Not a Comedian (Be a Clown)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 LogoIt’s September 18, 1992, the middle of the week that began with “Pretty Poison” and ended with “P.O.V.,” so we’ve basically covered what was happening in the world already. On TV is “Be a Clown,” the third episode of the first ten (in production order) to involve the Joker.

Like “The Killing Joke,” this plays at paralleling the Joker and Batman, in this case in their role as performers of magic. The Joker claims to have trained under the stage magician Prosciutto, and does demonstrate some basic sleight-of-hand tricks, while Batman’s escape from the “Chinese water trap” is explicitly stated to be a trick previously performed by the famed early 20th Century American escape artist and stage magician Harry Houdini. They both engage in the magician’s patter–a steady stream of quips and comments designed to distract attention from the magician’s actions–though both rely on them more heavily in their alternate personae: Bruce Wayne’s constant “excuse me, pardon me,” at the party aids the image of clumsiness through which he is able to eliminate the Joker’s bomb without threatening his secret identity, while the Joker’s patter is much more reliant on deniably sinister double entendres, such as the “have a blast” pun, than is normally the case in this series. (The flawless Ed Wynn impersonation which Mark Hamill puts on for the Joker’s disguise as Jecko–note the Jekyll and Hyde reference–and the ease with which he switches between it and his much more sinister Joker voice to mark the most menacing lines are among the episode’s highlights.)

Once both stand revealed as themselves, the Joker and Batman both switch to a subtly different form of quip, the combat banter common to less “serious” heroes such as Spider-Man or the Flash. This is a more familiar realm for the Joker, but sits oddly with this incarnation of Batman, feeling more like either a throwback to the Adam West series (about which more in a later article) or a presaging of the later The Brave and the Bold cartoon. Batman’s (or Kevin Conroy’s) obvious discomfort with delivering lines like “Trash pickup is normally Monday, but in your case I’ll make an exception!” while dropping criminals into a dumpster, however, is an odd sort of parallel in itself, since it shows that Batman isn’t the Joker and probably shouldn’t try to be, reflecting the Joker’s rage at being paired with Batman in the Mayor’s response to the reporter.

Joker’s rage makes explicit what was blatantly implied in “Christmas with the Joker”: that his role is to impose the carnival, to make unsafe what is safe, to collapse the structures of society. He takes the Mayor’s claim that he will make Gotham as safe as his own home as a personal challenge to make the Mayor’s home as unsafe as the rest of Gotham, continuing from “Pretty Poison” and “The Forgotten” the thread of intense cynicism about the capability of legitimate governmental authority–the democratically elected powers-that-be and the social contract and power apparatus that sustains them–to deal with the problems of the modern world. Indeed, even without the Joker’s interference we see that all is not well in the Mayor’s own house; blinded by his own power and the needs of power, the political games and the forging of connections, the Mayor is unable to see the misery and needs of the weak who depend on him, in this case his own son. (As in “Nothing to Fear,” mothers remain unmentioned.) By so doing, he essentially drives his son to seek out Jecko/the Joker; that is, his needs unmet by the existing structures and authorities of society, Jordan instead aligns himself with chaos and the upending of those structures.

Batman is thus here in a dual role; that his primary motivation here is consistently shown to be Jordan’s safety, with the capture of the Joker secondary, shows that his role as a protector of children, first seen in “The Underdwellers,” is still in play, but he is also acting as a defender of the social order, seeking to return Jordan to his “proper” role as the Mayor’s son. That the episode favor’s Batman’s side is fairly obvious, both in that this is his show, not the Joker’s, but also in the resolution of the episode, where we learn that the Mayor really does love his son as he acknowledges his lapse in caring for him, apologizes, and starts trying to do better.

Interestingly, the Joker comments on considering acquiring a protege. At this point, “Joker’s Favor,” the first episode to feature the Joker’s sidekick, hanger-on, and lover Harley Quinn, had aired a week prior, though in production order it is still a dozen episodes in the future. Jordan is thus a sort of prototype for Harley, an otherwise innocent person who falls into the Joker’s orbit and is tricked by him into helping him. The major difference between the two is that, as an endangered child who aids and is aided by Batman, Jordan is also a prototype for Robin (who has already appeared in production order, but in airing order was not first seen until nearly two weeks after this episode). Jordan thus has a choice of whether to aid Batman or aid the Joker, and he chooses the former, cracking the glass in the water trap and thereby enabling Batman to escape and rescue him.

As we have seen previously, the viewer is not positioned as being Batman. The presumed viewer of this sort of show–an action-adventure cartoon with a primarily male cast in 1992–is a young boy, and thus it is Jordan who has the choice and the only non-programmatic role in the episode. Batman must fill out his role as Batman, defender of the social order and protector of children; the Joker must fill out his as disruptor of the social order and corruptor of children. It is Jordan who is positioned as choosing between the two–and his choice, which the episode confirms by having his father not only forgive, but apologize, to him, is to be protected.

This is, once again, not an empowerment fantasy. This is a fantasy of being saved from the brink of a terrible mistake, of revolution deferred, of apocalypse averted. This is the fantasy of a safe world where a protector will swoop in to rescue us, a frightening but ultimately kindly man who will restore us to the comforting embrace of parental authority. The pleasure of this fantasy does not lie primarily in imagining oneself to be powerful, but rather in imagining that the powerful actually care–that somebody else will step in and take care of the things which we cannot. This is the protector fantasy, the first of the three main intertwining threads we will be tracing through the DC Animated Universe. The others lie nascent still, but their shapes will become clear with time as we continue our exploration of this idea-space.


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