Let’s talk about the Joker but, more importantly, let’s talk about the arch-nemesis archetype. The Joker is the purest dark reflection of Batman. He’s emotional where Batman is rational. He’s chaotic while Batman is axiomatic. He’s highly sexualized where Batman is highly fetishized. The Joker is what Batman is determined to never be. Batman sees the Joker as an enemy by default because he represents something that feels intrinsically wrong to him. It’s how I feel about homophobes, “Family Guy” fans and people who eat at Panda Express.
Batman is almost singularly unique in having an arch-nemesis that plays diametrically opposite him. For all their competition, Lex Luther hates Superman because he desperately wants to be Superman. For years, Magneto battled Charles Xavier because he viewed Xavier’s dream as too optimistic, too perfect. The Green Goblin battled Spider-Man because they’re virtually the same character, intelligent, driven men who have the power to use the world as their playground.
It’s hard to write powerful Joker stories because of this. Joker intrinsically always feels less like a character and more like a force; he’s chaos, he’s death, he’s grief because he’s not really a character, he’s a reflection. Joker’s biggest moments are remembered for what he did, not who he was. We remember Batman cradling Jason Todd’s corpse. I remember Barbara’s body crumbling to the floor. We remember Batman holding a bullet wound as he stands over his enemy’s broken body. I can quote verbatim the “interject a little anarchy” speech. The Joker works for moments, he’s a taste that lingers on the back of your tongue way after you’ve swallowed the last rancid bite.
It’s the intrinsic problem of writing long form stories around the character. Joker exists to cause the chaos, to be the hurricane. Scott Snyder wrote Death of the Family clearly trying to get into the Joker’s mindset. In interviews, he extensively compared Joker’s plan to the fear of his children being killed, what I naturally assume to be a pretty tough thing for parents. By placing that sort of thematic weight on the character, Snyder forced us to look at the Bat-Family as children and turn his villain into the bogeyman.
Speaking strictly in terms of plot, Death of the Family suffered the same disease that all of DC’s franchises have as the New 52 enters its second year. With the books finally starting to blend together, editorial is demanding bigger stories, justifications for the links between books. With that in mind, the Bat-writers needed a way to bring Joker’s promise to kill the family into a very personal place for Damian, Dick, Barbara, Jason and Tim. What we received were crossover titles, each varying wildly in tone and quality. Where Batman and Robin #15-16 were a living nightmare of insects, patricide and taunts, Nightwing #15-16 was Friday the 13th: Part III, complete with the return to the villain’s most famous stomping ground.
Those crossovers had a purpose that was clearly at odds with the one Snyder was setting up in Batman proper. Each of the writers needed to make the Joker’s threat unique to the individual character. The Joker taunts Damian with his failures as a sidekick and as a hero. The Joker forces Dick to come to terms with the way he uses people to separate himself from the man he is behind the mask. The Joker makes Barbara acknowledge her relationship to the Gordon family, no matter how twisted the roots of the tree are. While some of these stories undoubtedly worked, the theme of Death of the Family was, according to Snyder, meant to be the family Bruce has constructed.
But that’s also sort of the problem. Death of the Family was thematically all over the place. Is Batman meant to be the King of Gotham? Does Joker feel like Batman’s lover or son? Why is such an importance placed on Batman’s relationship with James Gordon? What was the need to recreate the pair’s earliest encounters? The theme I picked up on the most clearly through Death of the Family was meant to be the relationship between Joker and Batman but it’s never made concrete. Snyder went with the Frank Miller’s description of the Joker as a homophobic nightmare but there was no teeth. Joker consistently played up the connection Alan Moore originally made about the two characters in The Killing Joke, the idea that at some level, Batman and the Joker are going to be doing this forever but after all, they’re both still human. It’s much harder to see Joker split up Batman’s family when the first four issues of the event seem to write the villain as the sidekicks’ new stepmom.
Which leads us to the finale in Batman #17. The chips are down, dinner is served and it’s time for the denouement but what is it meant to be honestly. Reading through issue #17, I was consistently reminded of the rightfully much maligned “Ocean’s Twelve,” a movie that commits one of the most memorable examples of trying desperately to keep the audience sense of disbelief but more importantly, a movie that depends on lies. The issue and the story-line as a whole climaxes with two characters bluffing. Are we supposed to believe either one of them? What power does the Joker have if each of his lines goes back against itself endlessly? He doesn’t seem enigmatic, joking or even interesting; it all just seems like bullshit.
In a post-mortem interview, Snyder stresses that the conclusion of Death of the Family leaves Bruce’s support network in tatters. Trusts have been betrayed. The characters have been tortured. Batman has won a seemingly hollow victory against an unstoppable force. It’s just really hard to see it that way. As Batman pursues the Joker in the final issue, he shares a moment with Nightwing that says so much about both characters but it doesn’t feel like anything has changed. Dick will never really leave Bruce. Barbara will never give up the cowl. Damian will never give up on his father (and as readers may have seen in the exceptional Batman and Robin #17, he may be satisfied with what he’s been through).
What I’ve seen is another in an endless series of stop-gaps, another problem that will need to be solved before the next omni-event begins. This is DC at it’s worst and it’s a problem they’ve been pushing since the beginning of the New 52, which is plot always and endlessly above character. In a world where it could have been compressed into a shorter, smaller more well focused story, Death of the Family could have worked instead of extending itself across titles and themes in a way that felt inauthentic to every character it touched.