Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post by Vincent Haddad will hopefully be the first of many by this insightful comics scholar. In this essay he tackles Batman: White Knight, a series I knew nothing about before reading his submission, but one that, based on Vincent’s reading, sadly reinforces the severe ideological limits of the superhero comic book genre.
A public affinity for the hell-raising, retributive ideologies expressed by particular villains has accompanied several superhero blockbusters of the past decade. Before Twitter users made popular the hashtag #KillmongerWasRight—or its other prominent iterations with Magneto (X-Men: First Class), Vulture (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Thanos (Avengers: Infinity War) and Carlton Drake (Venom)—it was Heath Ledger’s frightening portrayal of the Joker that first gave mainstream comic book movie audiences a villain with an attractive pop-philosophy veneer. Perhaps it’s only fitting that one of the more contentious political valorizations of a villain would again involve this character. The 2019 film Joker (dir. Todd Phillips) aimed to give the Clown Prince of Crime a more three-dimensional and empathetic backstory. If the character’s portrayal in The Dark Knight (2007) was a kind of gateway drug for antisocial anarchism, after 2016 the character appears to have become a peculiarly attractive and malleable vehicle for representing and processing the rise of so-called “populist” or “anti-establishment” anger. Though the film put a (cloudy) spotlight on this shift, it is a comic book limited series that provides the more interesting and ambitious example: Batman: White Knight (2017-2018) by writer and artist Sean Murphy with colors by Matt Hollingsworth. This Elseworlds tale presents a Joker who, by parroting Bernie Sanders on topics like income inequality, corruption, and racial injustice, convinces a diverse coalition of working-class Gothamites that he is right. And, for a brief time, he is right. But, villains can’t stay right, and in this case he becomes devastatingly, spectacularly wrong.
For better or (mostly) worse, the Joker has been a steady if slippery part of American political iconography in the twelve years between The Dark Knight and Joker—sometimes an insult, sometimes a compliment depending on the context, the protest, or the politician. The character, and the threat he poses, can often flatten ideological difference and nuance: he can just as easily be made to represent the white grievances and racism that animate Trumpism as he can, as I will focus on here, the Black Lives Matter Movement. Awkward as it was, Joker appeared to clarify the character’s rage against the machine with a liberal sensibility, flooding the film with apparently sincere if ill-conceived and ill-timed superhero treatments of mental health, income inequality, and austerity. The film’s representation of the character as a victim of these specific socio-economic circumstances, sparking an uprising against Thomas Wayne and the city’s financial elites (or was this just another one of Arthur’s delusions of grandeur?) proved to be an attractive populist symbol. In the U.S., pollsters at the Morning Consult found that primary voters of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, presumably sympathetic to its anti-establishment, anti-Wall Street cues, preferred the film more than voters of any other candidate. From preference to praxis, demonstrators in Chile, Lebanon, and Hong Kong donned Joker-inspired face paint in anti-austerity protests.
Yet, using a super villain to tackle these issues is messy and the film proved to be divisive even among those otherwise sympathetic to addressing them. Some feared the film’s empathy was unjustly providing cover, if not outright promoting, contemporaneous acts of violence by “incels.” Its representation of race also drew criticism, namely because his neighbor and the series of social workers, counselors, and other public servants who consistently let Arthur Fleck down–thus becoming targets of his terrorization and violence–were predominantly Black. For Lawrence Ware, the film was “essentially a depiction of what happens when white supremacy is left unchecked. It shows the delusions that many white men have about their place in society and the brutality that can result when that place is denied.” Whether the film knowingly critiqued this white supremacy or passively represented it is up for debate. As Alison Willmore writes, the film is “so ideologically opaque as to resist being accused of saying anything, lobbing contradictions like Molotov cocktails in all directions.”
If Joker is a warning that, in the absence of a collective (one might say socialist) political project, nihilism and indiscriminate violence will fill the void, Batman: White Knight instead makes Joker a mouthpiece for that very collective political project. Moreover, Murphy’s Eisner-nominated, 8-issue miniseries is more self-aware of race and racial politics, particularly within the context of income inequality and criminal justice reform, than the film. While Batman comics are inescapably always about criminal justice, Murphy joins a lineage of writers following Denny O’Neil and Frank Miller who aim to use the story-world to say something about the topic. Tom King offers a perfectly entertaining example: in Batman Vol. 8: Cold Days, Batman realizes his torture of Mr. Freeze may have actually resulted in a false confession. Bruce Wayne resolves to finagle his way into jury duty to get Mr. Freeze exonerated—made all the more difficult because the rest of the jury blindly prioritize Batman’s word over tangible evidence.
This implicit connection to criminal justice has made it tempting for many comics writers to connect superheroes to racial politics and the Black Lives Matter movement in particular, which, as I’ve written about here, can be unsuccessful even in experienced hands. In the case of White Knight, Murphy describes the complex political navigation he concocted in order to speak to BLM issues: “I wanted to write it as a centrist with characters on both sides. I didn’t want to beat anyone over the head with politics. I’m super left and I wanted to play that down. To reach across the aisle.” While I sympathize with this effort, writing “as a centrist” on these particular issues results in a comic that affirms the status quo of the most damaging power structures at the heart of BLM’s critique. Murphy recently left Twitter in part for criticism received for making dubious statements about good police officers and looting—clues to his ignorance on these topics can be found throughout White Knight. It is the very racial politics Murphy attempts to bring into focus that ultimately expose the fraught assumptions about criminality that run through the superhero genre. As this story proves, unfortunately not even Joker’s excess and radicalism empower Murphy to approach the vision of the Black Lives Matter Movement on criminal justice reform, even as he purports to represent populist uprisings in its mold. Put differently, it’s the very ingredients that make White Knight an enjoyable Batman story that leave it completely ill-equipped to speak to racial injustice.
Similar to Joker’s return to 1981 and Reagan’s austerity politics, Murphy resurrects Jack Napier from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman as his central protagonist. In this alternate reboot, Murphy discards the kitschy parts of Jack Nicholson’s portrayal. Jack no longer sees himself as a weird avant-garde artist, and his shifting physical appearance from Jack and Joker is more a manifestation of his mental health than an application of beige cover-up. Instead, Jack, now fully medicated and able to (just barely) hold back his inner Joker, re-directs the media savvy we see in Burton’s film into a full-fledged political career. Though the choice of Jack Napier as his preferred permutation of the character transports us back in time, Murphy also invites the reader to consider the story through the lens of the present, incorporating, as he says, “BLM and some issues that are ripped from the current headlines.” Jack commits himself to “the poor and middle class…the oppressed 99% who are most affected by Gotham’s corruption” to stand against Batman, “the pit bull of the 1%.” As a candidate for city council, Jack conspires to show Gotham that Batman is the true villain whose war on crime is functionally a boon to real estate profiteers in some areas and leaves other low-income areas red-lined as “Bat Impact Zones.” Jack’s rhetoric directly evokes the post-Occupy populism that Bernie Sanders marshaled into a national movement. I’m not sure if Murphy’s inspiration for relating Jack to Sanders is because, in the film, Jack’s strategy to gain the hearts of the people of Gotham was to literally throw money from a float, but the character unfortunately proves to have a tenuous grasp on the Left politics he exhorts. This is never more evident than in his coming solution to policing and racial terror.
On the surface, it appears that Jack’s critique of Batman facilitates the comic’s broader commentary on the devastating and racist effects of the carceral state. Jack first uses his platform in his televised court hearing to bring attention to the dehumanization of criminals: “they called me a murderous, incurable sociopath who needed to be locked up forever. They said I was a new type of criminal and even coined a new term for people like me: super-criminals.” Here, Murphy is referencing the racist, persistent logic of “superpredators,” which helped lend bi-partisan credibility to the 1994 crime bill. Jack’s victimization by the criminal justice system allows him to relate to, and grow his political power, in the Backport community—a predominantly Black and low-income neighborhood that has borne the brunt of Batman’s over-policing and brutality and that is degradingly referred to as “Blackport” by one of Bruce’s wealthy acquaintances.
Murphy makes it clear that race and racial politics is more than a passing attempt at topicality, but the story’s organizing principle. The title “White Knight” refers to a repeated question about the appropriateness of Jack swooping in to “save” the predominantly non-white Backport community. As with the reference to the “superpredator theory,” Murphy borrows from a tricky history to service the plot. As James Forman Jr. documents in his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America (2017), Black politicians, civic leaders, and police officers participated in the growth of mass incarceration for a variety of reasons, ranging from sincere belief and limited options to professional expediency. The debate around the appropriateness of Jack’s candidacy may reinforce a lesson urged by BLM activists, particularly after the involvement of Black officers in the murder of Freddie Gray: racial inequality is not solved strictly by sharing the identity of the person in power without a full transformation of the system itself. However, borrowing from and adapting this difficult issue into the comic without liberal condescension demands care and a serious payoff (which is never achieved).
In the story, Jack rallies democratic support primarily through the key endorsement of Lt. Duke Thomas, a local activist and former GCPD officer fired for crossing the thin blue line. As Duke tells an audience of Backport voters, “[Jack] came here to build a library. Then he helped me upgrade the youth club, getting more kids off the streets. Little by little, Napier earned my trust. It’s true—the police have a rap sheet on Jack. But they’ve also got a rap sheet on me. And they’ve got rap sheets on some of you. And your kids! God knows he don’t look it…but Jack Napier is one of us.” As this speech suggests, Jack can only maintain this credibility through continued actions that have apparent popularity in the community, namely education. By integrating this calculus into the series’ title, Murphy is promising that Jack will offer ideological consistency, advocacy, and political action informed by issues of race and class, or lose support of this community outright.
In this crucial sense, Duke is the pivotal character upon which the plot, and the comics’ commentary, rests. Duke is known in the community for not only running the local youth group but also for consolidating the local gangs merely by telling them “they could embarrass the GCPD by doing the job for them.” When Duke explains to Jack that “only one person Backport hates more than cops—Batman,” the story is leveraging race as a promise that it will make good on this connection. Thus, it is important that Duke offers us the first hint that at some point, Murphy’s analogy will not hold. In our introduction to Duke, he says, “no cops in Backport really. Least no good ones.” One issue later, on-stage to offer his public support for Jack, Duke says, “There are no police in Backport! But you know who does come to Backport? Jack Napier.” Crucially, Duke is no longer espousing a critique of over-policing, but under-policing. The slippage between these characterizations is key because it paves the way for the spectacular irony of what will become Jack’s main policy platform.
In one of his classic bait-and-switch schemes, while he frames Batman for destroying his library construction in Backport, Jack raids the city’s financial records and uncovers evidence of a Batman Devastation Fund of three billion dollars annually just to settle lawsuits and maintain infrastructure left shattered in Batman’s wake. From this creative premise, we can imagine a few potential paths for the story to take. Linking Batman with the GCPD, Jack might ramp up distrust in the prison industrial complex they uphold to the point where the public will demand their abolition—conceivably freeing Joker up to take over Gotham unimpeded! That is, after all, the kind of chaos that some imagine as the desired future of the “defund the police” campaign, introduced by the Movement for Black Lives in 2016 and rising to prominence as a result of nationwide protests following the recent murder of George Floyd. As prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba writes in the New York Times,
“When people, especially white people, consider a world without the police, they envision a society as violent as our current one, merely without law enforcement — and they shudder. As a society, we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm.”
Who better to generate and then capitalize on such chaos than the Joker? The plot writes itself!
Or, maybe Jack really has changed. Sure, we see in the comic that he is motivated by his rivalry with Batman. And yes, he does use Mad Hatter’s mind-control technology on Clayface, then distills the amorphous villain into an extract that he uses to drug the rest of the rogues gallery so he can level the playing field against the “pit bull of the 1%.” In a comic that invokes the sinuous history of racial progress, the reader might expect that this devil’s bargain may still plausibly advance the liberation of the citizens of Backport—after all it is Jack’s only claim to political power. Given the fact that the police enable Batman to destroy the Black community’s public infrastructure, relegated them to red-lined districts as second-class citizens, and misappropriated funds to profit Gotham’s financial elite, the only logical and moral position for Jack to advocate would be to defunding and abolishing the police. One can imagine a compelling twist unfolding: the very proposal to defund the police that would confirm, in the white imaginary, that Joker was acting as a maniacal agent of chaos, actually proves to be Jack’s first act of sanity and evidence of his rehabilitation.
The potential for this perspective is clearly present in the comic. Duke has already suggested his community has been made worse by the institution of policing and its citizens would do better at serving and protecting the community themselves. As Kaba succinctly explains, “There is not a single era in United States history in which the police were not a force of violence against black people.” Kaba continues,
“People like me who want to abolish prisons and police, however, have a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation. What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all? This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately, but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice.”
In White Knight, we are given exactly this speculative scenario: a formerly incarcerated leader, articulating a critique of mass incarceration and advocating for policies that confront the underlying causes of crime, is given billions of extra dollars to spend. What would that Gotham look like?
In perhaps the most farcical aspect of the comic, Jack loses no support in Backport when he unveils his (actually villainous) plan: to re-purpose that three billion dollars into better weapons, equipment, and technology for the GCPD, and demanding the Bat Family work within this institution with body cameras and other accountability measures. Befitting the war zone he sees Backport to be, Jack calls it “the GTO: the Gotham Terrorist Oppression Unit. A super-cop program that pairs [the Bat Family] with the police. Better coordination. Better planning. Less collateral damage. All run by Commissioner Gordon. Keep your secret identities. Just agree to work with the GCPD, not alongside it. Best part of all–you each get your own Batmobile.” First-hand witnesses to Batman’s recklessness, and eager to pilot their own kick-ass war machines through the streets of Gotham, Nightwing and Batgirl sign on as recruits. Problematically, the narrative does not characterize this plan to further militarize the police as villainous at all. Actually, as “police reform” with consensus support from Jim Gordon and the Bat Family, it is presented as completely continuous with Jack’s stated ideology. For the comic, the only villainous aspect of the plot is the danger of Joker keeping Batman under full surveillance at all times.
While it is conceivable that some in the Backport community may support this policy, it is completely unpersuasive that Jack could maintain a popular mandate by locking up more and more residents. As Alex S. Vitale, the coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, writes in Jacobin, “[F]or decades now, communities have been told that the only resource they can have to address their community problems is more policing and more incarceration. Communities that have very real crime and public safety problems are desperate for help, and if the only thing on offer is policing, they’ll ask for policing.” However, given that Jack explicitly gains democratic support by demonstrating an awareness of the insidiousness of criminality and putting (at least) education on offer as an alternative public investment, it is deeply disappointing to see this story fall victim to the same crime and punishment orthodoxy that dictates not just superhero stories but also city budgets and public policy.
Under this guise, the entire story finds neat resolutions that sweep under the rug any earlier talk of police malfeasance, brutality, or racism. As the story develops, Jack must team up with Batman to stop “Neo-Joker,” an embittered Harley Quinn-imposter who steals Mad Hatter’s technology from Jack and brings Batman’s rogues gallery under her control. In exchange for Batman’s help, Jack confesses to what he did to Jason Todd that one fateful night: how, through torture, he learned Batman’s true identity, and, crucially, with this knowledge verified months prior that companies owned by Bruce Wayne always replenished the Batman Devastation Fund. After they defeat the false Harley, Jack goes to jail where he belongs, but not before he is allowed to marry the real Harley Quinn and she can live happily ever after in her new residence in Backport. The solution to Backport’s problems in the end is one that often comfortably resolves superhero stories that attempt to address real-world injustices. Like Wakanda’s salve to Killmonger’s call for armed revolution was a STEM school in Oakland, Harley completes construction on the library Jack once promised.
How does Duke feel about what they’ve accomplished together? “Of course, Napier wasn’t being 100 percent honest [about his motivations]! Most of us knew that…I saw an opportunity to help my community, so I took it.” Asked if he regretted this calculated partnership, Duke describes what liberation the comic envisions for the Black community: “No! The GCPD have acknowledged their mistakes and even hired some of these kids to help run the GTO.” Returning to Murphy’s claim that he “wanted to write it as a centrist with characters on both sides,” it is clear the “both sides” as represented reinforce the status quo, and there is no side that takes racial and economic justice seriously. Given everything we now know about the failed attempts to moderately reform police departments from within, this is a demoralizing ceiling to impose on Black liberation in comics. This is especially disappointing given that this is not just a superhero comic, where police are almost by definition redundant, but also an Elseworlds story where anything is possible. Superman can crash land in the Soviet Union instead of Kansas, Batman can be transported to Victorian England to hunt Jack the Ripper, but Black people can’t be free from a militarized police force.
Out of either cynical fidelity to the chaotic nature of the character or belief in his transformative potential, this comic seemed remarkably well set up to represent and lend shape to the popular conception of the current abolitionist movement. Unfortunately, behind a façade of leftist rhetoric, it manages to do the opposite. That a figure superficially inspired by a democratic socialist and with as much irreverence for “law and order” as the Joker would resolve to invest in policing tenfold with popular support among the Black community demonstrates the unmoving assumption that underwrites the genre. Crime is the principal threat—primarily in the Black community—and demands corporal punishment—primarily against the Black community. Gritty, realistic Batman stories like White Knight are more than willing to rehearse the well-worn question of who should mete out punishment: a vigilante or the police. The possibility that the Backport community may be just fine without either of them, capable of implementing “a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation,” seems continually out of reach within the superhero framework. And yet, the responses to the topic of prison and police abolition that Kaba notes, particularly for those ignorant to its history and incapable of imagining its fruition, make it an urgent and necessary topic for effective representation in popular culture. Whether we will ever get that representation remains to be seen.
Vincent Haddad is an assistant professor of English at Central State University. His writing on comics and culture has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Public Books, Black Perspectives, Post45, and The Rambling. He has contributions on race and comics in the forthcoming edited collections BOOM! #*@&! Splat: Comics and Violence and The Comics of Karen Berger: Portrait of the Editor as an Artist.