Jack Napier, hero of the oppressed. Batman, Gordon, and the rest of the law in Gotham may not believe it, but the people of the city’s most neglected borough believe that the man once called the Joker has earned their trust. But is their faith in him well-placed? There may be no answers in Batman: White Knight #4, but there is plenty to chew on. SPOILERS AHEAD
Who’s side is this book on, anyway?
We’ve been conditioned to expect entertainment to take a side. We’ve come to expect our comic books to take on the issues of the day, and we celebrate or despise them based on where they land.
I hate it.
We should be capable of encountering ideas we don’t like in art, and we should even be capable of enjoying that art when it doesn’t reach our conclusions. We should respect the persuasive beauty of it, even when we are not ourselves persuaded. And, especially when it comes to superhero comics, we should be willing to let our heroes remain sidelined for the squabble of the moment, lest in twenty years our trades look like Twitter anthologies.
I don’t know Sean Murphy, but I get the impression that he hates the way modern comics address politics, too. But instead of retreating from contemporary issues to avoid taking sides, he has instead crafted an alternate reality where Batman, the Joker, and the rest of Gotham’s powers-that-be give us a truer picture of life in the here-and-now. Instead of giving us an artless lesson on how simple the issues are, and clearly telling us where we should land, Murphy presents it in all of its intricacy. There are no easy answers, no obvious champions—everybody’s right, everybody’s wrong, and it’s hard to imagine this ending with the sun shining on anybody.
It’s easy to get caught up in Duke’s speech at the start of this issue. We hear the voices from our own world in his, crying out about neglected neighborhoods and corrupt systems. But we can’t forget that Duke—and the rest of Backport—is putting his trust in a man that’s using him. Napier may have come to build a library, but he also orchestrated the destruction of that library. Backport is a means to an end for him, and he’ll say and do whatever he has to in order to get the support of its people. It’s hard for me to read this without thinking about a typical American presidential election: minority-heavy geographies tend to swing Democrat, and Democratic candidates know this. Many of their campaign promises center around funding social programs to help lift underprivileged people up. So is Murphy trying to expose that as a lie? Is he likewise portraying those underprivileged populations as willing to throw in with anyone who promises to help them out?
Not so fast. Who’s on the other side of this conflict? It’s an intricate, corrupt system that also happens to be very expensive. There are obvious villains like the mayor or the guy Bruce decked back in issue #1, but even Batman and Gordon have dirty hands, noble as their intentions may be. Backport is neglected, and it’s hard to fault its people for trying a peaceful route—receiving power and agency as a gift from Napier—rather than a violent seizure. When Batman shows up and gets rough with Napier, but Napier goes peacefully, the people of Backport see only a reinforcement of what they have come to believe about Jack.
If we turn a few pages more, we come to the two Gotham Insider newspeople who we first encountered in the premier. He is the GOP voice, and she is the voice of the Democratic Party. Just as in the rest of this book, it’s easy to interpret these characters in a particular way, but Murphy quickly subverts our understanding. If you’re a Democrat, the male talking head is an easy target. He talked about “SJWs” in the past, and here he harps on Napier for playing “identity politics.” He makes a reference to Backport’s “history of violence,” and his on-air partner quickly voices her resentment, saying that she was “born in backport,” and that “people are right to be upset with how the GCPD and Batman have been treating them.” If you’re a Democrat, the male talking head is a typical, greedy, callous Republican, and the female’s response may seem right on the money. He’s the bad guy, she’s the good guy—it’s simple, and there’s no debate.
If you’re a Republican, the female talking head is likewise an easy target. She’s setting aside the sins of a moral monster—the Joker—because he’s hooking people up in her old neighborhood. She’s blaming Backport’s “history of violence” on Gotham’s heroes—Batman and the GCPD. She pits Backport against Gotham’s authority: “the people” against “the elites,” “the gatekeepers.” If you’re a Republican, the female talking head is a typical, bleeding-heart, anti-cop, socialist Democrat, and her responses probably seem like hogwash. She’s the bad guy, he’s the good guy. Simple. So simple.
But it isn’t simple—for either of them. She was born in Backport, but did she stay? Did she go back? What is she doing to help? She’s achieved some level of success—how many of us have our faces on the TV regularly? If Backport’s own would take their success and return to Backport, couldn’t they help make it a better place? And what about him? There’s real corruption in Gotham, and as noble as Batman is, he’s enabled it through the Batman Devastation Fund. If the male talking head doesn’t understand why Backport is looking at alternative leadership, then he’s ignorant at best, and cold-heartedly callous at worst. Neither of these newscasters are champions. We should be as hesitant to align ourselves with them as we are the rest of the characters in this story.
Jack is (somewhat) reformed
I’m sure we’re all hesitant about Jack, but I trust that many of you are as perplexed as I am. He proposes what seems like a decent plan to Gordon—a way to use the Fund in a way that the people approve of. There are visual cues that hint at this being a Trojan horse—in close up, Gordon is half in shadow, and so is Jack—uncertainty on one side, and two faces (where’s Harvey when you need him?) on the other. But even with these suggestions—even with my near-certainty that this series will end with everyone in his place—I’m still puzzled. I can see or guess at Jack’s angles, but I also see him proposing things that might genuinely help. And then there’s the Harley problem.
Jack and Harley have a night on the town, then spend some intimate moments together back in their apartment. These scenes—more than any other—make me wonder exactly what’s going on here. Murphy can do whatever he likes—it’s his universe, after all—so regular rules don’t necessarily apply. We could actually be looking at a reformed(ish) Joker, one who actually cares for Harley and doesn’t want to hurt her—one who actually wants to help Gotham, even if his methods are still a bit screwed up.
There’s the other Harley to deal with, too. She reminds us that Jack was the Joker, but in so doing, she also reminds us that he’s chosen the straight life. Of course, this surfaces more questions: why would the Joker take pills to make himself go straight? Either there was something good in him before these pills that led him to seek wellness; or, he did it with an entirely sinister purpose, and this is just the long con that Gordon suspects it is. Still, in his quiet moments with Harley, and his rejection of Neo Joker, I have to wonder what exactly is going on inside of his head.
Neo enters the matrix
Neo is wondering the same thing. She wants to shame the Joker (the one she suspects is inside of Jack) into taking control and returning, so she plans to pull off a major caper. She’s still controlling Jack’s army of Arkhamites, and she’s still got Mad Hatter by her side. We’re given her (very sad) backstory this issue, as well, and you can’t help but feel for her. The idea of Joker not even noticing that the original Harley was gone strikes me as very in-character, as well; and, the needy Marian Drews seems much more akin to Harley’s animated original than the “real” one at Jack’s side. The only thing I don’t like is what she’s calling herself, but I can give it a pass. After declaring her unnecessary in issue #1, I fully recant. She’s a compelling character, lurking in the shadows like Big Bad Harv in Batman: The Animated Series, challenging Jack’s pipe dream of sanity and stability however she can.
The last page has quite the dun dun DUN reveal, though it was hinted in the first issue. I don’t generally enjoy these sorts of arbitrary tensions, but I’m willing to roll with it. Murphy has managed to quiet my fears whenever they’ve popped up, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now.
Confusion, beautifully rendered
White Knight continues to showcase Murphy’s top-notch artwork. The covers are not only relevant, but excellently-done. The main cover, in particular, is a striking image of Batman, broken and bleeding for his city, shoved into the background by the cleanly-presented, on-the-rise Napier. The whole thing is awash in Hollingsworth’s bleak twilight: Gotham is a dark place, and you can only hold off the night for so long.
I’m amazed flipping back through, realizing how much of this book consists of conversations or speeches, and how visually interesting it remains. The layouts are outstanding, as usual, which makes for a comfortable, logical read; but, more than that, Murphy’s environments and Holllingsworth’s detail (even on the lightly-saturated, bleak opening page) are incredibly rich. Gotham and its citizens are filled with character. If you’ve got a copy of the book, flip to the page with the credits at the top. Look at the people in the crowd, look at the buildings (even the shadowed ones on the left and right). There’s so much great detail here.
This page (the one right before the credits) is a great example of Klein’s skills, as well. There’s a lot of text, and the layout could potentially make it an awkward read—especially transitioning from the third side panel to the wider bottom panel. But Klein expertly distributes the balloons (with a little help from Murphy’s layouts) to lead our eyes to exactly where they need to be by the end. There’s never any question what needs to be read next.
My favorite page comes a bit closer to the end:
There’s so much going on here, and the visuals are such a perfect expression of the situation. Batman has just saved Gordon from falling (after Bane chucked the Bat Signal at him!), and here they stand on the street below. The Bat Signal—the symbol of their partnership—lies shattered at their feet. In every other panel, Batman is distant from, and high above Gordon. He’s got the high ground—the moral high ground, I’ll wager—but he’s alone up there. Even one of his earliest allies is descending to the real world. Losing Jim Gordon to a knife or a bomb would be a tragedy, but one that gives Batman new purpose. Losing Jim Gordon this way—Napier is hurting Batman perhaps more than the Joker ever could. It’s a sad moment, and Murphy and Hollingsworth illustrate it with beautiful complexity.
- You’ve been on board with White Knight so far. This book is still the same comfortable/uncomfortable place that it’s been from the start.
- You dig artwork that is more stylized than realistic.
- You hate the arrogant, zero-sum political discourse of our day.
Another outstanding combination of smart dialogue and gorgeous artwork, Batman: White Knight #4 brings more intrigue and heartbreak for the Dark Knight. It has tremendous relevance for our time, but avoids the Twitterpated reductionism of your average pundit. It’s a smart book that doesn’t look down on its readers, and that’s a rare thing—something we should celebrate.
I love hearing from readers! If you want to chat White Knight or anything else Batman, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.