A serious house on serious earth

September 2, 2009


“Hello. I came to talk. I’ve been thinking lately. About you and me. What’s going to happen to us, in the end. We’re going to kill each other, aren’t we? Perhaps you’ll kill me. Perhaps I’ll kill you. Perhaps sooner. Perhaps later.” – Batman, The Killing Joke

I love Batman. In a life that has seen much assimilation of pulp and pop culture, the figure of the Dark Knight is one that has remained a perennial favourite. Be it seeing the repeated camp 60s TV show and revelling in the ludicrous villains, or seeing Batman Returns as an 8 year-old and cowering behind the sofa at DeVito’s grotesque Penguin, I’ve always had a nostalgic sentiment for the characters and the story of the orphan who vowed to turn fear against those who prey on the fearful.

As I grew up, I turned my attention to the Batman comics, and was I in for a shock. When I was about ten, I read The Killing Joke for the first time. Drawn in by the art of Brian Bolland, who I had admired from his work on 2000AD, I read it on a whim. It was a short tale focusing on Batman and The Joker, what could go wrong? Well, I was in for an education as to why Batman comics are so very different to other mainstream superhero works.

Key to the Batman mythos is the idea that the world the characters inhabit is so awful that the only sane way in which to live their lives is for them to lose their minds completely. It’s telling that Batman’s foes, once defeated, aren’t interred in a prison, they’re held in a mental hospital; Arkham Asylum.

“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy… When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot! I admit it! … It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for… It’s all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can’t you see the funny side? Why aren’t you laughing?” – The Joker, The Killing Joke

“Gotham City. Maybe it’s all I deserve, now. Maybe it’s just my time in Hell… Train’s no way to come to Gotham… in an airplane, from above, all you’d see are streets and buildings. Fool you into thinking it’s civilised. By now Barbara’s gotten her tests back. I only hate myself a little for hoping they came out negative. This is no place to raise a family.” – James Gordon, Batman: Year One

In recent years, the resurrected Batman film franchise has played to these central conceits to brilliant effect. Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s superlative The Dark Knight owes much to the characterisation found in works such as The Killing Joke and his final scene in which he suggests sharing a cell at Arkham with Batman is almost a word-for-word recreation of the story’s closing pages.

The reasoning behind this somewhat rambling post is the recent discovery of one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. Batman: Arkham Asylum was released last week and it is a terrific distillation of all the greatest qualities that make a fantastic Batman story. It is very rare these days to find examples of good (or even competent) storytelling in videogames but this really does excel. Furthermore, it reminded me of all the things I love about Batman.

“Hahaha. Y’know, it’s funny… This situation. It reminds me of a joke…

See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum… And one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape!

So, like, they get up onto the roof. And there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight… Stretching away to freedom.

Now, the first guy, he jumps across with no problem. But his friend, his friend daredn’t make the leap. Y’see… Y’see, he’s afraid of falling.

So then, the first guy has an idea… He says, ‘Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!’

B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says… He says ‘Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!’

Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha haaa… Fnff oh, do excuse me…” – The Joker, The Killing Joke


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