Batman and Bruce Wayne: Separated at Birth

Jul-16-08

Bruce Wayne was a young boy when he witnessed his parents being murdered. That effectively ended his childhood (and, you could easily argue, set him up for a life full of problems). However, while characters such as Peter Parker and Bruce Banner grew stronger in the face of adversity, Bruce Wayne more or less fell to the wayside. It’s not just a symptom of the Batman mythos either…the majority of DC Comics’ characters seem more at home in their costumed identities than they ever do in civilian garb. But those are other stories to tell. Today we’re here to talk about Batman.

There are a few problems that I’ve always harbored with Batman, the biggest of which is the absence of any sort of defining traits in his Bruce Wayne alter ego. Just for reference, some of my other Batman problems include: Where does the bottomless bank account keep coming from? Why don’t the villains just wait for him to go to sleep before pulling their heists (he HAS to sleep sometime)? And what doctor in his right mind would be able to prescribe, to the smiling and jovial Bruce Wayne, the necessary amounts of serious painkillers that Batman must require on a regular basis?

Anyhoo. Bruce Wayne.

Here’s a guy who has never wanted for anything in the world (except parental acceptance, guidance and love). His public presence is all about showing up in classy places wearing tuxedos and escorting supermodels. He gives money to charities. He declines to run for public office, feeling that he can do “more good” as a concerned citizen. And yet, despite all the potential here, Bruce Wayne comes off as an empty shell. He’s a smiley face with a suit and a handshake. And it’s almost creepy the way Batman is able to toggle so easily between the two faces without having some sort of mental breakdown.

Bruce Wayne lacks the passion and drive of Batman. He’s not a good businessman by any stretch of the imagination. He lets others run his businesses for him and can’t barely have enough time to even check the stock markets in between all the punching, kicking, sleeping and healing. How come no one has ever called him on the multitude of bruises and scars he must exhibit on a near-daily basis? Why has no writer ever shown Bruce Wayne fast asleep at his desk, or better yet in a board meeting, after bouncing across rooftops all night dressed as a giant bat?

We pointed out that Batman has problems socializing with his closest allies. Well, at least that’s one thing he keeps consistent out of costume. Bruce Wayne, for all the glad-handing and gad-abouting, has no friends either. That’s another problem we should address really.

That’s just off the top of my head. What do you have to gripe about?

You’ve really nailed most of my problems with Bruce Wayne, although I have a few other things to mention. You’re quite correct when you say that DC heroes tend to be more about the costumed identity, while Marvel heroes tend to be more about the human inside the costume. That began in the early 1960s when Marvel revolutionized the field with early issues of Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man and their other titles, and its continued to this day. But, without a doubt, Batman is the worst. There is no Bruce Wayne. Wayne truly is the mask and I find that to be a crying shame. There’s so much potential for Wayne as a character and that needs to be realized. Using Wayne as more than a convenient plot device would make the Batman comics richer and more interesting; Wayne provides not just a great contrast to the nocturnal activities of Batman but he could be just as effective in his own way in making the world a better place.

DC has tried to deal with some of your concerns, but never convincingly. Why don’t the villains attack when Batman is asleep? We’ve seen plenty of stories of Batman not sleeping, of pushing himself so that he can take out the villains (enough stories in that vein that I am sick to death of it. Batman has a huge network of supporters; if he’d stop treating them like dirt and let them actually do their jobs, he’d had more then enough time to do other things. Let Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Batwoman, Huntress and the Birds of Prey help out when needed, and stop being such a control freak!) and these stories simply don’t ring true. Batman’s smarter than that, and he knows he’s not at his best when he’s been up for 48 hours straight. The prescription medication thing has been touched upon with the idea that Wayne doesn’t visit many doctors, and that Alfred always patches him up, although that doesn’t explain how he deals with pain. Are we supposed to believe he just grits his teeth and fights through it? Can Advil really help with the sort of pain he endures?

Here’s the thing though, and this is what really bothers me about Batman and Bruce Wayne; with the money and the influence that Wayne apparently has through his financial holdings, I think it’s strongly debatable that he could do more good as Wayne then he can as Batman. All Batman can do is arrest criminals after they’ve done something wrong. Wayne could potentially change the world by trying to eliminate sources of crime before they even happen. Now, it’s quite obvious that DC isn’t going to publish five comics a month starring Bruce Wayne: Corporate Do-Gooder. No one would read that. However, I think that Wayne needs to come to the realization that he needs to devote some time to his civilian identity.

Ideally, this realization could have come about during No Man’s Land. I’ve attacked this storyline before, because while some interesting stories came out of it, the fundamental plot was so ridiculously unbelievable and riddled with holes that I had trouble enjoying any part of it. Pushing that aside for now, when the United States government was considering whether to declare Gotham City to be a No Man’s Land, Wayne went to Washington DC to argue against the idea. He failed in his task to convince Congress that this was a bad idea and Gotham was indeed cut off from the rest of the world. This made Wayne so sad and shook him up so badly that he went into hiding for three months. When he returned, it was as Batman, and it was to Gotham City where he proceeded to punch things. A lot. Finally, Luthor came in and eventually Luthor’s work and the efforts of Lucius Fox convinced the government to reverse the No Man’s Land decision. Yes, it was two businessmen who saved the day while Wayne smacked around a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Why Wayne was surprised that no one listened to him in Congress is beyond me. Why would they listen to you? You’re barely ever seen, and when you are seen by the world, you’re acting like a moron. The idea that Wayne must be seen as incompetent so that people won’t know he’s Batman is simply ludicrous. I don’t think if people saw Wayne as competent, they’d immediately say, “Well, he’s obviously Batman then.” I think that, after Congress laughed Wayne out of the Capitol, it would have been the perfect time for him to realize that, if he had done more as Bruce Wayne over the years, perhaps he wouldn’t have failed in this important task. He could have taken three months off and trained as a businessman, spending time actually running his company and earning some respect in the world, and then he could have returned. No, he wouldn’t give up being Batman, but he would spend less time at it, finding a balance between his two sides and doing good in both of those identities.

So, amongst all of the problems you mentioned, I would say my biggest problem is that there needs to be more of a balance between the two identities. The Batman books need more Bruce Wayne.

Agreed. As much as Spider-Man is fun to look at and the dialogue in-battle is light-hearted and quirky, there is just as much interest generated in Peter Parker’s personal life. How are things with his wife or family? How is his job going? Can he afford to pay the bills this month? Angst. Suspense. Tension.

If and when Bruce Wayne ever pops up on the scene, it’s usually just as a device to get Batman invited to the gala-of-the-day. Or Wayne is brought in to be oohed and aahed over…like when there’s a demonstration of some new Waynetech gizmo and the actual figurehead of the company (Hey! That guy’s name is on the building!) drops by to make an appearance. There’s no substance there at all. Who cares about Bruce Wayne?

Hell, that would be the title of my first storyarc…Who Cares About Bruce Wayne?

Look, I’ve professed it to anyone who will listen over the last couple years that one way to really develop the Bruce Wayne character would be, ironically, to take away the sole reason he even exists: money. Bankrupt Bruce Wayne! Take away the fortune and make it a bloody, public mess. Drag Bruce Wayne through the ringer. Shove him in front of the TV cameras to explain what happened. If the situation is that dire, no one is going to settle for hearing from some PR flack, they’ll want the man himself to explain where their investments went and why their stocks plummeted and who’s to blame.

I know it’s been done with Tony Stark, but the situations were different. And the men themselves are different. Iron Man relies on his technology to even exist as a hero. Batman relies on his wits and his skills. Sure, he has a few toys, but they’re not the core of his being. Taking away his fortune, and subsequently his home, would put him on the defensive. Batman would be forced into the open, in a sense, and would have to fend for himself. This plot device could even drive him to work on his relationships better…Whose couch can he crash on? Whose shoulder can he cry on? Who’s gonna drive him home, tonight?

Sorry, drifted off into a Cars tune there…

So, yeah, Bruce Wayne becomes more prominent out of necessity. I’m sure there are other ways to make this happen. What do you think of that direction (or any other)?

Hmmm. Interesting. It’s not the way I would have gone, but it’s got some potential. Honestly, anything that would bring Wayne into the spotlight has potential and I’d be willing to run with. However, I’m not sure how this idea would work in the long run. Let’s take this idea out a few months and examine the ramifications.

So, Wayne loses his fortune. How? Here’s the way I’d suggest….we know Wayne doesn’t have the time, interest, or I’d say skill, for business. Lucius Fox runs things. We need to get Fox out of the picture. We could do this a few ways; my favorite two would be to either have him suffer a heart attack from overwork (not something that would be much of a stress for a harried executive) or have him grow frustrated with Wayne’s lack of interest in the company and move on to greener pastures (if Fox is as good as we’re told, surely another company could lure him away). Either way, Fox leaves the company, and the blame for that can at least partially be laid on Wayne, since his disinterest in the company either drove Fox to a heart attack or drove him to another job.

With Fox gone, Wayne has to find someone else to run the company. However, he’s busy as Batman, and he doesn’t spend the amount of time he needs to when he interviews people. He either gets an unscrupulous person who drains the company dry while Wayne is out smacking around Killer Croc, or he gets a very nice person who simply isn’t talented enough to run the company. Either way, this chain of events is what leads to the company’s failure, and again, the blame can be laid on Wayne. So, the company starts going under and now Wayne has to come out and speak to the press, as you mention above.

There are a few problems with Wayne losing his fortune. The first is that the Wayne fortune funds Batman. While we want more Wayne, we do need some Batman, and how does he get funding without the fortune. The second is the fate of Alfred; without money to pay his salary, does he stick around? Sure, he feels loyalty to Wayne, but he needs to eat as well. Perhaps you have some ideas along these lines, and I’d love to hear them. I believe these may be temporary problems anyway, since I think Wayne will get his fortune back.

I know that the only cliche worse than taking away the rich guy’s fortune is giving it back to him, but I believe he’d want it back. I envision this entire plotline as a way to make Wayne realize that he needs to split his time between his identities more evenly. Wayne has lost his parent’s legacy when he lost his company, and the blame can fall on no one else. I think he’d be driven to refound Wayne Enterprises (or whatever the heck his company is called) as a monument to his parents, if for no other reason. I think he’d apply the same force of will to learning and implementing business strategies that he did to learning crimefighting techniques, and I think he’d be successful. It wouldn’t be an immediate return to greatness for him, but it would happen. The really great thing about this, however, is that in the process, Wayne would learn humility. Surely he’s never been this humbled in his career (yes, his back was broken, but how many people knew that?), as the entire world has seen him fail. I think that would result in a better Batman; one more respectful of his allies and one who would be less of a prick. This would be a long storyline (and again, there would be more typical Bat-Adventures playing out at the same time, although they would certainly be colored by the loss of his fortune), but I think at the end we’d have a much stronger comic (and some damn fine stories getting there).

The other upside in my eyes is that Batman himself would become more efficient. Sure, the idea is to put more emphasis on Wayne and have him in the public arena more, but at the same time if Batman has no financial backing then he’s going to have to find other ways to get the job done. There’s no more Bat-Computer or Batarangs. Wherever the Batmobile runs out of gas is where it’s going to stay (As an aside, wouldn’t it be funny to see the Batmobile along the side of the road with a white towel hanging out of the window?). Basically, he can’t just throw cash at a problem and make it solve itself. He’s going to have to really use his noggin to solve crime.

And, yes, I think the problems you’ve pointed out are minor and temporary at best. I’m pretty sure Alfred has a nice savings account of his own that he can fall back on for a while if necessary. And, as I stated above, I’m not really sure Batman needs all that funding to operate effectively. Sure, over time people may begin to notice that Batman’s costume is looking a little ratty or that he’s taking the bus instead of zipping around town in his Bat-Copter, but it’ll make him a stronger person in the long run. And it may even force him to spend more time “disguised” as Bruce Wayne in public (or Matches Malone if he really gets destitute).

You seem to have come around on the idea pretty quickly. However, I’m wondering what other ideas you had for strengthening the Bruce Wayne identity? What would you do?

The first thing I’d do is point out that we could also use your plot to introduce the love interest we mentioned in the previous post. If we had the rival businesswoman/future smoochie-friend introduced already, perhaps it’s the loss of his fortune that forces Wayne to contact her and start training with her as a businessman. During the course of that, they become close, and things develop from there. It would also be interesting as he struggles to regain her fortune, since she could try to help him, and of course, he’d want to do it himself, since he sees regaining his fortune as something he needs to do for his parents (or the memory of them). That could cause some temporary stress in the relationship, which is good for any media romance if you want to maintain interest in it.

As for Alfred, it could be interesting if he is forced to get another job. He still wants to help Wayne, and we keep Alfred in the storyline, but he’s only able to do as much as his current position will allow. It gives us a chance to delve a little deeper into Alfred’s personality as well. While Alfred certainly goes above and beyond in many ways for Wayne, he’s also got a lot of slack in the Wayne household. What would things be like for him in a more normal job? How does he deal with someone whom he hasn’t known since childhood and will have completely different expectations of him?

As for my ideas for other directions to take him….I had nothing this monumental, and which solves all of the problems so elegantly. Seriously, when I first read your suggestion I thought, “You have got to be kidding me.” It seemed cliched and like a stunt for the sake of the stunt. However, there’s more here than I thought, and I like it. Once you think this through, it provides the perfect manner to institute some of the changes we’ve been describing for Wayne, and it provides a good reason for those changes, which I never had. Bonus, since it stays within continuity and doesn’t just have him acting like a better person with no explanation. Honestly, I’m sold. With this idea and the villains we revamped (and the ones who don’t need revamping, but we have ideas for) you could easily write two solid years of strong Batman stories.

Y’know, what I like about the whole plan (and not just the fact that we came up with it)…from the revamped villains to the romance introduction to the emphasis on building up the Bruce Wayne identity…is that it adds many more layers to any given Batman comic. I think one of the big problems with DC Comics’ stories right now is that there’s rarely any depth to the action. Granted, you and I are both basically unpaid shills for Marvel history, but even in the DC stuff that I do read, I find a lack of purpose. Every story (a gross generalization, I know) revolves around punching and/or kicking someone’s cheeks in and then moving on to the next object which will subsequently be punched and/or kicked. By developing these other story threads, you’re able to weave some emotion into the action.

Batman is built on angst. He’s the brooding bastard of the funnybooks. That doesn’t mean that he has to be so one-dimensional though. In fact, I argue that making his “other” life more complicated will only enhance the darkness of his heroic appearances. And everyone is happy with that, right?


Batman: Introducing the Bat-Bunch

Jul-10-08

We’ve been spending the last week or more talking about what makes the bad guys bad (and how to make them badder), so I thought it was about time to change the pace a bit. We were going to switch gears and talk about improving Batman’s supporting cast, but John and I came to the general conclusion that we approve of pretty much everyone the Dark Knight surrounds himself with…from Alfred to Oracle, Commissioner Gordon to the rest of the Gotham City PD. Hell, I even have nice things to say about Bat-Mite (I really don’t).

No, the problems we have aren’t with Team Batman themselves, but rather with the way Batman treats his supporting cast. And these problems will be explored in the next few posts as we cover everything from background players to love interests to the Bruce Wayne alter ego to our final hypothesis on “fixing” Batman.

So let’s get the ball rolling on the rest of the good guys. Let me see if I can drum up a rough timeline of Batman’s prominent bit players. Jim Gordon makes his first appearance in the same Detective Comics #27as Batman (interesting to note that Gordon’s early appearances put him in opposition to Batman while showing a friendship with Bruce Wayne…Gordon is also the only major Bat-confidante who doesn’t know his secret identity), Robin (Dick Grayson) shows up a year later followed by Catwoman (first as a villain), Alfred Pennyworth, Barbara Gordon (first as Batgirl…not to be confused with Bat-Girl), the second Robin (Jason Todd), Huntress (who later became the second Batgirl), another Robin (Tim Drake), Spoiler (who then became the fourth Robin) and finally a third Batgirl.

That was easy to follow, right? And, heck, I didn’t even include his former bodyguard (Sasha Bordeaux), his son (Damian) to the daughter of one of his archenemies, the violent weirdo who temporarily replaced him (Azrael), a friend who became a villain (Harvey Dent), an enemy who has become a tenuous ally (Riddler), an obsessed other-dimensional imp (Bat-Mite), or his domino-masked German Shepherd Ace the Bat-Hound.

So where do they all fit in? How do they all come together? And what the heck is Batman’s problem with teamwork? Let’s explain.

It’s funny that Batman is often considered the quintessential loner, when in actuality he has a larger supporting cast than almost any other hero I can name. We’ve spoken at length about the strength (and breadth) of his Rogues Gallery, but his allies are just as strong. These are some well rounded characters and they fill important roles in Batman’s universe. I wouldn’t say I don’t have a few minor quibbles (is there anything Alfred can’t do? He’s a boxer and can fight; he’s a medic and can do minor surgeries; he’s an actor and can fool anyone with his disguises; he’s enough of a mechanic to do some maintenance on the Bat-Toys; plus, he makes some great food, washes windows, and vacuums. The man is amazing.) with some of the cast, but overall, these are great characters. The biggest problem I have with them is Batman.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when Batman stopped being a Dark Knight and became an unofficial policeman who opened shopping malls, Batman treated everyone in his supporting cast as though they were his best friend (except the ladies, who enjoyed his condescension, but that was ok since they were girls). Words like “chum” and “pal” were liberally sprinkled throughout Batman’s dialogue, and the idea that anyone feared this man was ludicrous, since he was about as threatening as a hall monitor. When it became obvious that Batman had strayed too far from his core concept, and that he needed to become a Dark Knight once again, one of the first things they did was to push his supporting cast to arm’s length. Even Robin, who had been like a son to Bruce, got pushed away (all the way to college for some years). This wasn’t to say that Batman wouldn’t have allies; he just wouldn’t be quite as chummy with them.

I’m not sure that this was a bad decision. I am not the first one to point out that Batman would want to surround himself with allies, as he’s building himself a new family, to replace the one that was taken from him. However, I also agree that Batman is not particularly cuddly, and that he probably does keep most people at a distance. I certainly can live without ever seeing Batman call someone “chum” again. Unfortunately, starting in the early 90s, and just getting worse in the current decade, writers have gone too far and instead of simply maintaining a distance from his allies, Batman now treats most of them with utter contempt and disrespect. In short, Batman has become a prick, and its his allies on whom he takes out his anti-social tendencies.

To illustrate this point, let’s go back to the early 90s (1993, to be exact) and look at one of the biggest storylines in Batman’s post-Crisis history, Knightfall. In this story, a new enemy named Bane stages a massive breakout at Arkham Asylum, releasing all of Batman’s enemies at once. After Batman has managed to defeat these enemies, but when he’s still tired from the battles, Bane then attacks Batman and breaks his back, paralyzing him. Bruce Wayne decides that someone needs to continue to be Batman, and he chooses as that person….Azrael. Um, who? Yeah, just some character that Batman barely knew, someone who had been shown to be mentally unstable, someone Batman had known for less than a year. He chose that person over Dick Grayson, someone who is like a son to him, someone he’d known for over a decade, and someone he should trust implicitly. And, to make matters worse, when he was questioned on that decision by other allies, Batman blew those allies off.

Fast forward to another huge Batman crossover called No Man’s Land. I’ve referred to it before (rarely kindly) and will refer to it again, since there are so many huge, underlying problems with this storyline. However, in the context of this discussion, we can again see Batman treating his associates with contempt. When Gotham City is declared to be no longer part of the United States (don’t get me started) and it’s citizens are ordered by the federal government to leave by a certain time, since after that time anyone attempting to enter or exit the city will be attacked by federal troops (I said don’t get me started), Batman disappears. Certain of his allies remain behind in Gotham City (Gordon and Oracle foremost among them) and some leave the city (like Robin), but Batman doesn’t tell any of them that he’s leaving, and he doesn’t tell them where he’s going. For three months he simply disappears, with no word to anyone. When he finally returns, he expects things to be as they were before, but many of his allies are upset at the way they’ve been treated. To which I say, it’s about bloody time.

My point is this: I do not believe that Batman feels the utter contempt that he so often shows to his allies, and while I agree that he would not be having tea with Oracle or playing Call of Duty 4 on his PS3 with Robin, I do believe that he would show them respect. Being somewhat isolated from others does not mean that you treat them like dirt. It is very possible to keep your own counsel while still respecting those around you. This, to me, is the biggest problem with Batman and his allies; the way he treats them, and the fact that they so rarely object and that they continue to follow him. I would have gone to work with Blue Beetle years ago.

Could you imagine the holy hell that would rain down if Batman was in a high-speed chase with some of Black Mask’s henchmen and he buzzed Oracle to have her redirect some traffic signals and she told him to “Hold your horses. I’m bit-torrenting last week’s Desperate Housewives.”? That’s how I like to put things in perspective. Just flip the tables on Batman and see if he’d like to be treated the way he treats his associates.

I agree that Alfred is one helluva Jack-of-all-Trades. I believe he has even impersonated Batman himself on numerous occasions. And yet I can’t recall a single time that he’s been thanked for his work. Bruce must have set him up with one monster of a retirement plan for him to stick around so faithfully.

The Bane thing blows my mind as well, which brings into focus the current “Batman R.I.P.” storyline and the whispers of “who’s going to replace Bruce Wayne as Batman this time?” The way he’s been operating lately, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pull some random dude off the street and stuff the suit with crumpled up newspaper to make it seem realistic. At this point, it would almost be a slap in the face to hand the duties over to Nightwing or Robin…like he didn’t want to have anything to do with them before, but fully expects them to step up when he beckons them now. Kneel down and kiss my ring, peons!

The dynamic with Gordon has always interested me. I know he’s had his valiant moments and has faced down a ton of corruption within his own department, but Jim Gordon has always come across as some exasperated schlub to me. He’s just a figurehead at this point. There’s absolutely nothing he can do to control Batman, instead he just has to pretty much stand by whatever Batman decides is best. The line between lawful pursuit of crime and crazy man in colorful pajamas yelling from the rooftops should never be as slim as it truly is in Gotham City. But that’s a whole other topic to pursue.

You almost have to feel bad for the Robin legacy. Here’s a character that is embroiled in just as much danger and backlash as Batman, but never gets the recognition from either the public or Batman himself. The work is just expected of him. And even when a Robin does break free of the Bat-Nest, he’s constantly compared to his mentor yet never really given the chance to live up to or surpass his iconic status. At least Flash, Green Arrow, Atom and Green Lantern have some sort of legacy behind their public images…the name stays the same while the person behind the mask evolves. Behind the scenes you’re faced with living up to your predecessor, but outwardly you follow the same path and gain the same accolades because their identity is now your identity. Robin is just an eternal sidekick, even when he’s no longer Robin (just look at how ravenous the DC brass is in their drive to rid the world of Dick Grayson).

I had forgotten about all the references to “old chum” and “dear friend” that were peppered throughout the Batman mythos for years. Hilarious when you think of the current media portrayal of the “Dark Knight.” Obviously, the character took a wrong turn which justified Frank Miller’s near-parodic skewering of such in Dark Knight Returns. However, to then continue to use “grim and gritty” as your basis for every decision and every reaction a character makes for the next 25 years is equally idiotic and DC should be diligently working to backtrack on that demeanor. I thought they were headed in that direction with the One Year Later scenario of Bruce, Dick and Tim touring the world by freighter. Alas, the whole OYL deal fell apart pretty quickly in the midst of 52 and then Countdown that hardly anyone even remembers what the plan was to begin with.

So Batman’s “Family” is treated like enlisted grunts in a wartime military. They have orders barked at them and are expected to respond with quickness and with little individual thought. No one dares question the orders and no one dares defy their leader. But forced respect often brings resentment, anger and a growing desire for mutiny. Now wouldn’t that be an interesting storyline?

I agree that it would be a fascinating storyline, and it’s one that needs to be addressed. It’s enough for the Bat-Family to have an intervention and sit the Dark Knight down and say, “Stop being such a prick.” Something has to happen to bring things to head.

I believe it could come from one of two directions: either Batman himself realizes he needs to stop treating those around him with such disregard, or his supporting cast need to stand up and say that enough is enough. If you go the first option, then I think you’re talking about something traumatic happening to either Batman himself, or someone close to him. Perhaps Batman could come close to death, and in so doing (perhaps in a moment of delirium) he realizes the value of his extended family. However, that seems hokey, and not very satisfying. It might be better for his revelation to occur because someone in that extended family leaves the family; either through their own choice or through circumstance. I kind of like the idea of one of the Bat-Family saying that they’ve just had enough, and getting the heck out of there. I think that Oracle might be the best one for this; she’s very close, but isn’t actually part of the family (if Dick Grayson hasn’t told Bruce Wayne off yet, he’s never going to) and she has so much else going on that she could believably become fed up and just walk (um, so to speak). Your example of Batman contacting her for work and her blowing him off actually reads true to me, and perhaps if something like that happened, it would wake Bruce up to the way he treats people. Of course, there’s a danger with such a storyline as well; if Bruce contacts Oracle for help in a case, and she refuses, and as a result someone is injured and killed, then she looks like a total tool, and Batman comes out looking like a victim. That would be bad. So it would have to be a very carefully crafted story.

Or perhaps there’s a better way to do this. Do you even think it needs to be addressed? The comics have danced around this issue on more than one ocassion, but after a little bit of actual emotion from Bruce, he goes back to being a jerk. What can we do to change that?

I do remember the situation being addressed to some extent in the “Bruce Wayne: Murderer?/Bruce Wayne: Fugitive” storylines that preceded “Hush.” Oracle, Robin, and Nightwing all confronted Bruce about his aloofness, but I don’t remember what the ultimate solution was…either that or I just gave up out of boredom before the arc finished.

I think the core of the question surrounding his interaction with his supporting cast is: how do we revamp Batman so he isn’t such a big jerk? And I think we’ll be confronting that issue in our Batman: Broken? post later this week…


The Joker: I Dislike Him Too Much to Create a Witty Title

Jul-09-08

Ugh. The Joker.

I’m sure many people may not understand my antipathy toward this character, especially those who don’t read comics. If you only know the Joker from his media appearances, you may like the character. Heck, if my only exposure to him was Mark Hamill’s brilliant performance from the animated Batman shows, I’d think he was Batman’s best villain as well. I will also admit to being incredibly excited to see him in the upcoming movie, as I think that we’re all going to be blown away by Heath Ledger’s performance. But, to see the Joker in the comics…..ugh.

There are two huge problems with the Joker. The first is that he’s overexposed. Because the Joker has claimed the mantle of Batman’s greatest foe, it seems that every writer who tackles the Dark Knight wants to write a Joker story. Not every comic writer has a Ventriloquist story, or a Poison Ivy story, or a Calendar Man story, but they all have a Joker story, so we keep seeing him. Not only that, but the Joker’s profile has become so large that people who aren’t even writing Batman want to tell their Joker stories, so he guest stars all over the place. He’s appeared in just about every series you can imagine, from Wonder Woman to the Justice League. Things went completely out of control in 2001 when DC published a crossover event called Joker: Last Laugh, a Joker-themed event that had its own miniseries and spun out into dozens of DC books. This miniseries was supposed to be the last we saw of the Joker, but sadly, it just set the stage for more Joker stories.

The second problem with the Joker is that he no longer makes sense as a character. Writers, in an attempt to outdo everyone that came before them, have amped up the Joker’s insanity and murderous impulses to an unbelievable degree. First of all, how does this guy get henchmen anymore? Who would work for him? He kills his own people left and right, and does he actually ever score any money or do anything that would make him an attractive employer? Worse is the fact that he’s invited to join villain teams, which makes even less sense. Why would a genius like Lex Luthor, someone who thrives on control, invite the most uncontrollable villain in the DCU into his team? Surely he knows the Joker will eventually cause all of his plans to come tumbling down?

Joker also doesn’t work because, again, his crimes have become too heinous. The Joker has killed the second boy to bear the mantle of Robin, Commissioner Gordon’s wife, and he’s crippled Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. Now, the first crime is horrible enough, but the second two? If some criminal killed a police commissioner’s wife and crippled his daughter, you know that criminal would soon find himself “accidentally killed” while attempting escape. C’mon, even if Gordon wouldn’t do it himself, surely one of his cops (since Gordon is beloved by most of the police) would have done it for him. This is a police force that includes Harvey Bullock, who breaks rules constantly and was willing to reveal information to the mob to avenge Gordon when Gordon got shot (not killed, not paralyzed, but simply shot) by somebody the law couldn’t touch. The fact that the Joker is alive makes no sense (and don’t even get me started on the idea that Batman himself would be well within his rights as an upstanding hero and protector of mankind to kill the Joker himself; it’s not like the Joker can be rehabilitated and reformed).

So, with all of that being said, what can be done with the Joker. Is there any hope for this Clown Prince of Crime? Is he worth saving? Can Batman survive without him?

Wait…tell us how you really feel. I’m not sure where you stand on this one. And I’m disappointed that you couldn’t come up with one goofy headline, even to make fun of the fact that you despise The Joker. Something like…”Joker: The Clown Prince of Just Shoot Me Now” or “Joker: Wow, The Insane Clown Posse Sucks” or even “Joker: Meh.”

All joking aside (no pun intended), I’m with you one hundred percent on this one. When I think back to my earliest exposure to the character…the live-action TV show with Cesar Romero’s mustache, the cackling goofball from the Filmation cartoons…I’m reminded of the best and worst of comic book villain stereotypes. Those campy 60′s and 70′s representations encapsulated what comics were all about as a kid: bright colors, over-the-top scenarios and the valiant struggle of clean-cut goodness versus wishy-washy “evil.”

Then, as I get older and more into the history of comics, I discover that the Joker is a real creep. His original look was based on this:

The Man Who Laughs

The Man Who Laughs

It’s a still from a 1928 movie adaptation of Victor Hugo’s little-known novel The Man Who Laughsstarring Conrad Veidt, a German actor remembered best for his role as a Nazi officer in Casablanca. In the story, the character Gwynplaine is a disfigured actor who learns he is actually the son of a baron. His father, an enemy of the king, was killed and the then-toddler Gwynplaine was given to a group of gypsies who purposefully mutilated his face in order to use him to beg for money. Obviously, the character of The Joker has no connection to this role outside of his grotesque look. Man, that is one creepy black and white photo.

In his earliest appearances he was portrayed as a maniacal mass murderer, reinforcing the widely held belief that clowns are evil freaks. It wasn’t until the Comics Code Authority (and the invention of television) cracked down on his heinous crimes that The Joker became the buffoon-based annoyance we all remember so dearly. Seriously. How intimidated would you be if your main villain dressed in purple, pranced around like a court jester on speed with a giant mallet in his hands and left you gift-wrapped packages that ticked ominously? Boooo-ring!

And of course, nowadays with the voluntary removal of the CCA’s oversight, Joker has returned to his ham-fisted murdering and cackling ways…bludgeoning Robin, paralyzing Batgirl and pretty much running free through the streets of Gotham City without a care or fear in the world. I had retreated from comics in the late 90′s (it’s a long story, but had much to do with Spider-Man’s Clone Saga) and returned to the fold just as Joker: The Last Laugh was hitting the shelves. Like John said, it was meant to be “the last Joker story” as the character was dying from cancer or something like that, but the whole thing turned out to be a ruse set up for Joker to escape from prison (if I remember correctly). I was not impressed.

The best thing his legacy has given us is Harley Quinn, a character that fit well with Joker’s depiction in the animated series, but defies logic in the comics version of the character. Like John has effectively pointed out, who in their right mind would work with this psycho? Granted, Quinn is a bit loopy herself. However, I find it difficult to fathom that anyone in even the harshest of domestic situations would stick by someone who has repeatedly tried to kill them (even admitting as much), especially if that person were also a well-known criminal and crazy person. Henchmen be damned!

What this all boils down to, yet again, are inconsistencies in the character. Random revamps, multiple origin stories, overhauls in attitude and goals and a lack of emotional attachment to The Joker are what have led me to be so underwhelmed with his potential. Wizard magazine voted him as “The Best Comic Book Villain” in 2006, but I just don’t see the allure. Jack Nicholson didn’t help matters with his role in Tim Burton’s Batman franchise relaunch either. There’s just no menace left in The Joker and I have to agree that his continued existence baffles me too. Someone at some point would have offed the guy by now. People like him cannot exist outside the law for so long and at such a high profile that they would avoid retribution by either a police officer, a costumed vigilante or just some misguided, obsessed stalker who thinks that killing The Joker will bring him instant fame and glory.

And I don’t care how righteous and honorable Batman wants to sell himself as, no one would hold it against him if he snapped this loser’s neck, tossed him in a pile of garbage and walked away whistling a happy tune. It just makes no sense. There’s not a legal system in the world that would continue to treat this monster with the kid gloves demonstrated in the DC Universe. He’s unrepentant, uncaring and unable to be rehabilitated.

So I guess the big question is, how do we fix him?

Wait, how do we fix him? Isn’t that what I asked you? Yeesh.

The big problem is that I’m not honestly sure he needs to be fixed as much as he needs to simply go away. Does Batman need this guy in his Rogues Gallery? I don’t think so. We’ve detailed some great villains over the past week, and there are other really good Batman villains that we didn’t even touch. Two Face. Poison Ivy. Harley Quinn (who I think works perfectly on her own). The Ventriloquist. The Riddler. Catwoman. Penguin. Ra’s Al Ghul. Black Mask. These are villains that stand as strong antagonists for Batman, in addition to the ones we detailed, and all of them have potential. Heck, I’d rather read a story where Bane is the villain than read another Joker story right now. Yes, I said that. I find Bane more interesting than the Joker. Obviously, this is not good for the Joker, since I would rather read the box which contains my morning cereal than read a story featuring Bane (although, I admit, some of my antipathy toward that character stems from him being used in Knightfall, and he’s received better treatment since then. But, that’s another post…). The point here is that I don’t see the Joker bringing anything to the table that another Bat-Villain can’t bring, and they can probably bring it in a more interesting way, and one that doesn’t make my head hurt.

When we fix characters around here, as is our mission, we’re usually giving them a direction or trying to reimagine them for a new audience. We’re trying to fix their continuity problems and straighten out the mess that’s been made of them over the preceding years. However, since one of the Joker’s biggest problems is that he’s completely overexposed, it’s hard to fix him and use him, since he’d still be overexposed. It’s kind of like fixing Wolverine, the most overused and annoying character in the Marvel Universe, and he’s not half as bad as the Joker (although he is used waaaaay too much and is annoying…let the flaming of John begin!).

So, rule number one for a revamp of the Joker…limit his appearances! He gets used, at most, for one story a year for the next five years. No crossovers. I don’t care that he’d be great to stick into DC’s Absolutely Final We Mean It This Time Crisis…he doesn’t get used. I don’t care if Grant Morrison has the perfect story for the Joker in All-Star Superman. He gets told no. One story a year. He fights Batman. That’s it. I’d actually prefer to limit his appearances even more, but I realize what I’m suggesting is already unrealistic, so I’ll keep it at one story a year.

The second rule requires us to make a decision…do we deal with the fact that the Joker should be dead right now? I see two options…the first is to ignore the fact that his ass should have been capped already and simply use him in a reduced capacity (see rule number one) for a few years, until enough time has passed that he again becomes a credible character. It’s kind of a cop-out, but it could work. The second would be my preference, which would be to charge head first into the idea of why no one has killed the Joker yet. Perhaps a member of the GCPD could decide to take the Joker out, then find himself stopped by Batman, and could confront Batman with the question of why he has allowed so many people to die by turning a blind eye to the Joker’s crimes. Perhaps Batman himself could decide the Joker needs to die, and have a story where he questions whether this is a step he should take. Perhaps something else brings the issue up, but whatever the case, we need to end the story with some sort of reason why killing the Joker is bad. Sadly, I don’t have that reason. That lack of a reason would be the only way I’d support the first option. However, whichever option we take, that actually leads us into rule #2…tone down the Joker’s homicides. No more killing and maiming important members of the DC Universe, and less slaughter in general. He can be very dangerous without cutting a deadly swath through Who’s Who of the DC Universe.

So, that’s my start. Thoughts?

The reality of the situation is that The Joker is so ingrained in our society, not just for comic book fans but for general pop culture reference, that you can’t really ever get rid of him. Remember all the fake hoopla that accompanied the “death” of Superman? Did anyone honestly think that Warner Bros. would permanently remove one of their biggest icons (and greatest marketing tools)? Hell no! There’s a certain comfort level associated with the Average Joe being able to name-check villains with heroes. When I say “Spider-Man” you reply “Green Goblin.” When I say “Fantastic Four” you say “Doctor Doom.” Captain America leads to Red Skull, Magneto fights the X-Men, Daredevil has Bullseye (or Kingpin), Superman has Lex Luthor, even Groo faces off against Taranto…though he can never remember if they’re friends or enemies. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s an unwritten rule: a popular hero’s most recognizable arch-enemy will never, ever, ever truly go away.

Where does that leave us and our nefarious plans for his imminent demise? I don’t really think it changes anything. Like you’ve said, we can merely take him out of the picture without taking him out of existence. There are a plethora of opportunities to tell better Joker stories just by merely limiting his influence over the day-to-day goings-on in Gotham City.

Perhaps Batman has other things to worry about as all of our revamped villains (and even the cool ones we haven’t touched upon yet) begin to institute their insidious plans. Joker’s follies are pushed to the wayside as Batman deals with these newly inspired threats. The Caped Crusader spends the better part of two years trying to rein in these other dangers, while we catch glimpses of Joker’s disappointment and neglect in small backstories and flashback scenes. This could all lead up to one big blowout crossover story where the Joker tries to regain some respect. And, his ultimate plan foiled, he slinks back into the shadows for a few more years. Since he’s such a “big picture” threat and works best as a solo foe, I think this scenario would fit his needs perfectly and still allow writers to delve into the big, powerful Joker tales they all want to tell.

Another option would be to change his position in the Bat-verse. Instead of being the main villain, we can relegate him to a smaller snitch-type role or even a kind of, heavens forbid, adviser to Batman. For instance, he performs one last caper, gets captured by the Dark Knight, and finally gets imprisoned in a place that he can’t possibly ever escape from under any circumstances. Batman could visit him, a la Hannibal Lecter, and pick his twisted brain for information concerning other villains and criminal activities. It would be a way of subtly rehabbing him for readers and slowly integrating him into a different role. However, it also leaves open the possibility for him to have a complete 180-degree flip back into psycho bad guy mode and go absolutely crazy again. I see visions of Norman Osborn in this restructuring (which would be another avenue if The Joker actually had an alter ego we could exploit).

I like your idea of exploring a “Why Don’t We Just Freaking Shoot Him in the Face?” arc that involves members of the GCPD, Batman and a bunch of flashbacks (like a sitcom clip show) that show instances of his ultimate survival. However, once that storyline has reached its logical conclusion…whatever that may end up being…I think another revamp option would be to go completely over the top with his homicidal tendencies. If you think about Batman’s rogues gallery, there isn’t a real killer threat in the bunch of them (though Killer Croc definitely would cross that line if allowed). Sure, they’re all dangerous in their own ways, but there’s no overwhelming danger in dealing with any of them mostly because they all have their own personal goals. On the flip side, The Joker’s only obvious goal is to rid the world of Batman. But there’s no rule that says he has to pursue a straight line to get there. He’s a freakishly sociopathic clown for goodness’ sake! Let him run roughshod over everyone, taking out any loose ends, any horribly misused characters and any continuity problems left over from the Never-Ending Crises. Basically we turn The Joker into DC’s Scourge, except minus the altruistic goal of “removing bad villains from the world” and adding in the bottom line of ticking Batman off to the nth degree and drinking his milkshake.

Regardless of the “Choose Your Own adventure” options I’ve supplied to you, I agree that the final outcome of limiting Joker’s appearances (and his influence) is what needs to be reached. Put a moratorium on his nuisance factor and turn him into more of a whispered legend that may eventually rear its ugly head again some day. So which option works best for you?

I love your idea of using him as a Hannibal Lector type for awhile, and think that can work in with the idea of confronting why Batman has never killed him, and why the Joker’s survival has value. So, we start out by running our story on why the Joker has not been capped yet. We go a few issues, and we explore various characters and their thoughts on this subject (I know that Gordon, at one time, thought that killing the Joker would be doing exactly what the Joker wanted, and that Gordon wanted him kept alive and processed through the legal system to show the Joker that he couldn’t break Gordon) and in the end, Batman has the opportunity to either capture or kill the Joker. I think he chooses the first option, and I think he does it for much of the reason that Gordon outlined. If Batman kills the Joker, then the Joker wins, by pushing Batman past the law and forcing Batman to take matters into his own hands. Honestly, Gordon’s rationale may be the only one that makes any sort of sense when considering the Joker’s continued survival, and if we assume that Gordon made this philosophy known to the GCPD, it may explain why none of them have blown out the Joker’s brains in some dark alley; they refrain out of respect for Gordon’s wishes.

However, after Batman captures the Joker, and the Joker heads to court, a very aggressive District Attorney manages to convince the judge (which shouldn’t be too freaking hard) that putting the Joker back in Arkham Asylum is too dangerous. For all the security at Arkham Asylum, they might as well just let him go. The judge agrees, and with the help of the Justice League, this new, escape proof cell is devised. The Joker is placed there, just like a Hannibal Lector, and the only one that he’ll speak with is his very own Clarice, Batman. Now, not only do we get to see Batman and the Joker interact, but if the Joker can help Batman with some information that saves lives, it begins to validate the Joker’s survival and Batman doesn’t look so bad for letting the schmuck live. I wouldn’t have Batman going to the Joker often (in fact, I’d have it be very rare; again, not more than once or twice a year), and only on really big cases, where Batman is trying to figure something out that’s outside of his own area of expertise. Perhaps he needs information on criminal hideouts, or the working of the psychopathic mind, and Joker may be useful.

By keeping the Joker like this for a year or two, we limit his exposure and are still building a bigger reputation for him. Then, after a few years, he escapes. He would probably need outside help, and I’m not sure who would help him, but maybe someone springs the Joker just so the Joker could wreak havoc. Perhaps Batman, with the Joker out of the way, is really able to stay on top of Gotham’s other villains, and so some of them join forces. The Penguin, Riddler and Poison Ivy decide that, if the Joker were on the loose again, he’d distract Batman from their nefarious doings, so they team up, concoct a plan, and the Joker is freed. However, the Joker promptly disappears, giving Batman the chance to school the three masterminds on the error of their ways. Batman then waits for the Joker to make his move. And he waits. And waits.

For at least a year the Joker is silent. Then he returns, as you described him above, working alone, and doing one or two (absolutely no more than two) crimes a year, crimes whose main goal is eliminating his hated foe, although as you pointed out, that road may not be a straight one. No more gangs. No more Harley Quinn (she’s been on her own since Joker got busted a few years ago, and can stay on her own). Just the Joker, striking alone and without warning, at anyone whose death could help further his twisted plans.

Does that tie it together?

I think it works well and it nearly makes me not hate The Joker. In fact, it could almost be seen as a blessing, turning the “oh great…Joker’s back” reaction into more of a “cool, the Joker’s back!” Of course, I’d like to see other things done with him as well…like dialing back the ridiculous outfit he wears. If they can makeover the Riddler to look less obnoxious, then it shouldn’t be too hard to do the same for Mr. Clown-Face. At the very least, give him a tailored suit in a rational color that doesn’t make it seem like he raped an Old West mortician and stole his ribbon tie. Is that too much to ask?

I’m apprehensive to say that we’ve wrapped this up nicely because I believe that Heath Ledger’s prematurely-legendary performance may reopen this can of worms for the general public. However, strictly comics-speaking, we’ve managed to handle a difficult character with genuine aplomb and for that I say we pat ourselves on our respective backs and move on to the next challenge.


Scarecrow: Not Just a Member of the Legion of Doom

Jul-01-08

Seriously, what was up with the Legion of Doom in those old Challenge of the Superfriends cartoons? Would Luthor just let anyone join? I mean, this is a team that was founded to fight a group that included Superman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, and Luthor thought that Toyman, Scarecrow and the Riddler were major threats, and had the potential to overcome these heroes?! I loved the first episode, when they introduced all the villains, and they spoke about the Riddler’s “super riddle power”. I wonder exactly how that power worked? However, I am not here to discuss the Riddler…not yet, anyway. Today we spend some time investigating the scariest member of Batman’s Rogues Gallery…the Scarecrow!

I think the concept of the Scarecrow is actually a pretty solid one. We start with a college psychology professor, one Dr. Jonathan Crane, who turns to crime because he is fired (I’m constantly amazed at how being fired is apparently very traumatic for some people. I’ve known many people who were fired for one reason or another, but none of them have yet donned odd costumes and turned to a life of crime. Obviously, my social circle must be too small). Because he knows psychology and is fascinated by fear, he decides to use those as his motif (because, if you are going to turn to crime because you’re fired, you can’t just go out, grab a ski mask and knock over a liquor store. No, you have to have a theme!) and becomes the Scarecrow. Although he was created back in the 1940s, he didn’t see much use until the Silver Age, when he was revived. Since then, he’s been a constant thorn in Batman’s side.

The underlying visual and thematic appeal of the Scarecrow can’t be denied. Yes, if drawn wrong he can look cartoonish and silly, but when drawn right he can look terrifying. Honestly, as much as I make fun of The Challenge of the Superfriends, Scarecrow occasionally stands apart from the rest of his villainous teammates in his somewhat fearsome appearance (fearsome, at least, within the confines of the Saturday morning cartoon world). In Batman; The Animated Series they made him look more gruesome still, particularly after he was redesigned for the later episodes. And, in the comics, he’s often looked very frightening. I’ve also always been fascinated by the fact that this is a gentleman who is a trained psychologist, and he should be using that training. Many times, he’s just been a guy with a fear gas, and that’s all they’ve done with him, but they should be able to do so much more. One of the best uses I’ve ever seen of the character was during No Man’s Land, when he situated himself in a church and used his knowledge of psychology to set disparate groups against each other. It was very well done, and there was nary a fear gas canister in sight.

My problem with the Scarecrow is that his characterization and look are all over the board. Sometimes he is presented as a very smart, but cold man, who has no times for games and needs to get on with the business of scaring people. Sometimes he’s shown as a genius in the field of psychology, and sometimes it doesn’t seem as if he’s had any training in that respect. I’ve seen him depicted as a man who lives only to create fear in others, with all other considerations secondary, and as someone where fear is merely a means to an end. At times he appears as a rational man, as he did in No Man’s Land. Then you see him in something like Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Hush and he appears to be nothing more than a madman, quoting nursery rhymes in lieu of intelligent discourse and apparently incapable of anything else. That needs to stop and we need to portray him in a more consistent manner.

So, what do we keep and what do we ditch? What makes Scarecrow a worthy addition to the Rogues’ Gallery? I have some ideas on the subject, but I’ve been babbling on for quite awhile, so I’ll turn this over to the lovely and talented Jason first, to see if he has any thoughts on the subject.

Well, given the fact that this is the cover to Scarecrow’s first appearance, I think we have some explaining to do:

I always knew Robin was the catcher.

To say the character of Jonathan Crane has been “all over the place” is an understatement. As you’ve noted, he’s gone from respected psychologist to poetry-spewing madman to pharmacological genius to clueless dolt all in the span of a few appearances. Even Wikipedia lists him as insane. His origin has been vague and tweaked and expanded and retconned and ignored. He has been mentioned as liking to frighten birds (makes sense for a scarecrow), then as having a phobia of birds and then, subsequently, being fascinated by birds and given a pet crow. He starts out using his costumed persona to frighten people into doing his bidding, then its said that he actually began his fear-inducing career as a result of early childhood bullying. This later expands to include his constant interest in fear and the experiments he begins that lead to his psychology career. He works at Arkham Asylum and takes the Scarecrow moniker because of the teasing he endured due to his lanky frame. At some point he develops his fear toxin only to stop using it recently in preference to using psychological tactics again. And in Batman: The Animated Series, Scarecrow actually whips up an anti-fear toxin to hold Gotham City ransom. But that’s not all! As you noted, Jeph Loeb writes him singing random nursery rhymes. Judd Winick turned him into a “Scarebeast.” And in other stories he’s revealed to have been born out of wedlock, murdered his grandmother, used a group of young boys to terrorize the city and been beaten senseless by The Joker. Oh, and in every media iteration, from comics to cartoons to movies, Scarecrow has been exposed to his own fear toxins. Not fun.

Whew. Where do we start?

Maybe it would help if we did a quick rundown of his visual appearance over the years. Here’s a semi-chronological recap:

(Sorry, that last one is the epically more interesting Marvel version of Scarecrow. He’s a contortionist!)

Considering he went from looking like Phyllis Diller to a rotting bag of puppy chow, I think there has been some improvement in his style (the later animated appearances are particularly creepy). And, perhaps, this indicates a desire to take the character more seriously as a strong villain. A few things still need to be determined before we can plot a new course for him, however. What is his motivation? Why Batman and why Gotham? Is he truly crazy? And can we definitively work all of his wonky origin bits into one cohesive presentation that makes him believable and a viable threat?

There’s a demented Children of the Corn aspect built into his appearance, his abilities and his origin. He could be like a scary version of Fagin from Oliver Twist or a demented Pied Piper figure. Looking at Ed Brubaker’s recent revamp of Mister Fear over in Daredevil, there are a few directions we could go with Mr. Crane. Using fear as a personal means to an end, i.e. acquiring wealth or status, is a persistent path to follow. Spreading his drug through the masses, as either a psychotrope (as seen in Batman Begins) or as more of a mind control substance (as alluded to in the cartoons), would make sense too. But what is his ultimate goal?

You know, I’ve written my opening line about ten times, flipping back and forth between whether or not the Scarecrow is insane. I certainly don’t think that he’s Joker-level nutso, but I think that he is crazier than someone like Penguin or Mr. Freeze. If nothing else, he’s obsessed with the concept of fear and unlike someone like Freeze, who was forced into his super-villain role by circumstance, Crane chose to dress up like a Scarecrow and terrorize the world. I do believe Crane is crazy, which doesn’t make him any less dangerous, or his knowledge of psychology any less useful.

Nailing down his motivation is even more difficult. Obviously, I think the idea that he wants revenge on the people who fired him from his teaching post is something that we can either ignore, or can say has been achieved (honestly, I don’t buy the firing as why he became the Scarecrow anyway. I think his obsession with fear was always with him, and perhaps was the reason he studied psychology in the first place. When Batman and some of his original Rogues’ Gallery began appearing, I think Crane became fascinated with this new type of character, these icons who evoked such strong emotions from the general public. Crane began to contemplate if such an icon could be created specifically to evoke fear from people, and toyed with the idea of becoming just such a symbol. However, the orderly, obsessive/compulsive part of his brain wouldn’t let him just take up arms against society; that part of him would require society to wrong him. He knew that he needed an excuse to become this villain, and he subconsciously knew that discharging a firearm in class would result in his termination. Once that thought became reality, he could then declare himself the victim and become the Scarecrow, free to spread fear throughout the world!).

Well, it seems that I’ve given him a motivation through my parenthetical musings. However, the idea of his motivation being simply the spreading of fear seems a little thin to me. I’d rather say that, while he is still obsessed with fear, he was a professor at a college, and probably involved in research along the way. I see the Scarecrow still involved in research, but now the entire world is his laboratory. Yes, he’ll perform robberies and the like, for the money they bring him, but that money is simply a means to an end, with that end being his research. In the long run, this could give us a lot of different stories to tell with this character. Each time we see him, he could be testing another theory. For example, perhaps he wants to study the difference between how males and females react to the fear of spiders. He could go about this in multiple ways. First of all, he could try and concoct some of his fear gas that will cause the victim to feel that they are being covered by spiders, and then try to affect a very large group of people at once. In this way, he wouldn’t be able to examine all of the effects of his gas first hand, but he could check casualty figures and reports afterward and get some data from that, and he’d have a large group of specimens to work with. Alternately, he could kidnap people (a few at a time perhaps) and then experiment on them one at a time, perhaps covering them with real spiders, while watching their reaction from nearby.

Imagine the scary here….some innocent is kidnapped while walking home from the grocery store. They wake up in a small, bare room, with most (or all) of their clothing removed, making them feel very vulnerable. Suddenly, a single light flickers on, bathing the subject in a harsh, cold light. A hoarse voice, chilling in its clipped tones, comes over a sound system, and asks the subject to prepare themselves. Suddenly, spiders start pouring through the ceiling, completely engulfing the hapless subject. While this is happening, the voice on the loudspeaker is asking the subject for their impressions, and what they’re feeling (which the subject is ignoring as they scream their heads off).

That’s how I could see the Scarecrow operating, at least if he were researching that sort of theory. However, he could come up with all sorts of theories to investigate, and doing so could lead him into conflict with Batman in any number of ways (or even with different heroes, if we wanted to use him that way). Thoughts?

I think you’ve given him perfectly reasonable motivation without any sort of hint of an ultimate goal. But that’s not a bad thing either. If he is slightly unhinged, then his psyche may not be able to rectify a final outcome…he may just be experimenting for the sake of experimenting without ever reaching his hypothesis because he’s so wrapped up in the minutiae of the moment. I think the fact that this approach makes him so random and creepy is perfect for his persona.

What’s even more interesting is that this accurately blends aspects of his checkered origin stories with the direction the character has taken in the most current movies. It moves him away from the “goofy, costumed theme villain” into more of an intellectual, reason-based antagonist. As he gets from Point A to Point B, the devil is in the details so to speak. I could see him sitting in a high-backed armchair, his spectacles on the end of his nose, scribbling in a leather-bound journal while watching scenes of fear-based torture on a closed circuit television. The fact that he would appear as only a voice and perhaps a grainy black & white visage to his captives lends him an air of detached evil, the kind that is only found in twisted, calculating men like the main baddie in the Saw movies.

This Scarecrow would rely on trusted henchmen to do his dirty work. He would remain in his “Ivory Tower” pushing buttons and taking notes, appearing only as the experiment was winding down. In fact, his costumed identity could be relegated to simply the burlap mask necessary to conceal his true face…or some sort of anonymous coveralls with the mask and a noose necktie…something very serial killeresque. The name Scarecrow would come to symbolize not the actual look of the man, but rather his demeanor. He could even ascend to some sort of post in the criminal underground, similar to Penguin or Black Mask, where he ruled primarily by tactics of fear instead of brute force, the implication of power rather than power itself. I could see Batman visiting him through the window of his richly appointed library, trying to place blame on him for one crime or another, but having no true evidence linking him to such. In that sense, Scarecrow could play a much better control freak than The Joker.

Outwardly, I could even imagine Jonathan Crane playing the victim to the public. Coming forth and showing remorse for his previous actions, swearing to be an upstanding citizen, and launching some sort of charity program for literacy or education. He could gain sympathy from the masses in the face of Batman’s supposed obsession and brutality. Maybe even fooling enough folks to run for office one day, all the while struggling to keep his true self contained in the public eye (and continuing his experiments in secret while decrying them in the media). Double creepy!

Well, everything wrapped up nicely. And much quicker than usual. Still, I can’t improve on this; I think we’ve got ourselves a revitalized, and quite honestly, very scary super-villain.


Mr. Freeze: Revenge is a dish best served cold

Jun-26-08

Many Batman villains were featured in the famous Adam West/Burt Ward Batman TV show in the 1960s. These villains were portrayed in a comedic manner, and many people blame this television series for the fact that many people don’t take Batman, his rogues gallery or even comics in general, very seriously. However, no Batman villain that starred in that television show had their public image hurt as much as Mr. Freeze did by appearing in Batman and Robin in 1997. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Joel Schumacher have so much to answer for. Please, as we speak about Mr. Freeze, try to block out the image of that movie and that portrayal. Honestly, for your own sanity, blocking out that movie in general may be for the best. Therapy helps. I went that route. I understand they can do amazing things with hypnotism these days as well, and lobotomies are covered by a surprising number of health care plans.

With that abomination placed behind us, let’s take a look at Mr. Freeze. He was actually introduced back in 1959 and was called Mr. Zero. He was never used much in the comics, and certainly not used with any sort of real backstory or personality until that aforementioned Batman TV series, where he became one of the many villains made more popular by appearing on the show. It was the TV series that renamed him Mr. Freeze, and that name soon carried over to the comics. However, while the TV series caused a short surge in interest for Freeze in the comics, it didn’t last and he soon began to languish in obscurity once again. In fact, he was killed by the Joker in the comics, and may not have been seen again if not for Batman: The Animated Series.

For anyone who likes super-heroes, Batman, animation or well-told stories of any genre, Batman: The Animated Series is a must-see. One of the strongest portrayals of a super-hero I have ever seen, this series, with very few missteps, managed to create and re-energize many of the members of the Batman family. However, of all the characters who were favorably helped by this series, Mr. Freeze may rank at the top. In his debut episode, the animated series managed to take his origin (his wife is dying of an incurable disease; Freeze, an accomplished scientist cryogenically freezes her until a cure can be found; an unscrupulous businessman attempts to stop the cryogenic process; in the ensuing scuffle, Freeze is thrown into chemicals that turn him into the supervillain we all know and his wife is killed) and wring the pathos and tragedy from it. Freeze had always been a cold character; the animated series made him cool.

His death was quickly reversed in the comic books, and he returned to action. However, it seems that he’s not been able to retain the cool mystique that the animated series bestowed upon him when he appears in the comics. You would think that his reinvention would have made it easier for him to retain the interest that the animated series had created in the character. After all, he went from this:

Batman #121 (1959), the first appearance of Mr. Freeze as

To this….

See? Much cooler now. However, his appearances have been lackluster, and writers seem unsure of what to do with him. I’m not sure why, but I believe he suffers at least partly from a problem we identified with Clayface….he’s too powerful for Batman. Writers tend to look at his abilities and just write them, rather than writing his personality. Now, unlike Clayface, I don’t think you can or should reduce Freeze’s powers. Making him weaker in any way would fundamentally change the character; he IS cold, both in powers and personality, and that’s important. However, he has quite a bit to add to Batman’s rogues gallery that makes him stand out. First of all, he does have power, making Freeze and Killer Croc perhaps Batman’s only two really powerful foes. Unlike Croc, however, Freeze is also brilliant, making him, in my opinion, the toughest opponent Batman faces amongst his regular villains (in fact, I think that perhaps Freeze is limited by being stuck in Batman’s rogues gallery, and perhaps should be let loose on the larger DC universe).

Freeze is also an unusual foe for Batman because he is not insane. He is rational and analytical, making him a very different kind of enemy. However, the fact that Freeze is sane points out one of the problems in the character: motivation. Writers can get away with having the Joker commit atrocities because the Joker is insane, but why does Freeze do what he does? He wasn’t a criminal before his accident and his original motivation of revenge against those who he believes are responsible for the death of his wife seems to have been left behind. So, if we’re going to make Freeze a workable character now, I would ask, why does he do what he does?

See, I dunno, I would argue that his sanity is tenuous at best. He may not be on the same level as Joker or Mad Hatter, but Freeze is definitely at least slightly unhinged. As you point out, the initial motivation for his villainy is long gone yet he still broods and plots and fights. Remind you of anyone else?

I think that’s where the viability of the character lies: in his oddly parallel resemblance to Batman. Let’s face it, Batman’s original motivation is decades past, but he continues to fight the darkness in the name of justice. Doesn’t that mean Freeze must battle the bright lights in the name of chaos?

The way I see it, Mr. Freeze is all about making life difficult for others out of spite. His life didn’t turn out the way he wanted. He was successful, happily married and…uh…non-frozen. But what did that get him? NOTHING. So now his only real motivation is to see others suffer, either directly at his hands or as a consequence of his actions.

That’s, literally, cold-hearted.

With his power and his determination, he could easily cause much havoc in Gotham City. If you read the J.H. Williams and Dan Curtis Johnson-penned “Snow” storyline, then you know that Freeze has no problem taking out anyone who gets in his way…freezing and shattering innocent police officers included. Batman can’t get too close to him for fear of being popsicle-ized himself. Perhaps Freeze just wants to inconvenience as many people as he can. What’s more inconvenient than an unexpected ice storm? Freeze can shut down the Gotham transportation system…take out power plants…even ice over the servers that transmit financial data throughout the city.

Conversely, there’s the continued quest to find a cure that may be driving him slowly insane too. Could be simply lashing out at the perfect world he doesn’t feel he’s a part of anymore. Or maybe he realizes the extent of his power and figures, since he lost all the important things in his life already, he’s now free to take whatever he wants. Maybe a power struggle with Black Mask and Penguin for a chunk of Gotham’s underworld? I don’t think he necessarily feels he needs to battle Batman. There’s no vendetta against him. In fact, he may even view him sympathetically somehow. We could also go for a King Midas angle with him (not sure how that fits in with anything). I also agree he could be a good DC villain across the board…feeling at home in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude…or battling the other cold-themed villains (Icicle, Killer Frost, Captain Cold, etc.) for dominance.

I’m not sure of the specifics of any of this, but that might give you a spark from which to work. Sorry, I’m a bit scatterbrained today. You willing to pick up the slack here?

Not to start this discussion here (since it’s something we may get to when we actually discuss Batman), but do you realize that you made the argument that Batman’s insane? You drew parallels between Batman and Freeze, and then argued that Freeze is a little insane. I’m not necessarily saying I disagree that Batman is often written as at least slightly insane, although I would argue that I don’t believe that’s an appropriate interpretation of the character. However, that is a digression for another post.

Moving back to Freeze, is he insane? I suppose that depends on how we’re defining insanity. He’s certainly sociopathic, in his complete disregard for the lives and property of others. Webster’s defines insanity as a “deranged state of mind or lack of understanding.” I would still contend that Freeze is not insane; I do not believe he is deranged, and I think he understands what he is doing very well. I just don’t think he cares. I’m not sure why I’m bothering to argue the definition of insanity, as I think we both agree that Freeze is very different from most of Batman’s villains in that he is more rational and controlled. In the end, you would win the argument (at least from DC’s point of view) since they throw him in Arkham when they catch him.

I do want to touch on some other points you made. First of all, I would immediately dismiss the plot about Freeze trying to find a cure. It’s never made sense to me; why would Freeze want a cure? His wife is dead and he has no reason to return to humanity. I would tend to agree that much of his motivation boils down to “My life sucks; now yours does too.” That shows a degree of fatalism, of realizing that things are bad and there is nothing he can do to change what has happened, that makes his search for a cure very incongruous with the rest of his character. So, I think that plot point gets booted.

You mention two different plot points that I like, and that I think fit together. First of all, I really like the idea of portraying him as something of the anti-Batman; Batman saw criminals take away the two people who mattered most to him in the world, and so now he fights those criminals. Freeze saw respected members of society take away the one person who mattered most to him in the world, so now he fights society. I think that’s a fine motivation; it makes Freeze something of a nihilist, which I imagine he probably doesn’t mention to any henchmen he might have. He still needs to rob and gain money, both to finance his other plans, and also because that hurts society. Most of his henchmen probably assume that’s all he really is; a high-powered crook. However, Freeze is working on levels they don’t suspect, as he works to undermine the very fabric of society.

You also mentioned that Freeze finds no particular reason to fight Batman, which I also agree with wholeheartedly. Freeze is virtually passionless, and what emotion he does retain he saves for his hatred of a society that betrayed him. He’s not going to waste it on Batman. Batman is small potatoes; Freeze thinks big. I think that it makes a lot more sense to kick Freeze loose of the Bat-Books (is there any logical reason that he always carries out his plans in Gotham City, besides editorial fiat that he’s a Bat-villain?) and allow him to terrorize the DC Universe at large. If Freeze really wants to kick out some of the pillars that hold up society, what better target than super-heroes? Surely he’d be happy to knock a Flash out of Keystone City or a Starman out of Opal City, the better to destabilize the community who counts on those heroes.

Of course, Freeze is no idiot. He’s not likely to roll into Coast City and start duking it out with Green Lantern. That’s the path of defeat. It’s been stated in various stories that Freeze may be virtually immortal; since his body is basically frozen, it won’t age. Freeze is patient, and he can afford to be. If he sets his sights on taking down Green Lantern, for example, he’s going to devise a plot to do so. It might take a year or so for this plot to come to fruition, and the plot itself might not be readily apparent to either the hero or other villains who may be involved in it, but there would be a plot slowly moving forward. By this same token, if we want to keep him in Gotham City, we can always have his first target be Batman. Batman is a hugely important member of the super-hero community, and if he were killed, it would strongly destabilize both the other heroes and the city that Batman protects.

In the end, here’s how I see this working; Freeze wants a hero dead or at least removed from the field as a hero, to advance his goal of revenge on a society that betrayed him. No matter who the hero is, it’s not a personal issue. Freeze doesn’t hate the hero (even Batman); the hero is simply in Freeze’s way. Freeze knows that killing a hero isn’t easy, because if it was, everyone could do it. He devises a plot to bring about the effect he wants (and again, perhaps death isn’t his goal, but some other way of neutering a hero….how effective is Batman if you freeze his leg off, or give him severe enough frostbite that his toes have to be amputated? If doing either of those is easier than killing Batman, perhaps Freeze would go in that direction.), a plot which will take some time, and perhaps is a little byzantine. The reader would see Freeze in the hero’s book on and off for maybe a year, performing actions which seem to lead to one conclusion. Then, at the end, Freeze’s true plan is revealed, and we find out that he’s actually been going in a different direction all along.

Think that’s workable?

You’re completely correct in your reasoning. I think I was grasping for a word and I just couldn’t find it. I don’t think either Batman or Freeze is insane. They’re both completely capable of reasoned thinking. They both have full use of their faculties. And they both understand the consequences of their actions. The big difference is that Freeze just flat out doesn’t care anymore. You’re right in labeling him as a fatalist and a nihilist. I’d also suggest that he’s angry, calculating and misanthropic.

A storyline pursuing a cure wouldn’t make sense under these revelations. Because he doesn’t care anymore. He knows his fate and he has accepted it, but that doesn’t mean he’s happy about it. I also don’t think you can build any sort of emotional storyarc that plays on the weakness in his soul for the loss of his wife. First of all, I don’t believe he has emotions anymore. And, secondly, he’s not insane…he knows his wife is dead and isn’t coming back (even in the realm of comic book logic). There’s no way he would be tricked into following an apparition or doppelganger of his deceased spouse unless he wanted whoever was pulling the strings to think that he was hypnotized so that he could exact some sort of revenge upon them at the right moment.

Not that you made it a big point or anything, but I also don’t think he’d ever have henchmen. They’d just get in his way. He despises society. He doesn’t want to surround himself with happy-go-lucky, warm-blooded meatbags. He has turned his back on that life just as they turned on him. Which brings me back to my first story idea: terrorism. You argue that he’d pursue a strategy that would seek to eliminate heroes as society’s pillars. But I see it a completely different way. I think he would avoid mixing it up with the heroes because of the chance of being beat. Like most terrorists, he would pursue the path of least resistance that also led to the greatest amount of upheaval. Taking out a hero is a blow to morale, but it doesn’t really change society. Now, granted, we’re talking about superhero books and some sort of conflict has to happen, but I don’t think he’d necessarily be looking for it.

Like I said before: transportation systems, food & water supplies, data streams, financial foundations, anything that would adversely affect the weather or temperatures. These are the things he’s looking to disrupt in a big way. Maybe he has amplified his power and freezes a commercial airliner right out of the sky. Maybe he freezes the elevated train tracks and makes them crumble like glass under the weight of the train. Maybe he freezes the entire sewer system of Gotham, making mains burst and flood the city, ruining the drinking water and spreading disease.

Whatever he does, he hits quickly and unexpectedly and gets out of Dodge. He thrives on panic. And I think he starts in Gotham because that’s where he’s based, but also because his first actions would be a symbolic attempt to “break out” of the city and go bigger. Ultimately, anything he does is going to draw the attention of Batman. It’s a given and I think he’d be resigned to that fact. But like you said, he doesn’t necessarily have to defeat Batman, he just has to subdue him. Frozen toes will make pursuit impossible!

They call Ra’s Al Ghul an “eco-terrorist,” but I think Freeze would give him a run for his money. What say you?

That is a very interesting idea. I certainly can’t argue with your reasoning on why using his dead wife as a gimmick wouldn’t work. That makes a lot of sense. I also understand why you’re saying he wouldn’t have henchmen. That also makes sense. And let’s be honest….he doesn’t need henchmen. Again, this guy is pretty powerful. Someone like the Joker needs henchmen to keep Batman busy while he both completes his plan and chortles like a madman. Freeze can easily keep Batman busy while completing his own plans, and he doesn’t chortle. So, henchment useless.

In many ways, your terrorist idea is boiling him down to his core and continues to set him apart from the rest of the Rogues Gallery. This guy is becoming less of a man and more of an unstoppable force. He literally is a force of nature. I have no problem divorcing him from the idea of fighting super-heroes, at least of his own choice. As you say, once he starts committing acts of eco-terrorism, the heroes will find him, so you’ll still get your daily dosage of capes and tights.

I really like the idea of a villain who doesn’t really care to kill the heroes, and would just prefer them out of his way so he can do more important things. I think you’ve really nailed the character, and I think this positions him as a unique foe for our Dark Knight.


Bat-Villains: Clayface: Feet of Clay?

Jun-24-08

As I mentioned in the previous post, more than perhaps any other mainstream super-hero, Batman lends himself to dark, gritty noir stories, ones that straddle a line with horror, and perhaps cross that line on occasion. Batman can certainly star in a more mainstream super-hero tale, but he and many of his villains are cloaked in shadow, and you should be able to evoke an immediate mood of dark alleyways, sinister villains and sudden, strangled death with Batman and most of his rogues gallery. When Batman began his crime fighting career in the early 1940′s, noir was quite popular, and many of his early adventures took place in that setting. Clayface, who first appeared in June of 1940, was a perfect example of a shadow-cloaked villain who skulked through the night, killing those his warped mind had decreed worthy of death.

Basil Karlo, the original Clayface, was a horror movie actor who was driven mad because he wasn’t invited to star in the remake of his most famous picture. Yes, that is one of the lamest villain origins around. However, his origin isn’t really that important (although it could be punched up if necessary), not compared to what you have. You’re left with a crazy, insane actor, one that knows about make-up and understands the importance of drama and theatrics. He uses said make-up skill to give himself an ugly, grotesque appearance, and begins killing those he believed had wronged him, skulking around movie studios like an apparition. This Clayface was scary for a few reasons. First, he was completely insane, killing almost anyone he felt had slighted him. Second, he was able to project an image of stability, appearing in the daytime as normal, and only acting unhinged when he was in his Clayface make-up. That helped with the third reason he was scary; we never saw Clayface during the day. Often, what might seem frightening when viewed among the dim lights and shadows looks positively silly under the harsh light of the sun. By keeping Clayface away from the bright lights, he retained his sinister presence (one of the greatest images I’ve seen of him was from his second appearance. He was being transported to the insane asylum during the night when the vehicle he was in crashed. He escapes from the wreckage, and you see him, illuminated by a flash of lightning, standing on the bluff with his arms reaching toward the heavens, cackling maniacally. Yes, it’s cliche, but it really evokes a mood.).

Unfortunately, Clayface in this incarnation wasn’t interesting enough for Batman readers in the Silver Age of Comics, and a slew of new Clayfaces followed (there have now been seven of them). Each of the subsequent Clayfaces had super-powers; they were able to alter their bodies to look like anything. It made them quite powerful (more powerful than Batman) and I suppose it was meant to make them more interesting. However, while there have been good Clayface stories since then, I fear that most writers tend to now write the power, rather than writing the character. I would also offer the opinion that he’s too powerful for a Batman villain; I feel that, in his own titles, Batman works best fighting more street level threats. Save the super-powerful villains for him to fight for his appearances in JLA or other team books.

In current DC continuity Basil Karlo is back to being Clayface, and he’s stolen the power to alter his body chemistry. I think that there’s a lot of potential in this character and I’m glad to see him as Clayface once again. One of the big changes that should be made is to bring his power level down. It’s been established with some of the other Clayface characters that their powers fade over time. Perhaps Karlo’s could fade to an acceptable level; I think it would be useful for him to be able to change his basic appearance (face, skin color, hair, weight….superficial physical features) and that is it; no more giant clay monsters with sledgehammer fists; no more flying creatures, or super-attack forms. He’s now just an actor who has the ability to change his facial features, meaning that he could be anyone, which could be a nice way to up his horror factor. Also, since he’s an actor, he can play the character to match his physical change, meaning he could be very convincing. Plus, he’s still got his flair for the dramatic, which is a nice way of keeping the atmosphere charged when he’s the villain of the story.

What do you think? Do you see potential here?

Y’know, I think you’ve hit upon something that makes a lot of sense for a Batman villain, and that is the ability to be truly scary while operating only at night…mimicking the traits that make Batman who he is. I wish we could pretty much erase everything that has happened to Clayface over the years and revert back to the earlier history of Basil Karlo. Fortunately, by tempering his powers, we may be able to do just that.

I agree that there’s a certain disconnect in having Clayface be able to turn into flying creatures or even to summon more of the material that gives him his abilities and turn into some giant hulking glob monster. As far as I know, it isn’t simple organic clay that gives him these abilities…if that were true, every baked-out bohemian with a pottery wheel could be a super villain. That said, let’s create a situation where the addition of all of this extra material has, over the years diluted Clayface’s powers. That makes sense. With limited abilities (only able to change his facial features, skin color, hair color and length, slight changes to height and weight, and perhaps appearance of gender), Karlo would be forced to devise other ways to execute his plans. I think it would be logical for him to follow one of two paths: either he becomes a pure lunatic Jack the Ripper type character with a pinch of Jekyll and Hyde in him, or he becomes a master strategist a la Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes with a splash of Phantom of the Opera thrown in for effect. Either one works for me, but let’s examine the differences and you tell me what fits better for you.

The first scenario returns the “normal citizen by day, crazed psycho killer by night” theme that colored Clayface’s original appearances. Imagine a serial killer in Gotham City that’s nearly impossible to identify. Every eyewitness account would describe a different culprit as he changed his looks for each kill. Even if someone gets on his trail, how easy would it be for him to just disappear into a crowd? And, with that in mind, perhaps he commits these crimes in crowded areas because he knows he can escape. Of course, the only thing lacking would be an appropriate motive. If we want the character to have legs, we’ll need more than just the one-trick storyline.

The second scenario pits Clayface against Batman’s detective skills, using Batman’s own abilities against him. Imagine a character that could actually make Batman paranoid! In this set-up, Clayface is actually after Bruce Wayne for some reason (easy to figure out). He could simply replace different people in Bruce Wayne’s life and steer him towards whatever goal Clayface wishes…perhaps kidnapping him? How paranoid would Batman be if he never expects these everyday people in his life of any wrongdoing? The added bonus in this scenario is setting up a bunch of scenes with Bruce Wayne instead of his costumed alter ego, which is something the Batman mythos needs more of in my view.

By toning down the “Aargh! I’m a monster!” campy, comic-bookish aspect of the Clayface character, we can make him into a truly formidable foe instead of just a one-joke loser. Thoughts on your end? Which direction do you want to explore?

Man, that is not an easy decision, because they’re both great potential stories. Tackling your second idea last, the story possibilities here are great. I love the idea of Clayface manipulating Bruce Wayne in the manner you describe, and it works great as a storytelling tool as well. I wouldn’t let the reader know what Clayface was up to, or even that it was Clayface in all the scenes in which he is impersonating someone close to Wayne. Wayne would never suspect anything as long as Clayface stayed in character and didn’t have anyone do anything wildly out of character, and I don’t think that would be difficult for Clayface. You could end up with Batman in some incredibly dangerous situation, a situation that Clayface manuevered him into, and then reveal that the villain here is Clayface, and reveal that he has been manipulating Wayne for weeks (months?), and then reveal all the times he’s posed as someone else. Readers would certainly start looking back over those issues, finding the subtle clues that were dropped. It could be very cool, evoking a sort of The Sixth Sense feeling, where you smack your head and say, “D’oh! Of course! It was there all along, but I didn’t see it because I wasn’t looking for it!”

Yes, that could be really cool. But I’m not choosing that path.

Batman has enough rogues in his gallery that I’m not sure there are any niches he needs filled. That being said, his gallery is brimming over with “master planners” and characters who plot long and hard to bring down Batman. I think that Clayface can best serve in the rogues gallery by making him the serial killer you mention. First of all, I think that this option really ramps up the potential horror of the character, since he really could be anyone at anytime. Second, using that horror reinforces the character’s origins as an actor in horror movies; an insane Robert Englund, in a way. Actually, that’s not a bad analogy. We’re kind of exploring the story of what would happen if Robert Englund went insane, started dressing as Freddy Krueger, and was gutting people with some homemade metal claws. Third, I think this way really helps to showcase Batman’s detective skills (I’m a big fan of any Batman story that has him doing actual detective work). If we went with the idea of Clayface subtly manipulating Batman, we don’t get to show much detective work, since Batman isn’t aware of what’s going on. However, with the serial killer option, Batman knows that there is evil afoot (he’s seen the corpses), but finding the killer is made much harder due to Clayface’s ability to change his appearance. It would be interesting to deal with Batman’s frustration as the victims continue to mount, and to devise a way for Batman to finally figure out the killer’s identity and how to find him.

Unfortunately, as you also mentioned, we have one nagging problem with this version of the character: motivation. Why would Clayface be killing people? We can always use the insanity motivation, perhaps having him target a particular group of people (people who look like an old director, casting director, actress, etc. that frustrated him when he was in Hollywood), and that could make for an incredibly intereshing, creepy story. Sadly, it can only make for ONE of those stories. Once Batman captures him, if Clayface escapes, we can’t do the same story again. “Oh look. Clayface is killing more people exactly like he did before. Zzzzzzzzzzz.” However, this might be a way for us to use both of your ideas. We do the serial killer storyline, and at the end of it, Clayface is sent to Arkham. While there, he realizes that, if he escapes and goes about his plans as he did before, he’ll simply get captured again and thrown back into Arkham, and that simply won’t do. Instead of simply cutting people down in the streets, he’s going to have to be more careful, and he’s going to have to be smarter. Perhaps it’s also time for him to secure some money, so that he can begin to lay a defense (or at least afford a decent attorney), if he’s captured again. Thinking along these lines, he decides to hit some of Gotham’s wealthiest, and kill them in such a way that he can seize their valubles after they are disposed of. So, he spends time watching them (in a variety of guises) and then getting close to them (again, impersonating different people). He manages to lure them to some out of the way spot, where he kills them in his typical gruesome fashion. He then takes their place and goes back to their lives long enough to drain their accounts and transfer as much of their wealth to himself as possible. Once he’s done that, he abandons their identity and goes after someone else.

The police would be baffled. At first, they wouldn’t be looking for a corpse, since no one would be missing. Then wealthy Gothamite #1 disappears. A manhunt begins, and in a few days they find the corpse buried in a shallow grave or throw into a ditch outside of town. An autopsy is performed, but something is wrong. This corpse died five days ago, but 20 eyewitnesses saw him at the Gotham National Bank three days ago! This happens a few times, and then Clayface targets Bruce Wayne. Now we have a chance for Wayne to use his detective skills, since he’d know he was a possible target, and although he might not know the details of how the crimes are being committed, he’d certainly be on his guard.

Is that too big of a leap from a serial killer to more of a planner, or do you think it’s a logical progression?

Reading your response and your thoughts behind the “master planner” idea, I started thinking that my original premise was kind of boring. It would take a tremendous amount of build-up and rely on a lot of talking head scenes between Bruce Wayne and other average folks with nary a cape or cowl in sight. But once you established the whole “bad guy taking out rich people” angle, it seemed to make a lot more sense.

I don’t think it’s a giant leap for Clayface to go from psycho random killer to more focused goal-oriented killer. Spending some time in Arkham Asylum would give him time to collect his thoughts, realign his persona and take the opportunity to see the error of his ways, so to speak. Plus, I don’t think there’s anything creepier than the idea of killing someone and then taking their place for an extended amount of time…that demonstrates a deep sociopathic problem not out of line with someone who was previously a serial killer. In fact, I almost see that as a progression of his psychotic behavior. Going from the terrifying serial killer to the brooding revenge killer fits well and incorporates both scenarios that I presented (which I was actually torn about too).

The biggest stretch for me is taking Clayface from a bumbling, shape-shifting brute to a calculating murderer. I think the best way to do that would be to demonstrate some sort of mental breakdown associated with Clayface losing the majority of his powers. He snaps because he doesn’t have the freedom or the protection that his powers once gave him. But who does he take it out on? Is it a random thing? Does he associate his loss with a certain archetype? Random killings would be the most brutal, but also the most difficult to explain. And yet, for my money, taking out individuals who all look the same, or have the same occupation or have the same connections is almost telegraphing information for Batman…he’s such a great detective, that these obvious similarities would come to him like a fever dream.

So, the catalyst is a dampening of powers (and a slightly off-balance mindset to begin with). The reaction has yet to be determined. But you’ve managed to tie the fallout of his rampage into a series of plausible story arcs that would set Clayface up as a truly dangerous foe. We just need to tie together the loose ends.

That’s a good point you make about his personality being somewhat different from the way it’s been portrayed for years. I’m basing a personality largely off two comic stories written almost seventy years ago, and the character has been seen quite a bit between then and now. Reconciling the current incarnation of the character with the one we’ve detailed is going to take a little more work. Certainly there’s been a tendency in the past decade for creators to wildly reimagine characters and simply introduce their new versions without bothering to explain why the character is so drastically different from their last appearance, but that’s not how we roll here at Meanwhile…Comics!

I would say that the last time I read a Clayface story, which was in No Man’s Land, Clayface wasn’t bumbling. He wasn’t anything like what we’re discussing here, but he wasn’t an idiot, and he managed to control Poison Ivy (and for awhile) part of Gotham City. That gives us at least one recent appearance that we can point to him as being moderately competent and able to think for himself.

Now, we start the story with Clayface’s powers failing him (I’m not sure if we want to do this on camera or off. You could actually start your Clayface story many issues before the reinvention, if you have him fighting Batman (or someone else) and suddenly his powers begin to fade. Perhaps he overextends himself, or if we want to come up with a more “comic-booky” reason for his power to give out, throw him into something electrical/radioactive/designed-by-Jack-Kirby and have that knock out his powers, bringing him down to the level we’ve decided on. He’s then easily captured by police, and probably sent to jail, not the asylum.

While incarcerated this first time, he begins to realize that the powers he’s had for so long are gone, probably forever. He’s stuck with the powers we’ve detailed, and at first, he rails against this fate. The shock of losing his powers coupled with (if we go this route) the shock of the electrical or what-have-you discharge he took when he lost those powers, begin to push him further into insanity. He begins to bemoan his fate, cursing what brought him to this day. And what did bring him to this day? It was that no good director who refused to cast him in that last movie and made him turn to crime! And that obnoxious young movie star that they cast instead of Karlo, just because the little snot was considered “hot” and “in”! Karlo stews in his juices for awhile, and then begins to realize that he can use the powers he has to get revenge on people like that director and star. He uses his new powers (which the authorities probably don’t even know he has yet, thinking him completely depowered) to escape and begin his crime spree.

As for who he kills, if you want random, make it random within very broad parameters. We could say that Karlo is killing anyone who reminds him of his former life. That could encompass almost anyone, so it seems completely random, but to Karlo’s warped mind, there’s a strong logic to it. Now, if we showed Clayface losing the vast majority of his power, we’d want to show him breaking out of prison and some of his crimes (again, stressing the horror of this man). However, if we haven’t shown those, we can now show what appears to be random, unrelated people killing random, unrelated people. Again, this can ramp up the horror, since you never know when someone in a scene may start killing someone else, since everything seems so random. The reader will be left guessing, and they can try and solve the mystery with Batman. I think either option (show Clayface or don’t at the beginning) can net us some horror and mystery and I think we’ve managed to walk from rather dull muck monster to much more interesting figure of horror.

I prefer the idea of just jumping right into the middle of the murders. It would be much more intriguing for neither Batman nor the reader to have any idea what is going on at the outset. At some point, we’d reveal Clayface to the readers and then be able to do some flashback pieces that show him losing his power, breaking free, and concocting a list of victims.

And the victim list itself could seem completely sane to Clayface, but just a load of random names to anyone else…for instance, maybe he blames the phone company employee who was repairing the system outside his home when he was expecting a call from his agent, or the girl at the coffee shop who served him a latte that was too hot and burned his tongue right before he had an audition, or that guy who just had to catch the same elevator Basil was on and it was enough of a delay to make him late. It would be a truly baffling group of murders for anyone to comprehend, yet Clayface would be making mental notes of all these inconveniences that ruined his life.

I like it. Problem solved! Now who’s next?


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