Scribbler’s Saga #98 – The Joker Got Away

Posted: January 6, 2020 in Uncategorized

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Jingle Bells! Batman smells! Robin laid an egg! And Joker got away!

Of course, these joke lyrics come to mind the minute one of the DJs on KUSC chose to tell me about the fuzzy history of the Jingle Bells Christmas carol, while also casually dropping in that the song is The Joker’s favorite holiday tune. We’ll leave all commentary about the better than even chance I sang the joke lyrics in the car, at least a half octave flat (I only believe I can write the music, Ducky) for our sister column, Composer’s Counterpoint…or never.

But, it is a good segue for discussing the literary trope of the one villain that consistently gets away. Four examples immediately spring to mind: Joker, Wo Fat (original), Professor Moriarty and Murdock. There are others I haven’t used my library card on…yet. In the most reductionist sense possible, where tropes, clichés and metaphor live they’re perhaps the same villain…until they’re not.

Joker gets away. The unnamed murder clown bedeviling Batman’s easy path through Gotham’s underbelly of crime either gets away or figures out how porous the security arrangements at Arkham Asylum really are. A pop stand with paper thin walls that can’t seem to hold the top five members of Batman’s Rogues Gallery, so I suppose I could do this post asserting Riddler Got Away, but for the song tie in.

One of these days, I’m really going to have to pitch this geek fight at my comic book store – “so if Arkham Asylum can’t actually hold whatever villain the current writer chooses to have break out and they keep appropriating to fill in all the tunnels, dimensional cracks and other means of physical egress that don’t involve scary good lawyering, why is the facility still open?” A good question that I’m sure has already been asked but not by me. Rooted in a couple real world examples.

Alcatraz Federal Prison closed after the escape attempt that Clint Eastwood dramatized for the movie. The crumbly concrete around the vents popped open on the way to the roof were deemed too expensive to fix in an old structure exposed to sea air. So most of the inmates went to Fort Leavenworth.

The Nazis pressed a historic schlöss (castle), Colditz Castle, into service as a POW camp. Enough prisoners took their oath to attempt escape as a means of tying down as many soldiers as possible behind the lines guarding prisoners that they cut through serious rock trying to get out. The tunnels still exist despite attempts to fill them in that you can see them on the tour (one of many bucket list items, I guess).

Anyway, Joker gets away. Joker escapes. In my own sporadic fan fiction meanderings with the Batman franchise, I stopped using the Joker as the main villain. Not because I haven’t enjoyed all the actor portrayals of the murder clown over the years, but everybody else reaches for the Joker without trying to come up with something one of the other villains could and should pull off.

My most recent abandoned effort, I had Harley Quinn attempt to dig Joker out of Arkham. They romance in his cot and Joker, like Colonel Hogan, stays inside because he can bust out anytime he likes, but he hasn’t a good plan to screw with Batman and there’s this other fella making trouble. Considering that this story suggests that Batman and Catwoman are about to replay Rear Window, I asked experts for someone who wasn’t Joker, Riddler, Penguin or Mr. Freeze. Answer: Film Phreak.

Joker at a deep psychological level is a little different than the other Always Gets Away villains in this post. Smarter people than me go on and on endlessly that the murder clown represents chaos and a dark reflection of Batman’s own tragic backstory. The clown doesn’t seem to do anything but for to fuck with the Bat. All kinds of dark nasty storytelling ensues, yet when Professor Wurtham lied about comic books damaging kids, he chose to focus on the assumption of Batman buggering Robin to the exclusion of the representation of apparently motiveless evil represented by the Joker. But, I digress.

Anyway, the other villains in this discussion are a little more similar to each other at the level of analysis. They have understandable motives. Making money. Advancing Red China’s cause. Making money killing people. Perhaps Murdock from the reboot version of MacGyver comes the closest to The Joker’s sense of pure evil.

Mac attempts to pose as Murdock with the assassin’s help (cooperation with the court) and blows a meeting with prospective clients – “MacGyver, my job requires a personality that makes normal people’s skin crawl. When you come off as this normal, those nice people needing my help instinctively know something is wrong.” Mac among his other talents (but no guns) is a good actor who takes direction well. The next meeting goes well…

In a general sense, the Always Gets Away villain serves as a device to provide the hero with a sense of still being mortal. Original Wo Fat appears in the pilot episode of Hawaii 5-0 (aired in the middle of the first season) and appears about twice a season until the very last episode. Danno and McGarrett foil the plot, but Wo Fat either hides behind diplomatic immunity or gets on a plane to China just before the arrest can be made. Considering that the team always got everyone else starting with the poetry spouting wife killer in the first episode, you get the sense of the slave in the Roman triumph posted at the honoree’s ear – “remember, thou art mortal.”

James Patrick Moriarty exists as a similar archetype. Sherlock Holmes is too smart for everyone else (paging Irene Adler). So you need someone that can think his way to a draw with the World’s Greatest Consulting Detective.

The most recent film version of this conflict depicted this as a mutual litany of next steps. First, Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) mentally recites his plan. Moriarty (Brendan Gleeson) mentally recites his plan that takes into account Holmes’ plan as if telepathically clueing into the shared ether. They fight and…

…both fall over Reichenbach Falls. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle intended this moment to end the series. But, he caved to fans and publishers wanting more, only to have footmen and cabbies complain about Holmes “not being the same since Reichenbach Falls.” Ah, fans never change…it might blow up the universe if they made sense.

Bringing the thought back around to the murder clown, this sense of the equal and opposite that can’t survive without the other becomes far more pronounced. Joker pulls off some especially dark deeds depending on how constrained the writer feels by the more relevant of the, presently defunct, Comics Code, movie rating or TV rating systems. In The Killing Joke, Batman tells Joker – “Joker, if we keep this up one of us will die.”

Will the trope survive except when depicting past eras on the page? All of these villains who keep coming back whether presumed immortal because of the vat of toxic goo, or simply depicted as the equal and opposite to the hero are creations from before the Internet. The Joker gets away waiting for his next vicious inspiration, but he needs to hole up somewhere.

In Gotham set between 1940 and 1990, Joker rents a new apartment/lair and starts drawing on the walls in crayon. Batman and any minions have to call people like every known landlord in the city asking about either gents with evil laughs and clown makeup white skin or people who smell of too much theatrical face paint hoping to look normal. Holmes’ London didn’t even have phones and the consulting detective never had enough Baker Street Irregulars to waste on trying to find the villain before he surfaces for the next plan.

Meanwhile, based on the theory that we use the Internet the same way no matter what we call each ourselves, could a villain get away more than a few times? I have friends telling me they can even break Wit Sec analyzing the data correctly. Google knows everything…

Realistically, the trope will survive. Writers can make most things possible with our usual Step, Kick and Shuffle toe dance. The creativity of the attempt becomes the thing. Enjoy your returning villains…

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