Call it a… (Joker’s Millions)

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Beginning of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09 Volume 4: Childhood’s End.

It’s February 21, 1998. The top song this week is Usher with “Nice & Slow”; Janet Jackson, Savage Garden, and Leanne Rimes also chart. The top movie is still Titanic, with The Wedding Singer, Good Will Hunting, and L.A. Confidential also in the top 10.

In the news, a China Airlines flight crashes into a residential neighborhood in Tayuan, China, killing over 200 people, on the 16th. In slightly less disastrous news, the Winter Olympics end tomorrow.

And, unfortunately, we’ve got this episode. Not that it’s at all a bad episode! It’s just inconveniently timed for me, coming immediately after the very finale-esque “Apokolips… Now!” and thus serving as the opening for this book. Which I normally wouldn’t bring up, except that the episode does it too, forgoing the usual static title card to instead display the title on an oversized computer monitor in the back of the electronics store the Joker and Harley Quinn rob in the opening scene, ever so slightly stretching the edges of what an episode contain in ways we haven’t seen since early Batman Adventures comics, if not all the way back to “Christmas with the Joker.”

Fittingly for an episode that is essentially about the Joker having lost his groove, the opening is a reminder that there was a time when the Joker was the preeminent force of chaos in Batman’s little world, forcing it to contain something wider and weirder, before Harley showed up and proved she was better at that role in every way–funnier, cooler, more honest, and much, much queerer. But instead of recognizing that fact, he just doubles down, using his inherited millions not to free Harley, but to try to recreate his own past glory.
The result is a glorious parody of that key feature of capitalism, affluenza: the ability of the very wealthy to weasel out of consequences for their actions. He buys his way out of the courts, hiring a clear parody of infamous O.J. Simpson attorney Johnny Cochran to (presumably at a very high price) clear his name with obfuscatory arguments. He buys his way into high society of a sort–a penthouse apartment, attendance at the high-end club the suddenly-gone-straight Penguin suddenly has, and the like.

But where he errs is when he tries to buy a replacement Harley Quinn. That’s when it all comes crashing down for him. Typical capitalist, he assumes one artist is as good as another–one clown, one worker of magic, one force of chaos. Because that is what Harley is: an artist. Her medium is crime, but she is at heart a comedian–and unlike the Joker, she’s a good one.

When captured, her temporary replacement claims to have thought she was performing “an Equity gig”–a reference to the union to which most American actors belong. In other words, the Joker tried to replace Harley with another performer; earlier, in the sequence in which he vets candidates, he judges them solely on appearance and physique. He is essentially a TV or film producer casting a role on the assumption that what matters is looking the part, replacing someone who brought genuine talent and craft to the role with whoever “looks right.” He is, as capitalism does, treating the assembly line as the archetypal form of human labor, a machine in which human beings are just another cog. It is an approach that simply doesn’t work for artistic endeavors, but wealthy capitalists have no other way of understanding labor, and so they persist in taking that same approach–hence, for example, the endless proliferation of remakes and adaptations in film and television. Of course, adaptation and remaking have always been a key part of art: painters traditionally learned by copying the masters, composers re-orchestrate and do variations on one another’s themes, storytellers present their versions of traditional tales, and so on. But artistic repetition of this kind has two points: to understand what it was that made the original special, and to place the new artist’s own imprimatur on it, so that the “remake” is special in its own right. As far as the entertainment industry is concerned, however, the goal is to seek out the magic formula that turns money spent on a product into more money spent by consumers, which is to say that the remakes and adaptations we see in film in television are inevitably formulaic and therefore boring, as opposed to new art building off the old.

This episode works as an example of the difference, being an adaptation of a 1952 Detective Comics story written by David Vern. However, as Harley Quinn didn’t exist until Dini, Timm, and Sorkin invented her for Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, everything related to her–which is almost everything that makes the episode interesting–is original to this episode. It is Harley who upstages the Joker, Harley whom he realizes he needs, and, ultimately, Harley that brings the Joker down. Despite her escape from prison being played for laughs, she is the one who ultimately gets to punish him, when she turns out to be the “policewoman” waiting for him in the car.

Here we have the inversion of Maggie Sawyer and Dan Turpin. As I discussed at the end of the previous volume, for all that they represent an Other allowed into the circles of normalcy, their role as cops makes them enforcers of that same normalcy, which is to say supporters of the very power structures that divide people into “normal” and Other. Harley is the opposite: she is playing the role of cop as a role, abusing a prisoner not as a cog in the brutal machine of criminal “justice,” but as an expression of her personal feelings over her abuse at the hands of the Joker. In doing so she proves she is once again the Harlequin, the one who laughs at structure, the one who waves her magic batte and brings chaos into the boring, oppressive, orderly, normal world. She twists and parodies them as  a Jewish lesbian criminal cop, engaging in a crime, and in the process acting exactly as cops normally do: by engaging in violence against someone who violated society’s norms.

In so doing, she reveals the hypocrisy and self-contradiction of a system that turns yesterday’s Other into today’s enforcer of violence against the Other–to be Jewish, to be lesbian, were both once criminal, both things which got you beaten by cops. The same contradiction Harley deliberately performs is the one Sawyer and Turpin embody, the essential contradiction of a society that judges on the basis of what’s “not normal” instead of what’s harmful.

Which is to say that Harley herself knows her apocalypse was inadequate. That isn’t a police baton she taps menacingly into her hand, much as it may look like one; that is her magic batte. It’s time for round two. It will take nearly a year, but it’s time for scared little Bruce Wayne, Age 8 to step aside and allow for the possibility of growth and change. It’s time for childhood to end, and the apocalypse of adolescence to begin.

It’s time for Batman to go to high school.


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