Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Batman: Lovers and Madmen Review (Michael Green, Denys Cowan)

Lovers and Madmen is a deeply flawed Joker origin story which borrows elements from far better Joker stories like Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke and the 1989 Batman movie and warps them with Michael Green’s own bad ideas and pitiful characterisation. 

Jack is a young man recently come to Gotham to make it as a career hitman. But he’s bored – robbing banks and shooting cops isn’t enough for him and his boredom translates into a death wish, where he deliberately fouls up any heists he’s involved in to see if someone can put him out of his misery. That is until he meets Batman and his entire outlook changes. He becomes obsessed with this “ridiculous” figure, doing everything he can to draw him out with his crimes. And then he goes too far and a confrontation in a chemical factory leads to the creation of the most famous villain in comics history – the Joker. 

Alarm bells started ringing as soon as I saw Green had attempted the unbreakable rule about the Joker: he gave him a name and a backstory prior to his becoming the Joker. This is a cardinal rule of the character: that you never give him a solid backstory. But here he is, Jack (imaginative!), a hitman (yawn) who shoots playing cards (!?!?!). 

Most Batman readers understand this already but the power of not knowing the Joker’s origins is a large part of why he’s such an appealing villain – the mystery lends itself to the reader’s mind where we have to imagine how such a creature could come to be. Many writers and artists have implicitly understood this, and the most recent Joker incarnation on the big screen also played to this strength – Heath Ledger’s Joker telling everyone a different story of how he got his scars, and Batman unable to find out the character’s real background. 

If you’re going to give Joker a background, at least make it interesting like Moore did. Green just goes for the laziest, most uninteresting version imaginable, emphasising in the clumsiest and most offensive way possible that Batman is partially responsible for the Joker’s creation. Because here’s the second part of why this book is such trash: the way Green depicts Batman. 

Batman’s girlfriend for the book, Lorna Shore, who only appears in this book and who’s such a transparent character that she may as well be called Batman’s Character Motivation, gets hurt by the Joker and makes Batman angry. So angry that he throws a giant Frisbee-sized Batarang at Joker which slices open one side of Joker’s face, comes flying around and slices up the other half! First of all, that is so stupid and the visual is even stupider. Second, d’you wanna know how I got these scars? Batman! So on top of Batman capturing Jack’s attention, he literally supplies the character’s most physically defining physical characteristic! 

Green’s out-of-character Batman carries on as later in the story Batman orders a hit on Joker. Yes, Batman orders a hit. He doesn’t kill – but that doesn’t stop him from getting other people to kill for him! And the way Batman treats Alfred is offensive, to both the character and the reader. Alfred is Bruce’s surrogate father and his most trusted confidante though you wouldn’t know it from this book. He’s verbally abusive to Alfred, sneering at him, mocking him, treating him like absolute crap – this is another totally uncharacteristic display of behaviour and offensive to readers who cherish Bruce and Alfred’s relationship.

Other bizarre moments include Jack meeting Harley in the first bar he stumbles into when he arrives in Gotham and Harley falling for his charms right off – though it would be years before she got her psychology degree (paid for by Joker!), went to work at Arkham and fell in love with “Mistah J”. And speaking of Arkham, in Green’s story Jonathan Crane built it! The freakin’ Scarecrow! Oh and Joker created the Bat signal. I… I give up. Every single one is an awful choice.

The layouts are ok for the most part but towards the end things get very shoddy. In one panel Joker clearly leaps off of a building backwards to prove that Batman will save him because he doesn’t kill, then in the next few panels the two are having a conversation face to face, and then they’re fighting, and then he’s back to falling – whaaaat!?! And no it’s not a flashback mid-sequence either as it’s the same background, and no Batman’s not holding onto Joker either. It’s such a poorly put together scene in an otherwise ok-drawn book. The art’s not amazing and everyone’s eyes are too far apart but I didn’t hate it, though this sequence was just baffling. 

Lovers and Madmen is the argument against writing a Joker origin story. The best Joker stories happen after whoever this person is becomes Joker, like The Man Who Laughs by Ed Brubaker which does a far superior job of telling the story of Batman and Joker’s first encounter, and part of its brilliance is that Brubaker doesn’t attempt to explain Joker’s origin – the character is fully formed, his mysterious origins intact. Batman doesn’t find out, the reader doesn’t find out, the legend continues. Fair enough, Alan Moore got away with it, but Green ain’t Alan Moore and this book isn’t a tenth of the same quality as The Killing Joke. 

Michael Green’s book is garbage – it takes better ideas from great creators and fudges them, with Green tossing in his own bad ideas to create one hell of a crapfest. He fails in telling a compelling origin story and fails in adding anything of remote value to the Joker character. His dismal attempts at characterising Batman only further serve to underline how little he understands the character or his world. Lovers and Madmen is one of the worst Batman books I’ve ever read and definitely the worst Joker book of the bunch. 

Here are some better Joker books to read instead:

The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
Mad Love by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm
The Man Who Laughs by Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke
Joker by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo
Death of the Family by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo

Batman Lovers And Madmen

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