Jester song

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

20 thoughts on “Jester song

  1. I knew about Batman and Rosslyn through my daughter Lizzie but, having not read it, I didn’t know about the Gawain link. Thanks.

    I do find the spurious links invented irksome, sometimes – not just in this instance, I know – but perhaps I need to recognise them as a modern contribution to a very long tradition of rewriting. Somehow, however, I had often considered Batman to have medieval undertones – perhaps I twigged the “caped crusader” thing without realising.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Batman and Rosslyn” has a ring to it, does it not?! I suspect, Nick, you’re talking about Batman: the Chalice, my review of which I linked to in this post, and if so I agree, spurious invented links and all: what you call a very long tradition of writing is very common to Arthuriana, particularly where the grail and Merlin are concerned. Here, in ‘Death of a Family’, the parallels with King Arthur and his knights are faint but, I believe, discernible.

      Regarding the ‘caped crusader’ sobriquet, I think the use of that term for Batman has rather diminished over the years, not least since George W Bush’s foolish War on Terror (what an idiotic phrase that was!) and his insensitive use of the word ‘crusade’ in the context of opposing extreme Islamists after 9/11.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I read this post and then followed it through to The Chalice. Part of Lizzie’s work is about popular presentation of Rosslyn, which is where she picked this up, although she deals with Templar myths and Elvis, too!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I saw the breadth of her interests from the link you gave, thanks, fascinating and varied areas. Also, I’m so glad when I see popular culture considered by academics as worthy of study and not dismissed out of hand.

          I’ve not been to Roslin (despite its proximity to Edinburgh our visits there were never long enough) but I know of its continued interest for ‘alternative historians’, ‘symbologists’ like Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon, grail-seekers and conspiracy theorists. I knew about the supposed Templar links (a favourite theme of the late Andrew Sinclair’s, whose novel Gog I enjoyed back in the day) but the Elvis connection has escaped me.

          The only weird theory I know about Elvis concerns his supposed West Wales origins: St Elvis was a Pembrokeshire saint (there’s a farm of that name near St Davids) and the Presley name is claimed to come from the Preseli Hills. In fact there’s a local Elvis impersonator who calls himself … Elvis Preseli.

          Liked by 1 person

            1. This is what he says at the start of his The Sword and the Grail (1992): “This story is history. But it is also a personal story, for the name written on a stone with a sword is Sir William de St Clair of that branch of the Sinclairs who have lived at Rosslyn Castle from the time of the Norman Conquest to the present day. All these stories start on that stone.” And the blurb on the back of my edition talks about his “ancestors”. Frankly, though his mustering of facts and dates and figures looks impressive his arguments to me aren’t very cogent, being mostly fantastical: Templars, Freemasonry, the grail, the ‘discovery’ of America etc, all the usual suspects are there.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. piotrek

    I often feel I should read more Batman, and this looks good. There are so many stories in this universe one cannot read it all, but here you say we have some real depth, and some important tropes explored…

    Medieval tropes fit Batman well, this aristocratic hero fighting crime bosses and their underlings, in a world that could use some structural reform…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was always a Batman fan, Piotrek: despite the almost impossible technology at his disposal (all acquired with an impossibly massive disposable income) he wasn’t a superhuman with physically impossible superpowers, and although in the old days there seemed to be a element of magic in the person of Batmite he mostly seemed to be involved in just-plausible scenarios. The Nolan trilogy of films feel to me the most intelligent of the DC movie universe too.

      However, I rarely pick up superhero books these days—for many reasons—so can’t tell you if this is any better than other offerings. It does, however, get generally good ratings if that’s any guide.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t actually read this one yet – my copy stayed in Poland before I had a chance to dive into it – but I generally value the early Snyder’s run of Batman. There were some good ideas there, especially the Owls arc. This one comes soon after, I believe? I might need to loan it from the library instead of waiting for my own copy 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was a random purchase in a charity shop, Ola, so other than the Joker having been out of the scene for a year following his escape from Arkham Asylum there aren’t too many hints as to where it fits in the sequence—for me, at any rate. Do loan it, and review it, soon, pretty please!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. As seems to be the case with most of these graphic novels, there is a team responsible for various stages, from pencilling to inking and on to colouring (there are often several versions for the latter stage, choices made easier because of CGI). The named illustrators here are Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion and someone simply called Jock, all with distinctive styles.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. In the mid 20th century the comics I tended to read were either British stalwarts like the Beano or Dandy or else US ones, mostly DC /Detective Comics featuring Batman, Superman and their ilk, with the latter mostly featuring one-off adventures of the superheroes.

          By the 70s extended narratives across several issues (and even across related titles) started to become more prevalent, and when published in a collected edition started to be seen as novels rather than illustrated short stories. It’s my impression that, influenced by developments in other countries (like France or Japan, say), comics began to be taken more seriously as an art form in its own right, especially in terms of its distinctive medium for narrative, now graced with the label ‘graphic novel’.

          Go into any decent bookshop now and you can find a section purely for the graphic novel in all iits varieties, whether Japanese manga, extended superhero comic strips or wordless artistic narratives for young and old alike. The Owls sequence I believe must be a separate thread in the Batman Death of a Family saga.


    1. I have at least a couple more of these novels with pictures to review, one by Neil Gaiman, another by Alan Moore, so I hope to extend the horizon you’re seeing with new peepers, Gert! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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