Cultural Horror Story: “Batman #13”

Two quintessential elements of Batman stories over the decades have been the character’s adaptability to changing cultural trends and his adaptability to the application of various genres. Batman can have mystery adventures, science fiction adventures, action adventures and horror adventures. If for nothing else, Batman #13 proves this idea by essentially taking a pulp detective and plopping him firmly in the middle of a horror movie. What it tells us is that the excesses of the last decade, the horrors our society has faced from terrorism, economic uncertainty and political discord, has forced us to embrace even more violent entertainment so what we face in the real world does not seem so bad.

At his core, writer Scott Snyder is a horror writer. Even a casual examination of his Batman work shows where his influence comes from. It is also something I’ve noted time and time again because aside from historically based narratives, it is a comfort zone for Snyder. To understand his take on the Dark Knight, you must understand that as a writer he is interested in protagonists confronting what frighten them the most. It is a way to get at the core of a character. The “Court of Owls” storyline from the previous Batman storyarc certainly demonstrated that point, and while the Court had its Talons, and spawned the very personal monster Thomas Wayne, Jr., that doesn’t mean the horror story ends.

Enter the Joker, the monster of monsters, a serial murderer with a knack for getting to a personal level with his true victim…with or without a face and despite how many he has to kill to get to the punchline.

The removal of Joker’s face early in the New 52’s Detective run was either uncanny advanced planning for this “Death of the Family” storyline or a happy accident. Either way it plays very well into Snyder’s hands. It gives his take on the Joker a resonance with other familiar horror killers–Leatherface, Michael Myers, etc. That the mask is Joker’s own face plays into the clown’s vanity, a hallmark of the character not to be overlooked.

This is an opportune place to examine another facet of this take on the Joker, before we get to the point about horror in context of the larger cultural movement. There is a cinematic quality to Batman #13 that ties directly to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. From the police station scene to the TV scene, scenes in this issue seem almost lifted from that work. Perhaps it’s coincidence (or influence), but it could reflect a synergy in tone between the comics and the films. Or it could be a shared narrative rhythm. The beats of comics and movies are closely related and directors and comic writers must have awareness of pacing–within a storyarc and within an individual piece. That they share a certain tonality is actually beneficial to the overall effort.

That effort is aided by the pencil work of Greg Capullo. His rendering of Snyder’s script, adding his own signature dynamic pacing, is a frightening comeuppance for those who doubt the scariness of the Joker. Without even showing his face, Capullo is able to create a sense of disconcerting dread in the police station scene– a sense that a man is more than a man when he’s the Joker.

Quite possibly the most striking visual (pun intended) is the final panel Capullo draws for this issue. This is not your father’s Joker. Nor is it Nolan’s Joker, despite a few narrative similarities.

But there is a point about horror in relation to Batman #13 and our mass culture. As mentioned earlier (in this review and other discussions of Snyder’s work), Snyder has injected a heavy amount of horror into Batman. That Snyder is first and foremost a horror writer makes this move no surprise. That it ties into a larger cultural shift should be no surprise either. Batman has always been able to roll with cultural change. In the 50s he took on a science fiction edge. In the 60s he became pop and campy. In the 80s he became the demon of societal greed. Here in the second decade of the 21st century, he has become a reaction to the horror we are experiencing and viewing. The popularity of The Walking Dead, remakes of cult horror movies like “Friday the 13th” and “Halloween,” even “American Horror Story” and “666 Park Avenue” on TV, we have saturated our popular entertainment mediums with horror.

‘There’s something really satisfying about going into a scary book or movie and have those fears closed down afterward’, Snyder said to me last November. This is very true, especially when our real lives are threatened by terrorism and economic collapse almost every day.

The concern going forward is how far will the creators go? Batman #13 is a shocking and violent place to begin a storyline. To go even further, to keep the narrative rhythm necessary to tell a compelling story means that the stakes, and the horror, must go even farther. How much horror can we take? Batman can endure; the character has proven that decade after decade. But can we? You cannot ask the horror writer not to write horror, but can you ask the comic writer to be weary of the excesses of the genre?

RATING 7 / 10
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