Alfred is dead. Gordon is gone. Nightwing and Batgirl are in league with the enemy. The boy who lost everything has lost everything for a second time, and this might be the loss that sticks. In Batman: White Knight #5, it only gets worse—and Batman and his city may never recover. SPOILERS AHEAD.
The mask comes off
Jack Napier has done what the Joker never could—ruining Batman—and he’s done it using methods that—at least to outsiders—seem legitimate. He gave hope to the (effectively) disenfranchised people of Backport, found a way to make Gotham’s masked vigilantes official public servants, and isolated the Dark Knight from his closest allies. He has bested Batman in the game of wits, and so as we begin issue #5, we find Jack preparing for battle in the other arena: the physical. We could debate all day about whether or not this is a delusional aspiration (even with Harley’s training and the steroidal side-effects of the anti-crazy pills), but this is where he’s at.
But that isn’t actually the first thing we see. The first thing we see is Jack coughing up blood. It’s a side-effect of the pills, he says. Sometimes they don’t agree with his stomach, he says. But we all know that an upset stomach does not typically yield blood. These pills are doing something worse, and it will be interesting to see whether or not Jack ultimately sacrifices his physical life for the sake of his mind. It will be especially interesting because it seems that some cracks are starting to show:
The first time that I read this, I was shocked. Jack’s yelling at Harley. That’s a markedly different tone than he’s taken with her throughout this series. Her deflecting reaction convinced me to explain it away—he’s just worried about his face, after all—but each time I revisit this page, I’m struck afresh. This sort of angry, controlling response to Harley seems quite reminiscent of the Joker, and I can’t help but wonder if the positive effects of the pills are already wearing off. Harley’s reaction could just as well be her falling right back in line with old patterns. Or denial. And while we’re wondering about that, let’s revisit the “delusional aspiration” I alluded to above. Taking on Batman in a physical contest is something that no sane person of Jack’s stature would do, no matter how nice his new abs are (betcha thought I wouldn’t notice, puddin’).
Batman’s detecting (some latent hostility)
Meanwhile, Batman is on the case, and he’s actually very close to figuring out exactly how Jack and Harley (and now Neo) controlled the gang of supervillains. Murphy handles this really well, giving Batman two very solid observations—observations that make perfect sense, but that other detectives might conceivably miss. Part of Bruce’s genius as an investigator is in understanding the parameters of an investigation. He doesn’t waste time trying to guess at the motivation of the super-criminals (I love that Murphy has him say “super-criminals”), because he can confidently say that these particular super-criminals never work together. The same parameter fences in his observation about their silence during the assaults. With these two observations, governed by the notion that his adversaries have predictable behavior, he deduces that the only possible reason that they were not acting like themselves is because (at least in a sense) they were not themselves. I realize that I’m making a lot of fuss about a few panels of detective work in a scene that is not really about detective work, but this is one of Batman’s most appealing characteristics, and we aren’t getting much of it in any other book, so I have to celebrate it here.
The rest of the scene centers on the long-simmering conflict between Batman and Nightwing finally boiling over, and while it’s certainly good reading overall, it all comes to a fine point when Dick makes a dick move that Dick would never make in main continuity (unless he already has—I just don’t think he would). This whole scene would probably work better if we knew more about why Dick is so bitter, and why Barbara’s not, but I suspect that motivation may end up on the cutting room floor. Maybe Murphy will have an opportunity to explore it more in a future project, if he doesn’t before this series ends.
White Knight #5 comes alive for me as this scene ends. The visual storytelling has been up to Murphy’s (very high) standard before now, but here, as Batman swings off into the failing light, we see the boldest statement of the issue. I didn’t paw through the previous four installments, so I could be remembering incorrectly, but I think this is the first time that we’ve seen Gotham look quite so enormous and intricate in White Knight. As Batman leaves his final two allies behind, we see the larger-than-life Dark Knight dwarfed by a city that, at the end of the day, will always be too big—even for him. It seems fitting that, as Jack makes Batman smaller, Murphy makes Gotham all the more imposing.
The strong storytelling—visually and verbally—continues into the next scene, when Bruce and Harley have a heart-to-heart on the balcony of her apartment. Bats and Jack seem to be competing for the saddest story, but in the end, this story is Harley’s tragedy. You can see the hope, the worry, and the pleading in her eyes—and, in the end, resignation. She knows deep down that her happy life is over. There’s blood in Jack’s cough, and obsession in his eyes. He may not be the Joker anymore, but he’ll never stop trying to get Batman’s attention, and Batman will never stop trying to stop him. The most hopeful note for Harley is her own capacity for redemption (as evidenced by her history with Batman), but there is a mountain of hurt to climb before she can reach that peak.
It is also in this scene that Harley distills the (possible) moral of this story to its simplest form: “being a good guy doesn’t mean you always know what’s best.” You can apply that to Batman and his crusade against crime, you can apply it to Jack and his shady methods for accomplishing good things, and you can apply it to pretty much anybody at certain times in their lives. Put another way, it’s not who you are on the inside, but what you do that defines you.
Out with a (bit of a) whimper
The book is all down from there. I don’t dislike it, and some important things happen along the way, but after such an emotionally swollen scene between Batman and Harley, fifteen pages of plot-heavy plotting feels like a let-down. The visuals are excellent, particularly as we see the GTO roll out for the big car chase, but there aren’t really any surprising revelations or unique goings-on that would make this sort of thing truly satisfying. It probably won’t even matter once the series is collected in trade, but right now, it’s kind of a bummer. It’s a shame that I have to say that about a book where Bane gets hit in the face with a truck (#1 Duke Thomas moment of all time there), but that’s where I’m at. Technically, t’s not all plot. Neo does give Hatter (and us) another glimpse into her past with Joker, and it’s a good one. But it’s short, and it lacks the empathetic pull that her wrist-cutting, bank employee story did a few issues back. I like it, but I don’t love it, and regardless, it’s only two pages in a fifteen-page rip through the plot.
- You’ve been loving White Knight.
- You haven’t enjoyed the way Murphy has handled the social issues in earlier installments—this one doesn’t really address those issues.
- You’ve been waiting to see a big, claustrophobia-inducing Gotham.
- You’ve been wandering in the arid, detective-free desert of Batman comics for years, and you would pay $3.99—nay, $3,999,999.99—for a few drops to cool your tongue.
Featuring some of this series’s strongest character work, White Knight #5 nevertheless suffers from some lopsided scripting. Murphy’s best work comes early, and while the latter portions are still good, they feel like a letdown after such a satisfying appetizer. That said, it’s never bad, and the artwork is never less than stellar, so even as a low(er) point, Batman: White Knight #5 is still worth every penny.