The rivalry between Batman and the Joker is a tale as old as time. On one side, a vigilante hero dressed as a bat. His methods are questionable, but he ultimately believes in law and humanity. On the other, a psychopath in clown make up bent on spreading chaos. Now imagine if their roles were reversed. What if the Joker were the only one who could protect Gotham City from the Batman? It sounds, if you’ll forgive the phrase, batshit crazy. But is it really? That’s the question writer and artist Sean Murphy poses in the new series, Batman: White Knight.
In it, we find the
lovers foes engaged in a chase. As the Joker weaves through Gotham’s streets, Batman plows through construction sites and jumps drawbridges. Usually, such destruction would be nothing except a fun bit of action to break up the dialogue, but Murphy reframes it here. Initially, that’s done through Nightwing and Batgirl, who comment on how reckless Batman has become. We eventually learn there’s a reason behind Bruce’s violence, but in comics, there’s a fine line between noble justification and villain origin story and this feels a bit like the latter. Indeed, the whole comic slowly and subtly suggests that maybe Batman’s actions aren’t justifiable under any circumstances.
That becomes impossible to ignore in the scene where Batman finally catches the Joker. As his allies and the police stand idly by, Batman beats the Joker senseless and then force-feeds him pills the Joker claims will “cure” him. The scene is brutal and, unfortunately for Batman, someone catches the incident on video. It’s perhaps tough to believe that anyone would come to the Joker’s defense, but Murphy makes the conversation between two TV pundits just realistic, and frankly familiar, enough that it seems at least plausible.
More surprising, though, is that the pills actually work. Freed from his insanity and left with a genius intellect, Jack Napier, the former comedian behind the clown make up, decides to sue the Gotham City Police Department for tacitly endorsing Batman. It’s ironic that Joker would use the law of all things to defeat Batman and it’s not entirely clear if it’s not all part of some elaborate plan (it is pretty convenient that a mysterious woman in red happened to film Batman’s assault on Joker and then leak it to the press), but it’s an intriguing concept. Batman’s whole existence is a middle finger aimed right at the law and the organizations meant to uphold it, how does allowing him to exist do anything but undermine people’s faith in them?
From the issue’s opening pages, it seems like Batman may eventually be redeemed, but maybe he shouldn’t be. At some point, every superhero asks themselves if they wear the mask to help people or because they need the affirmation. Murphy does that here, but he’s not asking Batman, he’s asking us. The problem with a vigilante is that he isn’t beholden to anyone except him or herself. If that moral compass deviates from absolute good, then the road to villainy is short and steep. Batman has justified a lot in the name of heroism and at some point, it’s difficult not to question if the justifications for his methods aren’t perpetuating the violence they’re meant to stop. What is a superhero story stripped of its assumed sense of purpose and nobility if not the ultimate act of selfish egotism? Is it really still heroism if it puts more people in danger and shows contempt for the law? Certainly doesn’t sound like it.