Batman & the Joker

[1]982 words

The Brave and the Bold
A Team-up comic featuring Batman and the Joker
D.C. Comics, #111, March 1974

This comic was published in 1974 by DC comics or National Periodical Publications. It retailed for twenty cents, and I bought it in the United Kingdom for eight new pence. The author was the veteran scripter Bob Haney, and it was drawn by Jim Aparo. None of the other contributors—the inker, colorist, letterer, or editor—is recorded. 

The whole point of looking at this comic is that it dovetails with the review of the film The Dark Knight elsewhere on this site [2]. Yet there are important differences—the directness or crudity of the form, its clientele of adolescent boys, and the amount of censorship it was under pulls it in a dissimilar direction.

There is no room for the Joker, his arch nemesis, to philosophize about Batman falling short as a superman. For the very insistent dualism or absence of moral relativism means that the Joker’s actions—not his words—are depicted in a despicable light. But this has an unintentional result, in that it makes Batman less liberal, more ferocious, vengeful, and “fascistic.” The center of gravity then shifts, and the police commissioner, Gordon, is forever trying to restrict Gotham’s finest, curb him from vigilantism, and keep him on the straight and narrow.

The story involves the Joker wiping out a totally respectable family who had the temerity to inform on a criminal. He did it as a response to normal society and as a sort of Stirnerite aporia—a nihilistic and anti-social act. Batman is outraged and swears an implacable vengeance. He threatens to Gordon that he will kill this sadistic clown once and for all. Gordon sniffs: “We’re here to represent the Law, Batman, no vigilante stuff.” To which Batman sneers: “You better find him first if you want to bring him in alive!”

There then occurs several quite complicated somersaults or back-flips in the plot—thereby confirming that comics are very close to both film and television, being heavily plot-driven. The Joker allegedly returns to Gotham’s morgue in order to mutilate his victims with the rictus leer which is his trademark. Why? Had he forgotten to do so?

Gradually, via an underworld tip-off, Batman tracks the purple-clad and green-haired minstrel to a lonely gravel barge (now disused). Another clue leads to a Turkish steam-bath where he pounces upon the Joker as he hunts an underworld killer called Slade. Batman is wounded in the encounter, but survives.

Little by little, it dawns on Commissioner Gordon and Batman that the Joker is innocent, that he’s hunting the real slayer, Slade, and that to capture the latter will involve collaborating with the Joker. (Note: Is there, no matter how subliminally, a notion of war-time collaboration here? Who knows?)

The Joker and Batman contact each other so as to bring home the ghastly deed to Slade. The Joker taunts and berates Batman throughout—yet there remains this strange attraction, symmetry, and false “completeness” between them. After various shenanigans, involving a chase sequence following the auction of an old gangster’s Cadillac, the final element of the drama supervenes.

Throughout all of this, though, Batman has become more and more maniacal. He strong-arms criminals, roughs up a morgue attendant, disobeys police orders, is placed under arrest by Gordon (“see that Batman doesn’t leave this room”), and plots openly to murder the Joker.

I believe that a comic like this has to be as either/or . . . or as Manichean as possible, morally speaking. A film can be 18 or X-certificate, and the era of graphic novels “suggested for the mature reader” didn’t exist then. All mainstream comics were severely vetted or controlled and subject to a censorship board—just like in early Hollywood. Hence we see the moniker which appeared on the front of such works that read “approved by the comics code authority.”

Such strictures often led to barely suppressed adolescent fantasies—very much unconstrained in young boys—of violence, energy, revenge, or transgression. But this occurs also, don’t forget, at the hands of the hero. In these works the moral alter ego of Batman is Gordon, the police chief, not the Joker. The villain must be utterly repulsive and crepuscular . . . yet this opens up the “dangerous” notion of justified revenge on behalf of the illiberal masses. Given their lowness as a form, comics can luxuriate in the “badness” of the hero—even to the point of pitilessness.

For example, the pulp magazine from the ’30s, The Shadow, that Batman slightly resembles, luxuriated in vigilantism, sadism, punishment of criminals, and revenge by one’s fireside. The radio show based on it was the most listened to in America at that time. Orson Welles played the virtual anti-hero.

Anyway, by the comic’s conclusion, Batman, Slade, and the Joker are in their rightful places. It is all revealed to have been a plot to assassinate Batman in a disused canal lock. The Joker and Slade are accomplices. They are cold-bloodied psychopaths. Batman is their eternal enemy. Yet he turns the tables on them, escapes from underwater, kicks Slade unconscious, and pursues the Joker towards the sports car: the Batmobile. The man who smiles without mirth can’t start it and is beaten by the Avenger, but, under the Code, a moral ending must be enforced. All collaboration is spent. Batman overcomes his desire to enact an extra-juridical killing. The Joker will be returned to a state correctional institution for the criminally insane, Arkham Asylum.

Nonetheless, for a brief moment the Joker and Batman were on the same side against Gordon (and Slade), prior to the inevitable reversal. The idea remains notwithstanding that the dramaturgy between these characters can become more complex—if adult psychology and philosophy is added. Finally, such a comic (virtually forgotten now and a third of a century old) exemplifies the NAKED FASCISM OF THE HEROIC AVENGER up to the penultimate frame.