Retroactive Continuity: The Joker’s Daughter #1

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Commissioned post for Shane DeNota-Hoffman.The 2014 one-shot Joker’s Daughter comic depicts the origin of one of the stranger DC villains, the eponymous Joker’s Daughter, who is not the daughter of the Joker, though at various times she has claimed to be, along with a dozen other villains including Catwoman, the Riddler, and Doomsday. Her actual name (probably) is Duela Dent, and at least in the pre-Crisis comics,  she was Two-Face’s daughter. While her name has remained, she was not Two-Face’s daughter post-Crisis, and her parentage is unclear in the New 52, to which this comic belongs.

The comic serves as a revised origin story for the character, which slowly unfolds through disjointed flashbacks and narration throughout the comic: an apparently ordinary young woman, she craved tragedy, and made up a number of tragic backstories for herself. Eventually she turned to drugs and cutting, before finding the severed face of the Joker in a sewer. She began wearing it as a mask and set out on a quest to find him–at this point in continuity, he was apparently dead.

Narrating with a repetitive, logorrheic stream-of-consciousness  babble as she goes, she first creates a fake Joker crime, in the hopes Batman will investigate and find the Joker for her. He sees right through it and confronts Duela, telling her she isn’t truly sick but rather a child in need of help. She breaks free of the cops, injuring both but unable to bring herself to kill, and moves on to Arkham Asylum, where she confronts some orderlies in a basement. One berates her, again telling her that she isn’t “sick enough” to be like the Joker, and she murders him and leaves.  She briefly encounters the Anchoress, who accuses her of pretending to be sick and stealing stories that aren’t her own, then seeks out the Dollmaker–the man who removed the Joker’s face–to get his face permanently attached to her own. She ends up in an abandoned building, where she receives a note hinting that the Joker is watching her, and declares herself his heir and prophet.

Duela is a tragic figure. Her thoughts are shown in narration boxes throughout the entire story, and paint a clear picture of a confused and self-loathing young woman, whose self-hatred drives her to ever-greater extremes of self-destruction, from cutting and drugs, to exposing herself to a disease-ridden sewer, to attaching the Joker’s face to her own and seeking out a murderous, volatile, dead supervillain as a father-figure. She wants to be a monster, a supervillain, because she feels monstrous; wants to destroy beauty because she feels ugly. She’s lost track of her past in a chaotic mishmash of invented backstories, and compulsively pursues bizarre quests based on spurious logic.

Yet character after character tells her that she’s “not sick enough.” Not just characters, but authorities and experts, strongly implying that the declaration of Duela’s health is to be taken as fact: Batman, who has dealt with countless supervillains; a psychiatric orderly who has experience working with supervillains in general and the Joker in particular; and the Anchoress, who can manipulate minds; all declare her to be “ordinary,” as if mental illness were a badge that earns one the right to be a costumed supervillain.

It is difficult, given the time of its release and the age (not to mention gender) of its protagonist, to read this comic as anything other than a mean-spirited jab at the communities of distressed and mentally ill young people–especially young women and people on the LGBTQIA spectrum–who can be found online, particularly on Tumblr. Many of these people, due to monetary obstacles or shame, have no formal medical diagnosis, but instead guess at what their issues might be, and thus are commonly dismissed.

Yet by presenting the Joker’s Daughter as a grotesque caricature of this kind of behavior, the comic backfires, because the idea that she isn’t sick is prima facie absurd. Her looping, semicoherent, self-hating thoughts are not the thoughts of a healthy person. Running away from home, cutting, using drugs, and committing crimes in the hopes of finding a father-figure are all obvious and desperate screams for help. Batman, bizarrely, seems to draw a line between “troubled young person” and “truly sick,” but nothing about being young renders one immune to mental illness. She is not well, and the continual failure of everyone around her to help causes her behavior to escalate, until finally she crosses the line into murder.

The implicit assumption the comic appears to be making is that because there are lines she has not yet crossed, Duela is less sick than someone like the Joker: she, it is implied, can choose to stop. This nonsense arises from the collision of two mutually opposed yet extremely common fallacies about the mentally ill: that one can simply choose to stop being sick, and that mental illness is an inescapable and incurable trap that poses a constant threat to everyone around the sufferer. The former is the origin of the common assertion that mentally ill people are just “seeking attention”; the latter is where attempts to ban the mentally ill from purchasing guns come from. Together, they form the idea that anyone who isn’t uncontrollably violent isn’t “really sick,” precisely the attitude which leads to no one taking Duela’s obvious, dangerous issues seriously until someone is dead.

Therein lies the true tragedy of the Joker’s Daughter: not her sickness, but the fact that next to the lurid, sensational deviance of Gotham’s supervillains, she has to go to horrific extremes before anyone will accept that she is sick and in need of help. It is difficult to say whether that is more or less tragic than someone who can’t turn to violence as easily as she can–not that it is that easy for her, as she takes quite some time to work up to murder–and thus never gets any kind of help.

Except, of course, that that’s precisely who she’s a caricature of: people whose illness is rejected, mocked, or ignored, and so they are  denied the help and support they need. After all,  the argument goes, they’re mostly self-diagnosed, so they must be making a big deal out of nothing–except that even if their inexpert diagnoses are incorrect, the symptoms are real, and therefore something is wrong. Such people are real, unlike Duela, and hence inherently more tragic.


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