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Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo’s Run on Batman – Death of the Family (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

In many respects, despite the massive hype that it received and the gigantic crossover that it spawned, Death of the Family is structured as an anti-epic. The triumphant return of the Joker to the world of Batman over a year into the “new 52” instead turns into a deconstruction and criticism (and arguably a rejection) of the character. Sandwiched between Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s much larger and more ambitious epic Batman stories, Death of the Family is a story about how small the Joker really is.

In many respects, Death of the Family reads best as the story of a collapsing relationship, where one partner refuses to deal with the fact that the other has outgrown them.

Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?

Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?

There is something just a bit frustrating about Death of the Family. Of the twenty-three issues branded by DC as part of Death of the Family, the central arc was told across only five issues of Batman. Given that these tie-ins exist in service of that plot, and are produced by a wide variety of creative teams, the Joker’s appearances don’t necessarily fit together over the course of Death of the Family. Indeed, the skill necessary to pull off the various schemes seen in the tie-ins seem at odds with Snyder’s portrayal.

In Batgirl or Batman and Robin or Red Hood and the Outlaws, the Joker is portrayed as an omniscient trickster. The central reveal of Death of the Family is that the Joker is not omniscient and not all-knowing or all-powerful. In contrast to Morrison’s rapidly evolving and constantly updating clown at midnight, Snyder portrays the Joker as a rather pathetic figure who has nothing but cheap shock value to keep him going.

All smiles and sunshine...

All smiles and sunshine…

Sure, the Joker is pretty lethal in Death of the Family. The character announces his return by brutally slaughtering several members of the Gotham City Police Department in a darkened room. Later on, as Batman confronts the Joker at the local reservoir, the Joker explains that he thought he would just cut to the chase and kill all the innocent people before his latest zany evil scheme. At the climax, he manages to capture and subdue most the extended Bat-family for a Texas Chainsaw Massacre dinner scene.

Over the course of Death of the Family, the Joker is revealed to be basking in the past. As an opening salvo, he kills the son of “the first person Joker ever murdered in Gotham” on television, recalling the radio threats from his first appearance. He threatens to kill the mayor, as in that first story. He leads Batman back to Ace Chemicals, the site of the infamous acid bath. “He’s taking it back to where it all started,” Bruce reflects. He also notes, “The reenacting of his former crimes. None of it is like him.”

Joke's on him...

Joke’s on him…

The comic draws attention to how the Joker is effectively drawing from his history with Batman. “He’s picking and choosing from our early encounters, redoing them, but in new ways,” Batman reflects. “Inverting them.” Over the course of the arc, the Joker makes it clear that he is trying to reignite the spark that existed between them. He’s feeling a bit put out, a bit abandoned. He refers, nostalgically to the times “when we were full of vim and vigour! Two younguns.”

This is a cry for attention. The Joker is trying to reengage with Batman by re-visiting what worked before. “I look at you,” the Joker explains, “and I want to knock on your skull and ask ‘who’s in there? who is this? where’s my old friend?'” There’s a sense that the Joker is feeling nostalgic, as if unable to recognise his old enemy – as if afraid that Batman has changed too much, and grown beyond him. He hopes that by doing the same thing, he might be able to promptly the same response.

Building a bridge and getting over it...

Building a bridge and getting over it…

Death of the Family draws from a wealth of Batman and Joker stories, as the script concedes. However, the influence of The Dark Knight Returns looms rather large. In particular, Snyder and Capullo very consciously play up the homoerotic undertones of the relationship between Batman and the Joker. The composition of the page where the Joker serves “dinner” is designed like a heart, making it a valentine of sorts. The Joker refers to Batman as “darling”, evoking his re-emergence in The Dark Knight Returns.

Snyder plays up the homoerotic tension that exists between Batman and the Joker. “I made it with lots of love!” the Joker insists of his perverse last supper. When Bruce storms Arkham Asylum, he discovers that the Joker has forced the guards to dress up as Batman and the Joker so that they might (literally) dance with one another. The wonderful cover to the final issue has the Joker dancing with an empty Batman costume, perhaps elegantly summing up the relationship as the Joker sees it.

Face-off...

Face-off…

Even Batman’s responses to the Joker seem to be written in the character of Frank Miller’s rather grizzled Batman. “You are nothing — but degenerate filth!” Bruce protests at one point. Later on, he insists, “I hate nothing more on this Earth than you, Joker. Nothing.” In many respects, the conflict playing out over the course of Death of the Family is one that leads directly to The Dark Knight Returns – the idea that Batman and the Joker are the only two people in the world for one another.After all, The Dark Knight Returns proposes a future where Bruce has isolated himself from his family – where there is nobody left by Alfred and (maybe) Gordon. In some respects, Death of the Family can be seen to be building towards that tragic conclusion. The story ends with the Joker helping Bruce to push away the people closest to him. At one point, Bruce even directly acknowledges the possibility of winding up alone. “I’ll never let it end up like that,” he insists, “everyone gone except me and–“

An entrance...

An entrance…

Snyder very consciously plays up the idea of a romantic relationship between the Joker and Batman – as if doubling down on Frank Miller’s infamous “homoerotic nightmare” comment. It would be very easy to dismiss this as simple homophobia – to suggest that Death of the Family is treating the Joker’s homoerotic relationship with Batman as deviant or even simply “other.” However, Death of the Family is not so reactionary.

If this is a war between Batman’s two “families” – as the Joker contends – it is worth stressing that Bruce Wayne’s circle of friends is predominantly male. The Bat-family in Death of the Family consists of Alfred, James Gordon, Dick, Damian, Tim, Jason and Barbara. Outside of Batgirl, that’s a mostly male family. Early on, the Joker abandons Harley Quinn, after dressing her up as a man. Selina Kyle and Kate Kane, the other two most prominent female characters in the Batman books, are left entirely on the sidelines.

What has he cooked up this time?

What has he cooked up this time?

The problem with the Joker isn’t the homoerotic subtext. Indeed, Snyder has Batman finally vanquish the Joker during one of the most explicitly homoerotic sequences in the book. Dangling the Joker over a cliff, pulling him cheek-to-cheek Batman remarks, “Now come a little closer, old friend… so I can whisper it right into your ear.” As Batman prepares to whisper the Joker’s name – his “real name” – in a moment of utter intimacy, the Joker pulls away. The Joker is defeated.

This is perhaps the subtext of Death of the Family. The issue isn’t that that Joker sees his relationship with Batman as psycho-sexual. The issue is that the Joker cannot deal with the intimacy necessary for such a relationship to function. By the time we reach Death of the Family, the Joker is grappling with anxiety and abandonment issues. He is afraid that Batman has moved on, that Batman has found a more fulfilling life-style. Batman has grown, but the Joker has refused to grow with him.

All fired up...

All fired up…

In some respects, this could be seen as Snyder playing out some of the same “new 52” anxieties that informed Court of Owls – the awkward relationship that exists between Batman and his previous continuity. Much like the Court of Owls themselves, the Joker represents a regressive adversary – a bad guy very consciously and very forcefully looking (and pushing) backwards, as if afraid of what the new continuity might bring.

The Joker references his earlier crimes as if to assert that they still exist in the wake of Flashpoint, to validate his own history. He wants assurances that everything will be the same as it was – he wants to know that the Batman he is facing now is the same Batman that always faced. While Morrison’s “clown at midnight” was an infinitely versatile character capable of adapting with (and to) the times, the Joker presented in Death of the Family is a character confronted with his own redundancy.

A broken-down Harley...

A broken-down Harley…

He is desperately trying to hold on his relationship with Batman, unwilling to let things change. He tries to stage a superhero intervention, with iconic Batman villains and guards dressed up like the Justice League. These are notably old-fashioned and iconic takes on the characters. The Penguin is part of a supervillain team instead of operating a business front, the Riddler is back in his classic costume without the mohawk from the start of the “new 52”, and there’s a guy dressed as Hal Jordan, despite the character’s departure from the Justice League.

He appeals to Batman to forget about the eccentric family Bruce has built up around him – one that has been significantly revised due to the editorial mandates in the wake of the “new 52.” This is a revision that made Tim Drake “Red Robin”, with minimal direct ties to the Bat-family of titles. It also put Barbara Gordon back in the batsuit as Batgirl, rather than leaving her as Oracle. It is a version of the family that has four characters associated with the codename Robin, instead of simply one Robin.

An axe to grind...

An axe to grind…

“Because you see, with us you’re more!” the Joker seems to beg. “With us, you transcend! With us, you’re always. But them, they make you everything that you want to forget that you are.” He is appealing to the idea of Batman and is world as iconic and enduring, rather than one that is prone to change and growth. The Joker – without a fixed origin and a real name – is the most abstract of Batman’s adversaries, but that level of abstraction comes at a price.

That’s the irony of Death of the Family. The Joker’s first appearance in the “new 52” saw the character’s face carved off. While it was very definitely an example of ghoulish excess, it’s also an effective metaphor. Batman is often described as one “face” of Bruce Wayne, the one that he shows to wider Gotham. However, when you remove that face, Bruce Wayne lurks underneath. In contrast, the Joker does not wear a mask. When you remove it, there is nothing underneath but muscles and blood.

The heat of the Knight...

The heat of the Knight…

In essence, it seems like Death of the Family is about the Joker confronting that uncomfortable truth. “Why I did this to my own sweet mug,” he boasts to Bruce. “To show you… to show you that beneath these faces, well, it’s just soft tender stuff. Stuff you could just poke your finger through. Beneath my grin, though, is just more grin! Ha ha! And beneath that face of yours is just something snouted and fanged and lovely and that’s what this is all about.”

That is not true, of course. Bruce has a surprisingly wide family built up around him, albeit through comic book sales and cash-in attempts and cross-media synergy rather than any singular vision. Bruce has a face under the mask, an underlying humanity – something that the Joker sorely lacks. Death of the Family is very much about the Joker trying – metaphorically, of course – to reveal that Batman’s mask is his face; driving Batman’s family away so that he might kill whoever is beneath the mask.

Flame on...

Flame on…

Despite all this, it is worth noting that Death of the Family is fairly unambiguous about the Joker. The Joker is a failure. The Joker is limited. The Joker is a character who is held back by his nature as an abstract concept rather than a fully-realised character. Bruce defeats that Joker by accepting this – by realising that the Joker could not possibly handle his own “real” name, and by confronting the Joker with the fact that all his theatrics are ultimately hollow.

Despite his bluffs, the Joker knows nothing about Batman and his family. Batman wins when he forces the Joker to acknowledge that it is all smoke and mirrors. “I did it, Joker… I broke the spell,” Bruce taunts. “I did what you wouldn’t do. Here is where you turned back, isn’t it? Right at this drop where the boat dives. Not because you couldn’t hold on, but because you wouldn’t want to know. But see, me, I’m not like you… not anymore, Joker.”

The Joker just has to put his face on...

The Joker just has to put his face on…

The Joker becomes an almost pathetic figure, a tragic failure. He isn’t an all-powerful supervillain who knows some horrible truth about the universe, he’s a sad man who cannot even confront the realities of the world around him. Recalling one encounter between Bruce Wayne and the Joker, Batman recalls, “It was then that I knew — knew that he didn’t care who I was beneath the mask, and never would. Knew that he was incapable of even broaching the subject of Bruce Wayne. It would ruin his fun.”

Snyder has constructed quite a wonderful and subversive anti-epic here. Given the Joker’s popularity as a character, DC’s decision to hype the five-issue story makes a great deal for sense. However, Death of the Family is a story that thrives on deconstructing and blowing apart the conventions of “epic” superhero narratives. That fact that the story ballooned in size to twenty-three issues seems like something of a wry joke.

By Gordon!

By Gordon!

The climax at the end of the story doesn’t shake Batman to his core. It has a minimal long-term impact. Snyder doesn’t bask in the fallout of Death of the Family, instead launching a year-long trip back into Batman’s early years. Death of the Family is very much a typical Batman/Joker confrontation, despite the Joker’s attempts to make it something special or defining or enduring. This isn’t the definitive conflict between Batman and the Joker, and one senses that that this is entirely the point.

If anything, the end of Death of the Family significantly undermines the Joker. This is not a story that stresses the strengths of the character,  it seems to have been designed to emphasis his limitations. As if to reinforce the sense that this is anything but an epic Joker narrative, this is easily the shortest of Snyder’s “major” arcs on the character of Batman. Black Mirror, Court of Owls and Zero Year were all significantly longer. At five issues, it’s even one issue shorter than the traditional six-issue “trade paperback” story arc length, even if the last issue is double-sized to ensure it just about covers the same page count.

Face-off...

Face-off…

Snyder even seems to have a bit of fun at his own expense. The arc opens with Gordon reflecting on the strange happenings around Gotham, his musings laid a montage of the Joker’s return to Gotham. The dialogue creates a palpable sense of dread and anxiety in the clearest terms possible:

In hindsight, there were signs… omens of the terrible things to come. The first one came with the rains. With the early snows blocking its mouth, the rains flooded the Gotham river, actually reversing its course for three full days. The second sign came soon after A lion at the Gotham zoo gave birth to a deformed cub, a cub with two heads. Rivers running backwards. Beasts born wrong. We should have seen it coming… We should have read the bones. He should have too. Most of all, him.

This is the sort of purple prose in which Snyder occasionally wallows – one of his calling cards as a Batman writer. However, on the very next page, Gordon reveals that this is all rather tongue-in-cheek. “Sound about right, Harvey? That’s what you’re worried the papers will say?”

Knight and steed...

Knight and steed…

Death of the Family has a great deal of fun with the idea of coincidence. The story is full of coincidences that become omens when filtered through anxiety or uncertainty. Gordon laughs at the idea that the two-headed cub – which becomes a recurring motif over the course of the arc – could be a warning of horrors to come. “Polycephaly. It’s not as uncommon as you think.” It is, of course, coincidence, but the Joker is able to harness it to his advantage. Just as he does when he kidnaps Alfred.

Narrative is one of the recurring themes of Snyder’s Batman run – the idea of controlling and manipulating stories. The Court of Owls were a nursery rhyme that tried to wrest Gotham from its legendary Batman. Here, the Joker is a chain of random events fashioned into a narrative. The storms in Gotham foretell his return. He kidnaps Alfred, which must mean he knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne. However, once those events are revealed to be coincidence, he loses his power.

Happy Bat-family...

Happy Bat-family…

Appropriately enough, Death of the Family renders the Joker as a joke himself – a story that seems to be going in one direction, only to twist sharply at the last minute and become something radically different from what the audience was expecting. Death of the Family is a particularly wry joke, one playing on audience expectations rather than into them. The Joker is a character who has always seemed on the cusp of self-awareness, but Death of the Family notes that his reluctance to exploit this makes him a pawn rather than a player.

As usual, Greg Capullo does some wonderful work bringing the story to life. The artist’s output is phenomenal. There are some delightful and memorable images scattered across the story – whether Bruce’s journey into the depths of Arkham or the demented movement of the Joker himself. There are lots of lovely little touches – for example, Capullo’s decision to feature the Joker in flashback with the same facial scarring that defined Heath Ledger’s take on the character in The Dark Knight.

Some cheek...

Some cheek…

Death of the Family is not the epic Batman and Joker story that it first appears to be. Instead, it’s a wry and subversive take on the Joker himself. The result is fascinating, even if it seems to be at odds with all the crossovers and tie-ins happening around it.

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4 Responses

  1. Great analysis, as usual!

  2. Great analysis, but I think you missed something key. Joker won. Despite his trickery, despite his lying, he broke the family apart. The story, I think, goes beyond just the failings of the Joker and expands to the failings of Batman. You see, Batman failed not by misunderstanding the Joker; indeed, that’s what he proved himself best suited to. He instead failed to understand his family. Everything could have been avoided if he had just opened up to them in Batman #15, but he was pigheaded and insisted they just trust him. In the end, he still never revealed why he did what he did, and he lost their trust. The true failure was that even as weak as he was, Joker could still destroy that family so easily.

    • That’s a fair point, although I’m not sure Snyder quite follows up on it. To be fair, I wonder if this is a shared universe issue, but it never really felt like the bat family was too severely damaged by Death of the Family. Batman was still hanging out with his cast in the other books, and it seems like Bruce’s amnesia resolves any lingering issues rather neatly.

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