Batman: Lovers & Madmen
– By Michael Green (Writer); Denys Cowan (Pencils), John Floyd (Inker) & I.L.L. (Colourist); 2009
Summary from Goodreads
A tale set early in the career of the Dark Knight that sheds light on who the Joker was before he became the Clown Prince of Crime. Discover how Batman first crossed paths with the punk who was destined to become his deadliest foe, and see just how far he’ll go in order to bring down the new criminal insanity that’s inspiring Gotham City’s underworld.
Lovers & Madmen is the second volume in the DC Comics series Batman Confidential, which ran from December 6, 2006 until March 2, 2011. The series rotated the creative team and plot after every arc, sharing a motif of setting them in the early years of Batman’s career following the events of Batman: Year One. Some stories especially worked to capture foundational moments in the caped crusader’s career, such as perfecting his arsenal and resources, as well as meeting significant allies and enemies for the first time.
This story focuses on his first encounter with The Joker, which is what inspired me to feature the volume this week. I’ve read the story once many years ago, but with the release of The Killing Joke animated movie I thought I would explore another origin story written about this iconic villain. This story arc is a little controversial because it contradicts the backstories established by The Killing Joke and The Man Who Laughs, which are both regarded as canon in the mainstream continuity.
A little over a year into Batman’s crusade against crime in Gotham the city is quieting down; he’s starting to make a noticeable difference. That is, until he discovers a triple murder with no clear motive, and for the first time is faced with something more than just crime. Batman is still unseasoned in this story and he comes across quite flawed as a result, which I really liked. Despite all his training and expertise, the wildcard that Jack/Joker represents completely throws him off balance. He hadn’t anticipated madness or senseless cruelty at this level. While for some that may be a great oversight considering this is Batman, I think it was a great way to demonstrate his inexperience. There’s a naiveté to how he handles things at first that pays off well with how he grows by the end of the story.
Jack, as we know The Joker throughout most of the story, is a career criminal who has recently come into Gotham from parts unknown and is utterly depressed with his situation. Though he’s gifted at what he does he has grown bored of the same old routine crimes. This story delves deeper into The Joker as an all-around sociopath, his dip into a chemical tank seeming to be the cherry on top of his deranged mentality — the final push from sociopathic criminal to all-out villain. What I liked about his representation in this story is just how depressed he feels, cruel sociopath though he is. By discovering Batman as an adversary he is actually invigorated and inspired to keep going. He has suicidal tendencies but he just keeps surviving, and in a morbid twist Batman saves him from this self-destruction simply by existing.
It’s a more character driven story than anything else, and while it’s not purely faithful to Batman continuity, I do enjoy it as an isolated interpretation of the characters. That being said, the implication that The Joker identity is something he was meant to become, rather than became through circumstance, doesn’t sit as well with me. Considering how often comic book canon actually changes, however, this change is ultimately not that big a deal to me.
Denys Cowan’s art is quite dynamic, representing things realistically but constantly flirting with the abstract. While perfectly able to capture Batman’s stoic confidence or Alfred’s quiet dignity, the art often shifts into what I can only describe as grotesque — and I mean this in the best way. His art can be very ugly, and when it is ugly it’s the most evocative. This is best represented when depicting a character’s breaking state of mind. As Jack descends further and further into the lunacy that is The Joker he is represented more abstractly and grotesquely. The same goes for Batman, who becomes more unhinged as he feels he’s losing his grip on the progress he’s fought so hard to make. In these moments he looks less in control and more dangerous, like a maniac in a bat costume.
I also like the use of colour in the book (done by I.L.L.), which despite the dark content has a lot of bold reds, blues, greens, and even purples for atmosphere and background colour. I can’t put my finger on it, I just really like how so much colour made its way into the background without being too eye-catching or distracting.
This book contains a brief foreword by author Brad Meltzer, which discusses the nature of insanity in this story and how it pertains to both Batman and The Joker, and why so many writers are drawn to writing about the two.
If a break from canon isn’t going to bother you much, I recommend this book to anybody wanting to read a good Batman story. Since its set in the early years of his career it’s easy to just pick up and read with even just a baseline understanding of the characters. It’s also incredibly dark, as The Joker’s insanity is directed in the most violent and cruel ways he can think of, and the story doesn’t really pull punches in this regard. I for one love it, but I do understand that it may be a turn off for others.