Batman Vol 3: Death of the Family
by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV,
illustrated by Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion and Jock.
DC Comics 2013.
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy…Hamlet, Act V Scene 1
In the medieval period the suggestion is that monarchs would keep jesters to amuse them, to be the butt of jokes possibly but also to speak truth to them in seeming jokes and enigmatic statements.
One of the underlying themes in this graphic novel is of Batman being a monarch in a court composed of his extended ‘family’ of Alfred Pennyworth, Commissioner Gordon, Robin, Batgirl, Nightwing and so on; in which case the masked detective’s murderous adversary the Joker positions himself as the perpetually grinning jester.
This collected edition of Nos 13 to 17 of the Batman comic, which includes ‘backup’ related stories by an extended team of writers and artists, was part of DC Comics’ reboot of their titles of a decade ago, going back as it were to basics but with a 21st-century sensibility; but this was a sensibility which didn’t hold back on graphic violence while, at the same time, being surprisingly mimsy about strong language.
The story arc—which was played out not just in Batman but in related titles—featured the Joker of course, but as a jester who’d gone beyond grotesque by arranging to have his face surgically removed, only to wear it like a mask. This way he added another layer to the mystique surrounding his real identity which apparently will never be known. He seems to be aping Batman’s mask-wearing; the question is, why is the Joker so obsessed by baiting Batman and, further, is the identity obscured by a mask, any mask, of any real interest to him?
As with most meetings between the Dark Knight and the Clown Prince this turns out to be both a duel of wits and a war of attrition with both sides wielding an armoury of endless resources; but why is there never a quietus made, with a bare bodkin or otherwise? What reward does the pair get from prolonging, indeed perpetuating, this psychological conflict?
So, at the heart of this novel is the notion of seeing though a glass darkly: when each adversary peers through a mottled glass they observe a mirror image of a masked man, one whose motives and reactions they think they know intimately, one for whom they have a kind of amour propre or even self-love. It only remains to know which of the two has more insight, who will blink first, who in their heart of hearts seeks a quietus.
This novel has been praised for foregrounding psychological issues over action, and that’s what I’ve focused on here. But this wouldn’t be a Batman comic if there wasn’t action; and action there is, violent, bloody, murderous, graphic. I’m no fan of shoot-’em-up games, mindless action movies, horror films, in fact any narratives which celebrate war or glorify conflict. I appreciate that Batman: Death of a Family is an example of Grand Guignol, that horrific deaths, huge body counts and visual gore are merely all part of a mannered pantomime where, as Hamlet once declared, the play’s “the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” But however lovingly portrayed—and the visual aspect of these pages is magnificent at times—I don’t necessarily have to ignore the distress and pain it implies.
I’ve drawn attention to some of the biblical and Shakespearean resonances here, but I’d like to return to the medieval aspect I first mentioned, and in particular the Arthurian echoes. The Joker sets himself up as the King’s fool, Batman’s associates and other adversaries (Harley Quinn, the Penguin, the Riddler, Harvey Dent, and one or two others) as members of the court, and Arkham Asylum as a perverted version of Camelot. Batman is even depicted on horseback at one point and given a crown at another.
But since The Death of a Family is just one sequence in an ongoing group of related stories we mustn’t expect the holy grail to be found (Batman has already achieved that quest once), or even, via the slaughter at Camlann, a concluding voyage to Avalon. What we do have is an epic romance with denizens in distress, challenges to meet head on, and monsters to overcome.
No 15 of 15 Books of Summer