Batman: White Knight by Sean Murphy

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I originally didn’t intend to write a review of Batman: White Knight. The premise is Joker becomes the hero of Gotham, which drives Batman crazy, thus reversing their roles. I felt like it was a nice palette cleanser after reading The Dark Knight Returns (which is inexplicably considered the best comic ever written by many people), but I didn’t have much to say about it other than that.

However, the more I thought about it, the more WK seemed like a direct response to DKR. Maybe I’m reading too much into it simply because I read both of them so close together, but there is at least the similarity of the titles. Also, at the beginning of both DKR and WK, Batman is mourning the loss of the second Robin, Jason Todd. However, while DKR simply lets this particular plot thread drop, WK expands upon it in a compelling way.

The plots of both involve The Joker being declared sane and released from custody. While the Joker in DKR just starts killing people, the Joker in WK has a more interesting plan.

Both comics also present newscasters commenting upon Batman’s actions. In DKR, the anti-Batman newscasters are idiots who ignore evidence and seem to be on the criminals’ side. Also, so much time is spent on the newscasters, DKR is a chore to read. In WK, both the pro- and anti-Batman newscasters make good points and say the sorts of things people in real life would actually say, making for much better social commentary. They also make their points more succinctly and don’t overstay their welcome.

Both comics attempt to make Batman more realistic and again WK does a better job of this, largely because WK’s characters act like real people, while the characters in DKR are more two-dimensional. I’ve heard that DKR is meant to be satire. This would excuse the characters being little more than caricatures, but still, if you’re looking for realism, you’ll find more of it in WK.

The female characters in DKR often fall into the virgin/whore paradigm (the less said about Bruno the better) whereas the women in WK are, you know, people. WK also does a better job including people of color, who are almost entirely absent from DKR. WK does have a “white savior” moment, but it’s called out as such.

DKR presents psychologists as idiots and ridicules the idea of criminal reform and treatment of mental illness, whereas WK depicts the Joker’s mental illness being effectively treated with medication and working with a psychologist, his girlfriend Harley Quinn.

The relationship between Batman and the first Robin, Dick Grayson is strained in both. DKR only tells us the two haven’t talked in years without telling us why. In the sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, it’s revealed that Batman fired Dick for not being good at crime-fighting, which causes Dick to become a villain who Batman then kills. Okay then. WK, as we’ve come to expect, gives us a more realistic portrayal of the tension between the two with both having good points.

(Speaking of The Dark Knight Strikes Again, I noticed many fans of DKR on Goodreads didn’t like the sequel because Batman was too sadistic, it wasn’t fair to Superman, it was sexist, the news segments didn’t add anything, etc. I personally think all these same criticisms could be applied to DKR, so I’m confused why someone would like one but not the other, but that’s neither here nor there.)

WK also does a better job regarding Batman’s relationship with Alfred. In WK, Alfred is a father figure who is very important to Batman, while in DKR, Alfred is treated as a mere footnote.

Both comics have their humorous moments. Humor, is subjective, of course, but I personally preferred the humor of WK. The humor of DKR is achieved by turning people into unrealistic caricatures, whereas the humor of WK feels more organic. I thought it was hilarious when Batgirl accidentally revealed her secret identity and when someone referred to The Penguin as “Happy Feet”. Plus there’s this:

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Both comics present vigilantism as being a problem. In DKR, a group called the Sons of Batman take things too far, terrorizing and violently punishing people for committing minor crimes and even punishing victims who didn’t fight back hard enough. However, the vigilantism of Batman himself is always presented as a good thing. In WK, Batman occasionally takes things too far and gets called out for it. Also, Batman admits to enjoying violence in both. In DKR, this is a good thing, whereas in WK it’s presented as a problem for Batman to overcome.

DKR’s message is that the only way to fight crime is to punch it in the face, whereas WK’s message is that crime can more effectively be reduced through social programs and robust policing.

WK also addresses many questions Batman fans have had for decades. When Batman causes property damage chasing down villains, who pays for it? If Batman really wants to reduce crime, why doesn’t he share his advanced crime-fighting technology with the police? Why don’t Batman’s villains ever join forces against him?

White Knight isn’t perfect, but no comic is. (Why did Clayface’s brain have eyes and a tongue attached? Ick.) Compared to the supposedly “best Batman comic ever written”, however, White Knight is a vast improvement. With realistic characters, humorous moments that are actually funny, social commentary that actually makes you think, and a better overall message, it’s leaps and bounds better than The Dark Knight Returns.

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