Gimmicky, campy villains are, unfortunately, a nuisance we must tolerate if we want to read superhero comics. More often than not, stories prominently featuring baddies such as Mad Hatter or the Ventriloquist/Scarface disregard logical plot and character development in favor of exploiting that villain’s obsessive/compulsive tendencies to the max; the comic becomes more an exposé on pathological fetishism than, well, anything else we might want the comic to be. Oddly enough, we could legitimately argue that some superhero-comic writers have a fetish for fetishes.
Even some of Batman’s more respectable rogues have fallen prey to this kind of writing. There is almost nothing more irritating to me in a Batman comic than one that has Two-Face running amok in Gotham City committing crimes entirely based on twos — I mean, is he a sociopath, or is he a character on Sesame Street? (“This caper brought to you by a silver dollar and the Number 2!”) Two-Face at his best is a character obsessed with the conflict between order and chaos, not with ripping off the 2nd Bank of Gotham on the second anniversary of his arrest. (True story — see Batman Forever. Or on second thought, don’t.) On a related note, what’s Joker’s deal with fish? I don’t know. I suppose we can only presume he finds them funny.
Anyway, what do we do with all these circus acts and their apparent obsession on oversized household objects?
Same thing the Batman does. Confine them — not in Arkham, which seems to have installed a revolving door in place of cell blocks, but to a specific role and frequency in your collection. Choose your Batman stories in part based on how logically and three-dimensionally those villains are presented, and reject those in which they are buffoons. I’ve chosen three to mention briefly here:
Batman: The Man Who Laughs by Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke
This one-shot from 2005 updates the first encounter between Batman and the Joker in familiar fashion: early in the Batman’s career, a psychopath with a fixation on the blackest of humors attempts to murder millions with a deadly toxin that literally causes its victims to laugh themselves to death. This is a good comic first and foremost because the Joker is simultaneously frightening and funny, a feat that’s apparently a lot harder than it sounds. It leaves Joker’s origin fairly ambiguous, which is unique in the superhero genre, and yet it suggests at the same time that maybe the Batman is partially responsible for his existence. And really, Batman’s arch-nemesis deserves his own full-length intro-story, whereas I’m content to ignore that of many others of his rogue’s gallery (some because they’re not all that important, and some because they’re just dumb). We will of course be talking about lots of other Joker-stories later on as well, and they only get better from here.
Batman: Haunted Knight
A brief mention for Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s first Batman collaboration: Haunted Knight collects three one-shot Halloween specials that were originally printed under the Legends of the Dark Knight title. It features Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, Joker, and Poison Ivy in succinct form, showcasing their personalities and, yes, their fetishes, but Loeb and Sale are pretty even-handed about them; the stories are fairly strong and none of them are long enough to really get on your nerves. Overall, Haunted Knight serves my collection well as a makeshift intro for a few of the more bizarre Batman villains out there. Makes for fun Halloween-season reading material, too, as the villains Loeb and Sale have chosen already have a kind of Halloweenish motif.
Batman: The Long Halloween— Loeb/Sale
According to the creators, this title grew out of their work on above Halloween specials and became something much more. Running 13 issues long, Long Halloween features a different guest-star supercriminal in each chapter, but the main story revolves around District Attorney Harvey Dent and his collaboration with Jim Gordon and the Batman against the Falcone crime family. It’s also an extended murder mystery that updates Dent’s transformation into a ruthless killer bent on exacting “justice” upon the Gotham City mob. Christopher Nolan drew heavily from this series for The Dark Knight, even going so far as to lift the scene with Batman, Gordon and Dent on the roof of the GCPD building straight out of this comic. All in all, this is pretty much a must-have in any modern Batman collection.
Again, the goal of my Batman collection is to create (something approaching) a fleshed-out character arc that captures many of the defining moments and supporting cast of the Bat-canon, while simultaneously jettisoning the campy, the nonsensical, and the far-fetched (“far-fetched” being a relative term). A hero is in part measured by the obstacles he or she faces, so if we want to take Batman seriously as an object of cultural study and appreciation, we ought to be able to take his rogue’s gallery seriously, too.