The New Joker
Why I Hate Grant Morrison, part 1 of an ongoing series
Originally printed in Speakerphone, July 20th 2008
Reprinted with Permission
A new Batman movie just came out, if you haven't heard. And if you haven't heard, you are clearly deaf, blind, and have had no Internet connection for the last two years. "The Dark Knight" introduces the world to a new, darker vision of the Joker. Or will it? Movie fans may be suprised to discover a very similar version of the Joker has already been introduced by comic book author Grant Morrison during the last two years in the pages of Batman.
The comic book series Batman began in 1940, and runs concurrently to its sibling Detective Comics. Grant Morrison took over in September 2006 with issue 655, and started his run with a bang by having Batman shoot the Joker in the face. Suprise! It wasn't actually Batman, but some disgruntled cop in a Batman suit, thus beginning a rambling two year mystery about a secret conspiracy of alternate Batmans that only now looks to be reaching its conclusion with the current crossover "Batman R.I.P.".
While the Joker may have been shot in the face and thrown in a dumpster his superpower is apparently the ability to overcome the most grevious of injuries. He returned five months later in Batman 663, published on Valentine's Day of 2007. This comic, simply put, is different. Instead of normal pencil drawings, Morrison uses computer generated artwork juxtaposed alongside his lengthy exposition. It reads more like a short story with pictures than a comic book. Here, Morrison introduced his new version of the Joker. After undergoing several surgeries to repair the damage from getting shot, the Joker now has scars on the corner of his mouth, forcing it into a permanent grin. He complements this with a new fractured psyche and a taste for long feminine gowns. His new scars, at least, should be familiar to anyone who has seen pictures of Heath Ledger as the Joker, for the are almost identical. (Morrison's Joker seems to use slightly less lipstick, however.)
This is not a good thing. I do not read this as a legitimate attempt to add more depth to the Joker's character, (or even an ill-conceived movie tie-in) but rather a symptom of Grant Morrison trying to be "artistic". He actually tried this before with the Joker, in his 1986 graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. In this highly symbolic comic, the Joker was originally intended to wear full Madonna-esqe drag, including a pointed bra and fishnet stockings. The editors apparently vetoed that, so Morrison had to content himself with adding slight homoerotic overtones to the Joker's character. Twenty years later, Morrison is trying to revise the Joker yet again, in what seems like a petty attempt to get revenge at the editors from "Arkham Asylum" for their insults at denying him his "artistic vision" twenty years prior.
Unfortunately, Morrison does this "art" a lot, beginning way back with his late 1980s run on Animal Man, where he broke the so called "fourth wall" 1, wrote himself into the comic book and held existential discussions between himself (the author) and his own creation (the character of Animal Man). During the last several years, Morrison has made it his trademark to go into an established comic series, change everything™ to reflect his view of awesome, and then leave, after which the next author(s) are forced to quickly retcon 2 all of his changes away. This happened in X-Men 3, and I predict it will happen here as well. Actually, I don't have to predict anything, as it is already happening.
Take the Joker, which this article purports to be about. Morrison created his new vision of the Joker back in February of 2007. An entire year has passed since we got to see the Joker's new scars and clothing fetish. Have other authors followed suit? Of course not. The Joker has appeared in a myriad of other series since then, including Gotham Underground, Salvation Run, and even a couple times in Detective Comics 4. In every single one of the Joker's other appearances, he looks the same as he always has. Since all the other authors are already ignoring Morrison's "art", why should they change their ways anytime in the future? Besides, the entire genre of comic books already has an established history of retconning any dramatic changes away in favor of the status quo. The only thing that could make the Joker's change stick for more than a year would be the movie.
Let me say this: I am not overly fond of the theatrical version of the Joker. I realize that Heath Ledger's makeup is created to be more "gritty" or "realistic", and in the context of the movie it will probably work. I will certainly go see the film, and it will be awesome (because it is Batman), but already I have nagging doubts in the back of my mind that they could have done the Joker a little better. But with the movie, at least, I have the ability to shut that nagging voice off by watching the gratuitous explosions. Knowing marketers, they would tie the movie to the comics by pointing out Morrison's new Joker and forcing every DC author to use the new version.
Hopefully it won't come to that. Seeing how every author is currently ignoring Morrisons latest attempt at art, I have high hopes that when he eventually leaves DC, the authors will expunge his version from history and revert back to what worked. We shall wait and see.
1: The "fourth wall" is the boundary between comic books (fiction) and reality. When a character "breaks the fourth wall" that character becomes aware they are in a comic book and are not actually real. Over the years, there have been a few hints that the Joker may be able to break the fourth wall, possibly due to (or the cause of) his insanity.
2: Retcon stands for "retroactive continuity". It happens with a comic book author writes something that contradicts earlier storylines, then has to come up with a half-assed excuse as to why that first story was wrong and this new story is right. This often happens when a character dies in a storyline, only to be resurrected later.
3: The series X-Men began in 1991, and Grant Morrison took over in 2001 with issue 114. During his run, the title changed to "New X-Men", which was changed back to simply "X-Men" after issue 156. During his run he made several dramatic changes, including introducing Professor Xavier's evil twin sister, changing the character Beast into some Cat-thing through the concept of "secondary mutations", and increasing the mutant population into the millions before killing about half of it off in a genocidal attack by Xavier's aforementioned new sister. Morrison's run should not be confused with the second series "New X-Men", which began in 2004 and concerned itself with the adventures of the new group of teenage X-Men, before itself was cancelled in 2008 and rebooted as "Young X-Men".
4: During the last couple years in Detective Comics, the Joker has appeared on two occasions. The first was in issue 826, which, ironically, was published the same month as Morrison's Batman #663. Detective Comics author Paul Dini specifically notes, however, that the story in Detective Comics issue 826 happens before the Joker was shot in the face in Batman issue 655. While this note could be construed as Paul Dini giving tacit approval to Morrison and his new Joker, the Joker's next appearance in Detective Comics 833 and 834 (a two part storyline) is more problematic. This second story occurs weeks or even months after the first (Joker was hit by a truck at the end of issue 826, and spent a considerable time in recovery), and does not mention Morrison's plot line at all. Thus, it seems that Paul Dini is simply choosing to write his own Joker stories, and ignore whatever Grant Morrison is doing.
Word Count: 1,360 words with footnotes, 941 without footnotesReturn to Critical Articles