Ah, it’s Halloween time. The time of imagination, where everyone can be a witch or a wizard or a demon or a prostitute. The way I try to live it up every day. So as with last year, I’ll try to focus on Halloween-y topics for the month of October, with the hopes we can all get into and keep the mood of the best holiday in mind, even if we’re too old to extort candy from our neighbors. This week I’ll discuss my deep abiding problems with Scott Snyder’s depiction of the Joker. Because, you know, he was supposed to be scary.
I will be honest with you right up front. I did not finish Snyder’s run on his Joker story. I skipped it entirely after the first issue, and took up with his Batman stories right afterwards. I’m really enjoying his Zero Year, actually, though I still think it’s excessive to have a year-long origin story. I didn’t read more than a bit of his Joker run, though, because it was awful. Snyder can’t write crazy people, apparently. The Court of Owls story was great up until the final villain; the Mister Freeze annual story was just plain bad; and the Joker was awful. So if you didn’t read it, basically what happened is that after the events of Batman: RIP Joker went underground. He resurfaced in the first issue of Detective Comics, asking a dude to cut off his face. Then, a year later (our time), he returned to Gotham, reclaimed his face, wore it like a mask, and terrorized all the major characters of the so-called “Bat-Family.”
Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way, shall we? How the hell did his face survive for a year? Rotting flesh, human skin, just hanging out. No one tanned it, no one really seemed to have preserved it. I swear, seriously.
But that’s not really the biggest problem. Oh, that it were. The problem is that Snyder appeared to be so caught up in the Joker’s status as one of the scariest villains that he used that as his definition. There have been lots of definitions of the Joker, many of which led to great, scary characters. Alan Moore, in The Killing Joke, defined him as a guy who lost so much the world didn’t make sense any longer, and he’s mad everyone acts like it does. Grant Morrison defined him as a psychological impossibility – a person with no fixed personality. Bill Finger defined him as the “Clown Prince of Crime,” a man so intent on his punchline that it doesn’t matter what gets in the way. These are all scary, but not because they are threatening. They are frightening for different reasons, but they share a sense of revealing possibilities that we do not want to consider. Every time we ignore the way someone feels because we are intent on a goal, we are the “Clown Prince of Crime.” Every time we feel as though our personality isn’t our own, every time we feel like we have changed in ways we didn’t mean to do and can’t see how they happened, we are the impossible Joker of Morrison’s writing. And every time we have that one bad day, we’re Moore’s Joker. The writing makes the character believable, and he becomes scary when that fusion between his actions and ours happens. He is frightening because he might just be able to represent us, and we are horrified by that.
Snyder’s Joker doesn’t represent us. He doesn’t represent anyone, except a clichéd serial killer. He says he hides under people’s beds, and people take him seriously. He tortures and kills because it’s funny to him – but given that’s all he does, it’s not as scary. When the Joker beat the shit out of Jason Todd and killed him with a crowbar, that was scary. Not because of the level of violence, but because it was contrasted by his jovial attitude and his conversation. He talks to Todd first, then beats him. He is intelligent, having worked out just the way to keep Batman away long enough to kill Robin. He’s also worked out the effect it will have on Batman – there’s Finger’s obsession again, coming into play. Robin’s death was scary not because it was brutal or gruesome, but because it wasn’t the goal. The goal was fucking with Batman.
That was clearly what Snyder was trying to do, make a Joker who wants to fuck with Batman. But he fucks with everyone. He’s not obsessed, that’s apparently just the way he is now. He’s not scary, he’s just a dick. And he only manages to do what he does in the comics because everyone else begins to behave out of character. Jim Gordon freaks out (and, technically, about something that kind of sort of didn’t happen). All the cops stand around and let him kill them. They’re scared of him because, well, because plot. He’s scary, thus characters are scared of him. But he never seems scary to the reader, so now every character in the comic rings false.
Hell, Snyder’s two-issue Clayface bit was scarier. A person gleefully stealing people’s identities, not with any great and huge plan in mind, but because he can, and he wants to? That’s funny, and grotesque, and therefore just a bit scary.
Zero Year has turned Batman into a Protomen protagonist, against an entire city that doesn’t care or is too afraid to do anything. That’s fine, that’s great. That’s scary. The idea that our actions are pointless is frightening, that we couldn’t do anything to fix the problems we see around us. Batman, being Batman, overcomes this frightening prospect and, of course, does fix at least some of the problems. That’s why he’s Batman. But the Joker appears to no longer be the Joker. Which is too bad. He was a pretty good villain. But like I said at the beginning, Snyder doesn’t write crazy very well. They’re all the same crazy, all entirely out of touch. They’re operatic, which is fine, but we can’t really be scared of that. They can’t see us. Bill Finger’s Joker can see us – the Animated Series Joker can see us (hell, I think he mugs at the camera nearly every episode he’s in, as though he can tell we’re there and we can’t do anything about his plans). Scott Snyder’s Joker can see his face, torn from his own body. Which is emblematic, honestly. They took what was scary about the Joker and gave it back to him like a Halloween costume.