Comics

Jokes and Harsh Truths in DC Comics' 'Batman: White Knight #4'

Jack Napier, aka the Joker, exposes the joke in Batman's methods without cracking a smile.

Batman: White Knight #4
Sean Murphy, Matt Hollingsworth

DC Comics

03 Jan 2018

Other

If any competent therapist were to sit down with most superheroes not named Superman, it's very likely the therapist would diagnose them with some form of mental illness, be it a chemical imbalance or personality disorder. It says something about the persona of superheroes that part of what makes them who they are requires some psychological aberration that drives them to do what they do.

While some heroes carry themselves better than others, it's hard to argue that Batman is the picture of mental health. So much of what he does and why he does it is built around the trauma he experienced as a child. In a sense, Bruce Wayne is the mask that Batman wears in that it hides just how tortured he is by that trauma. Batman is his true persona and no licensed therapist would dare call that healthy. It's one of those unspoken truths that often is often hidden within the Batman narrative. Part of what makes the Joker his greatest enemy is his efforts to expose why pretending he's sane is the greatest joke of all.

That's what makes the premise of Batman: White Knight so intriguing. Sean Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth skip the part where they try to find a novel way for the Joker to poke Batman beyond the strict limits he imposes upon himself. Instead, they remove the limits that hold the Joker back, treating his insanity as a barrier similar to those of Batman. Absent those barriers the Joke becomes something far more menacing than just a clown armed with exploding whoopee cushions.

Without his insanity, the Joker becomes a threat, unlike anything Batman has ever faced before. He's no longer out to just expose his efforts as one elaborate joke -- he's out to subvert the entire concept of Batman. Batman: White Knight #4 acts as an indictment of how both Batman and the Gotham City Police Department operates. In a sense, by being sane, the Joker makes it abundantly obvious just how much of a joke those operations are in practice.

Joke or not, nobody is laughing, and that's what makes the narrative so compelling. The Joker, now operating as a public advocate in Jack Napier, uses the same charisma that gets henchmen to wear clown makeup to rally support from the media and the population. What he does is devious, but not in the sense of pumping laughing gas into a crowded warehouse. Rather than make people laugh with hard truths, Jack Napier shoves the truth in everyone's face in a way they can't ignore.

It's haunting in its effectiveness. It comes off as something that could very well play out in the real world, minus the costumed villains and exploding pies. Conceptually, Gotham City has always been a metaphor for a troubled city plagued by crime and corruption, but the only method for confronting those troubles comes from Batman. Jack Napier dares to offer an alternative, one that brings to light the inherent flaws in Batman's approach.

It doesn't help that Batman ends up playing into Napier's hands throughout Batman: White Knight #4. His reactions come off as self-destructive at times, which is understandable, given the complications Bruce Wayne is dealing with outside the mask. There's a sense that the trauma that drives Batman is finally catching up with him. Jack Napier is just accelerating the process by putting him in the worst possible situation and without even cracking an insidious smile.

Napier doesn't just go after Batman's principles and sanity -- he goes after his support structure within the Batman family. He does what few have dared to do and offer an alternative to simply letting Batman operate freely with no accountability or oversight. He makes an offer to Nightwing and Batgirl that's both intriguing and practical. He doesn't just try to undermine Batman. He tries to one-up him by doing what he's trying to do, but more effectively. That ends up making any effort on Batman's part to cling to his old approach an even bigger joke.

That, in many ways, is the most brilliant part of Jack Napier's plan. He's still doing what the Joker has been attempting to do for years, but without the clown makeup and insane plans that involve exploding novelty gags. He's trying to expose Batman and the injustice around him as a joke and it's working with terrifying efficiency. Nobody is laughing, but there's still plenty of intrigue.

That's not to say everything Jack Napier does in Batman: White Knight #4 goes flawlessly. He encounters complications, as anyone operating in Gotham City would expect. There are still deranged criminals running around and not all of them wear clown makeup. With or without Batman, these are problems that nobody can ignore for too long, even a reformed Joker. However, the way he handles it is a testament to just how charismatic he can be, even without the makeup.

With every issue of Batman: White Knight, Batman's credibility crumbles and Jack Napier's efforts make more and more sense. Batman: White Knight #4 makes clear that these two personalities cannot coexist, regardless of how sane or insane one of them is. At some point, one of them has to fall and every conceivable force is now working against Batman.

The conclusion of Batman: White Knight #4 opens the door even more distressing truths that will strike Batman to his core. With every truth, what Bruce Wayne does and why he does it becomes less a joke and more a tragedy. The extent of that tragedy, of which much of Batman's motivation comes, is entering new and distressing territory with Batman: White Knight.

However distressing it may be, the implications are both compelling and revealing. If a superhero's greatest villain can expose the serious flaws in their approach for seeking justice, then what does that say about superheroes in general? It's not an easy question to ask in the first place, but Batman: White Knight's attempt at answering it offers some dark possibilities.

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