As you note, there has always been space within the Batman canon for some kinds of alternative interpretations of the character, for “What If?” or Elseworld stories, for alternative histories and authorial differences. Do you see the space for multiplicity within the superhero comics narrowing as Hollywood interests exert greater control over the future of these characters? If so, why?
I don’t, because I think comics are currently and will probably remain a niche interest.
That Morrison’s run on Batman — an extended, fannish love letter to the character’s seventy-year continuity, including obscure, one-panel references to specific archival stories and reworkings of previously-repressed comic narratives – took place at exactly the time Nolan was helming his own separate and distinctly authored Batman franchise, demonstrates that comic book continuity remains relatively independent from the Hollywood version.
There are overlaps and crossovers – Nolan’s franchise borrowed from specific graphic novels, and Morrison incorporated references to the Nolan Batman into his own story – but comics run on a parallel track, for a different (and far smaller) audience than movies, and no doubt also far smaller than the video game market.
It is certainly possible to identify a Nolan influence within Batman comics of the last seven years. Lucius Fox is now both regularly written and drawn to evoke Morgan Freeman. Joker is now commonly depicted with knife scars up both cheeks. A rougher, more cockney Alfred, clearly inspired by Michael Caine, features in one recent graphic novel. Batman regularly appears as a more armoured character, and the Tumbler, his tanklike Batmobile from Nolan’s movies, has frequently appeared on the pages of comics. Characters like Riddler, Penguin and Killer Croc have been re-imagined, within certain titles at least, in a more ‘Nolanised’ style. A new title called simply The Dark Knight was launched in 2010.
However, I would characterise this as ‘influence’ rather than ‘control’. Nolan’s interpretation of Batman and his world has joined the matrix of Batman texts and images, as Adam West’s did in the late 1960s, and facets of the ‘Nolanverse’ will inevitably appear within other Batman stories, just as the comic books became more flat, Pop and cartoonish during the TV show’s successful run. That was a fad, and it faded, and I think the influence of Nolan’s specific Batman will also fade in time, though it will remain part of the broader kaleidoscopic matrix, or mosaic, of what Batman is, and will continue to crop up now and then.
One of the underlying arguments of my book is that meanings occupy places on a spectrum, rather than binary oppositional positions, and that they flow, change places and cross over like energy running around a circuit, rather than like light switches that are either on or off.
So there are constant overlaps and internal contradictions throughout Batman’s history that undermine any sense of clear boundaries and definitions.
The Dark Knight Returns, which is held up as one of the key texts of the ‘purist’, dark, military Batman, and also regarded as ‘faithful’ in tone to Kane’s original, is itself an Elseworlds story and a possible future. The 1970s Batman of O’Neil and Adams is believed to have rebooted the character from the sillier, more playful aesthetic of the 1960s, but it is surprisingly easy to find elements of camp and queerness in those supposedly ‘gritty’ adventures of the ‘Darknight Detective’ and Robin, the Teen Wonder.
And while the New 52 of October 2011 ostensibly reboots Batman into a more contained storyline and space after the complexity and ambiguity of Morrison’s previous run – we are told now that Batman has only been active for five years, which clearly rules much of his history out of continuity – it retains the official line that there are 52 multiple universes, including several in-continuity alternate versions of Batman. So while the New 52 reboot seems to be a move towards control and ‘straightness’, in every sense, at the same time it embraces multiplicity and a sense of possibility.
The dynamic between multiplicity and control in Batman’s universe is not a matter of off/on, then, but push-pull; a constant tension between energies in different directions, rather than a binary which clicks all the way to one extreme, then all the way back to the other
As someone who has written a lot about the meanings of the Joker, especially in relation to Nolan’s film, I wanted to get you to reflect a bit about the Joker/Obama phenomenon. What do these images suggest about the connections you draw between the Joker and folk cultural logics and practices?
I would be tempted to see the Joker/Obama images as an example of the state of contemporary folk culture epitomised by the Joker in modern comics – a distorted, limited, unfunny version of the older folk culture Bakhtin describes, which genuinely belonged to the people and the marketplace, and roamed freely, generously, with healthy mockery of official rituals and structures.
The posters of Obama in the guise of Ledger’s Joker do not strike me as witty or even meaningful. They seem to have no particular conviction behind them; no clear message or purpose.
The first instance of the Jokerised Obama was defended by the Republican students who designed it as simply a pop culture image to get attention, rather than a political statement.
The creator of the most famous Joker/Obama image, Firas Alkhateeb, also claims no political purpose and has said he simply produced it because he was bored. The ‘socialism’ caption was added by someone else, who downloaded Alkhateeb’s image from Flickr. Even with this addition, the poster strikes me as having very little focused meaning. The combination of Ledger’s Joker, Obama’s portrait from the cover of Time and the word ‘socialism’ do not seem to cohere into any resonant message. The racial connotations of the image also seem to be accidental, rather than intended by Alkhateeb, who claims he was simply experimenting with a photoshop technique.
So I would associate this image with the expression of closed-down, contained carnival that Bakhtin tells us evolved from the seventeenth century onwards; a reduced carnival-grotesque, an ‘individual carnival, marked by a vivid sense of isolation… laughter was cut down to cold humour, irony, sarcasm. It ceased to be a joyful and triumphant hilarity. Its positive regenerating power was reduced to a minimum.’
Mockery and foolishness have a useful social purpose, whether we agree with their political aims or not, but to my mind, the Jokerised Obama says nothing positive or helpful, whether for the left or the right; it only offers sneering, empty sarcasm and ugliness. ‘The result,’ as Bakhtin says, ‘is a broken grotesque figure.’
This is very much the Joker of recent, ‘dark’ Batman comics, whose jokes trail off without punchlines, who seems lonely, cold and barren, rather than a joyful, ‘gay devil’, who wants to spread his playful energies across the city.
If it does have a value is, it is perhaps that – like Ledger’s Joker – it destabilises meaning and questions oppositions.
Arguably, the Jokerised Obama image problematises our expectations of political propaganda posters– that they should have a clear intention and carry a coherent message – and works to question and interrogate political oppositions based around personality, celebrity and iconic individuality, through the creator’s stated indifference and lack of any motivation beyond playful experiment. We assume that the combination Joker + Obama must be meant as either celebration or criticism; inherently, though, as far as the creator’s intentions go, it is neither.
The slippery refusal of this image to carry any obvious meaning – its refusal to make sense, its obstinate unwillingness to be readily decoded, despite the fact that it fits the conventional icon + slogan pattern that we are so used to understanding immediately and reading competently in advertising and propaganda – does perhaps have a certain subversive power.
Nolan’s Joker claims to be an agent of chaos, empty of any political agenda or intention, rather than a ‘schemer’, but the fact that his terrorism is clearly carefully planned subverts even this idea of meaningless, motiveless crime. He denies the forces of order the opportunity to classify him as ‘chaotic’; that would be a category in itself.
The Jokerised Obama, by contrast, is assumed to have an agenda and political intention, but in fact, in its original form, was created genuinely without motive, for the sake of appearance alone – an exercise in photoshop that could presumably have been applied to any photograph of any face – rather than parody or propaganda.
As such, the Joker/Obama image, like the other artefacts that swarm and circulate around the film, from news stories to viral marketing to fan-made Bane memes, adds an interesting intertextual echo to the network of meanings that make up The Dark Knight, and the broader Dark Knight trilogy as a whole.
Will Brooker is currently Director of Research in Film and Television at Kingston University, London, and incoming editor of Cinema Journal. His books include Batman Unmasked, Using the Force, Alice’s Adventures, The Blade Runner Experience, the BFI Film Classics volumeStar Wars, and Hunting the Dark Knight (I B Tauris, 2012).