Grant Morrison’s Batman: The Clown at Midnight

5 04 2010

Welcome back. Today, I’m looking to tackle Batman #663, ’The Clown at Midnight.’ I’d say that this is the most interesting work Morrison has done on the title, because it’s done completely in prose. But this isn’t the first time an issue of Batman was presented in prose, I did a little Googling and found out that  there was an old story by Denny O’Neil and Marshall Rogers called ‘Death Strikes at Midnight and Three’ that was presented in the same way – prose with a illustrated art here and there.

Other than Death Strikes at Midnight and Three, this issue seems to tie-in a bit to Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, A Serious House on Serious Earth which, quite honestly, is one of my least favorite of his works on Batman. However the connection to Arkham Asylum is tangential at best, so it’s not really required reading to understand this story.

Anyway, this issue is primarily about The Joker’s death and subsequent rebirth into a new personality. So let’s get started shall we?

Now if you haven’t read Arkham Asylum, Morrison suggests that the Joker doesn’t have a real personality. In fact, he has what his psychiatrists call ‘super-sanity’ where he can’t really adjust himself to the rigors of everyday living and instead creates brand new personalities to cope with this.

Now with that out of the way, let’s get to the issue in question. It begins with clowns attending a funeral. All of them have one thing in common, they all worked with the Joker before.  Over the course of the funeral, the clowns slowly begin to feel sick.

Notice the black and red roses they used for the wreath.

The black and red roses are a binary compound of sorts that only become lethal when they come into contact. The venom is a new strain of Joker toxin, so I’m sure you can infer what happens to the clowns next. The roses aren’t the only black and red reference you’ll see in this issue, in fact it makes use of the color scheme quite a bit as you’ll later see.

While this isn’t really important nor is it symbolic or anything but I like how Morrison has continued the trend of naming Gotham landmarks after people who’ve done iconic work on the character. In this example below, we see references to Jim Aparo and Bill Finger.

Batman notes that all the clowns were part of a group called the Boys of St. Genesius. St. Genesius of Rome was the patron saint of actors and comedians. The Genesius reference also connects it to Joker’s Five Way Revenge from Batman #251. The plot of the story itself is very similar to Batman’s Five Way Revenge with The Joker killing off his old henchmen.

Interestingly enough, during ‘Joker’s Five Way Revenge’ the Joker was in the midst of a transition from his ‘Prankster’ period to the personality he has today so I’m supposing that every time Joker recreates himself he kills everyone he was associated with. Fantastic.

I can’t really put my finger on it, but this story feels more like Morrison’s older work with the character rather than his current work right now. Perhaps it’s the connection to Arkham Asylum or perhaps it’s the dark and muddled art or perhaps it’s just me, I don’t know.

Anyway, moving on – Batman pays Joker a visit in Arkham Asylum which doesn’t really go well. Joker’s verbally unresponsive because of the damage done by the gun shot to his face and now requires a speech therapist. As Batman questions him, the Joker answers him by blinking out a message in morse code, check it out.

Now, I’m no expert, but if I understand Morse code properly, spelling those letters out would just entail erratic blinking. Dr. Arkham makes note of it himself. Perhaps Batman’s just forcing himself to come up with a pattern, come up with a meaning to the senselessness that the Joker’s presenting to him. It’s a dynamic that Morrison explores in RIP when Joker claims that Batman has apophenia, a condition where one searches for patterns and connections from seemingly unconnected data. This might be a manifestation of this right here. Of course, this could also be just a jab at the fans who take these things like this way too seriously. What do you guys think?

From the image above, Batman concludes that the speech therapist Joker had was Harley Quinn whom he immediately hunts down. Meanwhile, one of Joker’s henchmen, specifically one of the midgets in the gimp suits from The Killing Joke, was found dead. Victim of the same strain of Joker toxin.

Oh, goodie! More red and black!

Batman uses Nirvikalpa Samadhi, the supreme meditative state to try and make sense of the pattern left by the Joker. From what I understand after a quick look around the Internet, nirvikalpa samadhi in Buddhist philosophy occurs when one acknowledges everything as one and therefore perfect so as to intuit the ‘perfect reality’ of everything. This is probably a crude definition but it’ll fit our purposes. Basically, if how I understood it is correct, Batman’s taking up everything and acknowledging that everything fits or that everything is just a small part of a bigger clue or pattern. Again, this gives more credence to Joker’s claims of apophenia.

We move back to The Joker in Arkham. He’s eagerly awaiting to be born again, to transcend this personality and become something quite different. As he does this he scrolls through a list of things that make him laugh, all of them rather morbid and dour. Here’s a little bit of the rather long list he ran through:

I’d like to point out the sombreros though. The Joker says it again just before he kills El Sombrero which is pretty neat.

The Joker continues his mad rebirth, as he escapes custody and enters an operating theater. I’d try to explain, but I’d rather let the original text speak for itself as it references his ‘super-sanity,’ his lack of a real personality, and his acknowledgement of his different personalities.

I’d say it’s the best explanation of how the Joker works. It’s rather brilliant that it’s able to reconcile his multiple characters over the past 70 years through the simple addition of his lack of a real personality.

The Joker completes his rebirth and dubs himself ‘Thin White Duke of Death’ most likely a David Bowie reference. Although I can’t say I got it the first time around. With his new personality and his new look, The Joker waits for the final piece of the puzzle – Harley Quinn.

Of course, Harley thought that her ‘puddin’ wanted Batman so he could kill him at the stroke of midnight, but Batman reveals to her that it was her who he wanted all along. To complete his transformation, he has to kill the last part of his old self just like he did in ‘Five Way Revenge.’

Batman explains it all.

Batman saves Harley from the Joker and scuffles a bit with the Joker. During the scuffle The Joker discusses their special dynamic much like how Alan Moore and dozens of other Batman writers have been for the past decade or so since the Killing Joke. Also, the keen and informed will notice a little stab at Frank Miller at the bottom of the text.

He wants the goddamn Batman to get the goddamn joke.

This issue finishes up with Morrison summing up the Batman and Joker dynamic. Hell, even the chapter title seems to make a statement about this: ‘The Unbearable Inevitability of Batman and The Joker.’ And he’s right, Batman and Joker will always boil down to this critical moment where both of them realize that they just can’t kill each other.

The Joker sums it up pretty well: ‘Where would the act be without my straight man?’ The issue ends with Batman dragging the Joker back to his padded cell with Harley asking ‘Don’cha love me no more?’ to punctuate The Joker’s sudden, dramatic and bizarre metamorphosis.

It’s rather poignant, the way these writers, not just Morrison, have summed up their little dynamic. From the movies, to the cartoons, to the comic books The Joker and The Batman will always be locked in an unending battle of wits that will always, inevitably end in the same way. The inevitability feels Sisyphean in a way.

Anyway, I suppose that’s all I have to say about this issue. If you didn’t read it before or just skipped over it to get to the good parts of the hardcover or trade paperback I’d say get to reading this chapter. It’s flowery and over reliant on metaphors, I’ll give you that. But it’s quite possibly the most interesting depiction of how the Joker works and what makes him tick.

The next part of this series will be looking into the ‘Three Ghosts of Batman’ and ‘The Black Casebook.’ I’ll be looking to have that up in a couple of days or so, so look out for that. I really hope you enjoyed that rather lengthy post and I do hope you’ll join me again in a couple of days. Anyway, as always, stay tuned for more.

Scans from: Batman #663, The Clown at Midnight‘ written by Grant Morrison, art by John Van Fleet

Batman #680 The Thin White Duke of Death’ written by Grant Morrison, art by Tony Daniels and Sandu Florea

Arkham Asylum, A Serious House on Serious Earth written by Grant Morrison, art by Dave McKean

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3 responses

5 04 2010
Chiel

Very well-written. Love it. (Prolly because I didn’t get much of it when I tried to read it.) 😀

8 04 2010
Darren

I got what Morrison was doing – it was very clever and one of the more interesting parts of the run – but I found Morrison’s prose very purple. I get he was going for what Bruce mocks later as that “hard-boiled” style that Alfred loves to read, but that and the awful artwork and page layout seem to lock me out of what is arguably a fantastic take on the character.

And the Thin White Duke of Death is a perfect reference. Bowie not only resembles the Joker physically (tall, lanky), but was also the master of personal reinvention. During the seventies, he was David Jones, David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke, all with unique personalities and distinct musical styles. Where the characters ended and he began was and is the subject of much debate – for instance, when he announced the retirement of Ziggy, it was widely regarded it was BOWIE who was retiring, not to mention the trouble the Thin White Duke’s fascism got him into (a poorly chosen salute at a London station and being arrested on the way into Austria with the biographies of Nazis). Not to mention the simple fact that very few of his albums are in anyway alike. I thought Morrison crafted a perfectly subtle metaphor.

Great work here, by the way – when I do my review of Morrison’s Batman & Robin run, I’ll throw in a link.

8 04 2010
thewednesdayreader

Agreed with the prose and the artwork. It gets really flowery and over reliant on [pretty bad] metaphors at times, while the artwork seems to evoke this cheap, disgusting, muddled feeling that I really disliked.

And wow that’s a really good way of looking at it. I was never really too keen on the music scene but I’m definitely interested in the man and his work right now. Thanks for that insightful comment.

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