So, the Joker’s been through a lot. Sometimes he’s a raving lunatic, sometimes he’s a buffoonish clown, sometimes a criminal mastermind. If you saw Dark Knight, you saw the Joker at his almost darkest (more on the almost in a minute): as a nihilist, committed to nothing but chaos, suffering and destruction; not a buffoon at all, but rather something of a genius. Well, do you want to see an even more disturbing Joker? Don’t say yes too quickly. Batman: Lovers & Madmen (by Green and Cowan) is a new take on how the Joker got the way he is, and the idea is that you don’t get as nuts as he turns out without starting off pretty freaking loopy to begin with. Before he goes all white-faced and green-haired, he’s a hitman so good at his job that there’s nothing left for him to accomplish. He’s given up on everything, just doesn’t care anymore. He’s taking ridiculous chances: rushing scores of policemen, taking on jobs that seem impossible to accomplish. With no figurative mountains left to climb, he’s just looking for a way to die . . . until he sees the Batman. Here’s a guy who’s his exact opposite in the most important way: he cares. So this hitman, he’s terrifying, but he’s also a genius and he starts giving Batman such a hard time, the hero doesn’t know what to do (remember, this is early on in Batman’s career, when he knew what he needed to do, but wasn’t completely solid on the method). So, slowly but surely, the Joker begins to make the hero compromise himself, until Batman takes a step I assure you you’ve never seen him take in any other Batman story ever. In the end, of course, the Joker winds up with a pale complexion and a permanent smile and Batman ends up with his most dangerous arch-enemy. But how they get there is downright nasty at times, and even the edgy art makes everything feel shaky and uncertain, and the journey turns both characters into something they never wanted to be.
So if that’s not enough psychological probing for you, check out the considerably more upbeat Superman on the Couch (by Fingeroth). This book applies psycho-therapeutic method to super-heroes, looking for insights into why, for instance, Spider-man has had so much tragedy in his life and yet remains such a happy guy; or what’s at the heart of Batman’s vengeance obsession; or how teams like the X-men serve as surrogate families to their members. In between and alongside all of this is what super-heroes mean to us as a culture. What needs in the readers’ minds does it serve to have so many heroes who are orphans? Why do we take satisfaction from the rage and bloodlust of characters like the Hulk and Wolverine? And why, for that matter, do we even need heroes at all?
There’s more to super-heroes than costumes and punching. But you already knew that, I’m sure. What’s continues to be so surprising (and maybe I’m speaking for myself here . . . but maybe not) is how much super-heroes manage to tell us about ourselves.