Next year will mark the 80th anniversary of Batman, a superhero which more than perhaps any other has been re-interpreted over the decades by various creators of comics and other media who wish to put their own spin on the Caped Crusader. One of the more interesting approaches is how Batman is not a hero and his vigilantism can do more harm than good for the people of Gotham, as explored by writers such as Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello. Published under DC’s Black Label imprint, writer/artist Sean Murphy tells his own Batman story about the repercussions of the Dark Knight.
Set in a different continuity than the prime DC Universe, Batman has fallen into public scrutiny after he corners the Joker in a pharmaceutical warehouse, beating him excessively as Nightwing, Batgirl, and the GCPD look on in horror. After being cured of his insanity by taking a mysterious medication, the now-reformed Joker, known as Jack Napier, is determined to make Gotham a better and safer place by taking down Batman, who he sees as the greatest threat in the city.
Much like an elseworld story, Sean Murphy is sort of writing fan fiction that picks and chooses elements from the Bat-mythos, with a touch of adult content sprinkled throughout. For starters, Jack Napier — named after the Jack Nicholson character from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman — has a somewhat ambiguous origin that implies his transition into the Joker is born out of both Batman’s vigilantism and his mistreatment as an Arkham patient. Using his apparent tragedy, Napier accuses the GCPD of unofficially condoning Batman’s actions, sparking debate over issues such as collateral damage and police brutality.
The idea of reversing the roles for Batman and the Joker isn’t entirely new, but Murphy finds a fresh spin on how these characters battle it out. As a former supervillain-turned-politician, Napier is using his intelligence and charisma to win the people of Gotham over, whilst secretly manipulating the system to achieve his goals. Taking cue from The Killing Joke, it suggests that the Clown Prince of Crime is a good man hidden within the insanity as the also-reformed Harleen Quinzel is trying to see the goodness in him, presenting the most humane depiction we’ve seen of Harley Quinn yet. It doesn’t help an equally obsessed doppelganger posing as Quinn is determined to win back the Joker’s heart, even if it means to shake up Gotham.
As for Batman, this version looks like he’s about to go through a psychological breakdown as his actions are becoming more intense, worrying his closest allies from Commissioner Gordon to his sidekicks Nightwing and Batgirl. This is a Bruce Wayne who has been Batman for decades and it has taken an emotional toll on him — most notably stemming from the death of Jason Todd, which serves a defining moment in the lives of the Bat-Family, as well as the Joker. Murphy tries a little too hard in establishing backstory that could take Bruce in a potential path. Fortunately, at the end of the day, he’s not killing people, let alone branding them.
Although White Knight is telling a different story from Murphy’s early Vertigo comic Punk Rock Jesus, both titles are using politics relevant to today in telling a bombastic narrative that features the artist’s love of over-the-top car chases. With the countless versions of the Batmobile throughout the decades, Murphy takes full advantage of vehicles such as the classic Anton Furst-designed Batmobile from 1989 and the Tumbler from the Dark Knight trilogy. As relentless as the action can be, Murphy’s art (along with Matt Hollingsworth’s coloring) presents a stunningly gritty Gotham (filled with many references to Batman: The Animated Series).
More triumphant as an artist than a writer, Sean Murphy presents a chaotic and political storyline with a central battle that deconstructs the hero and the villain.