Comic Analysis: Batman: White Knight

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What if the Joker became the hero and Batman is a villain?

It sounds like an awesome concept, but in the hands of Sean Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth, it is merely a superhero story without heroes.

(Unmarked spoilers ahead!)

Batman: White Knight opens with a scene familiar to Batman fans. The Joker is fleeing the scene of his latest crime, and Batman is in hot pursuit. During the chase, the Batman recklessly smashes his way down streets and roofs in his Batmobile, hinting at the nature of this universe’s Batman. Finally, Batman corners Joker in a warehouse filled with non-FDA approved drugs. After the inevitable beatdown, Batman forces a fistful of pills down Joker’s throat before handing him over to the Gotham City Police Department.

Miraculously, the Joker is cured of his insanity, and begins a new life as Jack Napier.

Not-So-White Knight

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The sheer implausibility of this event is grating — and the explanation at the end of the series is only barely justifies it. Napier could easily have died from an overdose, first responders could have pumped his stomach before the drugs took effect, and there’s no indication that the creator of the drugs actually tested the drugs to ensure they would work.

But let’s roll with it. The Clown Prince of Crime is gone. Jack Napier turns into a jailhouse lawyer and somehow acquits himself in court. Now a free man, he proposes to a reformed Harley Quinn, speaks against the immense collateral damage Batman has inflicted on Gotham, and transforms into the titular White Knight.

Vowing to take down Batman, he runs for office on the city council, ingratiates himself with the black ghetto of Backport, and mind controls Gotham City’s supervillains.

So much for becoming a white knight. By resorting to villainous means, Napier undercuts the premise of the story: he’s not a hero, he’s merely not insane. Instead of robbery, murder and terror, he uses the law, the media and puppets to pursue his continued obsession with Batman.

But don’t worry; he’s not that much of a villain either. He’s acquitted of all charges, he’s repeatedly assured that no matter what he’s done he’s not a murderer, and the press and the people readily forgive him of the damage he caused as Joker and concentrate on Batman’s shenanigans.

This feels like a half-hearted attempt at creating a morally complex character. If, in this timeline, the Joker were the Clown Prince of Crime and an acknowledged supervillain, it’s extremely unlikely that the citizens of Gotham would forgive him as readily as they did in this series. Indeed, nobody calls him to account for his crimes as the Joker. No one bears a grudge against him, no vigilantes or small-time crooks gear up to take him out, no journalists confront him; it’s as if the acquittal has washed his sins clean.

This is especially puzzling in light of the schemes he devises in the story. Fancy suits, media appearances and public works projects require a huge amount of money, and as far as I can tell the only way he’s able to fund them all is from his ill-gotten gains as the Joker. He runs no fundraisers on the printed page, and while it’s possible his supporters might have contributed to his campaign funds, he focuses his attention on the citizens of a poverty-stricken district — citizens who wouldn’t be able to donate much money or wield much influence to begin with. He’s never seen wooing citizens from other districts, but somehow he wins enough support to land a seat on the City Council. Napier proposes the creation of the Gotham Terror Oppression unit — a SWAT team on steroids — and the GCPD just plays along (and somehow obtains the funds to stand it up).

Throughout the print run, Gotham’s White Knight has evaded the consequences of his actions as the Joker, pulls money and strings out of nowhere, and somehow became the talk of the town.

Napier became the White Knight not through his own efforts, but by authorial fiat.

The World’s Angstiest Detective

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The Batman in this timeline is obsessed with hunting the Joker, and he won’t let minor inconveniences like private property or passers-by get in his way. Consumed by wrath, he lashes out willy-nilly at everyone who frustrates him — even in his civilian identity as Bruce Wayne. And he does absolutely nothing to investigate Jack Napier’s meteoric rise, the source of his funds, or his criminal connections.

Napier’s plans are transparent: manipulate the Batman into employing brutality in front of as many cameras as possible. The World’s Greatest Detective would have easily deduced this. Nonetheless, this Batman insists on attacking Napier during a protest in front of the police and the media. When supervillains rise up, he once again causes massive damage in front of witnesses and cameras — never mind that this just plays into Napier’s anti-Batman campaign. Not once did the thought of employing less force and reigning in his impulses even cross his mind.

The Batman of White Knight is no longer the World’s Greatest Detective. He’s now the World’s Angstiest Detective.

The series reveals that he’s torn up by the abduction and disappearance of the original Robin at Joker’s hands, and Alfred Pennyworth lying on his deathbed. While he’s under a great deal of emotional stress, the story also states as Batman, before these personal calamities, he inflicted three billion dollars of collateral damage on the city. Annually.

Three. Billion. Dollars.

To put things in perspective, he caused the equivalent of six Oklahoma City bombings every year. It’s gotten to the point where sharp investors can make huge profits by flipping properties in areas he’s fought in. And, naturally, the monies for insurance payouts and settlements come from organisations owned by Bruce Wayne.

If Batman causes this kind of damage every year — hugely improbable since he won’t employ lethal weapons — there is no way the Gotham PD would tolerate his presence on the streets and maintain the Bat-Signal. His allies would have deserted him long ago. He would have been declared a terrorist and hunted down by the authorities. There would be no way for him to avoid killing people, if only by mistake. The people would fear and hate him long before Napier’s campaign. Coupled with his newfound rage and angst, his wings would have been clipped early in his career.

The final straw came in the showdown with Jack Napier. Batman has received training from the assassins of the League of Shadows, mastered multiple martial arts, equips himself with state-of-the-art gear, and has a lifetime of experience battling criminals with his bare hands. Napier has trained with Harley Quinn a few times.

Of course, Napier wins. In a fair fight.

No ambush, no weapons, no legion of goons, no dirty tricks. Just an old-fashioned mano y manoshowdown that ends with Batman flat on the ground.

The sheer ludicrousness of this scene was the last straw. The series completely lost its credibility at this point. To pull off the central conflict of the series, the creators stripped the Dark Knight of everything that defined him — coolness under pressure, analytical ability, self-control, martial arts prowess — and elevated Jack Napier into an implausible antihero.

I had to force myself to carry on, to see what else made this series one of the top ten bestselling comics in its publication run. Unfortunately, I found little else.

The Dross

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Batman: White Knight attempted to rewrite the histories of recurring minor characters the same way it did to Batman and Joker, but it didn’t go far enough in exploring the consequences of these rewrites.

The greatest change to the cast is the introduction of a second Harley Quinn. The first Harley Quinn, dressed in the classic comic style, left the Joker after he kidnapped and tortured Robin. The second was a mentally-ill hostage who developed Stockholm Syndrome — and conveniently resembled the original enough that the Joker treated her as his co-conspirator in the middle of a heist.

After Napier sheds the Joker identity, the second Harley Quinn decides to bring the original back. She takes on the persona of Neo-Joker and orchestrates the Joker’s return by… randomly causing havoc.

Somehow, it works.

That, and because Napier’s drugs wore off. Because, reasons.

This sloppiness in plotting, characterisation, execution and consequences reverberates throughout the series.

Batgirl is now the team ditz, existing only to bridge conversations, look pretty, and accidentally reveal Batman’s real name while on the job. But that’s okay, because nobody who isn’t a Batman ally noticed. Meanwhile, the second Robin beats up bad guys, joins the GTO, and does little else. None of them show any interest in investigating criminals or Napier. Somehow, Batman still treats them as his family, and gives Batgirl a pass repeatedly for her slip-ups — and they care little about the collateral damage Batman caused until Napier calls him out on it in public.

Commissioner Jim Gordon begins the story as Batman’s ally, but as he sees the devastation Batman has wreaked, he begins to doubt him, and turns his back when Napier proposes the GTO. But if Gordon were so concerned about collateral damage, why didn’t he turn on Batman after Batman inflicted three billion dollars of collateral damage and countless injuries to bystanders? Why didn’t he call out Batman on this? In addition, why didn’t he continue to monitor Napier after his release, to see how he’s funding his campaigns?

It’s clear that the creators didn’t think through the implications of rewriting the history of the Batman and the Joker. By changing such significant aspects of their personalities, their relationships with everyone around them would have been radically altered. Yet the dynamics are still the same — the characters only begin to react negatively to Batman when he loses his self-control or when Napier steps up his smear campaign.

Other problems with worldbuilding, dialogue and jargon slip into the pages. The term ‘social justice warrior’ is used non-ironically without references to actual social justice concepts, someone uses ‘identity politics’ when the political dynamic in play is closer to class politics, ham-fisted dialogue like ‘a step back for feminism’ pop up among the pages, and in an age of concerns over militarized police no one thought to think twice about naming a group of supercops the Gotham Terror Oppression unit.

And no one thought about the optics of the people of a poor black ghetto voting for the whitest, richest guy who visits them. A literal White Knight for downtrodden and oppressed blacks.

No Heroes, No Villains

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Batman: White Knight follows a depressingly familiar script. Take a hero and beat out everything that makes him heroic; then grab a villain, gut him of the most depraved aspects of his personality, and use it to justify turning him into a hero. Up is down, black is white, right is wrong.

Batman: White Knight is supposed to be a superhero story. But with a hero who isn’t heroic and a villain who isn’t too villainous, it fails spectacularly at the hero part.

Lacking a strong ethical core, riddled with sloppy writing and characterisation, Batman: White Knight exemplifies the ongoing decay in the comics industry.

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If you enjoy stories with actual heroes and villains, realistic action scenes and tradecraft, check out my novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

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Comic Analysis: Batman: White Knight
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