There comes a point in a long-standing conflict when the mental and physical strain that keeps it going becomes too much to bear. It usually occurs beyond the point where either side has a chance to claim victory. At this stage, the only goal is survival, although that doesn’t always entail surviving intact. Given how long Batman and the Joker have been clashing with one another, spanning deaths, resurrections, and retcons, it’s surprising they haven’t reached this stage sooner.
To some extent, Batman avoids this stage with all his villains. A big part of his efforts to protect Gotham and stop criminals like the Joker involves stopping them before they reach the point where justice becomes a moot point. The Joker just makes that harder than most because he goes out of his way to push Batman and everything he stands for to the absolute limit. For decades, Batman exercises superhuman discipline in avoiding the Joker’s traps. That discipline finally falters in
Batman: White Knight and the consequences have been both revealing and compelling.
Sean Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth take Batman into uncharted territory, using a sane Joker to deconstruct the very principles that make Batman who he is. As a homicidal clown, Batman is able to fight the Joker’s challenges directly with his long list of skills and gadgets. As Jack Napier, though, even those resources aren’t enough. Since regaining his sanity in
Batman: White Knight #1, Napier keeps hitting Batman in ways that no exploding whoopee cushion can ever match.
The GCPD turns against him. The public turns against him. Even his own family turns on him with Nightwing and Batgirl leaving him to join Napier’s new initiative. It’s not just a deconstruction of Batman’s principles. It’s utterly destroys all the systems and support structures that once allowed him to function. Now, Batman is no longer the savior of Gotham. He’s part of the problem and Napier presents himself as the solution. In
Batman: White Knight #6, they enter more uncharted territory.
Part of that story is a culmination of the process that begins in
Batman: White Knight #1 with Jack Napier setting out to destroy Batman and everything he stands for. Having convinced everyone he’s right and Batman is wrong, Napier leads an effort to arrest him. That effort includes some of Batman’s greatest defenders, including Jim Gordon. They go along with Napier’s plan, but they make clear that they hate every minute of it.
That’s an important component of the unique narrative presented in
Batman: White Knight. This isn’t about Batman’s friends and allies being brainwashed, either by the Mad Hatter or some elaborate media conspiracy. They watch what Jack Napier does and listen to what he says. He doesn’t force them to agree with him. He doesn’t poison them with laughing gas when they disagree either. He just puts them in a situation where they cannot escape the truth.
Characters like Jim Gordon, Nightwing, and Batgirl hate every second of it. They fight it every step of the way, but they cannot get around the implications of Napier’s agenda. He gives them too many reasons to go along with him and Batman keeps giving them too few. The consequences of losing that support play out in a way that feels tragic, but predictable in
Batman: White Knight #6.
For once, Batman’s incredible skill, strength, and endurance aren’t enough. It’s one thing to escape one of the Joker’s elaborate death traps. It’s quite another to stand against those he considers his closest allies when they’re not brainwashed. Batman does not at all come off as Batman. He comes off as someone who just can’t be the same hero without all the support systems that allow him to operate. It shows that Batman is only as capable as the allies around him.
He almost comes off as inept in how he falls into Napier’s trap, which feels pretty out of character for Batman. Even with the loss of some of his closest allies, he doesn’t show the same mental toughness as someone who can battle Ra’s Al Ghul, Killer Croc, and Poison Ivy in the same day and still keep his sanity. Some of that feels like a direct effect of Napier turning the world against him. Some of it just comes off as Batman faltering when he doesn’t falter.
This part of the narrative, with Napier finally subduing Batman alongside the GCPD, contains some of the most dramatic moments of the story to date. The other part of the narrative, which involves Napier responding to a threat from the less sane, more obsessive Harley Quinn that has been running around since he regained his sanity. It’s a threat that has been unfolding behind the scenes of previous issues, but unfolds just as Batman succumbs to Napier’s agenda.
While this moves the story forward, it somewhat detracts from the drama surrounding Batman finally losing to the Joker. As soon as Batman goes down, he seems to lose his relevance in Napier’s ongoing story, which now faces a different kind of challenge. In a sense, turning people against Batman and bringing him in is the easy part. Now, Napier has to actually demonstrate that he’s right, Batman was wrong, and he can deliver where Batman failed.
It’s the final step in the total deconstruction of Batman. Napier knows on some levels that even if he succeeds in taking Batman down, he’ll only end up vindicating Batman if Gotham cannot handle threats that involve villains in clown makeup and giant freeze rays without him. In fact, he may end up empowering Batman even more if he shows he cannot deliver. It’s a stressful situation for someone whose sanity is always in question. His ability to handle that situation remains uncertain, even with his sanity intact.
In a sense,
Batman: White Knight #6 encompasses two distinct stories. One is the culmination of Batman’s world collapsing around him and the other is a setup for Napier’s ultimate test. One is heavy on drama, but the other somewhat distracts from that drama. It still makes for a powerful, compelling narrative that undercuts Batman’s core identity. Some of that narrative, however, gets undercut by Napier’s own evolving conflicts.
The ending still provides compelling insights that hint at the growing instability of Jack Napier’s efforts. He’s succeeding in his efforts to ultimately defeat Batman, but it’s not without complications and for once, those complications don’t involve a shortage of clown makeup or exploding cupcakes. Whether or not Jack Napier can succeed where Batman fails will prove whether such deconstruction is ultimately good for Gotham or just another bad joke.