No book has enraptured readers this past year like Batman, and the writers at Comicosity are no more immune than any other fan to the greatness that was Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Death of the Family arc (#13-17). Resident Batman enthusiast and Comicosity reviewer Gavin Craig sat down with senior editor Matt Santori to pick apart just what it is that made this arc so special to them.
Gavin Craig: Going back to the beginning, I was impressed all over again at how well planned and executed the whole thing was. I had entirely forgotten that the two-headed lion cub was one of the signs cited by Gordon portending dire events, and that the Joker uses the cub to distract Alfred before he’s kidnapped.
Matt Santori: I had the same experience when I reread the story from start to finish. Things I thought were throwaway lines were not even in the slightest. It’s just one of the ways that Snyder seemed to be able to craft a story that surpasses a lot of standard comic book plotting. Every step of the way, it was clear he knew exactly what was happening and where everyone and everything would end up.
Gavin: Planning and executing at that level is a difficult thing to do, especially in a collaborative medium like comic books. Your script isn’t entirely a complete thing before the artwork is done, and so even beyond editorial juggling and deadlines, it’s quite a feat for someone not doing both the writing and the art to put together a final book that’s so completely integrated. The pacing is masterful.
Matt: True, it shows a level of craft that clearly illustrates why Snyder is a writing teacher in his other life, but it also expresses just how much confidence DC has in his version of Batman that they seem ready and willing to let him and Capullo go at it with such abandon and set the tone for, now, two mini-crossover events.
And that tone can be frightening. Starting off the five-part story with such a pivotal scene of the Joker’s return, set in the Gotham Police Department… chilling. Normally what is hiding in the dark is never as scary as what you imagine it to be. In this case, the Joker is far worse.
Masks Upon Masks.
Gavin: You don’t get a glimpse of the Joker’s face until the last main-story page of Batman #13. And all along the way, Snyder and Capullo seemed to keep readers (or at least me) exactly where they wanted us. The week before Batman #16 came out, I thought to myself “the Joker’s face is dead tissue. Now that it’s out of refrigeration, wouldn’t it be rotting?” And that was just when Greg Capullo started drawing flies.
Matt: The face itself is quite the frightening piece, especially as it shifts around and decays. Seeing how the wires pull it back into a grin and its edges are sewn into a leather strap make for a flashback in my head to every horror film that truly scared me as a kid — Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street, even a little bit of Saw.
There’s no question there’s a real mania to letting someone remove your face, but to wear it again as if it were simply a mask all along is truly grotesque. And yet, what is the Joker trying to say about his real persona. Wasn’t there a line about being “smiles all the way down”?
Gavin: Capullo does a lot of work with Joker’s face, especially in and after Batman #16, although I really have to give credit to Pat Gleason in Batman and Robin for taking what the severed face could do (and what the Joker could do with it) to a whole different level. But ultimately, whenever you get a really great Batman and Joker story, it’s all about identity. You have two characters standing in front of each other, trying to define not just whom the other really is, but what the whole relationship is about. That’s one of the reasons why the Joker talks so much. It’s not really about killing people. For the Joker, that’s just a bonus.
Matt: Well, part of what makes Batman and the Joker so evenly matched is that they both truly understand the other one in a deeply personal way. With most of his rogues’ gallery, Batman wins by outsmarting his opponents. I’m not sure that’s possible with the Joker. It’s not that he’s intellectually as astute as the Batman, but that he deeply understands him in a way that surpasses rational thought.
Gavin: Louis Althusser talks about how we don’t entirely have an identity alone. It’s not until we’ve been addressed by someone else (Althussier calls it hailing), that we start to take part of our identity from how we’re seen by that other person. The Batman and Joker are an extreme version of that. There’s always a certain amount of violence in being hailed, in that the self is always at least partially defined by how it appears to others. What the Joker does is insist on his hail, that how he sees the Dark Knight is how he really is. Which, of course, is what Batman does to everyone else.
Batman will intimidate or beat you into compliance with his view of the world — he demands your assent. The Joker will just turn you into a corpse. And the fact that the Joker has his own face removed, that he turns it into a mask, is itself a parody of the idea that Batman’s own true face is his costume’s mask.
A Family Man.
Matt: The family is, of course, at the center of this tale, as Snyder delivered on the title quite literally by its end. It was interesting to see each of Bruce’s “children” plead with him to listen — to let them help — almost to the degree that I wonder how tenuous the family dynamic was even before the Joker’s arrival. Was he just illuminating a truth that was already there, that deep down Batman really is held back by his connections?
Gavin: It would almost be too simple for either Batman or the Joker to be unambiguously right, wouldn’t it? The Joker insists that Batman’s family makes him weak — that they make him vulnerable, and by making their own contributions to the brain work and leg work, they let the Batman not have to work quite so hard and not stay quite as sharp. And he’s totally right. Batman insists that his family make him stronger — that they remind him of his humanity, what it is that he’s fighting for, and that they support him physically and emotionally. And he’s totally right, too.
What Death of the Family does in a surprisingly quiet way is to sort out a lot of the questions left ambiguous by The New 52. What exactly is Batman’s relationship to the Bat-family? How much interaction do they have? What sort of a history? More than maybe even the Zero Month issues, Death of the Family provides a quick, firm answer. Batman holds back, and the family is grown-up enough that Bruce’s authority alone isn’t enough to hold them to him.
Zero Month was a bit messy, after all, wasn’t it? And now we have a rather neat and tidy new understanding of exactly where everyone stands. They are a family, and they’ll fight to the death for each other, but they’re a bit more on their own now. Because Dad didn’t quite come through for them. And after all, the Joker is never just content to be able to describe things. He makes them true.
Matt: Dad definitely withholds, I think it’s safe to say. It does create a family dynamic that is quite a bit different than previous to The New 52. It’s not really an issue of trust though, is it? I believe that Bruce trusts each of them, even Jason in his way, implicitly, but it could be about vulnerability. Why can’t Batman explain WHY he knows the Joker never got into the cave? He’s probably right — they wouldn’t understand — but what is so compelling is it seems that the very act of explaining this strange understanding of the Joker leaves Bruce too raw, too unprotected. Almost like the Joker’s underlining, exposed to the world. Like the Joker’s slippery skin mask, Batman’s own “mask” isn’t as secure as one would imagine. A few quick punches in the right place and it could twist about.
Did He or Didn’t He?
Gavin: I spent a lot of time before Batman #17 trying to wrap my head around whether the Joker could have or did actually get into the cave. You’re given a really concrete reason why it’s absolutely impossible — it would have involved clinging to a boat traveling at 50 miles per hour underwater for five miles. But then Dick Grayson reminds Bruce that the Joker routinely performs the impossible, and it suddenly becomes absolutely plausible. Where else but comics can you pull that off?
Matt: The Joker is more than a man in the same way that Bruce is. There’s a lot of talk about how Batman is “only human,” but that’s not really true in the meta-textual sense. Batman is so much more than us petty real life persons, just as the Joker is nearly a force of nature, the id personified.
Scratch that. Chaos personified, because the Joker isn’t really id in actuality. He’s just a twisted version of the same superego Batman exhibits.
Gavin: I think it’s a Schrodinger’s cat question — until Batman #17, when Batman and the Joker talk about it, there’s no final answer to the question. And what makes the final answer work is both that it comes down to who wins the argument — since Batman and the Joker always comes down to who wins the argument — and that the final evidence is not that it’s a physically impossible feat, but that Batman is able to show that it was a psychologically impossible feat for the Joker. The Joker didn’t let go because he couldn’t hold on. He let go because he couldn’t know.
The Joker isn’t the id because the Joker doesn’t have any desires of his own. He, like Batman, is a walking superego, trying to reshape the world to fit its own rules. Exactly right.
The Butler Did It.
Matt: Alfred was once again front and center, proving just how important Bruce’s father figure is to his mission, sanity and development. I adored the fact that Alfred’s love and commitment to family was what got the “kids” to regain their senses after the Joker’s gas attack. Such a poignant moment. Is it a little cheesy? Maybe, but who cares? Alfred is that powerful in his own way. And his attitude about the bell? Brilliant.
Gavin: I actually thought that Alfred wasn’t going to survive the story. We’ve seen Batman isolated in different ways before — after Jason Todd’s death (until Tim Drake insists that Batman needs a Robin), during Bruce Wayne: Fugitive when Batman is entirely cut off from his civilian identity — but the loss of Alfred would have been an entirely different thing. For a character so absolutely shaped by the loss of his parents, the loss of his surrogate father and caretaker would have been devastating.
Although I’m not sure that I can say that I’m disappointed. Losing Alfred might just have been too much. There are things Alfred can do that Bruce can’t precisely because he’s just a (mostly) normal person, like dreaming about killing the Joker in Batman and Robin #17, but not being a hero, bringing him back to life might have been a tough task. We might have been stuck without Alfred until the next continuity reboot, and that’s a big piece of the Batman mythos to be missing.
Matt: So what about that final confrontation with the Joker? I’ve been debating writing up a scathing article about how anyone who believes the Batman should have killed the Joker does not understand Batman AT ALL, but perhaps it’s better to focus on the positive instead. Snyder’s choice to have Batman (presumably) bluff his knowledge of the Joker’s identity was just so well executed and dialogued that I have to sit back and marvel at its sheer perfection. What else could possibly gotten under the Joker’s skin (no pun intended) but his nemesis seeing him for less than he actually is — seeing him as something he truly isn’t and hasn’t been for a long time? In a way, it would be a complete crisis for the Joker’s understanding of the Batman to hear him go down that path that so obviously doesn’t reflect his own self-image.
Gavin: There’s a lot in that final confrontation that works so well as written and drawn. I tend to take Batman at his word that he figured out who the Joker is, if for no other reason than that we’re watching a battle over who can create the world more powerfully through his own descriptions. And, I mean, what else do we have in comic books? If Batman says that he knows who the Joker is, then at least in that moment, he knows. Or, again, he’s made the Joker accept his version of reality, which is the same thing. But yeah, I’m going to be a traditionalist on whether Batman can kill the Joker. I love the part where Snyder gives us the usual answer — that if Batman kills the Joker, the Joker wins, and that the Joker immediately turns that around and says that he wins simply by continuing to live — but really, if we go back to basic comic book rules, Batman can’t kill the Joker because then he simply wouldn’t be Batman. Especially given how Snyder’s take on the Joker drew so much and so richly on old Joker stories, it just wouldn’t have been right for him to turn Bruce into the Punisher (or Magog) at the end.
Matt: Or Green Arrow. Or Wonder Woman. Or even Superman. We imagine Batman as the darkest of the Trinity of DC Heroes, but he is truly the purest. There is no tug of war between peace and battle, or between doing too much for people or too little. He is, at his root, the clearest iteration of a hero who does what is right that comic books have.
Gavin: And we get a Joker death anyway, no? I mean, as much as Joker is ever dead.