Batman: Lovers & Madmen (2008)
Writer: Michael Green
Peciller: Denys Cowan
Inker: John Floyd
Letterer: Travis Lanham, Ken Lopez
My instinct is to automatically dismiss Joker origin stories. There is something cheapening about attempting to explore who the Joker was before he fell into that vat of acid or the whys and hows he became the ultimate villain of Gotham. For me, what has always made the Joker so perfect, so universal was that we didn’t know where he came from: he just is.
So, I was completely thrown for a surprise when I read “Batman: Lovers & Madmen” and genuinely loved the origin of both the Joker and his relationship with Batman. I do have some issues with this story, but as someone who is always looking for new explorations of the dynamic between Batman and the Joker, I really favored this comic.
The story starts 42 weeks into Bruce Wayne’s career as a crime-fighting vigilante and he prematurely feels pleased that he has had a positive effect on Gotham. Crime is down, people feel a bit safer and Bruce Wayne believes he has matured as a vigilante and is close to perfecting his skills. He even has time to visit an art exhibit (entitled Picasso’s Harlequins wink-wink-nudge-nudge) and meet Lorna Shore, a curator at the museum who is the classic comic love interest. She is objectively beautiful yet we know she is professional and intelligent due to her glasses and unimpressed iciness with Bruce. Thank goodness she paired her glasses with low-rise jeans to expose a few inches of midsection at one point so we know that she is a sexual being. Nonetheless, she was not cloying or embarrassing so I did not mind her as much as I have with other female love interests.
With all this unusual positivity in Bruce’s life, obviously something has to go wrong very quickly and it does with the introduction of Jack, a suicidal and sociopathic criminal who has lost interest in his work. Convinced by a blond pre-med student to try one more job before giving up, he has his first encounter with the Batman and promptly falls in love. The Batman gives Jack new meaning and he purposely goes out of his way to terrorize Gotham in an effort to entice the vigilante. Now, this is where things got a little weird.
Batman obviously hates this guy and the fact that he does not act according to Batman’s understanding of criminal patterns. He also carries the knowledge that it is because of his own existence as a vigilante that this guy is terrorizing the city. He wouldn’t have existed if the Batman hadn’t first. So far so good.
I cringed and was bemused, however, by Alfred’s apparent NASA-level technology skills and his ability to create a quantum super-computer, whatever that is, that has apparently never even been dreamed up by “the imaginations of the engineers of its component parts”. He is even, after Bruce throws a temper tantrum and destroys the computer, able to rebuild it. Okay, I love Alfred. He’s a great character. I can see him having knowledge of medicine and being able to stitch up Bruce after a bad night; I can even see him having mechanical skills and knowing how to work on the Batmobile and whatnot. But if Alfred can create from the ground up, a supercomputer that will accurately predict where a criminal is going to strike next (negating Batman’s detective skills), why the hell is he still a butler? Maybe the Wayne estate has an unbelievable health plan, I don’t know.
Anyway, what I loved about this origin story was how dark it was. Jack/the Joker is actually criminally insane, indifferent to pain and essentially head over heels for Batman. The crimes he commits are disturbing and he forces Batman down a dark path that he is afraid he won’t be able to come out of. I love that. As Batman fans, we know that there are certain codes he lives by and certain lines he refuses to cross. The Joker makes Batman doubt all of this and his own actions. Gotham is suddenly more dangerous and darker than it ever has been and it’s all Batman’s fault, essentially. Oh, the irony.
There is also a great but very short Jonathan Crane scene in which he verbalizes to Batman what we know about the Joker: he’s insane. I really feel that Crane is not given a lot of breathing room in comics, what with writers focusing more on Scarecrow so I pleased to see Green grant Crane a few panels to explain his own interest in fear. I wish it had been a longer and more dynamic scene but it was satisfying nonetheless.
Overall, I would recommend Batman: Lovers & Madmen as a different and interesting take on the beginning of the Batman/Joker dichotomy but I would have to say that this is simply one take on the origin of both characters. This is not the Bruce Wayne/Batman that Batman comic fans are used to, which probably accounts for the apparent lukewarm reaction by readers. And, though I enjoyed this Joker origin story, I have to take it simply as one interpretation as the Joker’s longevity as a villain depends upon his enigmatic past and identity. Nonetheless, definitely check it out if you’re up for something a little bit dark but still fun.