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.

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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.


Batman’s Bad Men (And Women)!

Jun-23-08

We’ve threatened to do it before and this time we’re following through on it. It’s DC time at “Meanwhile…Comics!” After realizing that the Young Justice post we did a while back has remained our most popular item (which is interesting in itself, since it’s the only post that didn’t offer any true solutions to the questions it raised, but I digress) and seeing that the new Batman film will hit the streets in less than four weeks, we’re dedicating all of our posts until then to the Dark Knight himself.

Today’s entry is similar in scope to the YJ post in that it’s just going to give an overview, mention some discrepancies, and most likely just kind of fizzle out at the end without a resolution or even a feasible recap. That’s the way we roll, playa. We’re award-nominated now. We have to keep it real.

So bring on the bad guys!

Of all the popular comic book characters in modern times, none has a more recognizable rogues gallery than Batman. Sure, the Spider-Man movies have shone the spotlight on a few of Spidey’s most popular foes, but no one outside of the nine circles of fandom would know The Jackal or be able to identify The Chameleon in a lineup (even trickier considering his abilities). Batman’s villains owe a lot to the media…from toys to films to television to lunchboxes to cartoons to party favors…in making them as everyday as they are. I don’t know a single person who couldn’t name these four ne’er-do-wells:

Bif. Bam. Pow. Sigh.

Let’s just jump into this from left to right, then we’ll hit some of the second-tier baddies.

The Penguin: A dude with trick umbrellas and henchmen with bird-based nicknames. Intriguing. I always thought that Penguin was pretty lame and he was made even worse by Tim Burton who turned him into a flippered weirdo who looked like Danny DeVito. Oh, wait, that was Danny DeVito, wasn’t it? Blah. Anyway, steps have been taken on the comics side of things to turn Mr. Oswald Cobblepot into a serious businessman/nightclub owner/smuggler. That makes a lot more sense to me. No one’s going to take a tiny fat guy with an umbrella and an avian fixation seriously as a “dangerous” villain, but he can pull off the criminal mastermind role quite well.

The Riddler: Most of my exposure to this clown comes from various cartoon series and revolves around his incessant need to not-so-cryptically telegraph his evil plans to Batman right before he tries to pull them off. Plus he dresses in a bright green, question mark-covered leotard, which is not a good thing. In the comics, he has “gone straight” and become a sort of detective in his own capacity. Again, a good turn as far as I’m concerned. There are enough horrible villains out there whose only goal is to get captured again and again. At least the Riddler keeps things interesting by making you think he’s trying to help you.

Catwoman: Never my favorite threat, she works much better as someone who travels in the gray areas of the system. Nowadays, she’s more or less on the hero side of things anyway.

The Joker: Wow. The most overused villain in all of comics. The fact that he has done so much over the years and yet has gotten no true punishment out of it just seems to reinforce the limits on superheroes in the public eye. I get it. He’s crazy. Big deal. Batman should just slit his throat and dump him in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Who’s going to miss this loser? Writers have pigeonholed him so badly that there’s no way to identify with him anymore. There’s no inner conflict, no rationality, no pathos for the bad guy. He just does stuff with no rhyme or reason…intermittently a purely crazy, bloodthirsty bastard and then a goofy sad sack who can’t seem to catch a break. I care less about The Joker than I do about Hypno-Hustler (well, that’s not really fair since I really like Hypno-Hustler even though I shouldn’t).

So, the Big Four are easily identifiable, but are they archenemy-worthy? I don’t think so. I think they’ve been used too much to have any relevance anymore. But that is up for discussion, as always.

Next, I’m going to give a short rundown of the other nuisances in Batman’s sphere of influence:

Mr. Freeze: A frozen guy who’s ticked off because he caused his own wife’s death.

Ra’s Al Ghul: Leader of the League of Assassins who can regenerate himself

Scarecrow: He dresses in hay and burlap and uses fear toxin to creep people out.

Bane: A walking stack of steroids who once broke Batman’s back.

Two-Face: Horribly scarred (physically and mentally) former district attorney with an odd sense of ethics.

Mad Hatter: A quite insane scientist who can mesmerize people with various hats (what is it with hypnotic headgear in comic books?).

Poison Ivy: Can control plants and manipulate toxins to help control others (what is it with weird forms of mind control in comic books?).

Harley Quinn: Joker’s most famous sidekick and Poison Ivy’s best buddy.

Clayface: A big pile of…uh…clay that can change his appearance

Calendar Man: A semi-retarded dude who commits crimes based on various dates. Why?

Black Mask: The first truly interesting Batman villain in years, he is a Gotham City crime boss with an eye towards total domination of the city.

Hush: Lame villain created just to throw everyone off during what was quickly becoming a horrible storyline.

Killer Croc: A giant reptile/human hybrid who lives in the sewer and likes to eat people.

Man-Bat: Right. He’s a man who can become a giant bat for reasons never truly understandable.

Ventriloquist and Scarface: A timid man with a tiny wooden puppet who thinks he’s a gangster.

Calculator: Used to wear a costume with a giant keypad on the front of it. When no one would stop laughing, he decided to become a villainous information broker, the yin to Oracle’s yang.

Ah, some of these losers make me yearn for the heady, campy TV days of Egghead, King Tut and Lola Lasagne. Let’s all dance the Batusi and talk about the good and the bad in Batman’s rogues gallery, shall we?

There is no doubt in my mind that Batman has the richest cast of characters in all of comicdom. There’s the plethora of villains that populate Gotham City (and really, who can blame the occassional psychologist or author who extends the theory that there are so many whackos in Gotham City because of Batman himself….no other city has this many freaks running around in it!), and there’s also his good guy friends (who shan’t be discussed until another post). I also think you touched upon something very important; Batman’s cast has probably seen more public exposure through various forms of media than any other comic character I can name. Even more interesting is how often the movie, cartoon or television version will begin to overwrite the original comics version. A lot of these characters have evolved considerably thanks to the fine work of some talented individuals in non-comics media (I am particularly looking at everyone involved in Batman: The Animated Series, which was one of the best super-hero portrayals anywhere, anytime, anyhow).

I think that the Big Four that you mentioned all deserve their own posts. Goodness knows the Joker does. I’d like to take a stand here on the Joker and say this for public consumption. I. HATE. THE. JOKER. He used to be an interesting character, but, as you said, he has been horribly overused, and his continued existence snaps my extension of disbelief faster than Tobias Whale sitting on wicker furniture. The fact that Gordon or one of the Gotham City cops didn’t pop a cap in his ass after No Man’s Land is one of the stupidest….at least Harvey Bullock would have……grrraaarrgh! This will be a post closer to the movie. Count on it.

As for some of the other villains you mention, they’re an interesting bunch. At least, they can be. Mr. Freeze is undoubtedly my favorite….when he’s being written for the aforementioned Animated Series. Somehow, he never translates as well into the comics. I think one of the problems with Mr. Freeze is that he’s powerful. If you look at Batman’s Rogues Gallery, these are not very powerful villains; they’re mostly normal humans with a couple of gimmicks. Perhaps the most physically powerful of them, Killer Croc, is also an idiot, and that balances out. But Freeze is powerful and smart and I think that makes him stand out amongst the other rogues. He should be the star of the galaxy, but he’s not. And why is that his power’s fault? Well, it seems that many writers delve further into the psyches of the non-powerful Rogues, probably because the hideously scarred psyche is what makes Batman’s foes interesting. With Freeze, they have this cool power they can play with, and that seems to be what they focus on. Perhaps, without that power, they’d focus a little more on the tragic nature of the character. Of all Batman’s foes, I think Freeze may ultimately be the saddest and the one that the reader can empathize with the most; Freeze wasn’t evil, but he saw someone he loved die and was himself horribly injured in an accident, and that’s pushed him to the edge.

I don’t want to spend too much time on any one villain, and I just talked about Freeze more than I probably should, but let me hit a few other baddies real quick. I think that Batman’s main foe should be Two-Face. He has the most interesting backstory, the fact that he was both Batman’s and Gordon’s friend is unique to him as a villain, and the fact that there is some good in him also brings him to the forefront. Too many people want to write Two-Face stories where they forget about the fact that he was once very close to Batman and Gordon. For a time, he was closer to them than anyone else. He must have knowledge about them he could use against them; why hasn’t he used it? Like Freeze, he’s also a tragic character, and that doesn’t get played up enough; this was a man who had a good life, and it was stripped away from him because of an evil man. I’d play with that a little more.

Harley Quinn is wonderful, and I love seeing her, especially be herself. Keep her away from the Joker! (Have I mentioned my hatred of that character?) She doesn’t need the Joker to be interesting, and is actually much more fascinating when she’s got her own plans and is calling the shots her own way, rather than when she is playing sycophant to the most overused villain in comics. Ugh.

Clayface is another one I’d like to talk about. Batman tends to veer toward horror stories (or, at the very least, grisly, moody and spooky noir stories) and Clayface would be perfect there. Again, however, he seems to be a victim of his power, as everyone wants to write about the guy who can change his shape. Whoopdee-doo. Let’s go back to the original Clayface, Basil Karlo, a horror film actor who goes insane. You could do some very spooky stories with him; the shape changing could be a nice complement, rather than the star of the show. Scarecrow is another character that would fit well in the moodier stories, but they kind of need to figure out how to use him. He was very well done in the No Man’s Land stories (and really, savor those words, as I will likely never type them again), being used as what he is; a student of psychology, who knows how to twist people mentally to do what he wants. Then, Jeph Loeb used him in Hush and he was some crazy nursery rhyme spouting schmoe. What the hell? Scarecrow is a brilliant college professor, and can be quite spooky. Let’s give the guy his due.

Finally, one more quick note….I find the Ventriloquist both fascinating, very cool, and utterly ridiculous. I really like the idea of someone with a split personality finding an outlet for that personality through a ventriloquist’s dummy. That’s great! What a neat idea….that never seems to work. Seriously, this character always hits me as being silly and I find it difficult to believe any serious criminal would work for this man. I know most of the Bat-foes are crazy, but he takes the cake! Could there be potential here….just maybe..

So, do we break these characters down into separate posts, because I think we could do most of them justice, or do we lump them together in a few posts? Or do we just discuss them all right here, because there’s plenty of potential with these crazies!

Interesting…I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Freeze from the cartoons too. And the Snow storyline from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight retold his origin in a clear and clean way (with amazing art from the late, great Seth Fisher). I agree that, aside from B:TAS, no one has really paid attention to the anguish in his life.

I like Scarecrow too, but I prefer Mad Hatter. I think he was used brilliantly by Gail Simone in her Secret Six run. Plus, he’s quite freakin’ insane…more so than the Joker, I think. There’s a certain level of creepiness to his ramblings and random crimes (not to mention the subtle notes of pedophilia). He reaches for the unexpected immediately and I find that completely readable.

I don’t know much about Clayface in the comics. Harley Quinn is a phenomenon in her own right by the fact that the animated series made her the character she is today. You don’t often see that kind of transition. And Two-Face has his moments, but it’s hard for me to get the ridiculous Tommy Lee Jones take out of my head.

If you have nothing else to say in this intro post, I believe we can start breaking some of these villains out in their own entries and see what we can do with them. I’d like to tackle Mad Hatter. You’re free to start with Clayface, Two-Face, Ventriloquist, Scarecrow or Mr. Freeze. Then, together we can spout our hatred for The Joker. That’s seven villains ripe for revamps…and you know how I love the number seven!