You never got a laugh out of the old man (Joker’s Favor)

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It’s September 11, 1992, the end of Batman the Animated Series‘ first week, and the introduction of its most beloved original character: Harley Quinn, the Joker’s protege, partner in crime, and lover. In production order, the progression by which we got here seems quite natural: from the Joker’s Christmas attempt to carnivalize the entire show and emboit it within his own, he fell to a fairly boring and by-the numbers second appearance, unable to find anything to top his introduction. The key to moving forward with the character was then revealed in “Be a Clown”: to go small, to make the threat of the Joker not that he will blow things up and cause chaos across Gotham, which we know perfectly well he will, but that he could perhaps cause others to become more like himself.

Thus we get the dual meaning of this title: in a moment of road rage, Charles Collins has earned the wrath of the Joker which, the Joker being the Joker, is essentially indistinguishable from having interest in a more positive sense–Charlie has earned the Joker’s favor in the sense of becoming his favorite. As the Joker himself says, he has made Charlie something of a hobby in the two years between their initial encounter and the Joker calling in the favor Charlie promised him–that being the second, more obvious meaning of the title.

And of course who else has the Joker’s favor but Harley Quinn, a fascinating study in contradictions. On the one hand, she has an accent coded as lower-class and unintelligent, and serves mostly as someone to ask questions for the Joker to answer, like a Third Doctor companion or a criminal version of Watson. Consistent with this, her entrance into the police banquet in a fetishized police outfit seems akin to Poison Ivy’s depiction in her episode, a menacing and transgressive woman using her sex appeal as a weapon.

Except that throughout the police banquet sequence, we’ve been treated to a sort of understated double act between Bullock and Montoya, in which he behaves like the uncouth slob he is, and Montoya shakes her head in disapproval. After Harley Quinn enters, Bullock flagrantly hits on her in (as far as he knows) her place of work, and she responds by telling him off and smacking him in the leg, much to Montoya’s obviously approving amusement.

Note also that the camera work and animation in this scene do not employ the Male Gaze in the way that they did in the dinner scene in “Pretty Poison.” The camera does not linger on Harley’s ass or show the way she turns men’s heads as she walks out of the room; it instead uses the same mix of static medium shots and reaction shots as form the bulk of most episodes. In other words, Harley is able to transgress farther than the other female villains, rebelling not just against the social norms that the Joker seeks to destroy, but inheriting his power to rebel against the show itself, denying it the ability to contain and sexualize her the way the initial outings of Catwoman and Poison Ivy depicted those characters.

But Harley is not the main focus of this episode; Charlie is. The similarity of their names is no accident, however; in many ways Charlie is Harley, in that (as we will learn when we reach season two’s “Trial” and “Harlequinade,” and see in detail in The New Batman Adventures‘ “Mad Love”) Harley was originally a relatively “normal” person, an active and functional part of society who happened to come into contact with the Joker, and whom he corrupted.

In the case of Charlie, the Joker corrupts him through Moore’s classic “one bad day,” introduced into the narrative as Charlie’s excuse for his road rage, that it was nothing personal and just that he “had a bad day.” But Charlie’s stresses on that particular bad day are thoroughly mundane–money woes, mostly–and so the Joker decides to set aside some time to coming up with a really bad day for Charlie, to make him complicit in the Joker’s schemes and then kill him.

This plan works rather better than the Joker expected. Charlie doesn’t just become complicit; the stress of this new “one bad day” drives him to essentially become the Joker, which is to say become the kind of person who can threaten to murder someone with a bomb, laughing about the irony of it, and then reveal that the bomb is fake and laugh even harder.

Consider: Charlie recognizes the Joker almost immediately in their first encounter, and from his expression the Joker expects to be recognized and for Charlie to be afraid. The Joker, in other words, possesses established power, and Charlie is by comparison weak. This means that every time he bullies Charlie into doing what he wants, the Joker is taking advantage of an established power relationship in the larger society, namely that people who are known to be willing to employ violence have power over people who are not as willing or as good at violence. But Charlie can only take this for so long before he decides that relationship has to go, and the animation does an excellent job of using his facial expressions in that final scene in the alleyway to show that he has become grotesque–not the horror-grotesque of Clayface, but the true carnival grotesquerie of the Joker, the rejection of social norms reflected in the physical appearance of the person who rejects them. He will no longer permit the fear of violence to govern his life, and so he flips the social script and plays a joke on the Joker.

And in so doing, he achieves the ultimate victory over the Joker: he makes Batman laugh. Briefly, yes, but there is a genuine chuckle when the “bomb” goes off in a poof of smoke and streamers. The one thing–as we will have confirmed in the Return of the Joker movie years hence–the Joker always wanted from Batman and never got, Charlie achieves with ease.

As, in a much later episode, will Harley Quinn. This is the problem of the Joker and his tragedy: for all that he is a massive force of chaos, his status as Batman’s greatest foe also imposes order. He is a fearsome figure, which gives him authority, and authority is everything he opposes. But he likes it when he has it; he clearly takes great pleasure in pushing Charlie around. He is, in short, a hypocrite. Perhaps that is inevitable–why expect consistency in a creature of chaos, after all–but it is, at the same time, vaguely disappointing. For all that Batman the Animated Series generally excels at making its villains sympathetic, that’s not an approach workable with the Joker, and wisely one the series never tries.

After all, that’s how one becomes Harley Quinn in the first place.


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6 thoughts on “You never got a laugh out of the old man (Joker’s Favor)

  1. That sounds very likely to be exceedingly terrible. Moore doesn’t usually adapt well to begin with (though the adaptation which worked best WAS animated, admittedly), and “The Killing Joke,” while important and influential, isn’t actually particularly *good.*

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  2. A meta-incarnation of the Joker’s hypocrisy is that, despite his being presented so far as the meta-villain with the superpower to rebel against the narrative itself and twist the very ink of the cartoon he inhabits for an insightful injection of chaos, his fatal weakness (as foreshadowed here and made explicit in Return of the Joker) turns out to be that he’s a hacky, out-of-touch comedian.

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  3. Yes, the funniest thing about this Joker is that he’s not very funny and kind of a hypocrite. Normally, that wouldn’t be funny at all, but the show invites us to laugh at his failures.

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