, like I said, I don't really know. There were definitely scenes in Lovers and Madmen that I couldn't make heads or tails out of though; like the one I mentioned, or the the part where Jack has a gun to Lorna's head, and then it disappears with a bang.

"O" the Humanatee! said...

But yes, I love Kelley Jones' art, despite how inconsistent his character portrayals are (basically, anyone who isn't a monster or dressed like a monster looks different from panel to panel). I guess it might be because his style is so over-the-top that I tend not to think about his art as at all representational; like maybe I read Jones Batman stories as essentially un-serious

Oh, I know what you mean. I'm buying Gotham After Midnight because it seems so over the top that Jones's broad style doesn't bother me. On the other hand, it did bug me on the regular Batman title, where Doug Moench seemed to take his writing so seriously.