For the entire month of April, Beer & Batman will be co-opted by the Clown Prince of Crime himself: the Joker. To preserve the semblance of alliteration (though obviously not the actual alliteration), these stories will be paired with gin in place of the usual beer. Now, I know a fair amount about beer. I brew it myself, I enjoy it often, and I’ve developed a good palate for it. I know what beer I like and what beer I don’t like, and I can usually pinpoint precisely what I like and don’t like about each one. Regarding gin, however, I am a novice. I know very little about gin, other than it is a distilled grain alcohol which is infused with juniper, and sometimes other botanicals, and then distilled again. It is designed to be mixed and is popularly enjoyed over ice with tonic water. That is how I will be drinking my gin over the course of April.
Regarding the Joker, I know a great deal more. I have discussed him at length, first when discussing the story in which Batman first encounters him, and then again when discussing his multiple origin stories. He is Batman’s counterpoint, chaos to his control. In a city crowded with iconic villains, the Joker is both the most iconic and the scariest. He is completely and utterly insane, past the point of any chance at redemption. The popular sentiment, both within the comics themselves and among the fans, is that the only way Batman can ever beat the Joker is to kill him, which unto itself would be a violation of Batman’s values to such an extent that it would still qualify as a defeat. Thus, the two are stuck in an eternal struggle, neither willing to make that definitive move to end it.
What would happen if the Joker killed Batman? If antagonizing Batman is his raison-d’etre, how would the Joker carry on without his straight man? This is precisely the premise of Going Sane, a story told across four issues of Legends of the Dark Knight, written by J.M. DeMatteis. As per that series’ mission statement, Going Sane takes place in Batman’s early crime fighting days, Batman’s narration noting that this story marks his third encounter with the Joker. This time, the Joker uses a parade to draw bystanders out onto a quiet street in Gotham’s safest neighborhood, and then, without provocation, triggers a bomb, killing four and injuring seventeen. The Joker himself provides the narration over this sequence, making it clear that his unmotivated burst of violence was for the purpose of getting Batman’s attention, inviting his favorite audience to his next performance. It’s a hell of an opening, letting DeMatteis demonstrate straightaway his understanding of the Joker’s personality: a madman who doesn’t calculate crime based upon its benefit to himself, but instead regards it as a performance, even peppering the narration with numerous references to classic comedians. The performance, of course, is all for the benefit of Batman, with whom the Joker is dangerously obsessed.
While DeMatteis immediately grasps the Joker’s voice, his understanding of Batman is more easily compared to my understanding of my present drink. Distilled by Les Subversifs Microdistillerie in Lonqueuil, Quebec, Piger Henricus is a gin which I know I like – it is smooth, a little lemony and slightly floral, offering very little burn or aftertaste, and I can’t tell you much more beyond that. Likewise, DeMatteis knows that Batman is grumpy and self-serious, but is less sure of how to make that interesting, allowing Batman’s narrative to frequently grow purple and melodramatic. I mean, he punches a computer monitor twice in this book, for nothing more than dramatic effect. I know I’ve observed this previously, but Going Sane does demonstrate again that Batman is usually most effective when left as a closed book. Of course, the same is usually true of the Joker – most attempts at elucidating upon the Joker’s inner dialogue reveals thoughts or reasoning much too rational to be convincing, inadvertently making him a lot less scary. Going Sane is just about the only time that it really works to pull back the curtain on the Joker’s deranged mind.
The bombing having gotten Batman’s attention, the Joker next kidnaps a Gotham City councilwoman to lure Batman out to a cabin in the woods. Of course, it’s a trap, but it works: the cabin is rigged to explode, and Batman is caught inside. Recovering Batman’s body from the wreckage, the Joker tries to rouse him, but his efforts prove fruitless. The Joker’s narration here is fantastic:
It worked! Nah! Can’t be! The villain’s death-traps never work! The hero always executes a last-minute escape! Which means he’s playing possum! Waiting for just the right moment and then… Zap! Pow! Biff!
It’s a telling moment, showing that how little the Joker understands reality, expecting instead for events to work as they would in story or performance. He continues to cajole and kick Batman’s body (“The season’s just starting! I’ve got another twenty weeks of material!”) but finally concludes that Batman is actually dead, and dumps the body in a nearby river. He returns to his Gotham hideaway, a derelict movie theater at which he screens old black-and-white comedies continuously, ruminating:
I really did it. But . . . what exactly did I do? I know you’re supposed to kill the audience – but after they’re dead . . . you’re stuck. If there’s no one out there in the dark to play to . . . then what’s the point?
Throughout this sequence, letterer Willie Schubert does something phenomenal, subtly straightening out the uneven chicken scratch used to delineate the Joker’s narrative, making it tidier and more even, until it’s a normal comic typeface (“But the audience is gone now. The theater’s empty. And I don’t have to play anymore.”) He leaves the movie theater, blowing it up after him as he goes to start a normal life. That’s how the first issue of the arc concludes, and despite the heavy-handedness of Batman’s characterization, it is a near-perfect issue. Not just because of DeMatteis’s script, either: Joe Staton’s pencils are loose and expressive, recalling greats like Joe Kubert, while Steve Mitchell’s inks evoke Klaus Janson’s work in The Dark Knight Returns, preferring hatching to full blacks. In all fairness to the subsequent three issues, not much could top an opening as good as that one.
The book’s second quarter might not top the opening, but it continues it compellingly. DeMatteis does a fine job constructing a life for Joseph Kerr, a man whose only deviations from normalcy are chronic nightmares and foggy memories of a time when he was “unwell.” He meets a woman, Rebecca Brown, who lives across the hall – even their meet-cute is normal, him bumping into her, then helping her carry her dropped groceries up to her apartment. The two bond over a shared affinity for classic black-and-white comedies, and are quick to fall in love, but DeMatteis is sure to show the cracks even at the start. On top of the nightmares, Joseph experiences episodes, momentary breaks with reality, frequent forgetfulness and occasional unprovoked bursts of anger – it’s really a fairly poignant depiction of a man struggling to manage a mental illness, maintaining a facade of normalcy to support the myth of recovery. With each crack, the onetime Joker just digs his heels in further into the normal life he’s built, clinging to it like Linus clings to his blanket, even as it grows clearer that one bad day could cause it all to crumble again.
The presence of something unexpected within something otherwise ordinary is a quality which Piger Henricus Gin shares. It isn’t unusual for a gin to incorporate other botanicals besides juniper, and it isn’t the coriander, angelica, lemon peel or cardamom that comes as a surprise – all those just contribute nicely to its well-balanced bouquet. No, the real secret, the surprise ingredient, is parsnip. It doesn’t contribute a lot of flavor, mind you, but I am inclined to attribute much of this gin’s smoothness to that.
Smoothness is something entirely lacking in Going Sane’s second half, as DeMatteis refocuses upon Batman, doing his damnedest to contrast and compare Joker’s newfound normalcy with Batman’s recovery at the hands of a country nurse. As he is nursed back to health, Batman grows to enjoy the rural lifestyle away from the city and is tempted to stay, until the nurse convinces him that Batman does real good for Gotham City. He then returns to Gotham and quickly proves that nurse disastrously wrong, as his presence overturns Joseph Kerr’s life, triggering a psychotic break which definitively turns “Joe Kerr” to “Joker.” DeMatteis’s closing narration tries to tell us that Batman’s rural rehabilitation allowed him to rediscover “the part of himself that existed before his parents were murdered, before a little boy’s rage became a man’s crusade,” thus serving as a restoration of Batman’s own sanity (attempting to pull double-meaning from the title). But, perhaps by accident, it leaves one to wonder if, instead of the accepted narrative of an unending fight between the Joker and the Batman, their story could reach a peaceful conclusion. Just two men enjoying normal lives, spending their nights at home, maybe sipping a Piger Henricus Gin – no Batman to save the kidnapped councilwoman, but no Joker to kidnap her in the first place.