Friday, October 03, 2008

Book of the Week 5: Batman #680

[Each book of the week is chosen because I have something to say about it, because I find it interesting. That's the only criteria, so it may actually be a bad comic... this one isn't, though. New posts sometimes on weeks when I buy comics, if I have something to say.]

The return of the Thin White Duke
Throwing darts in lovers' eyes
The return of the Thin White Duke
Throwing darts in lovers' eyes
The return of the Thin White Duke
Making sure white stains

--David Bowie, "Station to Station"

"The Thin White Duke of Death" is the title of this issue, referring to the Joker and David Bowie's character/persona during late 1975/1976 (despite slowly just becoming a nickname for Bowie) and on the album Station to Station, which just happens to be my favourite Bowie album. I'm serious, this album blows me away every single time, especially the title track. Does it make total sense? No. But, how can you not love a song that has lines like "It's not the side effects of the cocaine / I'm thinking that it must be love"? I don't do coke, but I'd almost start so I could say that with total honesty to a woman someday. (Then again, I'm also the guy who is very amused by the idea of ending his wedding vows with another Bowie quote: "Hot tramp, I love you so." I wouldn't do it, but it's a funny idea.) But, since I do so love the album that personifies the Thin White Duke, I figured why not look at this issue of Batman from that perspective? Maybe insight would be gained. Maybe not.

First, a little bit about the Thin White Duke... The character stemmed from Bowie's lifestyle at the time, which involved massive amounts of cocaine. So much cocaine that he confesses that he remembers little of the recording of Station to Station. The character has been described as Bowie as "a very Aryan fascist type -- a would-be romantic with no emotions at all" and is done in a cabaret-style of dress and mannerism. He's very cold, detached and more "toned down" than previous Bowie characters (which caused some to think that Bowie was just being himself at the time). Station to Station is a transition album from Young Americans, which was heavy into funk and soul, and the "Berlin Trilogy" that followed, which was heavy with synthesizers and motorik rhythms. The album began as a soundtrack for the film The Man Who Fell to Earth (which Bowie starred in--and influenced the direction of the Thin White Duke character), but that idea fell through. It sort of stradles the line with "Golden Years" falling more towards the former while "Station to Station" falls more towards the latter (although neither is fully on either side, of course). (For more detail, there's always the Station to Station and Thin White Duke wikipedia pages, as well as this helpful site on that period in Bowie's career.)

"The Thin White Duke of Death" persona of the Joker dates back to Batman #663, the infamous "The Clown at Midnight" prose issue. This is the latest persona of the Joker as he keeps changing his self... We aren't given much in that issue to really tell us who the Thin White Duke of Death is. He tries to, first, kill Harley Quinn and then disfigure her. There's a hint of the romantic there, but a cold, detached, frightening sort. There's also the continuing duality with Batman, the Joker's straight man... He could kill Batman, but chooses not to. This latest transformation is brought on by a fake Batman shooting him in the face... and what does this transformation say about the world around him? Morrison's conception of the Joker is that the Joker is supersane and his personality shifts to cope with his external surroundings. In a way, the Joker's identity is permanently plugged into the zeitgeist (interesting "superpower," don't you think?). So, what is the zeitgeist that has created the Thin White Duke of Death?

I think it's tied to Batman more than anything... the Joker alters himself to match his other... and Batman shot him in the face. What Morrison hints at here (and his run has been about in many ways) is that Batman is supersane as well, in his own way. His identity shifts the way the Joker's does... Morrison has used his run to try and put Batman's various identities into the body of one man and it seems insane because they're so different. But, they are just as different as the identities of the Joker (ideally), all linked by one common thread: it's all Batman. The Joker recognises this, and that's why he can't really tell the difference between the imposter who shot him and the "real" Batman--there is no REAL Batman! There is just an overarching idea of the Batman, a Platonic ideal, really. What was it that Batman shouts on the first page of issue 676? "BATMAN AND ROBIN WILL NEVER DIE!" The person behind the mask isn't really important. Look at how many Robins there have been... does it really matter which teenage boy is dressed as that human target? Nope. Just as it doesn't matter who Batman is... Nor who the Joker is, because the surface is the true identity here. (Some would argue that the Joker's various personas aren't that different, but they're different enough--or, as different as Batman's various personas have been, really. Each have their own contants, of course, but each is also distinct. Morrison here provides an explanation for creative differences between writers and how it's all the same character no matter what changes occur. Oh, and some are making a big deal out of the Joker knowing Batman is Bruce Wayne, but something to consider: look at the possible successors to Bruce and then look at the term "orphan boy"... It doesn't matter specifically who Batman is, because there are always certain constants.)

Bowie's career was similar: who David Bowie really was didn't matter, it was the persona of the moment, because that persona was David Bowie to everyone. The constant changing of character to stay current... That's one of the reasons why Morrison links the Joker to Bowie, but also because the allusion to the Thin White Duke suggests how utterly nasty this Joker is (not to mention the toned-down cabaret-style outfit with the pants-and-suspenders look). How he's detached and emotionally cold, which is reflected in the word balloons he now has: all lower case. He has a flat type of speech to suggest a lack of emotions (except for the final panel of this issue, which is a lovely little panel, but kind of works against the persona of the Thin White Duke of Death, don't you think?). Just looking at his body language, I can hear that... clicking kind of sound (what the hell made that sound? It's fantastic!) and the piano in "Station to Station." And how he springs into action almost resembles the two parts of that song: first he is slow, but then he can't stop moving or shut up. I'm actually surprised that Morrison didn't have him "yelling" (as the Thin White Duke of Death doesn't really yell) "It's too late" over and over again at Batman.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that looking for direct links would be useless. I could point to certain lyrics from Thin White Duke-era songs that match up with some dialogue of the Joker (and surrounding characters), but... it's about attitude, about style, about the latest persona in a long line of personas--and it's about pointing to Batman being the same way. It alludes back to Qwsp in Morrison's "Crisis Times Five" story in JLA where Aquaman's one-time foe Quisp updates his appearance, methods and attitude to match the grim-and-gritty bearded-and-hook-handed Aquaman... This isn't a new idea for Morrison at all, this conception as superheroes as all being supersane with every story having happened (Hypertime) and the characters altering themselves to meet the demands of the time and of the creator controlling them. The Joker becomes the Thin White Duke of Death in response to Batman's harsher tactics, which isn't surprising considering this persona's physical resemblance to Frank Miller's Joker in The Dark Knight Returns where there's a similar Batman to the fake one with regards to methods (almost).

Before I finish up, I am wondering about the obsession with red and black to the obvious exclusion of white, which has been implied throughout Morrison's run, but never explicitly referenced except in the Joker's persona... which suggests that the Joker is outside of that duality. He is neither red nor black... what does that suggest? And what will his role be next issue? And, more importantly...

What comes after the Thin White Duke of Death?