Lovers of Madmen
It’s practically comic book legend that nobody really knows where Batman’s arch nemesis, the Joker, comes from. Even the origin story that many consider to be definitive, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, has its own get-out clause. An entire story about how the Clown Prince of Crime came to be, and then the Joker himself remarks “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another…”.
Back to square one.
The Agent of Chaos
Despite numerous marketing attempts designed to persuade us that one back story or another is in fact the true origin of the Joker, many DC fans believe that the real genius of the character is that nobody, not even the Joker himself, knows what the truth is.
This of course gives Batman fans a rare opportunity in the canon-heavy world of comic books. We get to decide what is canon or not. We get to decide what we believe is true.
For me, the best origin of the Joker is told to us during Lovers and Madmen.
The Man Who Laughs
Lovers and Madmen is an unusual take on the origins of the Joker, first told by author Michael Greene during the Batman Confidential series in 2008. Like many Joker origin stories, we find ourselves at the beginning of Batman’s career – however, almost a year after Bruce Wayne has donned the cowl, crime in Gotham City is at an all time low.
Jack, a career criminal, sits in a bar lamenting that he is so good at his job the thrill of breaking the law has left him. As a result of his boredom, Jack has taken to committing more dangerous crimes than ever before just to feel something.
Gotham City Crime Wave
Across the years, the reasons why the Joker has been so infatuated with Batman has varied – from a twisted from of love to simple, petty revenge. But Lovers and Madmen expands upon a once underused element: Batman excites the Joker.
During his latest bank robbery, Jack deliberately sets off the security alarm to raise the stakes. Instead of the police, Batman arrives. This creates enough of a buzz that after escaping, Jack leaves Batman a note thanking him for making crime fun again. His need to be tested by the Batman drives the Joker into committing more atrocious crimes for Bruce Wayne to solve.
As the Worlds Greatest Detective, Batman is the only person who can provide a challenge to the him – and it’s addictive.
The Clown Prince of Crime
Lovers and Madmen makes Batman’s frustrations at being unable to foil the Jokers crimes very clear. The theme of Batman having to let go of his idea of preconceived logic about criminals plays heavily during his hunt for the Joker.
Everything Batman has trained for, everything he believes about criminals and their motives is suddenly useless against the sheer madness of the Joker. And that’s before he’s been anywhere near a vat of chemicals…
Batman simply not understanding the Joker yet is an interesting take on why Batman often finds himself one step behind the Agent of Chaos. Although not entirely original, Lovers and Madmen plays with the idea that the Joker might just win because Bruce Wayne isn’t good enough as Batman to stop him.
In on the joke…
Lovers and Madmen is such a classic because it knows exactly how to pay homage to the Joker stories everybody knows and loves, whilst also managing to add its own interpretation to them. The result is a story that we feel we’ve read a thousand times, but with new information to discover.
As is canon, the Joker and Batman find themselves at the ACE Chemical Plant. As is canon, the Joker finds himself plunged into the vats of chemicals below. What really makes the Lovers and Madmen interpretation so memorable is that Lovers and Madmen finally answers the question of what was in the vats below: anti-psychotics. The fact that a person can be driven to criminal insanity by a substance designed to help the mentally unstable is both a laughably obvious and shockingly effective.
Whatever you say, Mistah J!
Other, less effective, continuity changes include an alternative take on how the Joker met his future partner in crime, Harley Quinn. The reason I say “less effective” is because while it’s fair game to reinterpret the Jokers deliberately vague history, to attempt to ret-con the accepted origins of Harley Quinn seems vain and unnecessary. This isn’t helped by the fact that the ‘Joker-and-Harley-sharing-life-advice’ feels out of slightly character for both. It’s all a little too convenient to actually be effective.
A Winning Smile
Lovers and Madmen therefore is a tricky one to rate – it’s a new interpretation of a classic story that unfortunately has to rely too heavily on its source material for both substance and meaning. But in doing so, Lovers and Madmen is able to add a new level of detail that we hadn’t considered before. It’s like looking at an optical illusion – once you’ve seen it both ways, you can only see all of the possibilities.
And to paraphrase Alan Moore – if the Joker has to have a past, I’d prefer it to be multiple choice.