Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Going Sane, 1994

Inspired by Jokers-Circus's brilliant post on the same subject here. My scans in this post aren't as nice, sorry.

So, comic books and me: we have but a passing acquaintance. I like the idea of most superheroes, and in fact actively love a select few of them. But for some reason, there are only a handful of comic books (fine, fine, graphic novels, you nerds) that I love in the same way.

Going Sane is one of them.

Written by J.M. DeMatteis with art by Joe Staton and Steve Mitchell, Going Sane is a Batman tale centered around The Joker, and explores the question as to whether or not, if Batman dies, The Joker would die with him, simply from lack of that stalwart opposing force.

Joker is a fascinating creature, and one that draws an ol' timey film nerd like me to him automatically. Look at his character's history: inspired by Conrad Veidt's Gwynplaine in the 1928 version of Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs, Joker combines the horror of grand guignol silent films with the psychotic spark of the Marx Brothers. Despite the dark, dark, very dark and edgy evolution of his character--growing more and more twisted and manic with each new generation, from crippling Barbara Gordon to Heath Ledger's darkest film take--old-fashioned comedy is what shapes and defines Joker. The Chaplins, Keatons, and Lloyds of years past are the eternal backdrop to his crimes, his framing device. Batman, of course, is the audience.

So when the audience is gone?

You get Joseph Kerr, mild-mannered amnesiac, who must take pills in order to control his "skin condition."

Of course many comics, including The Dark Knight, have toyed with the age-old idea of Joker and Batman serving as two sides to the same coin, unable to exist without the other. But DeMatteis was the first to literally spell this theory out on paper, stating loud and clear that The Joker would have no point, no purpose without the dude in the cape n' cowl. Creating a whole story arc around this could have come across as too obvious, almost to the point of ruining the argument. However, DeMatteis brings in a shocking new side to the argument, an idea that many would shy away from even today: what if The Joker is only evil because of Batman? When Batman dies, would Joker's evil die? Leaving behind...a good man?

On the surface, according to this book, the answer appears to be yes. But once you go a little bit's, um, deeper than that.

In his recent review of the last Harry Potter movie in The New Yorker, David Denby wonders if children will "understand Rowling's suggestion that none of us are purely good or purely evil."  It's obvious DeMatteis understands, and illustrates just how this dichotomy is not only personified by the good Batman and the evil Joker, but by The Joker and Joseph Kerr: one body, two different personalities fighting for dominance.

Once Joker morphs into Joseph Kerr (which includes an operation to un-bleach his white skin), we start seeing the world through innocent Joseph's eyes. And because I'm an icky girl, this leads to my favorite part, my favorite romance I've read in a graphic novel: the reformed Joker's tender, understanding relationship with his equally mild-mannered neighbor Rebecca Brown.

 Their dynamic is especially appealing to classic film bloggers like myself, because if it wasn't 1994, the pair would totally be blogging their little hearts out about Fred and Ginger and Fibber McGee and Molly. They're quiet characters who create a fantasy world inhabited by Jack Benny's gang, George and Gracie, Baby Snooks, and all the radio serial classics.  DeMatteis remembers that comedy is always Joker's backdrop, no matter what incarnation or what level his insanity--and the fact that classic comedy is what Joker/Joseph takes shelter in illustrates how just outside contemporary society the man is. With Joker, his idealization of classics symbolizes his inability to relate to those around him save for violence. With Joseph, the inability to relate period.

But then he meets Rebecca. He now has someone to share this with. We learn little about Rebecca's background, except that she's 35, is on speaking terms with her mother, and has little experience with men. She makes little allusions throughout that maybe she, this introverted woman bordering on middle age, has likewise done things she's not proud of. At one point, referring to the love Joseph has brought to her life, she says in her narrative box, "In six weeks he'd transformed my entire life. Brought me more happiness than I'd ever dreamed was possible. More happiness, certainly, than I ever deserved." Later, once they're engaged, she says the rain pouring down is like "God's just washing away everything that's come before--so that tomorrow morning when I say 'I do'--it'll be a beautiful new beginning for both of us."

Is she simply modest, one of those self-effacing religious types who spurns joy as an undeserving treat? Or does Rebecca Brown have her own smirking hellbeast, locked away more securely than Joseph's? Is that why she's so drawn to him? Is this where their deep connection stems from outside of their love of Tommy Dorsey and screwball comedy? Is this why she's so deeply troubled about his "episodes"--is she scared not because she doesn't understand, but because she understands all too well the struggle to keep back the bile?

We don't know, and if that was DeMatteis's intention, he doesn't call undue attention to it. Still, with the little information we have, we get to know Rebecca far better than the usual one-off love interest. He truly cares about developing this character. The fact that he shirks comic book convention by making her mousy instead of sensual, soft-spoken instead of kickass, dressed in sweaters and long skirts instead of tights and a cape, makes her stand out even more in this genre.

As I mention on Jokers-Circus, her lack of glamor and pretense is what most likely draws the recovering Joker to her. In Alan Moore's The Killing Joke (1988), considered the definitive Joker book, we see hints of a possible past for the Joker, one he reaches out for in his unreliable memory: a funny, understanding, pregnant wife named Jeannie. The two of them live in a run-down apartment thanks to his fledgling career as a nervous standup comic. Jeannie's described in Moore's original script as average looking, sickly, but "happy in her grim little apartment," supportive of her husband without being submissive.

There's speculation that Going Sane is meant to take place before the events of Killing Joke, leading to theories that the Jeannie we see here is actually Rebecca, distorted in Joker's memory--as he says in Killing Joke, his memories shift and transform as quickly as his manic moods. I'm not sure how I feel about this. I like Jeannie and I like Rebecca, so combining both characters feels like short-changing them both. But from a thematic perspective, Joker's softening expression in the panel above eerily echoes his expression in Going Sane here, when Rebecca's face appears to him while threatening Councilwoman Kenner, portending that maybe this is the case.

 Yes, surprising spoiler, Joker reverts. Batman is alive after all; in another subplot of the book, we see him recuperating with the assistance of a lovely doctor in an idyllic little town. He's ready to abandon his Batman persona forever, just as Joseph has abandoned Joker, when his doctor tells him how an encounter with Batman in Gotham helped restore her faith in humanity after she was raped. So he returns, hoping to inspire more people like her. 

This is a well-written part of the book, but fails to get me like Joker's struggle. See, Bruce Wayne is fully aware of his identity throughout, and is calmly mulling over the possibilities with all the gravity sanity brings. Joseph Kerr does not have this luxury. He's unsure what force is drawing him back to a life of crime in Gotham, only vague, terrifying shapes in his nightmares. It isn't until he sees that Bat again that he snaps, and Joseph disappears.

But then there's that shot of Joker weakening when confronted with the vision of Rebecca in Kenner's place. Like Moore's Joker, briefly reaching out for Jeannie, DeMatteis's creation is not a cardboard psychopathic cutout. Many graphic novelists, desperate to escape the campy '60s TV show depiction of Joker as a harmless mischief maker, went too far in the other direction, making him far darker and far more violent, but still lacking in depth.

Harley Quinn is a tragic and fascinating character because even if there is a small, tiny, measly little spark in Joker that's capable of love, she'll never earn it, in my incredibly unpopular opinion. Love, even in a wildly fictional setting like comic books, requires a foundation of respect, and there is no respect for Harley in Joker. How could there be, god bless 'er? 

With Rebecca and Jeannie, that respect is there and that love is there, regardless of whether or not Jeannie is even real. Something makes him reach out in that picture in Killing Joke, and something stops him in that panel with Kenner. Does that mean twoo wuv could redeem Joker forever? Obviously not, since the specter of Batman is able to lure him back to his evil-doin' ways and away from Rebecca's side. 

 But that his love for her is enough to temporarily disturb and disorient him, distract him from the vision of Batman punching him to justice, widens the scope of his character. He's closer than ever to the original Gwynnplaine comparison, though with a far more conscious awareness of the corruption he's sunk into. The downward spiral of their relationship that Batman perpetually laments is not one-sided here; Joker, deep down, may want to get out of their sick dynamic too, but the sickness is too malignant now, too inescapable. Just like Mr. Freeze or Two-Face, Joker has his tragic edge.

Going Sane is not without its flaws. Well, it has at least one, from my point of v: the art. Man, I do not like the art. My admittedly untrained eye finds the drawings clumsy, half-assed, and uneven. In the first half of the book, Rebecca's hair is light brown, but by the end, it's blonde; Joker looks far boxier and meatier than he should, his hair bushier, and it's impossible to tell who's supposed to be good-looking and who's not, since everyone just looks sort of awful. My ideal graphic novel? This story drawn by the ingenious Brian Bolland, who drew The Killing Joke. 

Still, DeMatteis's story is so strong that I even prefer Going Sane to Killing Joke overall (sorry, y'all, you can map out for me all sorts of excellent arguments as to why Barbara's paralysis is necessary, but I'm going with my classic knee-jerk take on this one: BOO). Even if you're not a Batman fan or a fan of comic books in general, the countless allusions to classic comedies and big-band music would most definitely appeal to this audience, and the story's depth should stay with you beyond that. The way it's structured is fragmented beautifully, providing the four central characters' perspectives in multi-colored narrative boxes--unfamiliar as I am with graphic novels, I'm not sure if that's a common structural strategy, but it's very effective here.

Joseph Kerr is a mostly good man with a hidden room of demons festering inside him. And DeMatteis argues that Joker is mostly a demon with a hidden sanctuary of good inside him, a corner consisting of a small, quiet man in love--in love with both a woman and with a past that he perceives as a simpler, better time. The Joker in his mind is merely a reaction to the moral decay he believes is around him. He soaks it in while also mocking it: he kills what he sees as inescapably corrupted and devoid of humor, and revels in that destruction. However, by his shaky definition, everything is corrupt, no one has a sense of humor, so everything is fair game to kill. Joker's tragedy is that unlike Joseph, he's better at keeping the good in him at bay than Joseph is at stamping down the evil.


  1. This is a really good (essay? article?) about this comic. Really good read"

  2. Joe Kerr...
    How about something like John Kerseph or something but cmon lol