Sunday, January 24, 2016

Retro Review: Identity Crisis

By a DC tradition going back to 1963, the word "Crisis" is used in the title of a story to indicate that the story is about interdimensional travel and a threat on a cosmic scale. It may seem, then, that the title of 2004's Identity Crisis, a seven-part miniseries that had no inter-dimensional dynamics, is a misnomer. Figuratively speaking, however, Identity Crisis did indeed rework the DC Universe, though it did so with physically and psychologically brutal events and unsettling, disturbing themes, rather than the science fiction notion of parallel worlds. The dark deeds around which Brad Meltzer centered this work set the tone for much of the next decade, and unquestionably had an impact that is still being felt today.

The plot of Identity Crisis – those events occurring in the present time – is a simple whodunit. Someone is murdered in the first issue, and the murderer's identity is revealed in the last issue. Along the way, there are red herrings that fool the heroes and attempt to fool the readers. There are, of course, suspects who turn out not to be guilty – at least, not guilty of the crime at the center of the whodunit – and there are false crimes, even extraneous subplots, along the way. It turns out that the false crimes were planned by the killer, but the murder itself was something of an accident, an assault leading to involuntary manslaughter. There are many twists and turns to complicate the mystery. Yet, the story is not remembered because of a death that takes place in issue #1, nor even the several deaths that take place thereafter, but because of the flashbacks that tell of events that took place several years before the time of Identity Crisis. Those events are still remembered as some of the most shocking in a mainstream comic book, and still help frame the code of morality for superheroes – and their creators.

From the beginning, there is a shroud of secrecy that hangs over the story. In the first scene, there is a box with something inside and we don't know what it is. Heroes and villains alike are trying to get information. The narration refers to events taking place before some mysterious "Now" and the reader doesn't know at first that the reference time is the death of Sue Dibny, the wife of the Elongated Man, Ralph Dibny. As the story goes on, the mystery format makes it natural that the reader doesn't know everything, but what is hidden is not so much the story of a murder as a story of disintegration as Meltzer breaks down the ethical binaries of the DC Universe. First, Meltzer makes the villains worse than they've ever been before. Then, he tears away at the moral unanimity of the heroes. He doesn't, to be sure, bring the heroes low as he does the villains, but he replaces the moral framework in which heroes are generally of one mind regarding acceptable conduct and creates one divide among them, then another divide, and finally a complex series of factions and facades, and thereby the DC Universe is irrevocably changed.

The first dark event to set the story in motion is the killing of Sue Dibny. Meltzer goes out of his way to make this hurt – we learn all about the love that Ralph and Sue shared and how special it was. We learn, also, that Sue was pregnant, which doesn't stop her killer from saying, with ambivalence, "Goodbye, Sue…" as a flamethrower is used to torch her body. At her funeral, Ralph is unable to speak, as his sorrow turns his face into a rubbery mess that makes a mockery of the tragedy and the solemnity.

Remarkably, the shocks have at that point just gotten started. Identity Crisis #2 presents the most shocking and controversial revelation, that the villain Doctor Light had years earlier raped Sue Dibny during a break-in of the Justice League Satellite; the rape is shown, partially concealed, on-panel. Arguably more unsettling is the way Doctor Light narrates the rape, mockingly, to the Justice League, making obscene taunts and threats after he is caught. The heroes are upset, and the readers were as well. Sue Dibny's rape was a bombshell, earning Identity Crisis attention in the mainstream media and infamy among some readers.

After the story had thoroughly darkened its villains, it was the turn of the heroes. Immediately after Sue's funeral, Wally West and Kyle Rayner learn that a group of older, Satellite Era, Leaguers have a dark secret. This leads to one reveal connected to the Doctor Light case, then another, and yet another. What is unveiled is that the JLA used Zatanna's magic to remove Doctor Light's memory of the rape. Then, to prevent him from repeating such a vile crime, they narrowly vote to alter his personality. This, they do, but with the alteration turning out somewhat more severe than they had intended. Finally, when Batman walked in on the process and flew into a rage, they froze Batman and removed his memory of the event.

Identity Crisis thereby introduced the term "mindwipe" into the vocabulary of early 2000's DC readers, and established it as a controversial weapon in their arsenal. The controversy is articulated by the characters within the story, with Green Arrow, Black Canary, and Green Lantern voting against altering Doctor Light's personality, and Batman, obviously, completely rejecting the idea. Both Wally West and Kyle Rayner also articulate shock regarding the practice, and the heroes who supported the idea nonetheless knew that it needed to be kept a secret, even from other heroes, seemingly from Superman, among others. However, it is the controversy that was new to Identity Crisis, not the mind wipe idea as such. The idea of memory wipes goes back to a Green Lantern story in All American #23 in February 1941. Later stories show heroes deliberately altering their enemy's minds, such as a 1948 story in which Batman uses an interrogation room to break a prisoner's will, and a 1952 farce in which Batman goes to great lengths to make the Joker doubt his own sanity. Even killing villains was not off-limits for Golden Age heroes, with Hawkman and the Spectre downright bloodthirsty while Batman, the Flash, and arguably Superman finished off some of their enemies deliberately.

However, in the older stories, there was no hint that the reader should doubt that the hero had acted appropriately and justly. What's new in Identity Crisis is the controversy. It's not the deed, but the reaction. Superhero comics operate under the universal truth that heroes try to act justly. When one faction of superheroes decides that another faction of superheroes has acted inappropriately, the worldview that superheroes are just is irreparably shattered, because at the very least, one of those factions is wrong. Mindwiping and even killing villains was not new. Superheroes judging other superheroes as immoral was.

What makes the knife twist deeper is that the mindwipes were not an event involving only some newer, morally suspect superheroes such as Guy Gardner or Booster Gold. The flashbacks in Identity Crisis involved Barry Allen and Hal Jordan, who were not even alive anymore when Identity Crisis hit store shelves. By placing them in the conspiracy, Meltzer made this story about the pre-Crisis Justice League, and tore down the black-and-white morality of DC's pre-Crisis superheroes.

In performing his rewrite of DC history, Meltzer included some thorough scholarship in the details. When, in pre-Crisis history, did the Doctor Light-Sue Dibny incident take place? A panel in IC refers to events from a 1979 story in JLA #166-168, and the deaths of Barry Allen's wife Iris Allen and Zatanna's mother, Sindella, also took place in 1979. According to Meltzer's revisionist timeline, these all took place before the mindwipe and the secret pact to cover it up. Meanwhile, a story in New Teen Titans #3-7 that shows a "dimwitted" Doctor Light is cover-dated January-May 1981. That story itself explains that Doctor Light had been psychically manipulated by Psimon, but IC attributes his state to manipulation by Zatanna. According to the cover dates of the original issues, the rape of Sue Dibny and its shocking aftermath must correspond to an unprinted story that would have taken place sometime between late 1979 and late 1980.

Meltzer’s handling of the DCU did more, though, than simply lower the bar of morality for its villians and heroes. A gritty, noir feel pervades his use of supervillains as criminals who just happen to have superpowers rather than as superbeings who just happen to be bad. Meltzer’s villains are involved in all sorts of criminal activity, and are first and foremost out to make a buck, often without the traditional flamboyance of standing up in costume to make a public show of some grand robbery. In contrast, Meltzer’s heroes are more of a family, if an often dysfunctional one, than the traditional DC lineup, with first names being used at almost every opportunity. These people, heroes and villains alike, feel more real than the characters of earlier years.

The destruction of traditionally "good" characters is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the handling of Jean Loring. This character had been through the ringer before: In pre-Crisis stories, she was driven insane, then cured of insanity, by the villains in two science fiction stories, and abducted by the villain in another. In Identity Crisis, she is conspicuously on-panel early and often, and was, before the conclusion, correctly identified by readers as the killer. Other possible culprits might have been motivated by a desire to strike heroes through their vulnerable loved ones (as Doctor Light articulates in the rape flashback); the story illustrates that this is not a sound motive for super criminals because it drives the heroes to harass all super criminals even harder than usual. Yet, Jean Loring's motive is less than rational: Seeking to win her ex-husband back, Jean plans to attack Sue Dibny with the use of the Atom's shrinking suit, give her a stroke "or something" and thereby draw Ray Palmer back to her side as her defender. Her microscopic invasion of Sue's brain accidentally killed her, but insofar as that goal is concerned, her plan works, until her culpability is discovered. She accidentally gives away her complicity to her ex-husband, Ray Palmer, at virtually the same time that Batman separately solves the case. Her efforts to conceal the crime include a staged attack on herself, a threat to Lois Lane, and a hit-for-hire that killed Jack Drake, the father of Robin, and his attacker, Captain Boomerang. In perhaps the story's weakest moment, she smilingly tries to get Ray to accept her despite the killing. Predictably, he doesn't go for it: The story ends with Jean in Arkham Asylum and Ray shrinking himself to go into some microscopic exile. Identity Crisis a fair mystery in the Agatha Christie sense, Jean Loring was already marked as a damaged individual all the way back in 1970, decades before Meltzer planned this story. Surely, earlier writers didn't foresee her future use as the villain at the center of a rape-and-murder story, but Meltzer didn't choose the story's killer arbitrarily.
JLA #81: Jean Loring's first bout of insanity
While many readers objected to the formulaic and seemingly unrealistic "good person goes insane" story arc, it is worth remembering the character's history of externally-triggered madness, and one might consider that, whether or not it made

Jean Loring's role in Identity Crisis may have had some slender precedent in the past, but superhero comics had never seen anything like the rape of Sue Dibny. The shocking reveals and realism (not the same thing) in Identity Crisis create an unmistakable air of revolution. The use of Silver Age characters, including a pointed statement that Hal Jordan might soon return from the dead, turned the Crisis on Infinite Earths revolution into a counter-revolution, and Identity Crisis became the first of several monumental works that rolled back the entire post-COIE continuity. Within four years, it would all be undone: Hal Jordan would return to life as soon as Identity Crisis ended, then Infinite Crisis would bring back the Multiverse, and Final Crisis would bring back Barry Allen. The entire era from Infinite Crisis to Flashpoint was presaged by Identity Crisis. The darkness implied by Identity Crisis joined the deaths of Superman and Jason Todd and Bane breaking Batman’s back to become a rationale for Infinite Crisis and seemed to justify a quest to repurify the DC Universe.


Monday, January 11, 2016

Retro Review: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

Some literature excels in developing characters; some excels at developing locales or settings. The DC Universe is tremendously rich in characters – its landscape is most meaningfully defined in terms of characters – but relatively impoverished in well-developed places. A notable exception is Arkham Asylum, home to many of Batman's villains when they're not on the loose. It may surprise some fans to learn that Arkham was not introduced until 1974, and was first given a detailed backstory not in a story but rather in an encyclopedia article entry in 1985's Who's Who in the DC Universe (a title that, again, reinforces the emphasis on characters over places).

Denny O'Neil created Arkham and Len Wein gave it an origin, but Grant Morrison's 1989 work Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth made Arkham a place to remember. AA (as I'll abbreviate the name of the graphic novel here, to distinguish it from the place) redefined more than just one building on the outskirts of Gotham City. AA may be thought of as the last of several impactful graphic novels of the Eighties, but also the first significant work in Morrison's long history in writing Batman. But to a reader picking it up new, AA did not relate to a past or a future so much as it was squarely part of a Batman renaissance in progress, the great year of Batman 1989, when the Batman film starring Michael Keaton ruled the box office and a new series, Legends of the Dark Knight, debuted in the stores. Significant as it is for its place in this larger web of Batman works, AA is complex enough when considered alone, and many of its references, starting with the title, are owed to mythology and literature outside of the superhero genre, although the many references to Lewis Carroll, Parsifal, mythology, and religion perhaps operate more as decoration than they contribute to the structure. The title itself, borrowing from a poem by Philip Larkin, compares Arkham Asylum to a church. AA's impact, however, may have gone beyond the world of Batman and graphic novels to influence the zeitgeist of the early Nineties.

AA tells two stories; we know at the beginning that they are related in that they occur in the same place, although decades apart. There are, moreover, many curious parallels between the insane ravings written down by a man in the past and the specific experiences of Batman on a night seven decades after Amadeus wrote in his journal. It is only near the end when we learn that the past and present stories are very tightly related, and wonder if they might be related in a deeper way still. The main story, set in the present, shows Batman entering Arkham in response to an inmate riot, and getting more than he bargained for. The background plot, which runs from 1901 to 1929, and centered in 1921, is something different than a superhero story, and can appeal to readers who prefer, instead, mystery and horror. The Batman story itself also diverges markedly from the pre-existing norms of the superhero genre, and is something else, more psychological, and if it does not provide an actual account of human psychology, that leaves AA in good company with other "psychological" films and books.

The bare facts of the story, where another writer might focus but Morrison did not, is that the present administrator at Arkham, Charles Cavendish, goes mad and, informed by the journal of his predecessor, Amadeus Arkham, who also went mad, releases the inmates as part of a plan to kill Batman. Cavendish's guilt, however, is a secret until the book's final pages, the solution of a mystery that is teased very lightly near the beginning (i.e., when Jim Gordon announces that the Arkham inmates have taken over – "We don't know how" – and when Joker says that Killer Croc, too, was freed from his unique confinement).

But the reader begins the present-tense story confronted not so much with a mystery as with a simple, compelling scenario: The inmates, led by the Joker, have taken over Arkham; they want Batman to come to them, and they have hostages they can torture and kill if he doesn't comply. Another writer might imbue Batman with the ability not to choose, to storm Arkham like a commando, freeing all the hostages, re-caging all the inmates and achieving total victory. That would have been a conventional superhero story, but a much less interesting one than the one AA tells. Instead, Batman reluctantly surrenders to the inmates and submitting to their games, before finding the opportunity to use his skills to evade several of the most serious dangers in the Asylum. Eventually, Batman is confronted by Cavendish, who sees Batman as the cause of all the madness that Arkham confines, and therefore an evil that must be eliminated. Another Arkham doctor, Ruth Adams, kills Cavendish, and Batman goes on a brief, ambiguous rampage before he himself proposes the final game of the evening, for his life to be decided by a single coin toss by Two Face. Dent tosses the coin and announces that Batman is free to go, but we later learn that the result actually called for Batman's death and that Dent announced the opposite choice of his own free will.

Told concurrently with that present-tense plot, in narration that switches from scene to scene, page to page, and sometimes juxtaposed within a single panel, is the story of Amadeus Arkham, how his personal studies, his personal tragedies, and his personal madness all aligned to make him both the creator of Arkham Asylum and later an inmate. The story of Amadeus Arkham is profoundly disturbing, completely beyond the bounds of superhero comics as they existed only a few years earlier, but some ground had been broken in this regard, by Alan Moore and others, so Morrison's story, which would have been unthinkable in 1983, was merely shocking in 1989. The conclusion of the past-tense plot was that Amadeus Arkham fell victim to (perhaps hereditary) madness, and loses his mind after having already lost everything else.

While Batman is confined to the trap that is the physical Arkham Asylum, the reader should sense another trap in the past-tense plot, which is that it has long since ended, and Batman is therefore powerless to do what superheroes do and create a happy ending. From the outset, it is impossible that AA could allow a traditional superhero story's ending in the past-tense plot, and the reader must sense early on that the genre is being broken and turned into something new and full of horror.

There are no taboos holding back the horrors of the past-tense plot. Early on, we learn of Amadeus' mother's madness in a disgusting image that shows insects falling out of her mouth. The worst of it, though, concerns "Mad Dog" Hawkins, who was a victim of abuse, and gives the world plenty of abuse back, culminating in the murders and apparent rapes of Amadeus' wife and daughter. In presenting Mad Dog Hawkins and his crimes, Morrison tapped into a fascination with serial killers that was growing in popular culture at the time. A search on Google Books reveals that the phrase "serial killer" was almost unheard of in 1984, but grew rapidly in occurrence over the next dozen years. Morrison's depiction of Mad Dog Hawkins and his mutilation of victims and need to cut himself "just to feel something" was ahead of the curve in depicting such characters and perhaps played a significant role in the phenomenon, which surged in the mainstream with the film The Silence of the Lambs two years later. Morrison also gives nods to a much earlier forerunner, Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film Psycho, reproducing one frame of the movie in the art, and having Amadeus Arkham, like Norman Bates, sit alone in his madness while wearing his mother's dress.

Hawkins eventually impacts the plot – and arguably, culture as a whole – by escaping –, which Amadeus tragically chooses to ignore – and slaughtering Amadeus Arkham's wife and daughter. Amadeus' journal narrates it horrifically: "I see my wife first. My dear Constance. Her body is in pieces. Harriet lies nearby, indescribably violated. Almost idly, I wonder where her head is. And then I look at the doll's house. And the doll's house. Looks. At. Me." AA shows families and children as victims many times, including the fact that Mad Dog Hawkins was sexually abused by his own father, and this carries over to established DC characters via the sexual interest that the Mad Hatter shows in "little blonde girls." A year later, Morrison's second major Batman story, "Gothic," opens with a man learning that his wife and daughter were being forced into making pornography. Amadeus Arkham turns the violence within families back a generation as well, killing his mother as – in his mind – an act of mercy, saving her from her fears and madness. If the medium's use of shock and horror which increased suddenly in the Eighties is to be seen as excessive, AA is one of the stories where that excess was pioneered.

A narrative device that Morrison uses to heighten the impact of the story's excesses is to use language that implies that a character's emotional reaction to an event is muted when it should have been shock. Mad Dog cuts himself "just to feel something." Amadeus looks for his daughter's head "almost idly" and tells his mother, "Don't be afraid" right before he kills her. Ruth Adams interrupts another of her own thoughts with, "Oh, Christ. I just killed someone."  The casual reactions are jarring in contrast with the horrific events unfolding. Years later, Morrison used the same device in JLA #17, when Prometheus tells Kyle Rayner, "I should shoot you right now, purely out of mercy. There. I just did." Elsewhere, in arguably the story's darkest comment, Two Face says that the Moon is a coin tossed by God, and because it landed scarred-side up, he created the world.

The association between families and violence is not, to say the least, new to the Batman mythos, but is at the very core. Morrison takes the origin that was established in Detective Comics #33 and renders it in blood and guts and psychological shock, with Batman breaking down when a word association game forces him to reveal to the Joker how traumatized he was by his parents' murders. As Alan Moore had done in the immediately preceding years, Morrison brought a new level of shock and horror to DC's superhero lineup. Also like Moore, Morrison had Batman as the DC flagship figure closest to the center of the spectacle – Batman as the star of Morrison's work, and a guest of far greater repute than the star of Moore's Swamp Thing. Batman is a natural choice for this, as a figure of darkness as opposed to, say, Green Lantern or The Flash. But Morrison went far further than either the traditional legends or Moore's uses of Batman, by marking the hero as a fundamentally tragic figure, not only in his origins or his milieu, but in his character. Early on, Batman says, "I'm afraid that the Joker may be right about me [that Batman belongs in the madhouse]. Sometimes I… question the rationality of my actions. And I'm afraid that when I walk through those asylum gates… when I walk into Arkham and the doors close behind me… it'll be just like coming home." The notion that Batman is damaged psychologically is reinforced throughout the story, perhaps most emphatically in the closing psychological sketch of Batman, a one-page internal monologue which is placed in the middle of those for Arkham's inmates, and whose final words read, "Mommy's dead. Daddy's dead. Brucie's dead. I shall become a bat."

This vision of Batman as a fundamentally wounded figure is very different from the Batman that Morrison wrote two decades later, a man who is relentlessly strong in body and mind even in response to physical and psychological attack while in captivity. In 2006-2010, Morrison portrayed a Batman who could eventually escape from any trap, and could endlessly summon greater and greater resources in response to absolutely any crisis. In 1989, Morrison showed us a Batman who was, at least in principle, fragile, and who not only could be broken, but was willing to tell Jim Gordon that he feared that. And the horrible murder and abuse afflicting families in the story included the Waynes. "Brucie's dead" is a line that could only come from Bruce/Batman himself, and the use of a diminutive to describe himself is just as jarring as the thesis that Bruce Wayne died in spirit on the night that his parents died physically, but he was still, for a time, childlike enough to call himself "Brucie" as he reflected upon his trauma.

While Morrison's vision of Batman changed considerably from AA to his run on Batman, the Morrisonian vision of the Joker is firm on one idea: That the Joker's wide range in characterization over the years – from a "bad" but funny clown to a terrifying psychotic murderer – should be interpreted in a metatextual way as the changes taking place in the mind of an insane – or "super sane" criminal. In AA, Ruth Adams gives us this vision of the Joker for the first time: "…some days he's a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer." It next appeared 17 years later in 52 #30, with Dick Grayson narrating, "The Joker gave up being a murderer for a while and there was just this crazy, brilliant clown running around." This is developed further in Morrison's prose issue, Batman #663, "The Clown at Midnight," with Batman explaining to Harley Quinn, "He's changed again. You know how he changes every few years. You wrote the book, Doctor Quinzel. He has no real personality, remember, only a series of 'superpersonas.'" Then a flashback in 2008's Batman #682 shows an apprehended Joker with a twisted smile telling Batman, "…you look tired, Batman. Like I say, sometimes the fun just has to end. And I'm thinking… practical jokes next time around." Alfred, narrating in the present, comments: "At that time, no one had devoted serious study to the Joker's flamboyant pathology. Batman was, customarily, ahead of the curve, as they say." And then Batman, in the past, says of the Joker, "He keeps coming back… different. I think he recreates himself constantly. Like some kind of super-MPD. We need to make sure he's carefully monitored in case his original… his original persona resurfaces." Four times, Morrison delivered the same assessment of the Joker's changing characterization, although he perhaps contradicts himself on whether it was Harleen Quinzel or Batman who first diagnosed this. What is perhaps most interesting about this is that one of Morrison's high concepts for his run on Batman was that every era in Batman's past "happened," that the changes in the published feature should be interpreted as changes that took place in just one fictional world for various reasons that make sense in that fictional world, and this idea was introduced back in AA. Though his vision of Batman changed considerably from 1989 to 2005, Morrison's use of the metatextual narrative device that every past era of Batman happened to one and the same character was there in Morrison's Batman stories from the beginning.

In comparison with Morrison's later works, perhaps the most important aspect of AA is something so subtle that many readers may put the work down without having noticed it: The plot is built around a time loop. Morrison used time travel in the purely science fiction sense to create a causal loop in time in many of his later works, such as Seven Soldiers, Final Crisis, and Return of Bruce Wayne. The time loop in AA is more subtle and mysterious: Amadeus Arkham's mother has, circa 1920, a terrifying vision of a monstrous bat; perhaps the vision drives her mad, or perhaps her madness produces the vision. At the time she experiences the vision of the bat, it is seemingly a hallucination, but it proves to be prophetic, as Batman becomes a terrifying bat figure several decades later. Her fear of "the Bat" indirectly impacts Batman's entire career, leading to the creation of Arkham Asylum, and to Cavendish deciding that he has to trap and/or kill Batman. Did the existence of Batman in the present create Mrs. Arkham's vision in the past? Morrison leaves that, characteristically, as a mystery. There is neither science fiction nor time machines in the story that could explain it, but references to Aleister Crowley and "that other world… of magic and terror" suggest a supernatural link between Batman in the present and Mrs. Arkham's visions in the past. It could, then again, be explained as madness combined with coincidence. Morrison shows no eagerness to resolve the mystery. We would be naive to dismiss it as coincidence but reaching too far to consider it definitively attributed to magic.

The style in which Morrison approaches that mystery is evocative of his later Batman works. A year later, in 1990, his story "Gothic" also hints of supernatural evil in a case concerning Gotham in general and Batman quite personally. The supernatural basis of the story is rejected by one character, entertained as a possibility by Batman, and kept ambiguous until a final reveal. Almost two decades later, Morrison teased at a supernatural basis to the master villain, Doctor Hurt, who was attacking Batman. Supernatural powers connected to Doctor Hurt were shown an alternate future story and hinted at in other places. Batman, R.I.P. was written as "the story of how Batman cheats the Devil" but Morrison devotedly keeps the fact of the matter ambiguous before eventually, in another series, linking Doctor Hurt to Darkseid.

In AA, Morrison first suggests a link between Mrs. Arkham's vision and Batman's reality with a pair of juxtaposed panels in which we see Mrs. Arkham make a bat-like shadow figure with her hands, right before the bat signal is seen in present-day Gotham. This juxtaposition should be seen as evocative by the reader, but may be seen as a mere device employed by the writer, as when Alan Moore couples a phrase spoken by one character with similar action taking place in a juxtaposed narrative. But in AA, the words joining those two connected visuals are "magic and terror," suggesting a causal connection. Elsewhere in the story, other suggestions of prophecy come true, with Amadeus noting a joker card that is found in the house, and Harriet Arkham's bad dreams preceding her nightmarish death at the hands of Mad Dog Hawkins.

If we accept the supernatural link, then we have a time loop in which Batman in at least some way inspires himself, which can be seen as either tragic or grandiose, in which he is both a victim and a figure so important that many others lives as mere supporting characters in a drama where he is the star. Of course, on a metatextual level, that is entirely the case.

Arkham Asylum belongs to many worlds. It is the last great graphic novel of the Eighties, an early contributor to a growing cultural fascination with serial killers, a pioneering instance of psychological and literary devices in superhero comics, a painfully dark and disturbing work, an early major work by artist Dave McKean, and an early forebear to Morrison's long run on Batman that began seventeen years later. It is worthy of consideration in all of these ways, and belonging to so many worlds, it is something of an oddity in each of them. At the time, it promised big things to come, from Morrison personally, and in the genre more generally. Now, we can look back on a quarter century of work since then and appreciate the many directions that has taken, with Arkham Asylum having hinted at much that was to come just as Mrs. Arkham's terrifying vision foretold, in her world, of the coming of Batman. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Retro Review: The Killing Joke

Alan Moore's final work for DC was the 1988 landmark, The Killing Joke, a one-shot magnificently illustrated by Brian Bolland that redefined Batman and the Joker and the relationship between them. Cutting between flashbacks and narration in the present day, TKJ offered a possible backstory for the Joker, and showed one fateful encounter between the caped crusader and his archenemy, which left Barbara Gordon disabled for over two decades of DC comics.

The Joker's Plan

The major action of TKJ showed a plan by the Joker that targeted Jim and Barbara Gordon with acts of exceptional cruelty and violence in order "to prove a point." Apparently, he was able to carry out every step that he had planned. After enticing another man to pose as him in Arkham Asylum in order to delay notice of his escape, the Joker agrees to buy a closed-down carnival, but he murders the sales agent, then begins to adapt the location for a single night of terrorizing Jim Gordon.

Shortly thereafter, bizarrely dressed in a tropical shirt, he arrives at the home of Jim and Barbara Gordon. Without saying a word, he fires a gunshot into Barbara's midsection, crippling her. Then, while his thugs incapacitate Jim, the Joker comments that Jim is "topping the bill." He strips Barbara and takes photos of her naked, injured body.

When Jim Gordon awakens, he is tormented by dwarfs grotesquely clad in sadomasochistic leather. They strip him of his clothes and bring him to the Joker, who begins to assault him verbally, and sings him a song about the virtues of insanity. Then, Jim is taken on a ghost train ride and shown gigantic photographic enlargements of the nude photos that the Joker took of his bloody daughter. When the ride is over, the Joker once more explains to Jim, with mock compassion while an audience of "circus freaks" laughs, about the good sense of losing one's mind.

At this point, Batman arrives, deliberately tipped off to the location by tickets the Joker sent to the Gotham police. A short chase through the carnival grounds allows the Joker to make his pro-insanity lecture to Batman. The chase eventually turns into a fight, with the Joker injuring the caped hero lightly before Batman inevitably brings him down. Along the way, Batman escapes a couple of attempts on his life, and it is not clear if the Joker expected those to succeed, or if they were mere gestures to express his hatred. When the Joker is completely beaten, he says, in self-pity, that Batman should "kick the hell out of [him] and get a standing ovation from the public gallery."

Batman's Pitch

The timing of the Joker's plan coincides exactly with Batman's desire to make an overture to his enemy, that they should put aside their conflict. Batman first begins to make this pitch to the man who was posing as the Joker. It is repeated in silent captions when Batman begins to fight the Joker. Then, when the fight is over, the Batman lays it all out again: He doesn't want to hurt the Joker, and that if they don't stop their conflict, one or both of them will end up dying. He offers to help and rehabilitate the Joker. The Joker seems to consider it, but answers, "No. I'm sorry but… No. It's too late for that. Far too late." Despite the rejection, the Joker tells Batman a joke, and they appear to communicate calmly and genuinely once the fight is over, but it is clear that their battle will resume when next the Joker is once again free.

The Joker's Origin

Usually, recurring heroes and villains in comics are given a distinct origin and real name. Occasionally, there is no origin out of apparent indifference on the part of the creators. The Joker, however, is one of a select few for which an origin has been intentionally vague, to preserve a sense of mystery around the character. In 1987's Secret Origins #10, Alan Moore provided one of four possible origins for the Phantom Stranger. In The Killing Joke, Moore provides one for the Joker.

An earlier semi-origin the Joker had been offered in 1951's Detective Comics #168. That story indicated that the Joker had originally carried out crimes as the Red Hood, who wore a helmet and matching cape. His initial interaction with Batman ended with a swim through chemicals that transformed his hair to green and skin to clown white. Maintaining the character's mysterious background, that story never offered his real name nor showed his pre-accident face.

In an extended flashback divided into four parts, TKJ affirms the basic details of the 1951 story, but added more detail to the character's backstory, indicating that the man about to become the Joker was a failed comedian and only reluctantly a criminal, who lost his pregnant wife and unborn child on the same day that his botched robbery and run-in with Batman changed his pigmentation. TKJ breaks from the 1951 story in adding a significant emotional element to the Joker's transformation, indicating that the trauma of that one bad day instantly changed him from a not-particularly-bad man into a devoted criminal, whereas the earlier story implied that the one bad day only altered his appearance.

Moore only offers these details tentatively, however. In one panel injecting ambiguity into the flashback, the present-day Joker says, "Something like that happened to me, you know. I… I'm not exactly sure what is was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!" Thus, Moore makes the Joker's backstory, like that of the Phantom Stranger, one that we have possibly but not certainly seen.

Theme: One Bad Day

An essential idea in TKJ is that trauma can remake a man from something ordinary into something remarkable. The Joker analyzes his own past in this way, and the flashback implies that the pre-Joker individual was driven to crime only out of extreme financial need and an honorable desire to support his pregnant wife and soon-to-be family. As soon as he learns of his wife's tragic death, he tries to back out of his agreement to participate in a robbery, but he is forced to comply by his partners. The day is marked not only by extreme misfortune but also by futility, as he is unable to make his own decisions, being threatened into crime by the Red Hood Gang – of which he is a stooge, not the leader – and then being cornered by the relentless police and Batman. Faced with the futility of being good – and sane – the Joker snaps and becomes a devotedly insane criminal as we see him in the present.

This aspect of the origin is owed crucially to one earlier story: Batman's origin as first presented in Detective #33. That first telling of Batman's origin connects the "terror and shock" of witnessing his parents' murders as the single motivation for his life as a crime-fighter. The vow he makes on that occasion is called "curious and strange" by Finger and Kane. The details have been affirmed and extended numerous times in successive stories, but the essential idea is that trauma fundamentally transformed the normal boy into something extraordinary.

There's little in DC mythology that's firmer than the concept of Bruce Wayne deciding to become a crime-fighter because of his parents' murders. As such, it is natural for Moore to take the same idea and reflect it through a mirror, and make a similar moment the origin of the Joker.

However, TKJ does not affirm that simple psychological model of trauma. The Joker carries out his plan for the express purpose of transforming Jim Gordon, to make him insane, but, while the Joker is able to carry out every step in his plan, Gordon does not change as the Joker hopes. When Batman rescues Jim Gordon, Gordon tells him, "I want him brought in… and I want him brought in by the book!… We have to show him that our way works!" This fact, which Gordon and Batman rub into the Joker's face, shows that the Joker was wrong, that One Bad Day does not drive everyone mad, and as Batman adds, "Maybe it was just you, all the time."

This is a neat contrast insofar as the Joker and Jim Gordon go, but what of the third side of the triangle? The Joker guesses that One Bad Day is what made Batman what he is, and in this, he is correct. But, as part of his perception of the situation, he sees Batman as confirmation of his theory, that One Bad Day turned him into someone who would "dress up like a flying rat," which is "crazy," as is "everybody else." If this is wrong, then it was unnecessary for Gordon to be put to the test; Batman already shows that One Bad Day does not drive someone crazy.

Indeed, various creators over the years have suggested that Batman is crazy; TKJ neither confirms nor rejects the idea, but it agrees, as all Batman stories do, that the traumatic event was transformative, and suggests that Batman's life itself is not enough to reject the idea that One Bad Day makes a normal person "crazy."

Mutual Assured Destruction

Batman's description of his ongoing war with the Joker closely parallels the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). As applied to the Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Union both possessed massive nuclear arsenals, the idea was that a war between the two would inevitably lead to the destruction of both of them. Therefore, any war between them was unwinnable and therefore unthinkable.

War is obviously on Moore's mind in TKJ, as voiced by the Joker. He explicitly uses the phrase "World War Three" as he describes how close the world is to accidental nuclear war. One panel later, he (with considerable oversimplification) suggests that "the last World War" (WW2) was triggered by an argument over telegraph poles. TKJ describes the Batman-Joker war in terms that are parallel to the Cold War conflict between the US and USSR.

When TKJ begins, the Batman-Joker war has been in progress for years, but Batman sees death as an inevitable outcome. And, while he rejects the suicidal nature of it, the Joker accepts it. As such, the dynamic in TKJ is similar to the Cold War's nuclear arms race. In Watchmen, Moore, through Ozymandius, also expresses that nuclear war is inevitable unless something exceptional takes place to prevent it. In TKJ, Moore scripts the Joker's position as similar to that of the U.S. and Soviet Union, while Batman's choice is something sane that the West (and Eastern Bloc) should adopt. In another possible comment on nuclear war, the Joker says, "That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day." A nuclear war would be to the world what the Joker is to a healthy, ordinary mind.

But, as in his Twilight of the Superheroes proposal, Moore also finds fault with society as a whole. He believed that society as a whole was at risk of disintegration, and the Joker in TKJ voices similar concern, that the average man has a "deformed set of values" who survives "not very well" in "today's harsh and irrational world."

As prophecy, Moore's work has, fortunately, not played out in the 27 years since it was printed. Total societal disintegration has yet come to pass.

Style

The artwork, by Brian Bolland, is exceptionally vivid, with the use of photorealistic proportions in most cases highlighting exceptions such as the proportion of the Joker and his circus freak sidekicks. Another exception is when Bolland copies panels from older works, such as file photos of the Joker, Batman from the cover of Detective #27, the Batman family including the Kathy Kane Batwoman, and an implausibly old-fashioned Batmobile. The technique of including older-style artwork within a story has been used many times since TKJ, and it powerfully contrasts the style of those more innocent times with the especially brutal content of TKJ.

Moore makes use of the medium in unusual and attention-getting ways. The story begins and ends with long stretches without dialogue, with the title pages' artwork blending seamlessly into the story. In the beginning, as in the end, we see the concentric circles made by raindrops as a pattern in puddles. This suggests cycles and repetition and the fact that the struggle between Batman and the Joker, and all superhero comics, goes on in a repeated pattern forever. The scene between Batman and the solotaire-playing (fake) Joker is iconic and was repeated by Grant Morrison in DC Universe #0's lead-in to Batman, R.I.P.

Dialogue and captions are repeated, overlie superficially unrelated art, and make sly comments at the transitions between scenes. The first line of the joke that Joker tells at the end are used, out of place, as the story's first words: There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum. In fact, Batman and the (fake) Joker are the two guys in a lunatic asylum, and the joke at the end provides commentary on them. The re-use of the line also reinforces the pattern of a cycle, and the fact that Batman and the Joker cannot break out of their endless war. Later in that scene, Batman says that he doesn't want Joker's death on his hands as the makeup of the fake Joker comes off and smears his gloves. When Jim Gordon warns Batman not to harm a hair on the man's head, Batman offers Gordon the fake Joker's wig. When the real Joker, at the carnival, says that money isn't a problem "these days," we see the first cut to his earlier days, when poverty was a great problem. When that scene ends with the pre-Joker seeing his face reflected in a metal cabinet door, the narration cuts back to the present-day Joker seeing his face reflected in the glass of a "LAUGHING CLOWN" machine, but the Joker isn't laughing. When Joker kills the sales agent, his dialogue is overflowing with double meanings, seemingly speaking cheerfully while referring, repeatedly, to the man's death. The man's death grin ends one scene as the joker card that Batman took from Arkham opens the next one. Later, after shooting Barbara, the Joker refers to her, a librarian, as though she were a book, including "There's a hole in the jacket and the spine appears to be damaged." The Joker ends the scene holding a drink in one hand as he touches Barbara, and then the narration cuts to the proto-Joker holding a drink in one hand as he picks up a shrimp. The technique is used, scene after scene, throughout TKJ as it was in Watchmen and other Moore works.

Moore, a horror writer in his work on Swamp Thing, uses particularly sharp moments in the wording and actions to build up the Joker as something otherworldly. When Batman accosts the man who helped him escape from Arkham, he asks, "Do you realize what you've set free?" with not a "who" but a "what." The Joker strips both Barbara and then Jim Gordon naked, an indignity one wouldn't find in earlier superhero comics, with an added note of perversion when he forces Jim to see pictures of his naked (and crippled) daughter. Later, Barbara shares her horror with us when she tells Batman, "He's taking it to the limit this time. You didn't see. You didn't see his eyes." The proto-Joker's shock when he learns of his wife's death and again when he is forced into joining the robbery are exceptionally tragic alone and more so in juxtaposition. When his grief is the greatest, two leering figures, one of them probably a prostitute, lean in and seem to laugh at his misfortune. Elsewhere in that scene, we see a man passed out in his own vomit. The cover itself is shocking, with the Joker's seemingly harmless "Smile" as he points a camera towards us is galling when one considers how he used a camera in the story. Moore doesn't just break the rules of family comic books; he shatters them. While the Joker and the Gordons are traumatized by their experiences, the reader – at least in the late Eighties – was shocked by the innovative levels of horror in the content. And, given the themes of the story, this is not gratuitous; it illustrates the points effectively.

Did Batman Kill the Joker?

In August 2013, Grant Morrison, in an interview with Kevin Smith, says that in his interpretation, Batman kills the Joker at the end of TKJ. As he explains, Batman reaches out and places his hands on the Joker, then the laughter stops, then the light goes out, and this "in such a way that it’s ambiguous" indicates that Batman has killed the Joker.

It's certainly no better than ambiguous: There is no real evidence that Batman has killed the Joker, and certainly readers do not typically read the story concluding that he did, or else Morrison's supposition would not have made such a splash online.

I strongly disagree. Laughter ends in that scene because laughter always ends. The siren ends and the light goes out because police turn off their sirens and their headlights. The jumps from one panel to the next do not have a specific timeframe associated with them, and we see simply nothing of any attack by Batman on the Joker.

Even more important: Batman has just said that he will not beat the hell out of the Joker because he is (as requested by Jim Gordon) doing this one by the book. Batman is asked to do it by the book, he says that he is doing it by the book, and we don't see anything to indicate that he's not doing it by the book.

References online to the original script seem to confirm that the story does not end with the Joker's death. The description of the ending is, "[Batman] and The Joker are going to kill each other one day. It’s preordained. They may as well enjoy this one rare moment of contact while it lasts." But I don't think this evidence was even needed.

Morrison used the carnival grounds from TKJ in his run on Batman and Robin. He obviously respects the work greatly. But this particular theory seems to me to be difficult to defend.

Impact

Though not a perfect story, TKJ is nonetheless one of the most memorable Batman stories – and certainly one of the most memorable Joker stories. It is flawed: The point that the Joker is trying to make and the way it is refuted are both fairly slapdash. The comics make much of One Bad Day creating a hero or villain, and neither the Joker's thesis that it always creates a villain nor the case of Jim Gordon in refuting that thesis are very compelling. As Alan Moore himself says, "Brian did a wonderful job on the art but I don’t think it’s a very good book. It’s not saying anything very interesting." He furthermore said, "Batman and the Joker are not really symbols of anything that are real, in the real world, they're just two comic book characters."

That last comment is particularly interesting. The Cold War parallels might permit the claim that TKJ is saying something interesting and that Batman and the Joker in TKJ are symbols of something real. This leaves us to conclude either that the Cold War parallels are unintended, or that Moore considers any such parallel relatively inconsequential.


This suggests that the Cold War overtones that I saw in TKJ from my first reading is, like the Batman-killing-Joker ending that Morrison saw in it, more in the eye of the reader than the writer. And perhaps that is a benefit of the doubt that readers extend to an accomplished writer and a work that is of overall high quality; Moore's reputation makes readers look for hidden levels that may not have been intended. It's perhaps timely to post this retro review right after the one for Kingdom Come, as both are highly regarded for their excellent art and powerful overtones, but neither has a deep message to make them truly great, though they easily fool us into feeling that they do.