Batman, like a few other uber-iconic properties, can be used effectively in a multitude of scenarios: from Gotham by Gaslight period pieces to horror, to detective stories, to humor, to sci-fi, to, of course, his superheroic roots. And it would seem natural that his maniacal antithesis, the Joker, can be just as effectively flexible. Batman: White Knight, a new eight issue limited series whose first edition just came out today, seeks to prove this by casting the Joker in his most unlikely role to date: as the hero of Gotham. Intriguing concept to be sure — but does Sean Murphy, the creator responsible for both the scripting and the art, pull it off? Our review follows.
The story starts in medias res by showing that Joker’s gone legit and Batman’s viewed as the dangerous criminal. A de-clownified Joker, going by “Mr. Napier,” driving up to Arkham Asylum in the Batmobile to visit the imprisoned Dark Knight. Napier tells Batman, who’s trussed up in chains in addition to being in a cell, that he needs his help. Then we flash back to a year prior to see how this all began to shake out.
There’s a pretty great chase sequence with Batman in the Batmobile pursuing Joker through Gotham City. Nightwing’s there, on motorbike, and Batgirl too, riding shotgun in the Batmobile, so both have a front-row seat to see their friend and mentor’s progressively unhinged actions: endangering civilians and property in his mindless pursuit of the man who laughs. He’s violent, arrogant, and completely ignores both Babs and Dick when they call him on his crap. It’s actually a little too heavy handed in our opinion: in making Batman so obviously in the wrong — he beats the Joker senseless and even force-feeds him handfuls of experimental drugs –it takes away what could have made the tension in this more valuable: the ambiguity of who’s on the right side during the usual course of their affairs. In this version, the moral right is clearly stacked in the Joker’s favor, when maybe a 50/50 sort of relationship would have worked better for the story.
Regardless, it unambiguously sets the stage for the rest of the story: the pills help Joker get over his lunacy. Once he sees clearly, he understands: Batman has become something of a villain, and Gotham police are guilty in abetting the Dark Knight. The Joker now sees himself as the only person who can set Gotham straight. He wants to make up for his past misdeeds by giving Gotham residents the city they deserve.
The character beats largely work, even if the Joker’s self-examination is a little too much tell vs. show. Some of the best character work is actually in the chase scene, with the Joker cracking jokes and creating chaos as he leads the Bat-folks on a wild chase. Now that the stage is set, we’re hoping the subsequent issues do more of this – storytelling through character action and interaction rather than soliloquy and jibber-jabber.
Regardless of these small story hiccups, we can’t emphasize enough: this art is unbelievable. Sean Murphy draws the best Batgirl and Nightwing we’ve ever seen, period. And Batman in Arkham looks at once dangerous and intimidating and sad.
First issues are hardly a place to proclaim an entire series worthy or not, but this first issue certainly is intriguing and holds the loveliest of art. (We’d be remiss not to mention the fine coloring by Matt Hollingsworth as well). Fans of the Bat and the Clown Prince of Crime should definitely dip their toes in here.
GEEK Grade: B+
Images: DC Comics