Batman in Print – Knightfall(1993) – "Die Laughing"

Batman #496: “Die Laughing,” Written by Doug Moench, Pencils by Jim Aparo, Colors by Adrienne Roy

Jordan B. Gorfinkel, Assistant Editor, Edited by Dennis O’Neil

 

By John A. Butz

“When we combined forces, we agreed to destroy the whole city…not just one man.”

“But the city, you straw-stuffed simpleton, is his – and once we take him out, Gotham becomes ours! Besides, we’ve got to do it for the novelty alone – I’ve never killed Bats before…”

 I love the Joker.

From Caesar Romero in white-face, to Jack Nicholson, to Mark Hamill in Batman: The Animated Series, all the way through the recent Nolan film, The Dark Knight, I have loved to watch the clash of opposites embodied in the battles between the Dark Knight Detective and the Clown Prince of Crime. I cut my Batman comic teeth on The Dark Knight Returns, which has one of the most epic conflicts between Batman and the Joker ever written. I think The Killing Joke may be Alan Moore’s best super-hero comic. As far as I am concerned, no single villain so clearly defines the Batman as the Joker.

You can’t tell a major Batman story without involving the Joker in some way. While all of the best Batman villains provide a mirror through which some aspect of Batman is magnified and reversed, none of them are as completely his opposite.

The Joker is chaos personified, murderer and madman and bad stand-up comic all wrapped up into one psychotic package. While Bruce Wayne dresses his insanity in a cape and cowl and uses it to fight crime, the Joker makes no efforts to hide who he has become. He is mercurial and wild, a man who lacks rhyme or reason, driven by one overriding desire – to finally manage to get the Bat to laugh. Or to kill him. Either would be fine.

And that’s what’s great about the Joker. His motivations are nearly unknowable. He is moved by whatever will make him happy in the moment. He can plan if he must, but he is a creature of randomness and instinct. Consistently marketed as the Caped Crusader’s most dangerous foe, the Joker has killed hundreds and yet Bruce can’t find it in himself to end it all, and put the Joker in a grave. Instead, Batman always returns the villain to Arkham, and the whole dance starts again.

I love the imagery, jagged bright purple and green clashing with flowing grey and black and yellow. I love exaggeration that the great artists use to make both characters look like Jungian archetypes. I love the battles – Batarangs and grapples and utility belts against acid-shooting trick flowers, lethal joy-buzzers, and cunningly hidden knives. I love the restraint versus the total lack of control.

And that is why Die Laughing really makes me happy. It takes all the hard work that has been done in the early books of Broken Bat and uses it to tell a really great Joker story.

Doug Moench and Jim Aparo are back as our main artistic team. The standard Aparo complaints still apply – I just don’t like the way he draws the Joker. But everything else he does is great. From a totally exhausted Batman barely avoiding the media to an awesome Joker beat-down doled out by the Bat, everything else about Aparo’s work here is excellent.

Doug Moench really nails this one. I have said before that Moench is at his best when writing a fast-paced action story, and that is exactly what he does here.

An exhausted Batman tries to track down the Mayor’s kidnappers, only to be stymied at every turn. Meanwhile, the Joker uses plans from an old anthrax-laughing-gas caper to set up a trap in the Gotham River Tunnel. Batman willingly enters the trap while Bane and Robin watch from the sidelines, each wondering if Batman can escape this time. After inhaling the Scarecrow’s fear gas, Batman is forced to confront visions of the death of Jason Todd. Shaking off the gases effect and filled with rage, the Dark Knight soundly beats both of the villains, only to have a errant rocket bring the tunnel’s roof down, releasing the river and starting a flood. With the Mayor’s life at stake, Batman does the only thing he can – he tries to save Mayor Krol, even as the tunnels fill with rushing water.

Moench avoids trying to make any clever commentary, and instead focuses on the Joker’s bad taste in humor and devious nature. The first time Moench tackled the Joker, way back in The Freedom of Madness, he failed to show how purely insane the guy is. He also failed to highlight the Joker’s trademark humor. He more than makes up for it in this episode. Moench uses exploding ice cream vans, ice cream cones with grenades in them, random acts of violence, and casual references to killing everyone in Gotham to give his Joker some real heft.

In addition to the solid writing and the razor-sharp story, Die Laughing touches on two aspects of Batman I really like – the death of Jason Todd (thanks to a dose of the Scarecrow’s fear gas), and the fact that when you peel everything else away Batman is a man who doesn’t want to see anyone die.

The death of Jason Todd gives Batman a sense of history. While I am not a fan of continuity (defined as the company’s official line on what the events of a characters past are…it drives me nuts because it is constantly being wiped out, changed and retconned), I love it when a character has history. Even if you had never heard of Jason Todd or known that there had been more than one Robin, you get enough of a picture from this story to see how badly the event damaged Bruce Wayne. The reader can see that Batman regrets the death of Jason even as he draws strength from it. If he can help it, no one will ever die at the Joker’s hands again.

That aspect of the Batman is one that I am happy to see at the forefront. While I, like Frank Miller, am OK with a Batman that occasionally kills, I am in agreement with my fellow columnist Jonathan Kemmer-Scovner that a Batman who doesn’t try to save lives is not my Batman (see Jon’s excellent review of Duel for his perspective on this). When forced with the choice of stopping crime or saving a life, Bruce Wayne always chooses to save a life. This will be a stark counterpoint that differentiates Bruce from Jean Paul Valley.

Die Laughing is a great story. It shows once again the Doug Moench has serious writing chops and that Jim Aparo can draw anything except a Joker with his mouth closed (seriously…even after getting beaten up by Batman, Aparo still draws the Joker with that damn open-mouthed grin…enough all ready!). The story squeezes every ounce out of the work that has been done up to this point to move us one step closer to the end of things.

 

“L-looks like it won’t hold l-long, Bats…so you’d better m-make you choice – stop us…or save your ‘phone-phreak mayor!”

He’s right – I can’t do both, not in this condition…which leaves no choice at all. No way I let him kill another. 

 There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a Batman story, and every single one of them is right.

Next time – Out of the frying pan into the fire. A daring escape and a gauntlet of bad guys. The Ultimate confrontation begins! Tune in.  

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