Long ago, in a blog that no longer exists (because who uses MySpace anymore?) I predicted that Batman #663, “The Clown at Midnight,” would become one of the definite Joker stories, right up there with The Killing Joke. No one really believed me, but I was right. It was revealed in the summer of 2008 that “The Clown at Midnight,” along with Arkham Asylum and Killing Joke, were the comics Heath Ledger read to get inspiration for his performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. And, well, to call Heath Ledger’s performance in that role “definitive,” we’d have to juice up the word “definitive” a little bit.
Beyond providing a tentpole for understanding one of the most fascinating characters in comic history, “The Clown at Midnight” gives us some serious insight into several themes that would show up again and again in Grant Morrison‘s work on Batman. Although things still haven’t kicked into high gear (we’re not quite to meeting Grant’s master antagonist Dr. Hurt yet) there’s no denying that some of the events in #663 have a pretty significant bearing on the rest of Morrison’s Batman epic.
First, and most obviously, Joker is a character whose presence really influences Morrison’s story. I talked about this last time: even if our clown friend isn’t in every issue, there’s a pretty good chance his spectre’s looming about, especially as we get into the Batman & Robin stuff later. Although the idea’d been in play for a couple decades (thanks mostly to Morrison’s own Arkham Asylum), “The Clown at Midnight” really lays out for us the notion of Joker’s supersanity–namely, that he’s so equipped to live in modern, fractured times that he can literally overhaul his whole personality at will. It’s a brilliant addition to the character that explains why he can appear as a psychotic killer in one comic and a happy-go-lucky clown in another. However, this is more than a tremendous insight into a great character–it may in fact help us process what happens to Batman later on in Morrison’s run.
A lot of criticism of Grant’s Batman story comes from the “RIP” segment, in which Batman suffers a massive psychological attack that leaves him ostensibly broken and lifeless. Always one for plan Bs, though, Bruce accesses a heretofore unseen backup persona, the Batman of Zurr-en-arrh, which would take over his mind if Batman’s primary self ever fell victim to such an attack (I’m not sure a lot of Grant’s critics even understood that’s what was happening but, whatever). Reading “The Clown at Midnight” again, it sure strikes me that what Joker does with his personalities is awfully similar to Bruce’s tactics. It’s just that Joker’s personality shifts happen at will because Joker thinks it’s fun, while Batman locks his up in a glass case that reads “in case of emergency break.” In fact, in this very issue Batman refers to the Joker’s strange shifts as “superpersonas.” That definitely sounds like something Batman would employ, doesn’t it?
So basically the Joker of “The Clown at Midnight” acts as a paragon for Batman in “RIP.” You might think it’s strange for Batman to cop the methods of his arch-nemesis, but remember: in Morrison’s Batman run, Joker isn’t Batman’s ultimate foe. In fact, in Batman & Robin Joker decides to become a crime fighter to replace the missing Bruce Wayne (there’s those superpersonas again), and actually helps the Bat-family stop Dr. Hurt! In this story, it seems Joker and Batman have more in common than one might think. They’re both men affected by the craziness of modern society hanging on the only way they know how. It’s one of comics’ great yin/yang scenarios: typically Bruce’s response is to embrace order, and Joker chaos, but throughout the course of Morrison’s tenure on Batman those polarities will shift.
Now, as usual, here’s my random notes on “The Clown at Midnight”:
- The opening scene: clowns in a graveyard. This visual motif pops up several times in Batman & Robin; indeed, graveyards become an important setting for the Joker.
- Speaking of motifs, I believe this is the first appearance of the black/red visual contrast that comes up so frequently in later stories, especially “RIP”. I actually have a theory about why the red and black colors are significant, but I’m going to save it because it might be totally crazy. However, a later part of this issue helps me out, and I’ll get to that in a minute…
- If you didn’t click the link above but we’re wondering, it’s the things Joker lists as making him laugh that struck a chord with Ledger.
- In the course of this issue, Batman deduces the theme of Joker’s crimes and tells Commissioner Gordon that he’s done killing people. However, Batman is wrong; Joker’s got at least three more murders (hospital personnel mostly, plus an attempt on Harley) in him.
Actually, I’m going to break my usual notes format here to talk about the end of this issue, which is a doozy. Although mostly “The Clown at Midnight” is self-contained Joker story that only has thematic repercussions on Morrison’s greater story, the last couple of pages seem to tie in quite literally. When Joker’s explaining his use of red-and-black themed crimes, he says to Batman “It’s the oldest, bestest gag in the book. Red and Black [sic]. Like a bat. In a dream. In a window. Life… and death. The joke… and the punchline….”
Wow. The fact that Joker calls up the imagery of Batman’s birth here is certainly striking. It’s a moment Morrison returns to at least three more times in his Batman run. Each time it relates to the curse set on Batman by Hurt/Darkseid, and each time it has a lot of significance. Perhaps even more noteworthy is Batman’s response: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “That’s why … I could never kill you…. Where would the act be without my straight man?” The point: Batman has no idea what’s going on.
In truth, Morrison’s story features a lot of moments where Batman is either in the dark about something or straight-up wrong. That’s a pretty significant change from his work on JLA, where Batman was often criticized for being too on top of things. That’s our typical view of the character, of course, but it’s not at all what’s happening here. So far, throughout the course of our investigation Batman’s made some serious errors in judgment. He misunderstands what the 10-Eyed Men do to him in the desert, he can’t figure out that Jezebel Jet means trouble, and he misreads Joker twice in this issue alone. Indeed, one almost gets the sense that Joker knows exactly what’s coming for Bruce (this especially becomes clear in the “RIP” prologue) and Batman has no idea. That’s funny because this issue spends time talking about how both characters can read the signs of the times around them and respond appropriately, but obviously Batman’s ability to do that has been obscured while Joker’s has been heightened. Again, the usual polarities reverse.
Phew. Okay, I think that’s all I’ve got on this issue! Check back soon for my write-up on “The Ghosts of Batman.”
My Best of 2012 Playlist by Eric Garneau
After being inspired by some friends, for the past few years I’ve been really into documenting my musical exploration with year-end mixes. I realize this is not a particularly novel thing to do, but hey, who has original ideas any more? Anyway, this has gotten even easier to do thanks to new technology like Spotify. read more