What if the Joker wasn’t crazy anymore? What if the brutality of Batman became too much for his beloved city to accept? Sean Murphy’s Batman: White Knight #1 is at last here: a gorgeously-illustrated, well-written start to a series that may well become a defining moment in the history of the Dark Knight. Spoilers ahead

Lots of familiar terrain

Much of White Knight #1’s dramatic tension focuses on the relationship between Batman and Joker. Mr. J adores his great enemy, but Bats doesn’t reciprocate, claiming that they have no relationship. Joker then takes the tone of a spurned lover, and everything gets nuts. If you’ve read Death of the Family, or seen The LEGO Batman Movie, then this sort of concept will sound familiar—it sure does to me. And yet rather than feel like I was reading something that’s been done, I instead found quite a bit of freshness in Murphy’s Joker, who has an earnestness that I cannot recall ever having seen in the character. He gets angry, but he also gets hurt, and while we saw this side of him in his LEGO incarnation, that film’s tonal emphases prevented any deep emotional resonance with the character. I at times feel Murphy’s Joker arousing my sympathies, because I do not see him as entirely other.

That’s not to say that I am convinced that Joker is legitimately reformed; Murphy makes it quite clear that this isn’t the case. With a little help from Harley (who else could that be?), he manipulates Batman into brutalizing him on camera; he conveniently ignores his many acts of psychotic aggression; he picks the lock on his cuffs while talking with Gordon. Joker’s genuine sorrow at how things have gone may make him an engaging, complex villain, but he is the villain just the same.

Appropriately, Murphy’s Batman is the inverse of his Joker. He appears unglued, as though he has in the end become filled with the madness he has emptied himself to fight. His most vocal critics at last have proof of his brutality, and his staunchest allies can only cringe at what they perceive to be his swan dive off the deep end. And yet when pressed by Dick and Barbara to answer for his rash actions, he reveals that things are not quite what they seem; that though they may not approve, they understand; that it is grief, not madness that drives their mentor, their friend, into uncharted extremes.

Murphy has said from the start that, like Frank Miller before him, he wants to use his Batman story to engage the time in which we live. White Knight does this in some very obvious ways, but it does so most effectively in those contrasts between perception and reality. Cries of fake news! reverberate through the halls of our day, and everyone—from our Facebook friends to our elected officials—chase a common goal: to decide truth, rather than apprehend it—to remedy shame with narrative instead of reform.

Murphy wisely avoids caricatures of his real-life inspirations. Joker may be manipulating things for his own purposes, but Batman still has blood on his hands. He’s the hero because he won’t play the game, but he still crosses a line and nearly crosses the line in the process. The truth is often a messy thing, and it is an oversimplification to assume that it is merely the opposite of any one falsehood. That White Knight acknowledges this grants it a credibility missing from most attempts at social commentary in comics.

Superb visuals

There is credibility in the artwork, as well—such that goes beyond Murphy’s aesthetic flair and technical excellence. I often lament the glut of comics artists chasing after some approximation of realism, in part because most fail to adequately approach the mark; but, more than that, because I think that such an approach cuts the legs of a comic in half. It is in the essence of a thing, rather than the form of it, that we find its truth, and Murphy wastes no lines on false impressions. With the cruft out of the way, my mind has an easier time absorbing the story being told, and boy, is that story told well.

After a brief prologue, the opening scene features Batman chasing Joker, and Murphy lays it out beautifully, using a variety of techniques to demonstrate the Joker’s elusiveness across several pages. The physical length of the pursuit helps it feel like it takes time to conduct, giving the impression that we are witnessing, rather than recollecting; but the diversity of perspective—variety in both angle and distance—prevents the chase from feeling like a drag. Several wide shots give us a sense of place in the city, while close-ups on the characters heighten the drama. If we look a little closer, we see Murphy’s layouts constantly emphasizing the idea that the Joker is ahead, and Batman is perpetually in pursuit. Every single panel that features both characters puts Batman on the left and Joker on the right, moving our eyes further along their natural course across the page, Batman always behind the Joker, always chasing. There’s even a page where the lines of the Batmobile pursue the Clown Prince down the page:

It’s easy to miss this sort of sophisticated composition if you aren’t hunting for it, but I suspect it serves its function whether you recognize it or not. The chase is fast, dynamic, and destined to go on forever, and you can feel it, even if you don’t understand why. And this is just one scene. I could go on, but I won’t!

Murphy’s Gotham—all of it, buildings, interiors, characters—are a gorgeously dirty mess. His inks play such a huge role here, with nice, bold outlines in the foregrounds, and drop-dead gorgeous fills and blends in the shadows and in those spots where the dark of night meets the lights of the city. Like Murphy with his lines, Hollingsworth is refreshingly choosy with his colors, and the combination of the two is perfect. Most of the book is a perpetual twilight, with the oranges and pinks of the almost-set sun establishing the visceral tone, but also signaling that we are approaching the end of something. The payoff on the final page, with Joker peeking out of darkness, twilight gone, is a master stroke: the sun is gone, and the night has begun.

Lettering legend Todd Klein puts the finishing touches on White Knight, and he does an excellent job at it. I’m still trying to make sense of some of his choices—one example being his decision to break the panel border with balloons at certain points. At first, the effect seems limited to Batman and Joker—two characters that can’t be contained by the structures of the book. But later, we see this pattern break down, as Gordon, the Mayor, and even Bullock receive this treatment. I may have an opportunity to interview Klein next week, and I’ll be sure to ask him about this if I do.

But the most overt feature of Klein’s letters in White Knight is the complete absence of the crinkly “Jokerized” font that has been a staple for some time now. I think this is a great  choice; the text is far more readable the way it is here, and the font doesn’t force a perception of the Joker that would undermine the earnestness I highlighted above. I don’t hate stylized type when it’s legible, but the Joker-text is deficient at this primary purpose, and it’s played out, to boot. Hopefully the ongoing books will follow suit.

An excellent start

It’s hard to tell, but there are a few things I didn’t like in White Knight. The “Joker loves Batman” motif at times feels almost verbatim like what we saw in LEGO Batman, and what was odd in that light-hearted movie feels an order of magnitude more odd here. The dialogue—though nearly perfect—still has some odd moments, most prominently when Joker tosses out a $50 psychological term during his analysis of Batman.

But these sorts of things become less and less troublesome the more I read the book, while the artistry at work becomes more and more apparent. And that’s just how it ought to be.

Recommended if…

  • You want to read a book rich with multi-faceted story-telling wizardry (that also manages not to be half as obtuse as this sentence)
  • You dig cartooning that ain’t ashamed to be cartooning
  • You’re not picking up all of these new Batman books, but you want the best of the pack

Overall

A familiar story told with sophistication and subtlety, Batman: White Knight #1 sets a high bar for creator-driven visions of Gotham’s avenger. Layers of verbal and visual artistry further bloom with subsequent reading, and their effects are not diminished by one’s awareness of them. Through it all, Murphy provides a frank commentary on the state of truth in the modern world, avoiding the pitfalls of reductionism and one-sided finger-pointing. This is what art speaking into culture can be. This is what it should be.

SCORE: 9.5/10