Batman’s the bad guy. That’s what Jack Napier wants Gotham to believe, and when the Dark Knight’s hands are far from clean, the city doesn’t need much convincing. But the artist-formerly-known-as-Joker has done more than point fingers—he has also pledged to do some good of his own. And while his methods may leave a bit to be desired, his heart seems genuine. But is he? Or is this just one more crazy scheme by the Clown Prince of Crime—one big joke about a murderous clown gone straight? Maybe you’ll find answers in Batman: White Knight #3. SPOILERS AHEAD
One pointy love triangle
We open on Fangirl Harley, who has decided to take matters into her own hands. I’m on record saying that I thought two Harleys were unnecessary, but with this issue, Murphy wins me over. Who at first seemed like a funny-but-extraneous jab at modern incarnations of Harley now reveals herself as a truly subversive force. Narratively, Fangirl feels like a bad guy cast against Jack’s good guy. But she’s not on the same side as Batman either—at least not yet—so there’s also a sense in which she points, not toward a butting of two heads, but rather a riotous convergence between multiple players. And who knows what happens when all of those supervillains get free of the mind control?
I also begin to wonder if poor Classic Harley is just getting played. Jack’s heart could be in the right place with the whole saving Gotham thing (doubtful, given how he uses Backport this time around), but he’s manipulating everyone else, so why wouldn’t he manipulate her?
Is the Joker crazy, or isn’t he?
All of this leads to an interesting—though hardly novel—question: is the Joker clinically insane? Whether he intends it or not, Murphy is asking—and answering—that very thing. How different is Jack, really? He’s lost the makeup and the murder, but he’s still a master manipulator who’s obsessed with the Dark Knight.
In Scott Snyder’s run on Batman, he made the case that the Joker is not crazy, but rather pure evil; but White Knight offers an interesting rebuttal: who cares? If well-Jack employs Jokerish methods, and operates from Jokerish motives, then the question of his sanity seems irrelevant, because Jack is Jack, whatever the color of his suit. The Joker may lend a certain flavor to Jack’s exploits, but he was never the driving force.
On one level, this fatalistic approach to the character echoes Snyder’s emphases since Endgame. But refreshingly, Murphy’s scope is smaller, and his statement simpler: we are who we are, and we don’t need stars to align or evil Bat-gods pulling strings to make us so. And isn’t that a bit tragic? Jack isn’t evil because of some elemental forces conspiring against him—he’s just a man, sculpted by hard experience, who can’t change his stripes.
Plenty of blame to go around
But Jack isn’t the only one set in his ways. Late in this issue, Batman says to Gordon that his methods are part of the understanding that they’ve always shared, and to an extent, he’s right. I do what the police can’t, he says, and once you thus baptize a vigilante, it becomes near-impossible to distinguish between the legal limits and the moral ones. As a character, Batman earns our respect and admiration because he has the discipline not to violate the enormous amount of trust placed in him by Gordon. But it’s still a precariously high level of trust, and Murphy has our eyes trained on some of the ways that it can all go wrong.
Batman—at least this Batman—is a big part of the problem. Instead of being humbled by Gordon, he spurns his old friend and retreats further into his own self-justification. He’s not irredeemable—we are still at a point in this narrative when Alfred’s health can serve as a convenient scapegoat. But he does seem to be a bit off the rails, and the conversation between Dick and Babs late in this installment suggests that Bruce’s sickness began long before Alfred’s.
While I hate to kick the man while he’s down, Alfred doesn’t get a pass. What makes for an endearing confidante and advisor to a more acceptable Batman is a criminal enabler here. Let’s not forget all the cops, politicians, socialites, Babs, or Dick, either. In a world where Batman nuzzles up too close to the line, his entire circle becomes guilty by association.
Farewell, old friend
And yet when I descend from my moralistic perch and read the characters on the page—written so skillfully by Murphy—I can see this whole situation as a tragedy. They have each of them seen something commendable—perhaps even lovable—in Bruce, and the long, slow distance of his transformation from rough justice to outright brutality has left them in limbo: caught between their belief in his necessity and their horror at his shocking “new rules,” they can only watch things churn on as ever.
Until Alfred dies.
Take a moment. I’ll wait.
It’s easy to yammer on about the weighty themes in White Knight, but like all of my favorite works of art, it is just so human. I can spin out eight hundred words mining the philosophical comments Murphy makes on Batman and the Joker and society, but in the end, this book is such an engaging, enjoyable read because it moves me. It entertains me. It makes me laugh.
Alfred dies, and if you have even the tiniest experience with Batman, then you can’t help but be moved by just the thought of it. The artwork moves from the messy cacophony of a massive street fight to the empty yellow of Bruce Wayne burying another father. Fangirl Harley teams up with Mad Hatter (and how cool is that outfit?), Croc and Bane team up to wreck a building, the dialogue is snappy and, at times, perfectly funny. Even as White Knight takes all sorts of liberties in presenting its version of the mythos, it manages to preserve so much of the quintessential Batman. Gotham will break your heart. Gotham will blow your mind, make you cry till you laugh, and laugh till it hurts—or kills you. It’s the last place anyone should want to go, but it’s our favorite place to visit, time and again. And White Knight captures it beautifully.
- You don’t think the Joker’s sanity matters.
- You want to cry, but not in a way that makes you hate the book. At least not more than you love it.
- You like delicious artwork.
Batman: White Knight #3 adds more players to the mix, but manages to retain its focus on the few main threads that Murphy gave us back in the debut. It’s funny, heartbreaking, and absolutely beautiful—and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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