Queer-Coding, Bad-Bat-Takes, And Why The Joker Isn’t That Important to Batman

Content Warning for stereotypes built from homophobia and transmisogyny that are present in the Joker’s portrayal across the years.


“In some ways, the Joker is a dark reflection of who Batman is. The loss of Bruce Wayne’s parents could’ve driven him to that edge, to where he could’ve become the Joker himself. But instead, he fought against that. Batman’s trying to bring order to the world. The Joker’s trying to bring chaos to the world.”

—–Dan Didio, Superheroes Decoded, Part One: “American Legends”

If the word “camp” is applied at all to the eighties Batman, it is a label for the Joker. This sly displacement is the cleverest method yet devised of preserving Bat-heterosexuality. The play that the texts regularly make with the concept of Batman and the Joker as mirror images now takes a new twist. The Joker is Batman’s “bad twin,” and part of that badness is, increasingly, an implied homosexuality.

—–Andy Medhurst, “Batman, Deviance, and Camp”

Despite what many comic book writers, editors, and some comic historians currently, the idea that the Joker serves as Batman’s darker “other half” is one that hinges on incredibly modern interpretations on the character that go hand in hand with ham-fisted attempts to squash them into these roles.

It’s also, not very accurate.

Didio’s comments in the first half of Superheroes Decoded are, at this point, the party line. They’re part of this attempt to reframe the Joker as necessary to the Batman’s mythos to the point where neither character can survive without the other, framing them as codependent and lost without one another. While I can see some validity in that statement where the Joker is concerned, I don’t see the point in making heroes that can’t exist without that one villain to torment them.

I especially don’t see the point in making Batman one of those heroes.

Perhaps, if his vendetta around crime was centered around the Joker from the start of the Golden Age, I could see that argument and react with something other than mild disgust. If Batman’s whole thing was a perpetual game of cat-and-mouse with the Joker instead of being him simply being passionate about stopping all violent crime in Gotham, I could maybe squint and see where these folks are coming from.

But that’s not what this is.

Comments like Didio’s and storylines like Synder and Capullo’s Death of the Family just turn up to make the Joker more relevant to Batman and the Batman family without actually giving him a personality, a meaningful backstory, or any actual relation to Batman.

You see how Didio says that the loss of Bruce’s parents could’ve driven him to become the Joker instead of Batman?

That’s a new and wrong notion that’s probably hardly more than thirty years old at the most and it’s unsupported by other characters that DC introduced around or after the idea that the Joker was Batman’s true other half or mirror image started flying around.

Despite the fact that DC has created several villains and anti-heroes that stand out as really good foils for Batman’s single-minded mission against crime and have evolved to be commentary on his privilege and morality, the company is still so invested in doing the equivalent of smooshing the Joker and Batman’s faces together – only with a hefty dose of “no homo” thrown in too.

I mean, how are you gonna look at Hush and say that the Joker is what Bruce would’ve become.

stitch computer512

I hate Hush/Tommy Elliot. Hate him.

He’s still one of the best “What If” figures when it comes to theorizing what Bruce could’ve become in a world where he didn’t (have to) handle his parents dying or if he’d been a little more twisted growing up.

In Superman/Batman #17, as a result of Batman shooting the man who’d kill his parents, an alternate form of Bruce Wayne grows up in the lap of luxury, not unlike his best friend in this universe: Tommy Elliot.

What about Slade Wilson? His whole thing is a twisted code of honor and flexible morals that is diametrically opposed to Bruce Wayne’s everything.

And, of course, there’s no way to forget about Harvey Dent, whose updates in the 80s and 90s made him one of Bruce Wayne’s oldest friends prior to his transformation in to Two-Face? His turn away from justice in the wake of his scarring and mental break is immediately opposite Bruce’s turn to the fight for the just and good following his own trauma.

And those are just the characters I can think of off the top of my head.

The thing is, that I get it.

The comics industry loves villains that appear to be moral Mirrorverse images of their biggest and best heroes. It makes sense with many other hero-villain set ups (like Superman and Lex Luthor, Hal Jordan and Sinestro), and can be used to set up dynamic and intricate plot points that are just part of the tense relations between the characters who seem to be direct opposites of one another.

The difference between the aforementioned hero-villain relationships is that these heroes and villains aren’t set up to owe their existence to their foes in the same way that comic pros and fans insist the Joker and Batman owe one another.

Even with some serious retconning and rewriting on the part of DC’s many writers over my lifetime, it’s a theory that still doesn’t work for the Joker and Batman because they don’t need each other.

While Batman is absolutely integral to the Joker’s story – in fact, he’s frequently held responsible for the Joker’s physical appearance change and slide into chaotic crime – the opposite is not true.

If there was no Batman, if Bruce Wayne’s parents hadn’t died or if Bruce had gotten some effective therapy and coping mechanisms, there wouldn’t be a Joker because the inciting incident couldn’t have happened or wouldn’t happened differently.

Meanwhile, if the Joker didn’t exist, the only thing about Batman’s Mission that would definitely change would be the fact that Jason Todd wouldn’t have been killed and Barbara Gordon wouldn’t have been shot.

Batman is an integral part of the Joker’s origin story (such as it is) and is the main drive or focus behind many of the character’s massive criminal plots, but the opposite isn’t true. Sure, the Joker shows up in many of Batman’s most iconic arcs, but on a day to day level? He’s not that important to Bruce Wayne actually being Batman and anyone trying to inflate the significance of that relationship is well… grasping at something that isn’t quite there.

Another problem with declaring Batman and the Joker mirror images of one another or using the Joker as an example of “how bad Bruce could’ve become”?

The homophobia that tags along for the ride.

batman-deathofthefamily3.jpgSomething that stood out at me as I was working on my thesis (which, conveniently, happened to be about queercoding the Joker via stereotypes about queer men) was how much of the Joker’s historical queercoding in these supposedly iconic stories relies on his interest in Batman and how it’s rebuffed.

The opposite, Batman’s own queercoding, doesn’t hinge on his relationship with the Joker. (Actually, it’s historically been his relationship with his ward-turned-adopted son Dick Grayson, but that’s a post for another day – or lifetime.)

I think that imbalance when it comes to understanding queercoding in the characters’ development serves a pretty good example of how many people in the industry and with a brief understanding of how the Batman comics have worked over the decades kind of just… assume the Joker is more important – to the comics industry, to Batman — than he actually is.

One of the books I looked at while writing my thesis was Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman: Death of the Family.

On one page in the graphic novel, Batman goes through this entire monologue about his relationship with the Joker and the potential (but kind of expected) outcome to their clashes. On what’s roughly page 48 of the book, in a series of narration boxes, Batman says that:

And the reservoir was the site of your first fight with Joker. Your first real battle with him. It was where you first saw him, really saw him, for who he was. Where you understood what you were facing in him. And it was where he saw you back.

It’s important to mention, that Scott Snyder appears to be one of those creators that seem to think that the Joker and Batman’s relationship is symbiotic and goes both ways.

Thing is, while the Joker is definitely surviving to some extent off of the reactions he draws from Batman, Batman can (and should be allowed to) survive without him. Snyder and Capullo’s Death of the Family is honestly a major return to the idea that the Joker is the supervillain equivalent of the boy on the playground bullying someone he has a crush on.

Why does the Joker hurt the people that Batman cares about in some capacity?

Why is the whole point of his plot to permanently separate Batman from his allies and family?

It’s because, as we saw in The Batman Adventures: Mad Love, creators have given the Joker a strong sense of jealously of anyone that takes Batman’s attention away from him. They basically turn the Joker into a spurned and abusive partner[1] who will do whatever it takes to make sure that Batman’s focus falls on him.

This view is supported by comments like the ones made by Batman and Robin creator Peter J. Tomasi who, in the documentary Necessary Evil, describes the center conflict of Death of the Family as follows:

The Joker feels that the family that Batman has built around him all these years … is dragging him down. He says, “These people are draining your soul. These other members of the Bat family, they’re sucking the life out of you. I’m your friend. I wanna make you be the best that you can be, … so that we can both have a relationship that we could enjoy for so many years, …without these knuckleheads on the side constantly draining you. And so I’m gonna take care of them for you. And I’m going to wipe out all these family members, … so you can be free of their encumbrance.”

In my thesis, I talked on end about the point of view that informs storylines like Death of the Family and characterization for the Joker that falls in line with Grant Morrison and Frank Miller’s frankly homophobic portrayals. Y’all don’t have access to my thesis, so I’m going to rehash that here for your reading pleasure.

What makes the idea of the Joker as Batman’s Mirrorverse twin so problematic and actively harmful, is how it ties into homophobia and homophobic beliefs about queer men. If the Joker is Batman’s Mirrorverse twin, if he represents all of the things that Batman is diametrically opposed to because of how wrong they are supposed to be…

What does it say about Batman as a character or over three decades of Batman creators deciding that the Joker is going to be unsubtly queered in many of the character’s biggest stories?

That the Joker is frequently queercoded is a fact of comics history[2].

In older stories such as The Dark Knight and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, the Joker is explicitly loaded with things to signify his queerness to the reader and they’re not hard to spot. (These queer stereotypes being used as signifiers primarily utilize transmisogynistic and anti-femme imagery, by the way.)

In Arkham Asylum, where the Joker not only appears dressed in lingerie that wouldn’t be out of place in a Victoria’s Secret catalog, but grabs Batman’s ass, Morrison’s own script describes the interaction via scary queer stereotypes.

morrison script.jpg

The image above, a screenshot of Morrison’s original script, reads as follows:

Suddenly, aggressively sexual, the Joker swings his arm down to squeeze Batman’s buttocks. Batman jumps as though bitten by a poisonous snake. He is profoundly shocked. (The Joker’s effeminate actions are thus seen to be quite deliberate. He knows exactly how to rattle Batman, who, as I’ve mentioned, has serious problems in the whole area of normal human relationships. This one act has expertly broken right through all of Batman’s carefully constructed defenses. The Joker has not only invaded Batman’s precious personal space but he has done so in an overt and threateningly sexual manner. He has precisely discovered how to make Batman most uncomfortable, most intimidated. As a result, Batman is temporarily losing all his dignity.)

JOKER: LOOSEN UP, TIGHT ASS!

Batman turns, pointing. His face is distorted by undiluted rage, hatred and shock.

BATMAN: TAKE YOUR FILTHY HANDS OFF ME!

Here’s what the page looks like.

Morrison’s description of the Joker as a sex pest, the Joker purposefully sexually harassing Batman, and Batman’s violent reaction are a seriously homophobic triangle of terrible.

In The Dark Knight, the Joker is seen wearing lipstick and calling people (most importantly, an aged Batman) “darling” which isn’t a terrible thing alone until you think of the wider context of queer (mis)representation in the Eighties, and Frank Miller’s own comments about the character (in addition to the way he later wrote an obsessive Robin that became a Joker and became a similar kind of “queer monster”).

In “Batman and the Twilight of the Idols: An Interview with Frank Miller”, the author in question sits down with Christopher Sharrett and, despite calling the Joker an antithesis of Batman, still refers to him in a way that makes it clear that he and Didio would be on the same page there. That interview is also where Miller calls the Joker “a homophobic nightmare” and says that, “To Batman, who’s not asexual but really the essence of sublimation, this character represents every single thing he despises.”

The Joker in The Dark Night is a gay villain. Miller says as much in this interview.

And that’s the thing that sticks with me: if he represents everything Batman despises, we’re supposed to infer that that means he despises the Joker’s queerness as well.

Even children’s animation doesn’t let go of this portrayal of the Joker considering how in the 2017 Lego Batman film, Batman constantly rejects the Joker’s comments that they’re nemeses – comments that are framed via the language of love and frequently backed up with romantic music. Batman is, for much of the film, disgusted and annoyed by the attention that the Joker gives him, but later, actually reciprocates to some extent[3].

When I proposed my thesis topic to the head of my department’s graduate studies, one of the things I wanted to explore can be expressed in a single sentence: The Joker is never seen as more terrifying a figure to Batman and his readers than when he is visibly and aggressively queer.

The Joker, in many of the stories that his own fans see as iconic, is stuffed into the place of a “queer threat”. This queer threat isn’t just directed at Batman, but at the readers who fear that one day Batman won’t beat the Joker’s ass the way they want him to. That Batman, a Gary Sue if there ever was one on top of being a paragon of hypermasculine heterosexuality, will engage in behavior they can’t accept and don’t see as appropriate in their favorite bat-themed self-insert.

The idea that the Joker is Batman’s “bad twin” and the insistence on linking the two characters as mirror images can be traced back to the late Eighties. These two things can’t seem to exist separate from one another, and they come along with an implied and under-explored (or called out) homophobia.

On top of being harmful, comments like Didio’s and Tomasi’s alongside Morrison, Miller, and Snyder’s respective works put forward views of both Batman and the Joker’s role in DC’s main universe as well as in each other’s fictional lives that are just plain incorrect.


[1] A better term was not forthcoming despite attempts.

[2] Whether it is intentional in recent works… that’s a little more difficult to guess at.

[3] The Lego Batman film is one of the few pieces of Batman-related media where the queercoding of the Joker and the relationship between Batman and the Joker doesn’t actually end with the Joker being permanently rebuffed. It also has the symbiotic relationship that I loathe and don’t think is present in the actual characters’ relationship.

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About Zina

Zina writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories and complaining about stuff. One day, she'll settle down and write that novel.
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2 Responses to Queer-Coding, Bad-Bat-Takes, And Why The Joker Isn’t That Important to Batman

  1. Lyana says:

    I love that this site sees I read this and recommends a post titled “How Batman Proves God Exists.”

    Like

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