Hello, dear Ether. So I’ve been having trouble writing a post on the first two volumes of Justice League Dark and Brubaker’s The Man Who Laughs—two fairly good books that excite me, not so much because they completely blew my mind, but because they’ve provoked a lot of insights re my own comic book reading. And I wanted to explore that—but the drafts I’d been putting up kept getting derailed because they kept turning into despairing rants about how it sometimes seems like I have the chips stacked against me in this comic book reading business. Noelle Stevenson’s recent post has something to do with it, as does Reggie’s response to that—as well as an old post from Benito Cereno. So I’m just going to roll with it, because nothing’s going to get done unless I do. Rant ahoy.
Here’s the thing. Giddiness is basically what’s fuelling this momentum re comic book reading. I’ve waxed rhapsodic about how the Batman universe floats my goddamned boat—the squealing from um my general area during this weekend’s screening of The Lego Movie could be Exhibit 4324—and I can’t wait for when I’ve calmed down enough to read through Saga or The Seven Soldiers of Victory or Maus or Umbrella Academy, or do a reread of Asterios Polyp—which I read not knowing Mazzucchelli’s role in making Batman come alive. The entire genre fascinates me, and I’m glad for the fascination happening now, when I can fully appreciate the complexity.
Picking up stand-alones and series in their infancy has been easy: I figured out what I liked, checked what others thought about them, got them for myself. Batman, in particular, proved difficult because the man’s got seventy-five years under his utility belt, and the comic books and the arcs still seem to me like this beautiful, maddening snarl. I took to the Internet once I’d decided I would roll around in Batman comics. And, thankfully, several structure-minded Batman dorks of the world were helpful—resources like countless best-of lists, recommended reading-by-chronology.
Among these was Benito Cereno, whose post I just once again bumped into today—and, rereading his (very, very, very helpful) post, I was particularly drawn to this: “Superhero comics are written, drawn, and otherwise produced by just absolutely the worst kind of nerd, whose fierce adherence to continuity and following the same characters decade after decade means there are some barriers to entry for new readers, not the least of which is trying to figure out terms like pre-Crisis, post-Zero Hour, New 52, Bronze Age, and so on.” And it rang true because the wealth of material beyond what Cereno calls evergreens (lovely word for enduring comic books, that) is absolutely paralyzing. I researched continuity to exhaustion, because I wanted to get it right, because that’s how I am: I like reading according to both how it was meant to be, and how I like it to be. And seventy-five years of Batman is a lot to wade through—even the Batman from 1986 onwards can be overwhelming. The Dark Knight Returns is an amazing godsend and I’ll always be thankful for reading it—and Batman: Year One makes so much sense in my head and in the Internet’s dorky head. But, what then?
I’ve arranged my comic books according to chronology; in the continuity I’d cobbled together, Ed Brubaker’s The Man Who Laughs [art by Doug Mahnke] was due for reading. It’s a pretty straightforward retelling of the Joker origin story—specifically, a riff on how Batman faced the Clown Prince of Crime for the very first time. Of course I was drawn to it: One of the things that make the Batman so fucking awesome for me is how his rogues gallery is just as distinct and as complex—and as enduring—as he is. There’s just something so terrifyingly vibrant about his villains—and how they just so relentlessly insist themselves. Joker, foremost, because his haunting of the Batman is too fucking A-plus. Sure, treatment has been varied—camp and over-reliance on archetype are among the flaws—but it’s just made me more curious about how they’ll be in the hands of good writers and artists. And then: Heath Ledger’s chilling portrayal of arguably the rogues gallery’s foremost villain—and there I understood how a villain could equal the hero in complexity; and I wanted more. It’s the brand of Joker that matches the angst-bucket Batman in my head—unhinged and unpredictable and scarily intelligent, stripped of all humanity.
So consider this Batman education, too, then, an education in his rogues gallery—and, especially an education in the Joker. Because I don’t think any other villain has spread his psychopathic glee throughout the Batman universe the way the Joker does. (Hi, Jason Todd. Hi, Barbara Gordon. What have you guys been up to?) In The Man Who Laughs, we met a Joker who had a past—who had a motive behind his madness, a reason for it. It’s something that doesn’t jive with my kind of Joker, but I appreciate the insight it adds to my perspective of the Batman mythos. I liked how, Batman, running around in his cape along the rooftops of Gotham, finds himself face to face with a man who can’t see reason—that here’s a man who is not a common criminal. “I never prepared for this,” thinks the Batman at one point, “I planned for the killers, the muggers, the rapists. Desperate people doing desperate things. But I never imagined something like the Joker.” Someone who is unhinged and unpredictable and scarily intelligent—some gaudily, vibrantly dressed psychopath who just kills. I liked witnessing the start of life-long, and very much immortalized, obsession. I liked how it deepened my appreciation for James Gordon—the Jim and Batman dynamic is one of my blind spots that I dearly want to flesh out. Brubaker’s The Man Who Laughs was valuable to me. And really pretty, Mr. Mahnke. Nothing to call mom about, but it’s all good.
So. It’s my first post-Miller reading, in continuity, beyond the stand-alones I sneaked in here and there. And, well, I was second-guessing myself all throughout the reading. Yes, I found it necessary, and I was curious, and the Joker fascinates me the most out of the rogues gallery. And, yes, I read it excitedly. But I read it with a curious, beleaguering trepidation—because, see, TMWL did not belong to the upper tiers of the best-of-Batman lists, and which even seemed a negligible publication, given how definitive Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke has proven to be. Those barriers for entry, barriers I’ve nudged my way through, kept calling back to me, making childish boo noises. (Shut up, shut up.)
Let me say outright that no one told me I was an idiot for reading Brubaker; no one told me that I was wrong. Probably no one cared if I were wrong. But the barriers were there, and the barriers have an amazing way of reminding you that they existed for you because a) you’re a girl, and b) you got into comics way too late to ever catch up. So, to me, even if the barriers have been tiptoed past or crashed into—out of sheer will, or through a surfeit of giddiness—those barriers keep haunting; they’re like your very own Greek chorus dispensing aphoristic helpings of an inferiority complex.
I remember the first Comic Book Day I dived into—all those books, at half-off, and then some. I went to three different Fully Booked branches, just blindly going at the piles of graphic novels, just discovering them for myself. Just finally letting myself own the stuff I’ve always been curious about. And I remember how, faced with two different books of Spiegelman’s Maus and with the Internet being of no help, I had to summon the courage to ask an actual human being for guidance. Were these two meant to be taken together? Is this the Maus I’ve been hearing about, only cut up into two? The guy at the Katipunan branch was very helpful; he understood what I meant, and he assured me that I would feel better buying both. On a different jaunt to Fully Booked, I walked into Comic Odyssey for the first time: I was looking for—oh, I forget, I think it was about Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man—and I had to spend thirty minutes distracting myself from the Herculean task of having to walk up to the guy at the counter—such silence, and amid rows upon rows of unintelligible-to-me single issues!—to ask a simple question. (To this day, I call that the Comic Odyssey Walk of Shame.) I asked. They didn’t have it, they said they didn’t carry trades. It was mortifying, and I never stepped foot at Comic Odyssey again—the energy it took to simply ask, you see.
I’ve not had the cut-direct (wait, do these exist beyond the Regency era?) at comic book shops or at bookstores that carry comic books. [Then again, I prefer waiting for the issues to be collected in trades before I do my reading. Still.] But just feeling those barriers. That I had hoped, after the Comic Odyssey Walk of Shame, that they just thought of me as some girl asking for her brother or her boyfriend. That I feel like every purchase, every decision to read something in the genre, has to be justified—or defended, because they’re automatically suspect. Because I am a girl, and because I don’t know what the fuck I am doing, beyond taste and guides from the Internet. I’m saying that a lot of this is all in my head, but something put it there. Yes, there has been gentle chastising, good-natured ribbing, carefully worded advice about why I should return a book to the bookstore at that instant. All of which, I have been assuming, were made in good faith—but they naturally chafe. Because of the whole barriers-for-entry thing that I can’t get out of my head, no matter how many times I chant: I read what I want, I read what I want, I read what I fucking want.
And then there are the handful of messages from the great Ether that prove it’s not all in my head. Among the most unbelievably ridiculous things I’ve ever heard about my own reading: That my taste was questionable because I read romance novels; that I was a ridiculous poser for reading graphic novels; that I am giving humankind such an egregious offense because I dared read both romance novels and graphic novels—and even managed to read a romance novel about fucking Batman. Does my vagina threaten you so? Is it such a conundrum that I am in possession of a vagina and yet I read comic books—that it becomes objectionable to your tiny, tiny brain?
Right. (The rant is winding down, dear Ether.) Maybe it gets better over time—maybe I’ll acquire an arrogance or at the very least a self-possession when it comes to this comic reading business. I’ll keep on reading what I want in the meantime. Never mind the frustration, the occasional annoyance, the episodes of being simply flabbergasted at the ridiculousness of some people. Myeh. There remain dorks out there who are unflinchingly nice about it—or, best yet: Who don’t give a fuck what I read.
Right. Anyway. I should mention that this edition of The Man Who Laughs has an utterly-devoid-of-Joker story collected with it. Because someone at DC was drunk when they cobbled together the first Joker-Batman confrontation with a Green Lantern and Batman partnership. Without Joker. Not even one mention of it. Still, I’ll always like that story for giving me an image of the Batman I had not known I needed until I saw it for myself—a bearded Bruce Wayne sans cowl, in a trench coat, the Bat sigil beneath a torn shirt, drenched in the goddamned rain. Happy days.