Bat-Classics is a regular column in which How To Love Comics recommends Batman stories from yesteryear. You can find all the reading recommendations here.
The Batman/Joker relationship has been explored in depth by so many writers and artists over the years. It is arguably the most iconic contemporary protagonist/antagonist in comics and beyond. Everyone knows about the epic showdowns in classic stories such as Killing Joke or The Dark Knight Returns but I believe J.M. DeMatteis’ and Joe Staton’s Going Sane should be up there as one of the best portrayals of this broken relationship.
According to DeMatteis, the origin of this idea goes back to a Wonder Man mini-series pitch to Marvel in either 1984 or 1985. It detailed Wonder Man being killed by his brother, The Grim Reaper, waking up in a grave and clawing his way out.
Marvel’s Executive Editor at the time, Tom Defalco, rejected the pitch but this general idea of the villain thinking that they have won and conquered their greatest enemy stuck with DeMatteis. He pitched this idea at DC Comics for a Joker/Batman tale in the late 80s. DC editor at the time Len Wein loved this idea. The only problem was The Killing Joke was about to be published and shared some similar elements to DeMatteis’ pitch.
DeMatteis then tweaked the idea to a Hugo Strange story, where he would seemingly kill Batman and take over the cape and cowl. Denny O’Neil, taking over the editorial from Len Wein, rejected this idea as well (the structure of this idea eventually became the classic Spider-man story Kraven’s Last Hunt).
Flash forward to the mid-90s, DeMatteis’ original Batman/Joker story finally comes to fruition. Going Sane was published by DC from 1994-1995 in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #65-68. Close to what DeMatteis envisioned in his original pitch, Going Sane is about the hero having to claw his way back from a metaphorical grave and a villain, convinced that they have won, starting a brand new life as Joseph Kerr.
To some people, even analyzing a character like Joker can be seen as a mistake but I think what matters is how a storyteller decides to flesh out the Joker. It was important in Going Sane that DeMatteis and Staton make it clear that this isn’t a Joker backstory. Instead, this is a new personality born out of Joker and Joseph Kerr’s downfall can be seen as yet another tragic death by the Joker. The reader truly sees Joker through the eyes of the people he is hurting.
DeMatteis pulls us into Joker’s mind on page 1, giving us a glimpse of how fractured the madman’s mind is. The Joker tells himself how the people of Gotham are “pathetic” and congratulates himself on how funny he is. DeMatteis doesn’t ask the reader to empathize with the villain at this moment. He wants to show how narcissistic and delusional the Joker is at the start of the book. Letterer Willie Schubert provides the crooked, broken lettering in the narration captions, giving the impression of someone stabbing a pen to paper, adding uncontrollable anger to every letter.
This is, of course, in contrast to when Joker “snaps” and the tone (as expected) takes a 180. He talks about getting a good night’s sleep and “pounding the pavement” looking for a job in the morning. The lettering straightens up and becomes more traditional. Thus, Joseph Kerr is born (This marks the end of the first issue of the story arc, so if this interests you in any way, I’d suggest reading the book, if you haven’t already).
DeMatteis’ characterization is deeper than one would initially expect from a story about the Joker going straight. We get the impression that the Joker’s personality within Kerr is almost like a demon inside him, waiting to break loose, looking for an excuse to come back to the surface. There are flares almost busting through, but Kerr is disgusted by how it makes him feel.
A great scene where penciler Joe Staton shines is a captivating 12-panel breakdown of Joseph Kerr in the second chapter. Staton does a great job of demonstrating Joseph Kerr’s psyche going through a variety of emotions, not knowing how to deal with the reality that the Joker may be inside him. His eyebrows shift, a smile creeps in and out on his face, the background gets slightly darker with each row and, finally, he starts quietly weeping. Staton shows great restraint not drawing out an exaggerated portrait of Joseph breaking down, but a subtle crumbling. Joker is a cancer-like idea eating at Joseph’s mind and he is doing everything to hold the disease at bay.
Also in the second issue, Joseph Kerr strikes up a romance with a fellow tenant in his new apartment building named Rebecca Brown. At first, the relationship goes well. They both love old movies and music and she gets his style of humor. However, she senses something broken inside of Joseph. In a particularly frightening scene, Joseph argues with Rebecca over who turned on the TV when he flashed back to his days as the Joker and almost hits Rebecca. In subsequent scenes, Joseph doesn’t try to blame it on anything else but does his best to make his remaining days with her as special as possible. Even though Rebecca isn’t someone he physically harmed, the Joker still does some damage by corrupting and taking away the only person Rebecca ever loved.
All while this is happening, Bruce Wayne is slowly recuperating, working his way back into Batman shape after being left for dead by the Joker in this first issue. In a great “less is more” scene that mirrors a similar revelation by Joseph Kerr in issue 2, Batman is shown researching rental patterns for old movies and vintage radio shows where he comes across the name of Joseph Kerr displayed on his computer monitor, slowly piecing together that even Joker’s new identity is just a joke as well. Batman lashes out. He just wishes that Joker could have just stayed hidden.
Later in issue 3, Batman discovers that Joseph Kerr and Rebecca Brown have gone to get married. He sees that Joseph and Rebecca were truly in love, that they were good and decent people, and that Joker disrupted these peaceful lives. The way I see it, Batman doesn’t want to kill the Joker. Deep down, he just wants peace for him, for Joker to just disappear and live a happy life. But time and time again, Joker refuses and the dance between the two adversaries continues.
Going Sane may not be in the upper echelon of seminal Batman stories but if more people take a gander at this Legends of the Dark Knight storyline, they may discover that this story has a lot to offer and possibly quench their thirst for another great Batman/Joker tale they’ve been looking for.
Going Sane was serialized in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #65-68. The trade paperback is out of print, but the single issues can be found affordably at good comic book shops, online stores, eBay, and digitally.