Who is the villain in a Batman story? Is it the rogue-of-the-week, like Joker, Penguin, Riddler, or Ivy? Is it corrupt police and politicians? Batman is a complex character within himself, but his existence in a society that somewhat resembles our own forces us to question the heroism of the Dark Knight himself. What’s more, it forces us to look in the mirror and question a justice system—both in Gotham and in the real world—with wide enough margins that the idea of a clandestine vigilante exacting justice where the law won’t or can’t seems appealing. As Sean Murphy holds up the mirror in Batman: White Knight #2, what will we see? Who’s the bad guy?
Who’s the bad guy?
As a society, we believe in rehabilitation. Our system doles out justice in degrees, reserving harsher penalties for repeat or particularly egregious offenses. And while we also believe in personal responsibility, we attempt to make provisions for those driven to crime by their own unstable minds. How could people ever believe that the Joker would go straight? I read that question a lot last month, but I think it ignores reality. We live in a time of the so-called insanity defense, a time of parole—a time of second chances. However you may feel about those particular things, you cannot deny that this is our reality. Right or wrong, there are folks who believe that the system is stacked against the weak. Jack Napier’s scapegoat narrative feeds this belief, and those who feel marginalized by the people in power may indeed feel some solidarity with the man who was a villain. The opening scene in White Knight #2 makes a compelling case for this.
But as readers—especially readers familiar with the Joker and his long history of murderous deeds—we naturally go toward the same sorts of questions asked by the talking heads on the above page. How could they release him? Is this just another con? The courtroom scene shows us how Napier dupes Gotham’s citizens—especially those who share his view of the police, politicians, and Batman. But here, as the talking heads fade, Murphy makes a decent attempt at convincing we, the readers, that something’s really changed. There are visual cues on the page: while the newscasters make pronouncements from their clean studio and fine clothes, Jack’s reward for getting out of prison is a dark, dingy alley. The ink wipe to the left—a technique that produced beautiful dusky skies in the first issue—here adds to the grime and disorder of the scene, as the clean, ordered panel border of the broadcast dissolves into the messy street.
It’s a mixed bag, though, isn’t it? You can read it as the Joker returning to dirt instead of a glitzy purple suit and a loyal gang. But you can also read it as someone who just played nice in the public light of the courtroom, now slipping off into the shadows to pursue his real agenda. I’ve read this too many times now to recall my first impression, but I’m betting most of you were expecting him to show his true colors here. When the door to Zoinko’s opens to reveal Harley, this expectation seems validated. Harley helped set up Batman in issue #1, and now that Jack’s out, they’re going to put the rest of their plan into motion. Right?
Look at Jack’s hands. Look at his posture. He’s on the defensive, like someone who thinks he’s about to get shot. Either he wasn’t expecting Harley to be there, or he’s afraid of whatever he has to do next—not apprehensive or reluctant, but actually afraid. The conversation that ensues makes it clear that the two of them are on very different pages, and before long, Murphy gives us his most vivid depiction of Jack-as-the-victim yet:
The dialogue shows us Napier’s genuine remorse. He’s not in the courtroom anymore—it’s just he and Harley—so this can’t be an act. He wants to make amends for the way he treated Harley. He isn’t the domineering, mood-swinging psycho Mr. J anymore. He’s in no position to make demands because he has removed himself from that position. Now look at the page: Murphy has Jack on the ground the whole way through. Harley is the aggressor, and Jack is the victim. She has the power, and he refuses to take it back. If at this point, you aren’t at least considering that Joker might be genuinely reformed, then you’re being willfully obtuse. You can believe that Jack is just being as manipulative of Harley as he was in the courtroom, but you have to be able to explain why.
[SPOILER]I’ll make a short digression here to address the two-Harley issue. I found it very confusing the first time through, as Murphy no doubt intended. I also found it entertaining, and the dig at Harley’s hyper-sexualized departure from her original persona made me laugh. All-in-all, I think we probably could have done without this, though. Yes, it shows that Joker was so consumed with Batman that he didn’t even notice a brand new person inhabiting Harley’s guise, but I don’t think that gain is worth the confusion.
Also, I’m pretty sure that Original Harley is the one who helped set Batman up in the first issue.[/SPOILER]
Batman loses everything
Batman, meanwhile, watches as his world unravels. Napier’s release—or more specifically, the rationale for Napier’s release—is a renouncing of Bruce’s whole operation. Of course Batman doesn’t deal in things like due process. The whole point of his existence is that due process benefits people that can manipulate it, and he doesn’t get the wrong guy. He brings justice where the system can’t or won’t reach, and he makes certain that he’s right. Napier’s narrative challenges that in one case and so undermines it in all others. If Batman can war against one villain for years and be wrong, then who’s to say that the majority of his targets have not been similarly misused? Batman has always been alone, in varying degrees; but after enjoying the support of his city for years, he has lost it. In court, Jack never mentions him by name, but he doesn’t have to—everyone perceives the elephant in the room.
Alfred is dying, and Bruce has no choice but to turn to another of his enemies, Victor Fries—a man born (much like Bruce) of tragedy and stubbornness—a man alone. White Knight #2 shows Bruce and Barbara working with Fries as they test a cure. Hollingsworth shines here, bathing most of the scene in blue. When the cure appears to work on some rodent test subjects, the color warms; but, when Victor tries it on himself and the results are not as promising, the cold blues return, and we leave the scene as we entered it: with Mr. Freeze a million miles away from his precious Nora, though he yet be close enough to touch. And though the emphasis here is on his tragedy, the implications for Alfred are obvious enough.
For all of this scene’s merits, it is my least favorite in this issue. I don’t enjoy Barbara’s characterization, and I don’t think it lines up with what we saw of her in the first installment. There, she seemed mature. Here, she seems about five years younger. Part of it is the OHMYGAWD, but it’s also her childish panic about the mice. In issue #1, she seemed like a grown-up voice of reason to counter Batman’s increasingly erratic behavior. Here, she’s just silly.
This page in particular breaks a fairly solid run of textual and visual storytelling. Freeze’s big balloon in the middle is garbage (sorry, Sean). It reads very poorly, and the gasp moment at the mention of Thomas Wayne feels rammed in there. I don’t know if this will actually become a subplot in the series, or if Murphy is planting seeds for future projects, but its graceless introduction here doesn’t make me interested in learning more—it just makes me irritated at the dip in quality. And it doesn’t end with that panel. Without a close look, it’s not immediately obvious what’s happening in the bottom half. Freeze’s posture, combined with the color difference in his helmet, initially had me thinking that someone had come in and shot him, cracking the glass. The truth became apparent soon enough, and a more thorough examination of the preceding panels reinforced it—but it was still confusing on the first run. Maybe that’s because I tend to bounce from balloon to balloon on an initial read, and others might not have the same problem—but for me, it was disorienting.
Thankfully, the confusion is isolated. Sadly, so is Bruce Wayne, and this becomes even clearer as he attends a society function hosted by none other than Gotham socialite Veronica Vreeland (the Animated Series love continues). Veronica’s friend Pierce Chapman is also present, and he’s a bit…loose with his lips, making some very thoughtless comments about Alfred. But when he reveals that he (and others) has been profiting from Batman’s war on crime, it’s too much for Bruce to handle. He lets his anger get the best of him, and decks both Pierce and his bodyguard with a single blow each. The scene closes with Bruce standing tall and alone before the crowd.
In fact, he has been alone all along, because these are not his people. Pierce’s revelation only makes it that much clearer. It’s funny—Murphy has Pierce sucking on a martini the whole time, and on the page opposite, we see Penguin (in another scene) playing with the stem of his own martini glass. As Bruce stares down the tooth pick and into Pierce’s glass, it’s almost as though he’s making the same connection. These “legitimate” peers of his are in the end not much better than Cobblepot. The line of his punch in the middle panel is essentially perpendicular to the prominent angle of Pierce’s glass—diametrically opposed to this symbol of the dirty hands of Gotham’s elite. Or maybe Murphy just hates martinis.
At any rate, this whole page is excellent storytelling. The composition tracks Bruce to guide your eyes from panel to panel, first from left to right, then down, then following the first punch to the second, and finally down a short bit to that Bruce-stands-alone moment referenced earlier. Murphy’s ability to simultaneously imbue his layouts with both function and richer symbolism makes me want to flip through the book again and again to see what I missed—to see how pages continue to accumulate meaning the longer I consider them.
The Joker moves on
In the end, Jack Napier does have a plan, and it doesn’t look very innocent. I won’t spoil it here, because I can talk about it without mentioning details, but let me just say that it’s hard to call him a “good guy” after what he does. He has good intentions—at least according to what he tells Harley—but you know what they say about the road to Hell. Napier seems genuine when he talks of wanting to save Gotham. I believe he does want that. But his plan to get there, while not yet revealed in full, seems on its face to cross lines that the Artist-formerly-known-as-Joker should be staying far away from.
[SPOILER]How about those villain designs from Murphy? I love Two-Face, Clayface, Bane, and Scarecrow. I also love that Cobblepot is basically ripped straight from BtAS. Also also, I love the reference to “Almost Got ‘Im”, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense, since that’s the real Croc. Or is it???[/SPOILER]
So who’s the bad guy?
So who is the villain in this Batman story? That’s not an easy question to answer. Napier is an obvious choice—even with the Joker buried, it’s clear that his inclinations toward the wrong side of the law remain. But it’s not that simple. Even if we reject Napier’s assertion that Batman himself is a villain at worst, or a tool of the corrupt state at best, we still have to come to terms with a justice system that fails often and severely enough to create and depend on the Batman. We still have to deal with the Pierce Chapmans who actually do find ways to profit from that broken system. Everyone’s got dirty hands.
As we look in the mirror, what do we think it’s trying to tell us about our own situation? It isn’t easy to single out one group of people that Murphy’s picking on, and I think that’s intentional. Just like the world inside White Knight, the world outside is tough to pin down. Everyone’s got dirty hands, and if nothing else, Murphy is telling us that the tribes with which we align ourselves ignore an awful lot of reality to justify their extremes.
- You enjoy gorgeous artwork used for intelligent sequential storytelling.
- You like books that make you think—books that don’t try to answer all of the questions for you.
While it lacks the narrative clarity of the first installment, Batman: White Knight #2 still explores relevant, weighty themes through remarkably effective storytelling. Other than a few bits, Murphy’s words are as impressive as his lines and ink, and Klein and Hollingsworth expertly apply their respective finishing touches to the issue. If there’s a better book on the stands right now, I haven’t read it.