It’s all about rules, really.
It’s February 1, 1993, five days before “Robin’s Reckoning Part One.” The top song this week is Whitney Houston with “I Will Always Love You,” with Shai’s “If I Ever Fall In Love” and “A Whole New World” from Aladdin filling out the top three. The top movie is Loaded Weapon, with, yes, Aladdin coming in at #3 and The Bodyguard (the source of Houston’s chart-topper) at #10.
In the news, not much seems to be going on at the moment. The Russian space station Mir hosted the first orbital art exhibit on Jan. 25, Vaclav Havel was elected President of the Czech Republic on the 26th after overseeing the peaceful dissolution as President of Czechoslovakia last year, and Belgium switches from being a unitary state to a federal one.
In Batman the Animated Series we have one of the classic episodes, “The Man Who Killed Batman,” which follows clumsy, awkward, nerdy would-be gangster Sid the Squid as he apparently accidentally kills Batman in a rooftop duel, and then has to deal with the consequences, chief among them the Joker’s fury that someone other than him killed the Bat.
Sid is a classic instance of the Fool, a recurring character type across much of folklore. Like many Fools, Sid is unaware when he is being made fun of, determined to pursue a calling (being a gangster) for which he lacks any talent or appropriate personality traits, clumsy, and generally gormless and dismissible. But like many Fools, Sid is also prone to extremes of luck, both good and bad. Thus he is able to fight effectively against Batman, where far more skilled combatants cannot, by sheer dint of luck that turns the environment into a weapon on his side.
In this Sid recalls the folkloric Gotham, origin of the name of the comic-book Gotham. In English folklore, Gotham is the City of Fools, a place where no one has any common sense and everything is ridiculous. This, in turn, is based on the actual village of Gotham, Nottinghamshire, which according to legend protested a planned visit by King John, which would have turned their land into a public highway, by baffling the king’s messengers with absurd behavior such as trying to kill an eel by drowning.
In the origins of Gotham we see one of the key features of the Fool, which is that it is the other side of the same coin as the Trickster. Often the characters are one and the same, varying in their role from story to story, or even within a story, as does the West African trickster god Anansi in “The Death of Anansi.” Both character types exist outside of society’s norms, behaving in ways that seem strange and sometimes comical to “normal” people, and both have access to sources of wisdom unavailable to others.
Which brings us to the episode’s villain, the Joker, who dresses himself as a traditional Fool and pretty clearly fancies himself as a Trickster, engaged in an elaborate game with Batman. And certainly he manages to fool Sid, who slowly relaxes from terror to nervousness over the course of the (extremely funny) impromptu funeral the Joker throws for Batman, before returning to terror when he realizes that he’s going to be killed to close out the ceremony.
But that’s where any attempt to read the Joker as a Trickster in this episode falls apart, because the Joker’s anger is over the fact that he didn’t get to kill Batman. He’s upset because the game is over, and he lived for the game–but games are defined by rules. A game is, in a very real sense, nothing but rules, which is why Tricksters don’t play games–they cheat.
This is another sense in which Harley Quinn is what the Joker merely tries to be. She is a true Fool in this episode, with her ridiculous, misplaced and overblown responses to the Joker’s twisted eulogy. And elsewhere, as we have seen and will continue to see, she shows that she is better than him at being a Trickster, too, precisely because she’s not fixated on winning an elaborate game.
We have observed previously that part of the Joke of the Joker is that every time Batman defeats him, the Joker wins, because it’s proof that the Joker can only be defeated by someone who breaks the normal rules of how society deals with criminals. In his role as a spirit of chaos and anarchy, the Joker revels in the breaking of rules and the breakdown of order. But he’s a hypocrite; he revels in the breaking of others’ rules, but when his own rules, key among them “Only I may kill the Batman,” are broken, he reacts with rage and violence. The one who actually calls society’s rules into question most successfully is Batman himself, who day after day shows that what semblance of order Gotham has can only be maintained by a man operating above and outside the law.
Which is why–calling the rules into question being a major role of the Trickster–it’s Batman who successfully pulls off the big trick here, arranging events so that following the rules to the letter, sending Sid off to jail, actually gives him the position of safety and acclaim he’s always wanted, as the Man Who (Almost) Killed Batman, hero to the underworld.
It’s a sign of a possible way out of the problem we’ve posited before, that the superhero, at least as constructed here in BTAS, is necessarily both product and defender of the status quo, and thus cannot accomplish the fundamental change necessary to actually fulfill their role as hero and bring their story to a conclusion. But here we see Batman stretching the rules, working within them to create something better for one person. Perhaps there is a way he can create such spaces for others. Perhaps he can even find a way to create a space for himself.
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