An opportunistically selected panel from "An Innocent Guy," script and art by Brian Bolland, reprinted here.

Prologue in the Batcave: An opportunistically selected panel from "An Innocent Guy," script and art by Brian Bolland, reprinted in the new edition of The Killing Joke.

In compliance with internet etiquette, I must warn readers about a certain piece of the comics lore. Anyway…

When the Gotham police discuss their ongoing investigation of the Batman, the camera pans down along a bulletin-board graced with the visages of suspects such as Elvis, Bigfoot, and Abraham Lincoln, a list to which the ranks of film’s commentators have contributed the theory that TDK is TDR and the more frequently voiced suspicion that beneath the rubbery mask of allegory lies the puckered mug of George W. Bush. In an editorial for The Wall Street Journal, Andrew Klavan (a novelist, apparently) embraces Nolan’s film as “a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war.”  Other proponents of this theory seem less enthusiastic for some reason. No less a critic than Dave Kehr, well on his way to becoming the omega-man of American auteurism, has wryly inquired whether Batman is “just George Bush with a better outfit.” Agnostic as to whether the film actively endorses conservative politics  or reflects them incidentally, Kehr instead seems concerned (or merely unimpressed) with The Dark Knight’s perceived lack of texture, calling the film “Dirty Harry stripped of Don Siegal’s ambivalence and ambiguity.” So, what’s the deal?

Asked pre-release about the film’s political resonance, director Christopher Nolan has responded that “in the writing of the films we try not to be too conscious of any political parallels” for the reason that “the terms of the storytelling demand that you be a step removed from today’s political environment.” This step of removal does not preclude visual and thematic references to terrorism, enhanced interrogation, and wiretapping, but Nolan’s point is well taken . The Dark Knight presents a fiction with integrity on its own terms, whose occasional lapses into didactic speechifying arrive with enough internal context and an abstract enough vocabulary (justice, chaos, heroism, &c., &c., &c.) that the membrane of verisimilitude never punctures. This sometimes leads to coy or equivocal passages. During the surveillance subplot, in which Batman enlists the help of a reluctant Lucius Fox to wiretap the entirety of Gotham with a fancy sonar system (one that turns the city into a veritable panaudicon), Nolan both tempts political analogies and deftly prevents them from stabilizing. This subplot resolves as Batman’s final monologue sounds over a shot of Lucius Fox, smiling briefly as the surveillance monitors self-destruct behind him: “Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” The general correspondence between the image and the voice-over conceals an ambiguous mismatch: Batman has actually rewarded his friend’s confidence by dismantling the spy computer, but the monologue implies that “people” will only have their faith rewarded through expedient deceptions. “Sometimes,” begins Batman, “the truth isn’t good enough.” Does the compromised narration expose the image as wishful thinking? Does the image temper the narration by reminding us of our hero’s good intentions? Does the slight incongruity of this juxtaposition imply that our truth differs from Batman’s? Tune in next time. Suffice it to say that when the icons of print start printing the legend, things can get slippery.

The sense of an autonomous fictional world seems to be why many perfectly smart and observant people have discounted the charges of allegory, treating the politically charged touches (if at all) as fresh adornments to the familiar structure of a comic-book psychodrama. For instance, Glenn Kenny (formerly of Premiere, which I can’t be arsed linking) comments on his own blog (which I can) to the effect that the fictional scenarios won’t sustain the political analogies: “Batman conducts his surveillance undercover, knowing full well that it’s ethically and constitutionally wrong, driven by his own desperation. The Bush programs are done in broad daylight, rationalized by the likes of Yoo and Addington and given a pass by Congress.”  This is a convincing objection if we’re talking about a one-to-one correspondence between fictional events and political fact, such as it is. As a fiction, though, The Dark Knight still shares many features with the operative fictions of contemporary political rhetoric, including the vision of terrorism as apolitical evil that is embodied in TDK‘s Joker. The film does not offer a statement of political views so much as its fictional world gives provisional reality to politically relevant conceits. The Dark Knight, I think, allows us to experience features of the political climate as a structure of enjoyment rather than a collection of ideas of beliefs, a capacity that may go some way to explaining the recent popularity of comic-book films.

More below the cut on comic-book psychodrama, starting with a few notes on scars:

Epilogue on the Couch

An article at The Valve has observed that the Joker’s two stories about his facial scars, each one a family romance, both imagine the wounds as compensation for “the envy of the excluded.” This theory remains unharmed by Mistah J’s habitual command to flubbering captives: “Look at me.” Of course, this Joker improvises stories about his disfigurement not to account for himself, not as the designated “origin story” one expects of a comic-book character, but to threaten his hostages with identical wounds. His false bids for understanding satirize the notion that feeling listeners might sympathize if-they-only-knew and substitute the frightening prospect of visceral identification, the kind of fellow-feeling that only comes of having one’s face carved up by a sociopath. The scars don’t want you to shed a tear of sympathy. They want you to smile, to share in the Joker’s peculiar enjoyment. It’s satisfying to think that Ledger’s Joker tongues the scars between his words for much the same reason that a writer periodically dips his quill in the ink-bottle.

In the remote dialect of the Lacanians, I believe this kind of inexplicable marking is called “le sinthome.” Then again, I don’t need a dead Frenchman’s help to burst through open doors: one knows that the Joker compulsively gives his victims his signature grin (even if Nolan’s grim vision won’t embrace the usual smile-gas) and that he will only be “cured” when Batman will identify with him, preferably by breaking that pesky oath against murder.

So, does Nolan’s Batman identify with the Joker, even for a second?  During their final confrontation, Batman’s lips say “no” but his point-of-view shots say “yes.” At this point, Batman has suspended the Joker upside-down (like a Bat?) from the cable of his grappling-gun. Nolan’s shot reveals the Joker, pendent yet unrepentant, from a height and distance that imply Batman’s POV, but then the camera rolls 180 degrees, turning the world on its head to set the fiend aright. Following the rotation, the Joker’s hair and coat-tails float over his head, an apparent violation of natural law that handily metaphorizes the character’s chaotic world-view, establishing his madness as a natural law unto itself. “Madness,” says the Joker, “is like gravity.” He does not specify the direction. Does this twisting of the perspective (or “queering,” if you like) imply that Batman recognizes his fellowship with the Joker, even if he refuses to admit it? Does it imply that the vision of moral order that separates Batman from the Joker is itself insane? Funny way to shoot the scene if it isn’t one or the other, unless the tilted camera occurs as a sidelong reference to the similar trick that enabled Adam West and Burt Ward to scale so many walls without sacrificing their blithely earnest delivery.

This tension between the Joker’s demand for identification and Batman’s staunch refusal to accept their equivalence plays out on multiple scales. In much the same way as it blurs the identities of its heroes and villains, The Dark Knight positions its Gotham to mirror both the anxiousness of domestic cities and the volatility of occupied territories, a metaphorical fusion that materializes (whether for the purposes of justification or critical exposure) the way in which our daily consciousness of foreign occupation now operates as a powerful technology of domestic discipline. In this way, the film proves similar to 28 Weeks Later, in which the authorities must demolish large tracts of London in order to prevent the incursion of viral contamination. I’m sure there’s more or better to be said along these lines, but I’ll leave it to those more expert than myself in the mysteries of psychoanalysis to yank out these clumsy stitches and weave the suture anew. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, the clown prince of critical theory will oblige us in a future publication. What could possibly go wrong?

Epilogue in the Funny-Books

What happens when we take Batman and the Joker out of the comics? Does the ink on the page matter as much as the moral line between them? William Blake, a prototype for the composite art of comic-books, has famously defended the “bounding line” as the foundation of aesthetic worth and cosmological stability:

What is it that builds a house and plants a garden, but the definite and determinate? What is it that distinguishes honesty from knavery, but the hard and wirey line of rectitude and certainty in the action and intentions. Leave out this line and you leave out life itself; all is chaos again, and the line of the almighty must be drawn out upon it before man or beast can exist.

The Killing Joke.

Detail from the final page of Batman: The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore with art by Brian Bolland.

That is, before they can exist as man and as beast. “Life,” for Blake, requires the exertion of imaginitive powers over the world’s blunt materials. “Where man is not, nature is barren.” The flexible metaphor of the bounding line, for Blake, invests the world with ideas and values. Apropos of lines, Batman: The Killing Joke, the influential graphic novel written by Alan Moore with art by Brian Bolland, tests the limits of Batman’s principles as the Joker (an inspiration for Nolan and Ledger) tempts him to cross the line that matters most. Stylistically, this story also tests the various bounding lines that keep comics running, not least the panel boundaries. Throughout the story, the rationality of Moore and Bolland’s grid-based layout competes with the disorienting proliferation of frames–within-frames that becomes the formal signature of the Joker’s infectious delerium, leading up to a confrontation in a hall of mirrors (Batman, stickler that he is for fixed rules, comes crashing through the distorting glass). Whenever the Batmobile appears, in a design more phallic than most, its headlights project a diagonal grid over the page.

A bit more formalism: The story’s final image, the disturbed surface of a puddle (pictured), provides Moore and Bolland with an apt visual metaphor for the state of natural chaos that leads their Joker to philosophize that “human existence is mad, random, and pointless.” Cross-cutting between the main action (a gruesome kidnapping plot) and a putative origin story for the Joker, Moore brackets the remembered scene of conversion with images in which the Joker stares down at his reflection in disturbed water, alligning him with this motif. The story also begins with a virtual “camera movement” that rhymes with conclusion, in a series of three images that emerge from the puddle to which the final three images return. While the opening offers a casual creation story, in which headlights play over the water before the emergence of land, the last page threatens to plunge the universe back into the void immediately following the Zoroastrian tussle between the avatars of order and chaos that has occupied the story. If madness is like gravity, the therapeutic resolution between Batman and the Joker, the erasure of the bounding line, indeed threatens uncreation.

Yet the creation undone in this tactical apocalypse is only a particular organization of reality known as “jouissance” when it occurs in a person and “genre” when it occurs in a text, although it seems to remain invariably French. Go figure. In any case, the humility of the puddle as a cosmological conceit makes one a bit embarrassed to foist such high-flown meaning upon it. One senses the gulf between the mad, grand conceits that make up a Batman story and the appearance of ordinary life in Bolland’s pages. For much of The Killing Joke (those portions not set in an abandoned funhouse), Bolland adheres to a surprisingly grounded mise-en-scene, favoring eye-level views and sedately rendered settings, among which is an Arkham Asylum that looks tidy and functional, entirely unlike the gothic stronghold or contorted Weimar nightmare that Gotham’s madhouse has so often become. The sobriety of the visuals leaves one wondering if the dissolution of the cosmic categories of order and chaos, good and evil, might still leave the houses and gardens behind, might let Batman and the Joker share a laugh without killing each other. It doesn’t bode well, though, that their laughter stops one panel before the police siren does (see the inset). This temptation of the ordinary made so tangible in the graphic novel, though, is what seems almost entirely absent in Nolan’s film, where the cosmic categories cycle through the dialogue and without the inky outlines that mark the ideas as ideas. In Moore’s hands, Batman’s identification with the Joker threatens to cure the complex/genre known as the super-hero story, while Nolan’s blending of generic and political conceits leaves one wondering what complex exactly is at stake during those set-pieces. City? Nation?

Epilogue in the Theater

You’ve read this far, right? I can hardly see my way to a proper conclusion without addressing (albeit with a spectatorial anecdote) the complaint that The Dark Knight takes both Batman and the Joker way too seriously. My favorite shot in the film comes shortly after the Joker has first been captured. The lack of identifying traces about his person earns a wearied response from Lt. Gordon, a line familiar from its endless repetition in trailers: “Nothing in his pockets but knives and lint.” Following this verbal cue, Nolan cuts to a row of knives laid out on a table in seemingly random order, no two alike, just as an officer’s hand completes the collection with the hesitant addition of a vegetable peeler. In retrospect, I think that the peeler both tweaks the descriptive simplicity of “knives” and ironizes the forensic impulse to go beneath the surface…you know, maybe. At the time, I just laughed.  That’s funny, I thought, what would the Joker possibly want with that silly thing? Of course, the laugh caught in my throat as several answers came to mind.

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