I learned to read with comic books. Supposedly, I was crazy about them when I was really young so, according to my mother, she would read them to me. She used them to teach me how to sound out words and basic vocabulary. I have to take her word for it. I don’t remember not knowing how to read, I have been doing it literally for as long as I can remember. I entered the first grade reading well beyond grade level. I have comics (and Mom) to thank for that and they have occupied at least a small, though important, space in my life ever since.
It’s tough to say who my favorite characters have been over the years. Maybe Captain America or Spiderman. Superman was more of a TV/movie superhero for me. Probably the one who has had the most influence on me is the Batman, particularly a graphic novel titled Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. I had read a lot of Batman comics before then but I feel like that particular book truly helped me understand the psyche of the character. In my opinion, it is the definitive work of the title, superior to everything done by everyone else, including Frank Miller.
The novel is about a noted psychiatrist’s descent into madness; the story is told through flashbacks as Batman races to escape the asylum the now long-dead psychiatrist built. Along the way, Batman is confronted by several of his nemeses, each providing a harrowing look into the dimensions of insanity. The one who sends Batman on his journey of dark discovery is none other than Joker. Though he plays only a minor role, I’ve always interpreted the story as the essence of the conflict between the two.
In my opinion, Joker is one of the most fundamentally misunderstood characters in comics. Called “the Clown Prince of Crime” among other things, he has at times been campy, clever, and terrifying. He has been presented alternately as a mischievous prankster and a homicidal sociopath and many points in-between. Unlike other comic book heroes and villains, Joker is a very easy character to misinterpret. Most just consider him a particularly unhinged supervillain.
However, I think clues as to Joker’s true nature were elegantly captured in Heath Ledger’s portrayal in The Dark Knight. When I see the character, I do not see evil per se, I see something even beyond chaos or anarchy. In Joker, I see random bad fortune. Think of a child prodigy who is struck and killed by a car. The victims of 9/11. Any tragic event that happens without rhyme or reason, misfortune that visits itself unexpectedly and swiftly with traumatic, even deadly consequence. Joker is the essence of unpredictability. He is the bad news you never expect, the thing you go through your day never contemplating until it barges into your existence with devastating effect.
Through that lens, I see the Batman as a force for order. I view his battle as one in which he strives for a world that makes sense, one that seeks to counterbalance the unknown harm that strikes suddenly. Consider the death of his parents, initially portrayed as a largely random, devastating act of violence. It was so traumatic to Bruce Wayne that, in a sense, it unhinged him. He then spends the rest of his life preparing himself, desperately attempting to develop the skills to combat this existential threat. It’s easy to think he fights for law and justice but, if you examine more closely, you may realize that he is fighting for a fundamental sense of knowing, understanding. The Batman seems to be fighting for a world where the only terror is one that a person themselves creates. As his alter ego, Bruce Wayne is trying to terrify terror.
The relationship between the Batman and Joker has an odd symmetry. Particularly in Arkham Asylum, Joker tries to get his nemesis to understand that they are really one in the same. This is an ongoing theme between them. The Batman refuses to kill Joker for fear of becoming him, for fear of surrendering to the randomness and capriciousness of existence, the same force that took his parents. His struggle is summed up perfectly in this Friedrich Nietzsche quote:
“When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back at you.”
In the Batman’s world, not only does it stare, it smiles and laughs with a blood red grin and skin as pale as death. In his world, Joker embodies the void.
I wonder if their struggle is an allegory. Is our own struggle for betterment one of futility? As a species, do we exist on the razor’s edge, attempting to fend off the vagaries of chance, always only one step ahead of tragedy, maybe even doom? Are we the Batman, struggling for some semblance of control in a universe that, at its heart, is random and capricious? In the end, will we have the last laugh or will the joke be on us?
Let’s ask this guy.