These Days It Makes More Sense for Batman to Be a Villain
Batman has been a hero for decades, constantly saving Gotham City from mad men and murderers. But take away the cape and noble purpose and he's actually a terror—someone capable of causing as much damage as he prevents. And seen through the lens of the 21st century, a time when it's understood that vigilante justice is dangerous, Bruce Wayne's actions don't look much more safe or sane than the Joker's. And in his next incarnation, they're not.
For Batman: White Knight, writer-illustrator Sean Murphy (The Wake, Punk Rock Jesus) created a version of Gotham with real, modern-day problems, and then let Batman solve them by making him the villain. How? In the comic mini-series' alternate-reality, it's the Joker—cured of his insanity—who sees that Bruce Wayne is just another part of the city's vicious cycle of crime and sets out to stop him.
"My main goal was to undo the comic tropes while changing Gotham from a comic book city into a real city—a city dealing with everything from Black Lives Matter to the growing wage gap," Murphy says. "[But] rather than write a comic about the wage gap, I gave those ideas to the Joker, who leads a kind of media war against Gotham's elite by winning people over with his potent observations and rhetoric."
Despite the fact that their roles are reversed, having heroes and villains who exist as a response to the current political climate is very much on-brand for Batman. For nearly eight decades the Joker and Dark Knight have faced off in the comics and onscreen, and each time, whether they're brooding or cartoonish, they've come to represent the kind of good or bad guys their audience needs. In the 1940s, when the Joker was introduced in Batman #1, the idea of having a masked vigilante face-punching foes seemed like a good way to fight crime. But in the decades since, society has learned that's not always the best course of action. "It's sexy to think crime can be stopped with a fist, but the real solution is a lot more boring than that: education, increasing wages, and building trust," Murphy says. "The line Batman rides between 'noble vigilante' and 'overzealous oppressor' will always be shifting as our own society changes."
And much like the creators of history's various Batmen have changed him with the times, they've also updated the Joker to suit his environs. Over the years, he's been a sadistic psychopath and a giggling, greedy comedian depending on the story's—and the zeitgeist's—demands. That's been true in the comic books and onscreen. The original murderous conception of the character by Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson had to be toned when the Comics Code Authority was established in 1954, but in the 1970s the dark, murderous Joker came back. More recently, he's reflected the outlandishness of the 1980s thanks to Jack Nicholson's portrayal in Tim Burton's Batman, and the existential dread of the new millennium via Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight.
And Murphy's latest version, which will hit comic book stores Oct. 4, is just as apropos. At a time when protectors fail to protect and propaganda has immense power, very few stories—in comics, at least—could be more of-the-moment than a series that shows Batman's vigilantism as part of a vicious cycle and the Joker's charisma as a marketing tool for his brand of justice.
"We know the Joker is a genius, we know he's relentless, and we know he can play the crowd, so why not make him a politician?" Murphy asks. "Frank Miller modeled him after David Bowie. Chris Nolan showed him as a controlled sociopath. I see the Joker as Don Draper."
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