The Joker is rehabilitated, but Batman’s suspicious. Sound familiar? Two-Face
went through this in the
80’s, and Poison Ivy
got the same treatment in the
90’s. The seemingly-tired
plot made me suspicious of author/artist Sean Murphy from the get-go. The
opening pages didn’t make me feel any better.
Murphy sets up a world where Batman is brutal and irrational. That’s a hard
pill to swallow. It’s not that I can’t tolerate flaws–really, the best
stories are the ones that explore the man’s shortcomings. But juvenile as it
may sound, Batman is always just.
Still, I kept an open mind, and not just because the book came with high praise
from my buddy Rick. I withheld judgement because from page one, the art is
fantastic. Murphy has an incredible attention to detail. His costumes are sharp
(how is this the first Batman to wear biker gloves?). His environments are full
(the Batcave and the Joker’s hideouts in particular). Call me sentimental, but
I felt the love in these visuals.
The book kept on giving me reason to feel conflicted. For every rule he breaks,
Murphy delivers a compelling insight. In this world, the Joker has never been
convicted of murder… But his obsession with Batman is nuanced, more tragic
than deranged. In this world, all it takes is a little judo training and some
steroids to take down Batman… But his trademark childlike relationship with
Alfred is reimagined as a dependence.
Murphy’s most thought-provoking revelation concerns Harlene Quinzelle. I won’t
spoil anything, but it’s a critique on the character’s development over the
years, and it was interesting to the point of detracting from the narrative. I
would love to know how Paul Dini (Harley’s creator) feels about this.
Speaking of Dini, fans of Batman: The Animated Series will be particularly at
home, here. Murphy casts heavily from the 90’s television show (specifically
the fourth season), and he references specific details from the episodes. Just
as the original audience of that show has grown up, Dini’s characters are a
little more adult: some light cursing and sex jokes. I once again recognized my
own immaturity in how cool I thought it was that the Joker said “bullshit.”
The world building occasionally goes a little too far, though. Certain details
seem kinda pat, with the author tying up some ends that didn’t feel
particularly loose. It’s a minor flaw, but like any detail that forces you to
consider the writing process, it beaks engagement a bit.
Really, though, the book is great. I’m amazed when someone can find even one
compelling thing to say about this 80-year-old character. I’ll usually settle
for a good detective story and some cool one-liners. Sean Murphey has a lot to
say, even if he bends the source material in some questionable ways to say it.