In the literary tradition, stories of goodly heroes and the defeat of their reviled nemeses have existed since the earliest narrative constructions, typically seen as reflecting back the cultural moralities of the societies from which they were borne. A hero bests a villain, the world is made a better place for it, and the audience’s occupation of a moral high ground is reinforced. But as Joseph Campbell thoughtfully observes, “it is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse,” indicating that a hero’s journey can also impart revelations in the individual and the greater social group. There is no better place to find these heroic guiding stories than in the comic book medium, where complex dichotomies between hero and villain have thrived since the art-form’s inception (Campbell ch.V.3). And of all the pairings of heroes and villains in the comic tradition, none challenge and subvert the conventional triumphing of good over evil better than Batman and the Joker. The best Batman-Joker stories deviate from established tradition, and change the reader’s expectation that Batman must (or even can) “win” against the Joker, instead implying that only a temporary balance between them can be struck. This tilt towards a more unusual narrative complicates the way we understand the dynamics of how good and evil operate within the bounds of a typical hero’s story, and emphasizes the bond that good and evil share within human nature to the reader.
In the Judeo-Christian literary tradition, it is rare to find stories that deviate from the standard Western depictions of the duality of good and evil, where good must inevitably triumph over wicked, harkening back to early religious depictions of such dichotomies (e.g., Adam and Eve’s sin, God and Satan, etc.). In modern narratives, while evil is occasionally allowed to succeed in the end, whether for shock value or narrative effect, scarcer are depictions where this duality remains ambiguous through to the end of the story, where audiences are left with the uncomfortable reconciliation that both good and evil are necessarily linked, with neither able to completely overtake the other. Such a duality is especially prominent in the case of Batman and his foes, and as Langley notes, “Duality and obsession, his enemies’ and his own, fill [Batman’s] stories” (ch.1). And of all the obsession and dichotomy to be found among the rogues of the Dark Knight, none so perfectly complements his moral resilience like the Joker, with his colorful appearance and unpredictable nature contrasted against the grim, calculating detective. Joker is also the only villain who has been with Batman since his very first issue, spanning seventy-five years of publication history alongside the Caped Crusader. This complementation between the two characters, as well as their mutually tied history to one another, indicates that they are fundamentally linked, entwined together as two extreme sides of human nature.
Nichols sees this linkage as an echo of the “combat myth”, an ancient Mesopotamian religious narrative comprised of a recurrent struggle between the personified forces of order and chaos. The myth is comprised of four stages of encounters between a storm-god/hero of order and a water-dragon/monster of chaos, which closely mirror confrontations between Batman and Joker: First, a monster associated with water arises to threaten societal order; second, a hero-god associated with the sky or storms confronts the monster-dragon to defend order; third, the monster-dragon is defeated and pushed back to its watery realm, reestablishing order; and fourth, the monster-dragon returns or there is perpetual fear that it will (Nichols 2). Batman, perched on skyscrapers or soaring over the city streets on patrol, vividly evokes the sky-hero of the myth who fights to defend order, and is often depicted against lightening-filled skies (most iconically in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns), and as Rollin notes “…it is Batman who defeats the city’s dragons” (437). Joker’s vicious crimes and maniacal demeanor, so outside of societal norms, give him obvious connections to the monster-dragon, and he has a well-trod history of being associated with water and liquid. But while Nichols’ argument is compelling, his most astute points come in how he sees the characters’ respective natures, with Batman “represent[ing] not only law and order, but the force that undergirds order”, and Joker as “a sadistic purveyor of anarchy” (7,4). These descriptions perhaps best characterize the duality inherent in the relationship between the characters, where each is a complement to the other. It is this implied balance between order and chaos, more than the idea of a mythic cycle, which is most relevant to understanding the nuanced relationship between Batman and Joker.
Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman-Joker story Death of the Family exemplifies just such a complement of these forces. The Joker returns to Gotham City after a yearlong absence, intent on manipulating Batman into killing his “Bat-Family” so that Joker might “save” him from what he sees as a weakness developing from Batman’s reliance on his allies (Snyder 13.21). Once Joker makes his violent debut, Batman instructs the rest of his Bat-Family to stay out of the conflict, forgoing the hard-won trust and intimacy he’s achieved with them in favor of taking on the Joker alone. The Joker has dealt violent, personal blows to Batman’s inner circle in the past, including against current members of the Bat-Family, and in returning with this particular agenda, Joker has made this fight a deeply meaningful one. The story begins with numerous allusions to duality: the Gotham River floods and runs backwards for three days, a two-headed lion cub is born at the city zoo, and Commissioner Gordon helps a subordinate officer spot a counterfeit bill by pointing out that the face of Andrew Jackson is looking left instead of right (Snyder 13.1-4). The two-headed cub especially suggests a permanent joining of what should be two separates into one whole, and fittingly alludes to the connection between Batman and Joker. After all, as Nichols argues, “Batman and the Joker are really reflections of one another” (Nichols 9). Reynolds takes this idea further, and suggests that the characters are more than enemies, in that “the Joker epitomizes the dark and negative side of the personal obsessions which fuel Batman’s crimefighting career” (Reynolds 68). And where Batman is obsessed with justice and order, the Joker is obsessed with Batman. This bond is so strong that, on numerous occasions, Joker’s actions are linked directly to Batman’s. In the ubiquitously acclaimed The Dark Knight Returns, for example, Joker has remained catatonic in the ten years since the retirement of Batman, but once the Dark Knight reappears on a news broadcast, Joker’s signature smile spreads across his face along with the dialogue, “Batman. Darling”, and he soon becomes active again, indicating that Joker is fueled by Batman’s presence, and is inert without him (Miller 41, emphasis original). With Joker’s reemergence in Death of the Family, however, he becomes more than just a symbolic moral opposite to Batman, and instead engages him on so deep a strategic level as to indicate a dualistic philosophical dialogue, rather than merely juxtaposition of the two characters.
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