Tuesday, August 26, 2008

the man who laughs

When I saw Ed Brubaker’s Batman: The Man Who Laughs on the graphic novel shelf in the public library, I thought I had hit the jackpot because, along with Frank Miller’s vaunted Batman: Year One, Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween, and The Joker’s Last Laugh, it was on my list of Batman graphic novels I specifically wanted to read. At this point (like a stalker) I’ve done my research (on Wikipedia at least) and know that The Man Who Laughs replicates the original 1940 Joker introduction tale by Bob Kane and Bill Finger (who were looking to imitate a silent movie actor; life imitates art imitates life?). One thing I don’t quite get is the constant need for reinvention in Batman, as it makes keeping up with the comics, especially if you’ve got conflicting origin stories (which happened to some extent with Jonathan Crane in Scarecrow Tales but more so with the Joker), challenging to say the least. At the same time, I know it make sense—look at all the times the Cybermen have been revamped. The Doctor’s predicament was of course changed in “Rose” with the invention of the Time War.

The Joker started out in 1940 (as is faithfully represented in the Brubaker story) as a psychotic madman. Censorship laws in the ‘50s and ‘60s sanitized him into a harmless trickster and thief (which is more of what I’ve seen in the Harley Quinn stories). But by 1973 he was back to his insanely murderous self. No one has ever found out the Joker’s real identity—which, in the land of Batman where all the heroes and villains have alter egos, is quite unusual—though a Dini story (I think) postulated he was once a man named Jack Napier whose wife and unborn child were murdered. It’s in The Killing Joke that he claims to enjoy having a “multiple choice” history which Nolan exploited so brilliantly in The Dark Knight.

I had a friend on ff.net who wrote Joker-centric fic, and she completely threw out the Kane/Finger origin, claiming it was really lame. Lame or not, I suppose it would drive someone insane, and it’s slowly brought to life in Brubaker’s story, viscerally pencilled by Doug Mahnke. The Man Who Laughs is not cuddlesome. It starts out with really disturbing mutilation—akin to the Nolan!verse Joker who likes to share his Glasgow grin with people, this Joker kills by using a poison that turns people’s skin white, their hair green, their lips red, and they die with a “rictus grin” on their faces. It understandably disturbs Batman and Captain Gordon, both of them at the dawn of their careers here. Gordon in particular is drawn and written very well. It’s clear to me why he is one of the Bat-verse’s most beloved characters.

Batman shares his theory with us—at one point he was pursuing a gang of thieves at Ace Chemical Processing, whose leader wore a red hood—ergo, he was called Red Hood. While Batman was chasing him, he fell into a vat of chemicals. “Can it be this simple? Joker and the Red Hood are one and the same? . . . Problem is, there are big differences between them. The Red Hood never killed anyone and Joker kills with almost every breath he takes. . . . If his plunge into chemical waste did DISFIGURE him, then revenge would be a typically paranoid response. Blaming others for his own actions.” So because of this, Mahnke’s Joker is drawn very similarly to the 1940 Joker—though curiously he has displayed a penchant for painting his nails black, unless that’s from the chemical as well!

As in the Nolan!verse, the Joker has gangs of machine-gun wielding clowns, he uses TV to broadcast his victims’ fates, makes assassination attempts on individuals (usually ones with lots of money), though his final “trick” is a lot more like the Scarecrow’s attempted one in Batman Begins. Sometimes it’s scary how well Batman and the Joker understand each other—which of course the Joker never fails to emphasize. “His fall was into a vat of toxic poison that spilled out into what should have been a clean bay. So he poisons Gotham’s water supply, and everyone dies laughing. In his sick mind, we’re all to blame just for being alive. I understand that now. That paranoid anger and hate. He may be a genius, but that hate is all he knows.” Overall I have to accede that this Joker isn’t as witty and funny as the versions I’ve come to expect, but I suppose he is embryonic in a sense. The first hand-to-hand combat scene with Batman is just superb—Batman can’t knowingly kill even someone this evil—à la Tom Baker’s Doctor who can’t get rid of the Daleks even knowing what kind of harm they are going to cause for all time.

I should mention as well that Batman’s variety of disguises gets more and more Pimpernel-like by the minute (though I don’t suppose it would really work in the films), and the story “invents” the use of the Bat-signal.

Again, another of the puzzling things about Batman comic collections is how they tend to thrown in early stories with ones that clearly take place much, much later—and expect you to catch on right away just because one character’s hair has turned white! Ed Brubaker writes and Patrick Zircher draws (with delightfully atmospheric covers by Tim Sale) Made of Wood, a very continuity-heavy story that has absolutely nothing to do with the one before it. It’s quite interesting, and again drawn by a master, but I had to read it a couple of times to understand it. In addition to Zorro who, according to James Robinson in Blades, the young Bruce Wayne idolized, he was also a fan of the Green Lantern, a Superman-ish hero from the 1940s. Hold on, you say, wasn’t Batman fighting crime in 1940? Well, that’s where it gets confusing.

In Made of Wood, Batman has to team up with the Green Lantern (who apparently doesn’t age) to rescue the aging Commissioner Gordon (who is retired, with daughter Barbara in a wheelchair) from a four (?) decade-old case where the victims are mutilated with the words “made of wood.” It’s an intriguing set-up, but Green Lantern is a bit stiff for a superhero, and the villain at the end must have crawled out of the “Countrycide” episode of Torchwood. The high point of this tale is definitely the art. There are some great close ups of Bruce Wayne and the action shots are also impressive. It’s interesting to see all these tales trying to take up what the effect of real superheroes on real communities would be.

All in all, a good collection, though.

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