Drop the act (Make ‘Em Laugh)

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Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

It’s November 5, 1994. The top song is, as seemingly always, “I’ll Make Love to You.” In fact, the only difference between who charted (or, rather, would chart) in the last entry and who charted in this one is that this entry has Madonna instead of Bon Jovi; otherwise it’s the same five people. At the movies, Stargate is enjoying its second weekend at number one, followed by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein debuting at number two.

Yesterday, the first conference solely about the commercial potential of the Internet was held in San Francisco, but on the bright side, the first Internet radio “broadcast” will take place the day after tomorrow, courtesy of the student radio station at UNC Chapel Hill. The day after that, the Republicans take over both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, so you can see how well Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council’s plan to shift the Democrats rightward worked at getting them votes. In between, there’s a bad flood in Piedmont, Italy, but that doesn’t appear to be related to either the corporate takeover of the Internet or of the Democratic Party.

There are basically two ways to look at this episode: as a Joker story, or as a sort of epilogue to the not-actually-a-four-parter about inherent criminality and the inevitability that villains will return to crime. Let’s do both.

Start with the idea of inherent criminality. On the surface, it’s straightforwardly denied here. The three comedians (one clearly a mean-spirited caricature of Roseanne Barr, leading me to suspect the other two are caricatures of early-90s comedians that flew under 13-year-old me’s radar) have to be mind-controlled into committing their crimes, and don’t appear on the show again, implying that they do not resume their criminal activity.

But remember, by now we have fairly thoroughly established that Gotham has four classes: Batman, criminals, government, and victims. Rather than denying that these classes are inherent roles, the mind-controlled comedians prove it. They are almost completely inept villains, with only not-Roseanne posing anything resembling a threat, and even she only a brief one; the reason they never return is that their real role was to be victims of the Joker, who is portrayed as being inherently criminal.

Those, after all, are the two apparent possibilities where the Joker is concerned. Either he is devoid of agenda, simply concerned with creating jokes according to a macabre sense of humor only he entirely understands (as in “The Laughing Fish,”) and occasionally seeking disproportionate revenge for petty slights (as in this episode and “Joker’s Favor”), or else he is playing at being a mercurial force of chaos that seeks to conquer the show and recreate it in his own image (as in “Christmas with the Joker” and Batman Adventures #1-3).

Except in both cases it doesn’t really matter, because in effect he is indistinguishable from the dominator-style villains like Bane and Mad Hatter–even borrowing the latter’s schtick for this episode! Whether he’s playing pranks or trying to conquer the show, he spends his time pushing people under himself, to place himself at the top. Hence his fury at little Sid the Squid in “The Man Who Killed Batman”: there is an order to the Joker’s universe, and part of that order is that Joker is the highest of criminals, one step below Batman in the hierarchy, and therefore he and he alone can be Batman’s killer. When he tries to impose his brand of chaos, it is not through the magical transformation that Harley brings to “Harlequinade” simply by being Harley,  but rather something he creates through force and control,  whether that’s hijacking the airwaves  or people’s brains.  Where Harley’s dedication to the Joker means that every time she is being a criminal she is simultaneously also being a victim, undermining the hierarchy, the Joker forcibly reminds victims of their status as victims, reinforcing the hierarchy he seeks to climb.

Consider again the last comedian, the Roseanne caricature. Joker transforms her into the violent Mighty Mom, who attacks using household implements. This is a riff, most likely, on Barr’s most famous role, the titular matriarch in the sitcom Roseanne, whose acerbic wit and cutting tongue were the glue that held her working class family together. But considered diegetically, this is plainly and simply the Joker being sexist: given control of a conventionally attractive young woman like Harleen Quinzel, he puts her in a skintight suit, but given control of a woman who is not conventionally attractive and a decade or two older, he makes her a domestic figure whose costume and equipment could just as easily be janitor-themed as motherhood-themed.

In other words, to the Joker, women exist to be sexy, submissive sidekicks, or to clean up after him. He clearly buys into the power structure we know as misogyny, and chooses every opportunity to sit at the top of it. Gotham’s peculiar class structure is no different.

Joker is, of course, a power fantasy. All supervillains are. But he is a particular fantasy, a fantasy of being able to do whatever we want, not because the world has changed into the Land of Do-As-You-Please and everyone does whatever they want, but because we have the power to stand beyond rebuke or retribution. The Joker is the terror of anarchy, the frightful possibility that if we remove the people at the top of the hierarchy, the hierarchy will not end, but rather find  itself under the boot of someone much worse.

It is fitting, then, that he and Ra’s al-Ghul are traditionally positioned as Batman’s greatest foes. Al-Ghul is, as we have observed, the near-apocalypse incarnate, the almost-toppling of the social order which the hero averts at the last moment. The Joker is the post-apocalypse, the lawless aftermath of the toppling of the social order, in which we are enslaved by warlords who amplify all the worst excesses of kyriarchy and late capitalism. Neither offers real transformation because, in the end, both seek only to rule, to burn the world and reign over the ashes rather than building something new.

But maybe burning the world is the wrong approach entirely..


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