“The Clown at Midnight”
Writer: Grant Morrison
Computer-Generated Art: John Van Fleet
Publisher: DC Comics
So, with the latest issue of Batman we are given Grant Morrison’s “re-imagined” Joker. Ultimately, though, this “new Joker” isn’t really all that new. Morrison actually seems to be returning the character to the way he was in the initial stories from 1940 and in the classic stories from the 1970s.
In those earlier stories, The Joker was a cold-blooded, maniacal killer whose face is affixed with a ghastly permanent grin. While it hasn’t been consistently drawn that way in every story in which the character has appeared through the years, we’ve been told in a few stories that The Joker’s facial muscles were paralyzed into permanent grin, which is how both Neal Adams and Marshall Rogers drew the character in the 1970s.
Morrison wants to insist on that aspect of The Joker by emphasizing that the surgery that was needed to repair the gunshot wound to the face left the grin carved upon his face, much like the grin on Gwynplaine in Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs (which was Jerry Robinson’s model for The Joker in 1940).
After reviewing the first three issues of Morrison’s Batman, I was expecting the fifth issue to be the equivalent to the fifth movement of a sonata. I expected the form of Morrison’s five issues as a whole to reveal a theme and variation structure that accommodated the collective content of the five issues in the same way that the sonata form is made up of five movements with a ternary structure of exposition, development, and recapitulation.
To be honest, I have no idea whether Morrison achieved what I thought he was going for. He may very well have developed a sonata in his first five issues on Batman. However, I was too distracted by all the errors in execution that he made in the latest issue to bother with an in-depth analysis of his broader concepts.
Before launching into the problems with Morrison’s script, let me first say that I greatly disliked John Van Fleet’s computer-generated art. I was expecting Andy Kubert’s illustrations rather than something that looks like it was taken from a Batman video game. The computer-generated art adds absolutely nothing to the story, especially since Morrison’s words carry all the visual imagery and makes the accompanying pictures superfluous.
In fact, there are times when Van Fleet’s pictures seem to contradict what Morrison is describing, such as the way Morrison describes The Joker’s “new” physical appearance while Van Fleet’s computer gives us the same basic appearance The Joker has always had.
However, while Morrison’s words do indeed carry all the visual imagery that’s needed, they do it with over-the-top prose that seems amateurish in several places--albeit, from a good amateur writer.
Regardless of Morrison’s intent with the prose style he chose, several of his sentences are just labored messes, such as the story’s opening sentence:
Rain goes clickety-clack-tack through the sticks and branches of bare, bony graveyard elms, the kind that stand as if ashamed, like strippers past their best—danced out to a standstill in the naked lights, all down to nothing but fretwork and scaffolding, jutting hips, nicotine-stained fingers, and summer gone south for winter.
I appreciate the sonant quality of Morrison’s words: the alliteration of “B” sounds, the consonance of “K” sounds, the assonance of “ih” and “ah” sounds, et cetera. I also realize he is creating some provocative images in his descriptive sentences, in this case comparing the appearance of elm trees to aged erotic dancers at work.
However, consider the actual analogy he’s making in this sentence between elm trees and aged, erotic dancers: The elm trees have no leaves and look like over-the-hill erotic dancers who have made their way to the floodlights on stage with nicotine-stained fingers and with their hips jutting out.
Additionally, the aged dancers have stripped down to “fretwork and scaffolding” (are they so skinny that their bones are revealed beneath the skin?) to reveal “summer gone south for winter” (i.e., their breasts are hanging down to their bellies). Okay, so I know what the strippers look like, but I don’t really have any idea how this image is supposed to be applied to the appearance of barren elm trees.
Morrison’s opening sentence (arguably the most important in drawing the reader into the story) is a tangled and tortured mess, and there are dozens of other sentences that are just as bad—such as this one from the second chapter:
Where grimy clouds snag and burst on the vicious needle points of world-famous Deco-Industrial superscrapers on Wall Street and Levi and spill out more, and more, and more of the burning, glamorous downpour Gothamites call rain and know so well.
There is nothing wrong with wordy sentences in prose; James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Jack Kerouac excelled at making wordiness work. However, Morrison’s attempt to convey both that it’s raining and what Gotham City’s architectural landscape looks like is yet another tortured mess:
Clouds that snag and burst? Are they clouds or are they water balloons?
The burning, glamorous downpour? Is it burning because it’s acid rain? If it’s acid rain, then why is it “glamorous”?
That Gothamites call rain? As opposed to what people in Metropolis call a liquid that falls from clouds?
Shawn Hill suggested to me that the “insane, tangled sentences” are part of The Joker’s internal monologue. That idea appealed to me as something that would make sense of the problems in the sentences. However, I didn’t see any indication in the story that the sentences were to be read as coming from The Joker’s mind.
In fact, it becomes evident that the opening sentence is from the point of view of one of The Joker’s former henchmen because the narrative refers to The Joker as “The Boss.” However, only the first chapter can be attributed to the POV of this former henchman, and so it does nothing to explain why the same type of tortured sentences appear in the rest of the story.
I am whole-heartedly in favor or Morrison’s overall concept of sharply defining The Joker as a cold-blooded, maniacal killer whose face is affixed with a ghastly permanent grin, and I’m intrigued by the possibility that Morrison’s first five issues might hold together as a sonata not only in their formal structure but in their content as well.
However, the execution of the concept is poor in that it is full of bad prose and incorrect points of view. A better use of multiple points of view are Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom!, with each getting more experimental (more Postmodern) than the previous novel.
Unfortunately, it appears that Morrison became too caught up in the evocative descriptions he was coming up with. He ended up losing sight of whose POV the descriptions were supposed to be coming from. Overall, this issue was sorely in need an editor to help Morrison work out the narrative kinks in his story.
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