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.
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