I have a birthday coming up soon, so I opted to treat myself with some graphic novels of stuff I really wanted to read. Which ones?
Most of them you’ll find out about later, but the one I probably wanted to get to the most was a more mature-reader friendly Batman tale from DC called Batman: White Knight. It posits a setting where Batman and the Joker essentially switch places.
White Knight follows what, on the surface, is a simple premise: what if the Joker went sane and became a good guy in Gotham City, but also still opposed Batman? From this simple premise comes what turned out to be a fantastic story. While it may not be labeled an Elseworlds book, that is essentially what it is. There are some differences between this story’s setting and the more mainline Batman continuity, but there are also a number of obvious differences as well. The most notable one involves this story’s Robins, but beyond that, writer/artist Sean Murphy crafted a new version of Gotham City built on the foundations of many of the older stories. Murphy’s work acts as something of a homage more than anything else. There are heavy influences from Batman the Animated Series here, referencing directly the plots from multiple episodes of that series to say nothing of giving the reader what is probably the first in-print appearances of Baby-Doll and Roxy Rocket. It wouldn’t be too hard to see this series as some sort of more adult-oriented story from that animated series, and I do mean adult. This may be one of the most mature Batman stories I’ve ever read.
By that, I don’t mean there’s a lot of sex, nudity, or swearing. To be sure, there is some swearing in the book, more than I would have expected from any Batman book, but instead the book actually asks the sorts of questions that Batman stories usually shy away from. The story makes no mention of superheroes from outside of Gotham, so if there is a Superman or a Justice League, that’s left unmentioned. Instead, the story takes a good hard look at Batman’s methods, Commissioner Gordon and the GCPD’s culpability in his methods, whether or not Batman actually makes Gotham a better place or not, whether or not there’s even a chance for Batman’s foes to get better, and what sorts of relationships Batman has even with his closest allies. To be certain, while Batman is not “right” in White Knight, Murphy does make it clear that Batman/Bruce Wayne is still basically a good man. He’s just a good man doing morally questionable things, and someone finally decided to call him on it.
That the person doing so is a cured Joker is only appropriate. Going by the name “Jack Napier,” the Joker is here depicted as something of an ultimate fanboy who got very lost in his obsession. With the mania suppressed, he’s free to actually go to work making Gotham better, and the first thing he sees as a problem is Batman himself. The best thing about Murphy’s work here is the reader should honestly question Batman’s role in Gotham City. Jack is more than willing to say why he was the way he was, and while he may not be a grinning lunatic wearing clown make-up anymore, that doesn’t make him any less obsessed with bringing down the Bat.
And as much as this may be a story that digs deep into the Joker as a character and looks just as deeply at Batman’s methods and the relationship between the two characters, there is a third character here who is just as important to the story as anyone else: Harley Quinn. Murphy even offers an explanation for why Harley’s appearance and overall behavior seemed to change in more recent stories from the seemingly harmless goofball that first appeared in BTAS.
Murphy’s story does, over the eight issues included, manage to include just about every important character and supporting character in the Batman mythos with only a few exceptions. He redesigned them as an artist too, perhaps most strikingly with Killer Croc, here drawn with an actual crocodile head and tail. There are Easter eggs scattered throughout the story for longtime Batman fans, and ultimately, Murphy tells a story that did something so few Batman stories are ever allowed to do: advance the plot and make permanent changes to Batman’s status quo. Sure, it may be in an alternate reality, but White Knight ends with the character re-evaluating everything he’s been doing for decades, and if Murphy ever opts to tell another story in this version of Gotham City, I know I’d be interested in seeing it. 10 out 10 talking heads debating who the good guy really is.