Thoughts and observations on Green Arrow, classical liberalism, freedom, comic books and matters of social justice.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Of devils and clowns

If there has been a bigger summer for movies than this one, I can’t remember it. I know there’s been no better summer for the comic book movie; Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Hellboy, and the Dark Knight, all in one summer. Wow. So far Iron man and The Hulk have been good, with Iron man topping the two. I’m a fan of Ang Lee’s Hulk and I make no apologies for that, so TIH had an uphill battle with me. One aspect of these summer comic book movies I find interesting is that we have two examples of how to interpret a character for the screen; one literal and the other a departure from the source material.

Hellboy is as literal a translation as you can get. Ron Pearlman, the man behind the make-up, looks as though he jumped off the pages of Mike Mignola’s comics; rarely has a make-up effect worked so well. If only Michael Chiklis was given the same treatment as The Thing. While I’d rate that make-up a success overall, it did require a level of adjustment and compromise with the fan. Hellboy asks no such favor, Pearlman is Hellboy.

The departure from the norm is found in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, perhaps the best title for a sequel ever. As the world now knows, the villain here is the Joker, played by the recently deceased Heath Ledger. I’ll forgo the talk of his death and it’s affect on the film’s reception. What I find most fascinating is Nolan’s “take” on the Joker and how it has affected my view on the character from the comics.

When the initial images of Ledger were released there was an outcry of “foul” from some fans. The main point of concern was the character’s skin tone. Was the Joker going to be “perma-white?” Joker in the comics fell in a vat of acid which bleached his skin white, gave him green hair and red lips, sometimes in the comics it’s also said it affixed him a permanent grin. To see this version played out just recall Batman `89, as its known. Burton’s film simultaneously stayed true and betrayed the comic book Joker by mimicking his origin and telling us exactly who the Joker was before.

While in certain stories the Joker has been given something of a before identity, most notably Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, common consensus tells us that Joker works best when he just “is.” Any explanation gives hope there might be a cure, as Hitchcock said of his reasoning for no cause in “The Birds.” Batman `89 gave us Jack Napier, a hoodlum and psychopath who then becomes the Joker; seemingly all the acid did was agree with his existing fascination with playing cards.

Judging only from trailers and still photographs, Nolan has taken the character in a whole other direction. Gone is the prancing, balloon wielding, acid flower squirting, effeminate clown and instead we have a street level anarchist owing more to early 80’s punk than late 60’s camp. Dovetailing with this interpretation we see a Joker who doesn’t have a white face, he applies it; a concept as anathema as organic webshooters!

And while fan uproar, such as it was, has totally subsided in the wake of phenomenal trailers, the images of Ledger’s Joker resonate, for me, to the character’s core. It may sound odd but I rarely questioned comic book truths. I accepted what they gave me because comic books manufacture their own realities as they go. If it happens in a comic you can’t say that wouldn’t happen in a comic, it just did. For example, Superman’s shorts were always that to me, shorts. The underwear jokes don’t make sense to me, who belts up their underwear?

Joker is white all over because that’s what the acid did to him. But as I looked at The Dark Knight’s Joker I began to realize how silly that was. Acid bleaches your skin, gives you green hair and red lips? That’s just goofy. It was as though a light switch had been flipped and I could truly see what I always thought I had been seeing.

Then I recall all the fan films I’ve seen with the Joker in them, and how they are all so alike; an immaculately white Joker prancing about and laughing constantly. I suppose you can’t blame the fans, they were only aping what they had been reading all their lives. And the comic book Joker has almost always been an immaculately white Joker prancing about and laughing constantly.

That’s why I have no comic book Joker story I hold dear. I’ve always loved the concept of the Joker but rarely liked the execution. There’s only so much more the writers can come up with for Joker to do; he’s been killing and getting away with it for decades now; and the more he kills the more flamboyantly he has to kill. In the debate over who would win, Batman or Joker; many feel Joker has already won.

Now confronted with this “real world” Joker, a man who could truly be any one of us, I finally see the character I thought I had always been seeing. Here is a visceral, dangerous, and relevant figure in contrast to the comic book cliché. Purists will balk, dismissing me as one ever looking for a band wagon to jump aboard. I say comic book fandom was limited by its own understanding, doomed to regurgitate what had come before. It took an Englishman, a Welshman, and an Australian to introduce me to characters I had known all my life.

All this and I haven’t even seen the move yet!

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