The Joker’s history is almost as long as Batman’s own – created by Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson (though, as Robinson was working as a ghost-artist under Bob Kane at the time, Kane received the official credit), the Joker debuted in Batman #1, released in April 1940, not even a whole year after Batman debuted in May 1939’s Detective Comics #27. The two are interminably linked. As discussed regarding Going Sane, some comics creators even postulate that one wouldn’t exist without the other. That their conflict will never cease is taken for granted; the Joker won’t stop until Batman kills him, and on principle, Batman never will kill him. Thus, their ceaseless fighting is reduced to routine.
When reading Sam Kieth’s Batman: Secrets, I found myself thinking about an eight-page Batman comic written by the legendary Neil Gaiman, and not just because Gaiman and Kieth were onetime collaborators (Kieth illustrated the opening salvo of Gaiman’s Sandman epic). With art by Simon Bisley, the story was entitled A Black & White World, and it conceptualizes Batman and the Joker as actors, playing their parts – they run their lines in the green room and bemoan their corny dialogue. (“I’m the Joker, for Chrissakes. Roseanne’s funnier than me.” “I think her writers are better paid.”) It reduces this at-times almost mythic struggle to a daily grind, a literal role to play. (“Hey, that splash panel where you came through the window, that was just the coolest. I never get panels like that.” “So? You get to make speeches. I don’t get to make speeches.”) Though Secrets, unlike A Black & White World, keeps the fourth wall entirely intact, it nevertheless invokes a similar sense of routine, even inserting interludes in which the two adversaries discuss their dynamic. The trouble, though, is that I’m not entirely sure that Secrets is doing this on purpose.
In Secrets, the Joker makes speeches, and Batman gets astounding splash panels. Really, it’s business as usual, presented under the pretext of providing some new insight into the Batman-Joker dynamic. Most of the insights it provides are, at best, extrapolations of those observed in the seminal Joker classic The Killing Joke, with a little Mad Love and Going Sane added for good measure. Like the somewhat misbegotten retelling of the Joker’s origin in Lovers & Madmen, it would be an entirely fine story if it were the first or only Batman/Joker story one were to read, but is puzzlingly redundant if it isn’t. Simply put, Secrets accomplishes the same old thing, just in a slightly different way, and this is why it is perfectly paired with Bombay Sapphire London Dry Gin.
Most gins infuse the juniper and other botanicals by boiling them directly in the spirit, same as how hops are added in beer. Bombay Sapphire, however, “vapour infuses” their spirits, placing their botanicals in perforated copper baskets above the heated liquor. Thus, the botanicals are essentially steamed rather than boiled, presumably scenting the vapours in the process. This, Bombay Sapphire claims, produces “a complex aromatic liquid that delivers a broader, more balanced flavour.” Sure, it sounds cool, but is the result markedly different than gins infused the old-fashioned way?
Well, yes – it is different. “Different” is also a fair descriptor of my immediate impression of Secrets, due entirely to Sam Kieth’s stunningly off-kilter artwork. Given moody and hallucinatory colors by Alex Sinclair, Kieth’s art is a mesmerizing blend of cartoonish, expressive and horrific, and his depiction of the Joker frequently recalls Dave McKean’s nightmarish vision from Arkham Asylum. You might recall that this isn’t the first occasion I’ve discussed Sam Kieth’s art: he provided the bizarre visual accompaniment to Bruce Jones’ baffling Mad Hatter tale, Through the Looking Glass. You might also recall that I was not particularly fond of his art in that book, criticizing it as uneven and appearing unfinished in places. Secrets looks just as weird as Through the Looking Glass, but Kieth delivers a more consistent finish to his visual storytelling here. It looks magnificent and bizarre, a perfect complement to the Joker himself.
But Sam Kieth the artist is let down by Sam Kieth the writer. Not, of course, that the story is without merit: a seemingly reformed and remorseful Joker is granted parole. He scores a book deal and makes the talk-show circuit, keeping the public transfixed by this apparent redemption narrative (or maybe just the anticipation of an inevitable relapse into insanity). Batman is (of course) not fooled, and (of course) he’s right – the Joker is scarcely out from under the studio lights when Batman confronts him holding the head of the parole board at gunpoint. The confrontation is witnessed and photographed from an apartment window, and in a single key frame of film, it looks as though Batman has turned the gun on the Joker. When the witnesses sell the pictures to a Gotham newsman, it’s that frame which makes the cover, playing upon the Joker’s new reformed-act to paint Batman as the aggressor. Though relying heavily upon coincidence, this plot is reasonably compelling, and if Kieth remained focused upon it, I have no doubt he could make some interesting comments about the media’s manipulation of public opinion to force actual events into accepted hero/villain paradigms. But, like Bombay Sapphire, he feels compelled to complicate something previously simple.
I am not referring only to their newfangled vapour infusion technique, either: a glance at the list of botanicals reveals that Bombay Sapphire had little confidence in simplicity even before distillation. Juniper, lemon peel, coriander, angelica, iris root, grains of paradise, cubeb berries, cassia bark, almonds, and liquorice are all placed in those perforated copper baskets. Secrets does much the same. It gives the Joker a new girlfriend, an assistant DA named Terry Ammons, whose character arc is identical to Harley’s in Mad Love, only stripped of personality. It shoehorns in that most exasperating trope, inserting some forgettable childhood friend of Bruce (in this case, the aforementioned Gotham newsman), who is linked to some additional childhood trauma (because witnessing your parents getting gunned down in an alley just isn’t enough these days!). Then, as though to justify its title, it tries to insist that each of these principal players are motivated by some (decidedly dull) secret each has kept. Throughout, Kieth treats us to interludes of Batman and the Joker philosophizing about the unending nature of their struggle, trying to borrow some thematic weight by pointedly invoking The Killing Joke. (“Remember that joke I told you,” the Joker asks. “About the flashlight?”)
Thus, Secrets and Bombay Sapphire end up at the same place: a surplus of ingredients, combined in a fascinating process, yielding decidedly disappointing results. In the case of Bombay Sapphire, the botanical flavors prove to be barely present, far too subtle to compete against the abrasive alcohol. And Secrets, well . . . it just proves that maybe there aren’t really any secrets about Batman and the Joker left to reveal at all.