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Something that never seems to get addressed in Batman comics are the elements of class. There are nods, sure, in mentioning his presence in poor neighborhoods. In how his brutal vigilantism creates psycho bad guys as quickly as it puts them away.
But no story has really leaned into that premise in the way Batman: White Knight attempts to. Writer and artist Sean Murphy teams with colorist Matt Hollingsworth in a superbly drawn but not terrifically thought out else-worlds tale. In it, the Joker emerges from incarceration a new man.
Cured of his insanity through treatment and medication, he takes it upon himself to be a champion of Gotham’s dispossessed. He views Batman as the “pitbull of the 1%” and positions himself as a legitimate reformer against corruption and profiteering. The trouble is, despite the fantastic art, the Joker’s plan seems to rely on some villainous tactics. Let’s jump in to learn more.
The central premise behind White Knight is a solid one. What if the Joker was actually just a symptom of Batman’s war on crime, perpetuated to keep people afraid and the wealthy in power? Believable, right? And it is through the first half of issue two.
Joker (now Jack, if you please) gives a stirring opening speech detailing his fall and the systems’ complicity in turning him into the monster we’ve come to love. Initially just a petty criminal, evidence of his more violent mania is claimed to be exaggerated if not a complete fabrication. A “super-criminal” in name only.
It’s a fascinating glimpse at a character that too often is a caricature of himself. By abandoning madcap silliness, or conversely, terrifying mania, Murphy creates a new dimension to the character. It’s compelling, particularly in the scenes when Jack tries to make amends to long-time abused girlfriend Harley Quinn. That whole scene unfolds weirdly in the moment another, evidently original, Harley shows up to whoop the other and take Jack in.
But that aside, the conceit of a villainous Batman and a noble Joker starts to get shaky near the end. At a high society get-together Bruce Wayne becomes incensed when other blue-bloods crow haughtily about how they profit from Batman’s war on crime – mostly through real estate. A furious Wayne proceeds to beat the 1 percenter viciously.
If Batman is so bad, shouldn’t he be complicit in that profiteering rather than oblivious to it? Furthermore, in our closing scene Jack and Harley assemble a who’s-who of Batman villains and use a mind-controlled-weaponized Clayface to put them under his thrall. It’s eerie and cool to see, but isn’t that a bit of a super-villain move from someone who’s allegedly reformed? Future issues will have to tell.
Murphy and Hollingsworth may have a tenuous story, but the art more than makes up for it. Dialogue heavy at times, the pages still evoke the shadowy haunts of Gotham city in dark but detailed images. Darkness creeps at the edges of every scene, successfully evoking the city and the madness our main characters contend with.
The whole joke with two Harley’s is a nice touch too. One in modern-day short shorts and tattered t-shirt, the apparently original Harley is a portrait of her first costume, complete with pet hyenas. It works well as a character feint, and even better as a way to examine the depth of Jack’s madness – he never even realized the original Harley left.
Flashbacks in particular are elevated by the art here. In them, Harley narrates her budding relationship with Jack and the many ways in which it went wrong. Batman looms in each frame, a background presence, almost a force of nature that Jack becomes obsessed with.
The angular, clean cut Joker we see thereafter talks that big game. He has a plan to rectify all the damage both he and Batman put on the city over the years – but is the best way to cure his obsession with Batman to take on Batman? More so, is a mind-controlled gang of Gotham’s worst a fitting instrument? It will certainly look great and probably be a fun story, so I say sure, why not.
To see for yourself and get the rest of this fascinating limited series, head to Downtown Comics today!