The Joke's on Batman in 'Batman: White Knight #1'
This story doesn't just tweak the winning formula that has made Batman so successful over the past 70 years. It turns it on its head, inside out, and everything in between.
Between Marvel and DC Comics, there's a significant glut of alternate universes, alternate versions, and blatant rip-offs of various characters. When a character becomes as successful and iconic as Batman, it's somewhat unavoidable. For every iconic hero, there are a hundred more that are as much an afterthought as a typical storm trooper on Star Wars. For that same hero, there are plenty of other versions that attempt to milk the success of that icon to the utmost and beyond.
Batman is no stranger to derivations and alterations. Some, such as Terry McGuinness from Batman Beyond, find a way to be successful. Others turn into gimmicks, at best. However, none can ever claim to have tried something as bold as Sean Murphy tries in Batman: White Knight #1. This story doesn't just tweak the winning formula that has made Batman so successful over the past 70 years. It turns it on its head, inside out, and everything in between.
Murphy dares to invert one of the most fundamental conflicts in the Batman mythos, namely that between him and the Joker. This struggle, which dates back to the earliest days of Batman, is the conflict that most defines him. His pursuit of justice is an unstoppable force, but the Joker's maniacal chaos is an immovable object. For decades, neither one of them seems able to subvert the other. Murphy decides to take that conflict a step further, so much so that it changes the rules of the conflict entirely.
It's a concept that can either break new ground or collapse on itself. Batman: White Knight #1 walks a fine line with that concept, attempting to flesh it out without the aid of time paradoxes, lazarus pits, or meddling by Dr. Manhattan. When dealing with someone as deranged as the Joker, that counts as an accomplishment. However, by the end of the issue, it's not the Joker that seems deranged. It's Batman and that counts as an even greater accomplishment.
Murphy doesn't necessarily deconstruct Batman. He isn't driven crazy, broken spiritually, or manipulated with some elaborate mind game. Instead, the Joker simply puts himself in a position to point out the glaring flaws in how Batman conducts himself. It goes beyond any arguments around justice, chaos, or the comedic value of clowns. He dares to stand up to Batman and tell him, flat out, that he's the crazy one. He's the one who does far more damage to Gotham than any maniacal clown ever could.
It's a strange but compelling argument. On paper, it doesn't check every box, but it's hard to overlook the signs. Batman is, as the Joker puts it, a catalyst for the crime and injustice that he claims to fight against. He doesn't see his efforts to fight criminals as an effort to improve Gotham. He sees it as some selfish ploy by Batman to fix a soul that was broken before the Joker ever introduced anyone to exploding pies. While he doesn't put too much substance behind the argument, it does highlight some glaring issues with Batman that even his most ardent defenders can't deny.
That argument makes the narrative of Batman: White Knight #1 engaging and nuanced. It comes off as a necessary and overdue criticism, of sorts, for Batman's methods and the extent to which the Gotham Police tolerate it. Beyond that argument, though, the particulars are somewhat underdeveloped. There are more than a couple contrivances that get squeezed into the story to make it work, primarily the method Batman uses to render the Joker sane enough to make these arguments in the first place. It's not the same as another chemical bath or a trick by Mr. Mxyzptlk, but it's not far off.
The ease with which the Joker tempts Batman and the apparent lack of effort Batman puts into resisting that temptation comes off as shallow. The complexities of Batman that are almost always on full display seem muted. While there's some context to Batman's shortsightedness, it relies too much on making excuses for his attitude rather than actually countering the Joker's arguments. That it's an excuse ripped from the Batman and Robin movie doesn't help, either.
In addition, Batman: White Knight #1 doesn't attempt to flesh out the mystery surrounding the Joker's backstory, which has been a key element to his character since the days of Alan Moore. It essentially removes the mystery, giving the Joker a name, a method, and an identity behind the clown makeup. There's no shocking revelation or cosmic insight from the Mobius Chair. It's presented as something that could easily be gleaned from a quick Wikipedia search.
In some respects, though, removing the Joker's mystery is necessary for the story. It's the only way for him to really counter Batman on a personal and philosophical level. Once the clown makeup comes off, he somehow becomes more daunting because he no longer has the visage of insanity holding him back. Instead, he becomes a man who exposes the lies, jokes, and frauds without laughing at them. Take away that twisted sense of humor and it's not clear whether he's a villain or a hero at this point.
That's the greatest appeal of Batman: White Knight #1. It presents Batman with an existential crisis that doesn't involve deadly novelty gags, crippling close friends, or corrupting innocent souls. It calls into question the methods and justifications he puts into being Batman, as well as the price that others pay for his actions. In a sense, nobody has ever been either crazy or sane enough to attack Batman on this level. It's only fitting that the one person capable of that feat is the Joker.