Saturday, June 23, 2018

Batman #48 & #49: The Best Man

I like what Tom King has done in comics. I truly like the way he tells a story. But he's got one major problem. He doesn't seem to know when a story doesn't need to be told. This is that story.

The easy reason for why it didn't need to be told is that we've seen this premise before. If Batman is happy, he stops being Batman. Got it. Understood! Thanks for making sure Batman remains grim and unbearable for the sake of hardcore fans who don't know the definition of whimsy. Anyway, Snyder, who retold the story most recently, took over a year to tell this story so at least I can say Tom King's version is shorter.

The hard reason for why it didn't need to be told will take a convoluted while for me to tell. So let me start with why I know why it needed to be restated as prologue to the wedding of Batman and Catwoman. Comic book readers, who know this marriage will never take and is just another big nothing in the life of a comic book character whose basic attributes and life situation can never truly change, needed to be reminded that they knew this marriage wouldn't work. We've had months of Bat this and Cat that lulling us into this fantasy world where Batman and Catwoman would suddenly be fighting crime together at night and ruining the sheets Alfred keeps bleaching by day. What a wonderful world this was going to be! So romantic and fun!

But then the Joker had to show up and shit all over it in the most disturbing way possible. If you're thinking the most disturbing way possible to shit on Batman's wedding is to shit on Batman's wedding, you're wrong by a factor of a spree killing in a church.

Oh, but before I continue with that thought, let me answer the question I keep hearing from all of my imaginary readers: "So, Grunion Genius, you're saying this story didn't need to be told but that the previous Booster Gold story did?" No, you fucking idiots, that's not what I'm saying. Christ, it's like I have to constantly hold the hands of your tiny brains when I say anything at all on the Internet so I don't have to hear your incessant and imagined stupidity! Obviously no comic book story ever needs to be told. But I don't want to get into the philosophical weeds where we keep getting back to the main question of how we tell the nature of reality through our meager and insufficient means of experiencing it. If I accept the Booster Gold story can be told, I suppose I need to accept that this story can be told. Except I don't want to. Which leads me back to the reasons why before you interrupted me.

But first let me interrupt myself! Way back when I was a virginal teenager (much different than today because now I'm a virginal adult), I remember having this distinct thought about a comic book series I was reading: "I hope I don't die before I can finish reading this story." I'd like to say it was something like Watchmen or Elfquest or even Crisis On Infinite Earths. But it's sad to say it was just as likely to have been Blue Devil or Blue Beetle or Blue Falcon and Dynomutt. The important thing to realize is that I was once an age where each individual story seemed important. I was passionately invested in any garbage turned out from month to month because I was invested in the characters. Back then, I didn't follow writers or artists or Gnostic visions brought on by the ingestion of psilocybin mushrooms. I just wanted to read more stories about Skywise banging Foxfur in a starry meadow. But I'm more sophisticated now! I mean more cynical! I mean more understanding of the way comic books work and how they never really get to the point of anything. They're just one meaningless drama after another as each writer takes a turn to express why they feel the character was important to them twenty years before they finally got a chance at writing that character. It turns out a lot of writers just want to say the same exact thing.

And that was my first and easiest to come up with reason for why this story didn't need to be told. My second reason was, essentially, that no story actually needs to be told so that seems to make my first reason moot. But it doesn't! Because if no story needs to be told then all stories can be told. Which means none of them truly matter. Which brings me back to the difficulty of expressing the point of this essay: Tom King didn't need to tell this story.

I think it's important to try to understand why Tom King thought he needed to tell this story though. Did you read The Sheriff of Babylon? I'm going to assume that you did. In it, Tom King seemed to be expressing the absurdity of this world in a truly serious and awful story about how war and the clash of cultures and greed and desire and need and corruption and all of the human accessories piled upon us to fuck us all, forever. It's absurd that so many people suffer from global conflicts that we all feel powerless to avert, as if they're a volcano erupting or a tsunami triggered by a massive earthquake. We're all swept up in unnatual disasters we treat as natural. What can you do? This is the way things are. We have a role and we must play our part. *shoulder shrug*

In The Sheriff of Babylon, we discover a group of people caught up in this existential farce. But we also see them trying their best to do the right thing. What can you do in the face of absurdity except to try to do your best? I mean aside from, like most people, to do their worst by making everybody miserable simply to get what they want. There is that choice, after all. That point will probably tie back in when I get back to Batman but my main point here is trying to highlight that, I think, the world cracked Tom King and he can't help but laugh at the absurdity of it all as he treats it as deadly serious.

Take a look back at the Booster Gold story in the previous Batman arc. It's nothing if not a deadly serious situation told in an absurd fashion about one guy trying to do the best he can to improve that situation. That's also The Sheriff of Babylon (except the one dude is two dudes and a lady). That's also The Omega Men (except the one dude is a tiger man and a princess and a robot and an orphan and the worst Green Lantern (in his best role)). That's also Mister Miracle (except the one dude is one New God and his wife and baby). And then, there's Maude. I mean Batman.

Maybe I should sum up "The Best Man"? The Joker murders a bunch of people in church to get Batman's attention. He then defeats Batman so that Catwoman has to step in. This is when we learn that his main reason for this nonsense is to convince Catwoman to not marry Batman by killing her. Or maybe just convince her by almost killing her and then dying. Whatever his reasons (which, let's face it, are unfathomable because he's The Joker, right?!), the main point is to keep Batman sad and grim so that Batman will keep punching The Joker in the face.

Wait! I don't think I told that right! The Joker points out that if Batman is happy, he can't be Batman (as we saw in Snyder's story and all the others that I'm certain exist but I don't have time to research and I can't remember due to all those Gnostic visions). And if he can't be Batman, he can't stop the Joker from constantly killing people in Gotham churches. Not that Batman stops that anyway. I guess what Batman really does is stops the Joker from killing everybody in two churches (or killing everybody from two poisoned reservoirs (or killing everybody from two Joker-tainted Justice Leagues (or killing everybody from two massive gas attacks (or from killing everybody from two machine gun filled parades (or, well, you probably got the point twenty years ago))))). What is left ambiguous is whether the Joker wants Batman to stop him because, as Catwoman via The Riddler's logic points out, he's not really crazy and needs to be punished for what he knows are evil actions, or if The Joker just loves Batman and would miss him if he stopped being there to punch Joker in the face. What isn't left ambiguous is that the Joker convinces Catwoman of this by the end of the story. Batman says, "We don't know what the Joker wanted but he didn't get it." And then Catwoman laughs because, literally, what he wanted was Catwoman to laugh. Of course his main agenda was to get Catwoman to not marry Batman. But that, of course, is why Catwoman laughs at Batman's suggestion that the Joker didn't get what he wanted.

So that's the story! The Joker does a horrible thing while saying shocking stuff to Batman and then nearly kills all the main characters before Catwoman finally gets the joke. And after all these words, I haven't really stated why this story didn't need to be told (aside from the fact that it's been told and we, as comic book readers, already understand that Catwoman and Batman will not wind up in a happily ever after (since, you know, comic books don't have an after! They just have an eternal almost now).

The reason the story did not have to be told seems to be because it made me uncomfortable. It really is an unpleasant read. I can see the regular Internet critics who hate Tom King right now feeling justified: "He's trying to write funny dialogue in a deadly serious situation! What a hack!" But it made me think, "Has this version of The Joker ever been done before?" Sure, the Joker's made readers uncomfortable by killing randomly. He's made people uncomfortable due to his unpredictability. And he's made people uncomfortable by trying to suck Batman's dick. But has he ever made people squirm because of the things he's saying in a way they shouldn't be said? And then I thought, "Am I the Joker?"

Example: the Non-Certified Spouse and I were watching season one of Project Runway Junior. When Victoria gets kicked out, she says, "It's been such a great experience being around kids that all share the same passion." And I said, "What? Masturbation?" At that point, the Non-Certified Spouse looked at me as if I'd just shit all over Batman's wedding.

I don't know. I guess I just can't defend my own premise. The Joker's actions are absurd. Batman's reaction and the way he lets the Joker lead him to defeat is absurd. Catwoman's blasé attitude to Bruce possibly being killed and then bleeding out with the Joker is absurd. Is this a retelling of The Sheriff of Babylon in microcosm? Is Batman Christopher? Is Catwoman Saffiya? Are they just caught up in an endless man-made natural disaster called Gotham?

At the end of the first half, The Joker tells Batman to head toward love because all else is chaos. But his whole point is to end Batman's love. Is it because the Joker's love is chaos? Is he, finally, admitting he doesn't love Batman at all? If that's the case, I might have to scrap my original premise that this story didn't need to be told. Because I've grown tired of the Joker as Batman's disgruntled and rebuffed boyfriend. The whole idea that the Joker loves Batman has become a parody of itself. I think the Lego Batman Movie finally put the fork in that one. You can't keep alluding to it if everybody begins stating it outright. But what if Tom King is saying, "No, wait. The Joker doesn't love Batman. The Joker actually does love murder and mayhem and chaos. The Joker loves those things. But what are those things without an audience? It becomes masturbation if there's nobody there to witness it. And so, in that way (and that way only), the Joker needs Batman. He needs a serious and grim and the opposite of absurd witness to the chaos." If that's what Tom King is saying (and I don't know for sure because I haven't asked him because every time I'm at a con where Tom King is signing, there's a picture of me warning security to keep me at least fifty feet away from his table (I mean, seriously, you tweet at a guy a non-insubstantial number of times that you'd like to suck his dick in appreciation of all the great stories he's told and you get blacklisted for it!)), you know what? Maybe this story did need to be told. But if he's not saying that, fuck him! Just kidding! I mean, seriously, if he's not into getting his dick sucked, he certainly won't be into full coitus! Maybe he's been hinting around that what he really wants offered is a hand job? Hmm.

Rating: If you'd read my introductory paragraph and thought, "Grunion Guy is really going to let Tom King have it by describing why this story shouldn't have been told," you're now finding out you were wrong. What you should have thought when you read my introductory paragraph was, "Grunion Guy really doesn't know how to write essays, does he?" Because I liked this story. It was awkward and uncomfortable and disgusting and all the things the Joker should be. But it still shouldn't have been told. Because I like my Joker crazy and violent and chaotic. This Joker knows way too precisely exactly how fucking creepy he's being. And if this version of the Joker sticks around, we're all fucked.

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