ON BATMANOLOGY : STOP WORSHIPPING THE JOKER

Batman The Killing joke  Copyright DC Comics

*It’s beyond the purview of this entry to fully explain what exactly Batmanology entails (plus, I signed an oath in blood, swearing that I would never do so). Instead, please accept a brief overview of a much-misunderstood vocation and an urgent call to action.

Batmanology is more than merely possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the Caped Crusader but that is a prerequisite. It’s not just wearing a Bat-symbol and calling yourself a Bat-expert (although that happens a lot). It is not a science, although it is informed by science. Nor is it an art but Art is definitely part of it. It’s multi-disciplinary. It’s not quite a philosophy, it’s certainly not a religion and it’s a helluva lot more than a hobby.

An example – look at batman’s foes. Each one symbolizes some extreme aspect of the human personality. The Riddler is all about Compulsion and Hubris; he announces his crimes beforehand, to prove his intellectual superiority and because he just can’t help himself. He does something he knows is bad for him but he just can’t stop. Catwoman epitomizes Greed and Caprice ; Selina Kyle is beautiful, intelligent, naturally gifted, kind to animals and an Olympic-level athlete but she’d rather steal than work for a living. The Penguin is a disgruntled nerd who rose to power and carries a grudge in the form of a flame-throwing umbrella.

Obsession is a big theme in Batman’s rogues’ gallery – Two Face, the Mad Hatter, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, the Scarecrow. (You realize I could keep going all day long. I’ll spare you the super-villain litany.) There are monsters like Clayface and Killer Croc, whose grotesque outward appearances mirror their inner corruption. I won’t even talk about the TV show bad guys like Bookworm and Egghead and King Tut.

And then there’s the Joker.

As a Batmanologist, I’ve seen many incarnations of the Joker, the Mountebank of Menace, the Harlequin of Hate, the Clown Prince of Crime. From Cesar Romero’s cackling jester to Jack Nicholson’s smarmy maniac to Heath Ledger’s grungy lunatic, I’ve seen them all. (Fun fact – the definitive Joker is actually Luke Skywalker. I’m not kidding.) The Joker, like Batman, has been around for 75 years and has been interpreted countless times by countless creators. In the 70s, he shilled for Hostess Fruit Pies and even had his own comic book (it lasted all of nine issues). When an average person thinks of a Batman villain, he’s the one that comes to mind.

And he’s an incredible problem in our society.

Even though he started out as a straight-up homicidal thug, The Joker of previous eras symbolized mere defiance of authority, a refusal to be logical combined with the cartoonish venality of a hard-core career criminal. He steals things because he wants them. He was like a magpie.

Today, the Joker is portrayed as the personification of madness, a chaotic and unstoppable force of nature. He’s a nihilist, he symbolizes random and unfair existential destruction. He’s the metaphorical bus that creams you as you step off the curb. There’s no reason for it – he simply is and he kills people willy-nilly, as if they don’t matter, as if he’s snuffing out a match. The problem is they make him look too cool while he’s doing it.

The Joker is not to be emulated or admired in any way and yet, there are thousands, if not millions of disaffected and possibly mentally ill individuals who do just that, they admire him and seek to emulate his despicable actions, because it looks “cool”. Thanks to the Nolan iteration being so popular and so fresh in the public memory and so charismatic that the late Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar, people dress up like an amoral homicidal sociopath and lurk around comic conventions, they use his picture as their Internet avatar. They idolize and obsess over a criminally insane murderer.

Soon, James Holmes will go on trial for shooting up a movie theatre in Colorado, resulting in the deaths of 12 people. Both the defense and the prosecution will point to his obsession with the Joker as being key to his mental state at the time of the shooting, as a motive for the massacre and the reason he should not be executed, by dint of his obvious mental illness. Several other recent mass shooters have displayed an unhealthy connection to the Dark-Knight Detective’s greatest enemy. There will undoubtedly be more of them. The Internet has recently been abuzz that Jared Leto cut his hair to play the Joker in a happy little film called Suicide Squad. The movie hasn’t started shooting yet but pictures will be leaked and fans will inevitably ooh and ahh over them. And a tragic few, with a head full of broken wiring, will strengthen their mental connection to their idol. And the cycle will repeat itself and the whole thing will happen again.

The Rule of Cool- everybody loves a bad-ass. And by continuing to portray the Joker as a bad-ass, instead of the sick, pathetic, cowardly and depraved degenerate that he is, only serves to make the problem worse. It all but guarantees that some unbalanced and fragile individual with ready access to deadly fire-arms will lose the plot and the ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality and voila. Another tragedy. If I were DC Comics, I’d declare a moratorium on the Joker (they’ve done it before) or at least stipulate in editorial guidelines that he not be a role model. But the Joker sells comics (and toys and video games and merchandise and even Hostess Fruit Pies) and no corporation is going to leave all that money on the table. No matter who gets hurt in the process. That says a lot about our society and none of it good.

A hero is only as good as the villain he faces is evil, there have to be emotional stakes in any good story, the hero has to sacrifice in order to triumph. But I’ll tell you right now the plot of every Batman story ever : a crime is committed. Batman shows up. There’s a fight scene. Batman wins. That’s not a story, that’s a widget, a trinket, a tchotchke. Having Batman feel the weight of guilt of all of the Joker’s nameless victims is a cynical excuse for character development or actual drama. You can’t punch a tornado.

** Full disclosure – I was once a disaffected angry young man who thought the Joker was really cool. I got better.

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