How do you keep an 80-year relationship fresh? Do you take it to new and interesting places, or do you embrace the classic things that made the relationship work in the first place? Next year it will be the 80th anniversary of Batman’s first fight with the Joker, and their relationship is still going strong. In fact, this past month the DC Universe was jam-packed with moments between the two, all of which helped demonstrate that even after all these years, the Batman/Joker feud is as fresh as ever.
Peter J. Tomasi and Doug Mahnke take the relationship back to basics in Detective Comics #1008. The Clown Prince of Crime almost breaks the fourth wall to let the readers know this is a simple done in one tale. As he’s addressing his captives at Gotham City’s seaside amusement park (Where else would the Joker hold people hostage?), the Joker says, “No gloom and Legion of Doom at this party folks! Lex Luthor and all that Multiverse mumbo jumbo are in the rearview mirror. My hilarious plan of letting the bald one sniff godhood and then blowing it all up in his face was such a nasty treat, but dreams die hard as we all know. It’s time to let the moonshine in and enjoy the basic pleasures of life—the classics.”
If you haven’t been reading Justice League, your reaction to that speech might well be, “What the heck?! I must find those issues now,” and yeah, you really should! But while the Justice League events are interesting and extremely important to the greater DCU, it’s nice to experience a single-issue standalone tale every now and then. They’ve become rare in this age of binge-worthy epics, and this story really delivers.
After Batman shows up, there’s a funny moment where he crushes a cookie the Joker was trying to feed to a scared child. In all my years of reading Batman comics, I don’t think I’ve ever read a scene where Batman has destroyed a treat the Joker has tried to feed to someone, so that was an interesting first. Like I said folks, the relationship is still fresh! Fans on social media have been comparing this story to Batman: The Animated Series and I feel like the comparison is accurate. You can practically hear Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy’s voices as you’re reading.
People who have studied Batman’s relationship with the Joker have often debated on if the two are destined to kill one another, or if their battle is eternal. Batman pondered the same thing in the classic Killing Joke graphic novel years ago, and this month we got to see what would happen if Joker ever tried to murder the Caped Crusader once and for all. Spoiler alert: It’s not that simple. Batman Secret Files #2 features a story where Batman is tied up and hanging upside down at the Clown Prince’s mercy. If you’ve ever seen Batman captured by a villain in a comic, show or movie and wondered, “Why don’t they just shoot him?,” this gives you a pretty compelling reason. Killing Batman is hard, even if he’s tied up.
The Joker’s plan is to remove all of Batman’s gadgets and mask, and then use it to beat the Caped Crusader to death. Sounds like a decent plan, but if you check out this story, you’ll be amused to see the Dark Knight is able to beat Joker in a fight, even while he’s bound. And it’s not like Batman fights him from his chains or anything like that. The Dark Knight remains perfectly still throughout most of this encounter, while the security systems within Batman’s costume keep finding creative ways to give the Joker pain.
Before we close out for the month, I’m going to pose a question to all of you: Do you feel like Batman understands the Joker? The Joker has demonstrated time and time again that he knows what makes Batman tick, but can we say the same thing for the reverse? In all of their decades of fighting, I don’t think Batman has ever been able to wrap his head around the Joker’s twisted sense of logic, but this month he came close.
The Batman Who Laughs limited series just wrapped up, and it featured the Dark Knight fighting off the effects of Joker venom. Subduing the poison was hard, and it began to warp Batman’s personality and worldview, which becomes clear when the Dark Knight brutally beats the Batman Who Laughs with his mother’s headstone (Damn!) and says, “Letting go, in this moment, I feel such happiness.” When Alfred tries to cure him, Batman resists before the Joker—yes, the villain at the heart of all of this—puts a stop to it by shooting Batman.
It’s a shocking moment, though it’s worth remembering that the Joker promised Batman that he would do just this back in issue #4. Knowing Alfred or any other member of the Bat-Family wouldn’t be able to kill him if he became too infected, too far gone, Bruce made the Joker promise to put him down. But when the Joker says “You’re welcome” after shooting him, is it because he upheld his promise, or because he allowed Bruce to finally succumb to his darkest instincts, if only for a short while?
Batman has now experienced what it’s like to think like the Joker, and experience the joy he feels, and it scares him. After all these years I think he finally came a bit closer to understanding the Clown Prince of Crime…but at what cost? It’s scary, but it does go to show you, even after almost 80 years, they haven’t run out of ways to continue to explore their twisted relationship.
What do you all think? Do you disagree with me on Batman understanding the Joker? How do you define their twisted feud? Where can their rivalry go from here? Feel free to tweet your theories at me—until next time!
Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com and DCUniverse.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.