It takes courage to write and illustrate iconic heroes and villains. Sticking to the core a character is a challenge, especially when faced with grander interpretation. I was reminded of that reading two vastly different books last week, Batman #17 and Peter Panzerfaust #9. They both feature varying degrees of character reinterpretations and heroes coming face to face with their nemeses. While Batman #17 was the final confrontation between Batman and the Joker in “Death of the Family,” Peter was facing Kapitan Haken for only the second time. Two books featuring heroes confronting their archenemies, and two creative teams who did not create the characters, but are trying to offer engaging stories. Their similarities are as interesting as their vast differences.
“The first time was frightening wasn’t it,” the Joker asks Batman in the opening lines of Batman #17? It certainly is a more frightening Joker than we have previously experienced. The character under the direction of writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo has become a far more horror-inspired character when compared to his pulp roots. In 1940 Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson wrote essentially an urban terrorist for Batman #1, a far cry from what we’re presented today. But characters change and evolve with the passing of decades. The vigilante Batman of 1939 became the kid-friendly deputized force for justice in 1950, who has become something else entirely today. The Joker too has gone from homicidal gangster to clown prince of crime to psychopathic sadist. With each new story and each new interpretation the elements get that much more mixed with current cultural trends, or as some would see it, confused.
Confusion seems to be the optimal word. What at first was set-up to present an existential exploration of the Joker after he had his face cut-off was in execution a distancing between Batman and his adoptive family, the former being far more interesting than the later.
Dr. Travis Langley, author of Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight, noted recently on Twitter that the spirit behind the Joker is a laughing monster who looks like a clown contrasted against a hero who looks like a monster. The Joker wearing his own face as a mask, while a loose homage to the opening scene of the film The Dark Knight, creates a visual at odds with that fairly fundamental aspect of the villain. The character’s vanity aside, his presentation as the devil on your shoulder, the demon listening to your deepest and darkest secrets who then brings them to life, has more in common with the clichés of horror movies than a superhero or even pulp villain. It is the excesses of the horror genre, a concern I’ve voiced since the beginning of this story arc, that have trumped this Batman story about the separation of the family of crimefighters.
Batman has been playing his cards close to his chest as it were. He hasn’t told his allies everything and now they know the truth. Some of that truth is out in the open. The rest is held back to be revealed at a later date. The Robins, Nightwing, Batgirl and probably Alfred don’t trust Bruce anymore. While this creates a compelling status quo going forward, we’ve seen this idea of the Bat family’s dysfunction before, and a better way of going about achieving this end is smacking the creators in the face…and it doesn’t involve a faceless clown. But that’s for them to figure out.
The Joker wins and ends the whole tale with a rather deadpan punchline. The joke is good. It’s easy to get, but it lacks teeth as it’s rather forgettable. The emotional scars will last well beyond the “Ha” element, but at the cost of sacrificing one of the more interesting antagonists in modern literature.
Contrast that with the confrontation between Peter and Kapitan Haken in Peter Panzerfaust #9. The last time our reinterpretations of Peter Pan and Captain Hook met, Peter took the Nazi commander’s hand. Now captured after a daring raid to rescue his comrade and friend, Peter must face the man who will be his greatest enemy.
Peter Panzerfaust writer Kurtis Wiebe and artist Tyler Jenkins are essentially mashing-up two divergent ideas, children’s literature and historical war literature, with the result speaking to our modern understanding of youthful innocence.
Haken is after the truth: the truth about Peter and the truth about the French resistance. As he sees it, they are intertwined. He will use Peter’s hubris and seeming innocence against him to get the information he wants. He’ll also kill as many as he has to to get Peter to talk. Haken could interrogate the other boys and get as much information, but he has special venom for breaking Peter. He doesn’t just want to kill him for taking his hand. He wants Peter to suffer a similar loss.
That loss for Peter will be his spirit, his enthusiasm for fighting. His background and motives are still shrouded in mystery. Haken will rip them out as if he was driving his sword squarely into Peter’s chest.
Here two iconic characters are thrust into a new setting, yet they are still at odds over “form.” The setting and set-up may be different from their original creation, but their spirit, that which drives them, is still ever present.
The stakes of Peter not giving up the location of the French Resistance are only trumped by the division it will cause between him and his “lost boys.” As with the Joker causing a rift between Batman and his allies, Haken is creating the same divide. All Peter has to do is give up the information, to yield, and he’ll stop killing Peter’s boys.
But whereas the Joker has taken on horror elements, Wiebe and Jenkins “Hook” retains much of his commanding appearance and position. Sure, piracy is replaced with the tenets of National Socialism, but the fundamental aspects of each ethos – namely the seeming absence of humanity – are both present. The character is modern, revitalized, but retains the classical elements that have made him such a nefarious and memorable villain for so many decades. It is the retention of these pieces that creates a lasting image, both in terms of character movement and in terms of visual presentation. What the Joker in “Death of the Family” fails to do, Kapitan Haken in Peter Panzerfaust succeeds in.
There are the villains we deserve and the villains we need. The difference relates to where our culture is and where it is going. It also relates to how villains are reflections or reactions. Joker in Batman #17 is a reflection, whereas Haken in Peter Panzerfaust #9 is a reaction. One ruminates, the other pushes forward. Both have similarities that are as interesting as their vast differences. And while the creative teams and these stories are on obviously different ends of the comics’ spectrum, they share more affinity as to what they hope to achieve than might be noticed at first glance.