Disclaimer: This column is an opinion formed by an author who does not have an omniscient knowledge of comics. It also contains a fair number of spoilers for the titular comic.
Batman: Lovers and Madmen is a collection of Issues #7-12 of Batman Confidential, a series that ran from December 2006 – March 2011. Set in the first few years following Batman: Year One, the Batman Confidential series tackles many of the important moments in Batman’s early career, though many of these new imaginings and reinterpretations are not considered and often directly violate traditional Batman cannon. It is worth nothing that Issues #7-12 were completed and published several years before the New 52 reboot, and thus while this story does clash with some previously established Batman cannon, it is generally subjected to the pre-52 DC universe continuity. Compared to many of the works before it, Lovers and Madmen puts a new spin on one of the most iconic and under-recognized moments in comics– the first meeting of Batman and the Joker and the story of how they fell into their current relationship, forever locked in the downward spiral of a life-and-death tango between order and chaos.
Lovers and Madmen opens with Batman surveying Gotham City, pondering the difference between silence and quiet. Silence, he claims, “has a hum behind it. A nervousness. The fear of making a sound,” while quiet is “absence. It is rest.” He finds himself satisfied that his massive efforts to fight crime are finally paying off. Meanwhile, across the city, the story introduces the reader to a bored career criminal named Jack who is ready to give up on crime and life until an encounter with Batman reinvigorates him and inspires him to start a new crime spree that terrifies the citizens of Gotham. The crimes appear to have little motive and even less of a pattern that Batman can track or predict. Growing more and more frustrated and fearful of this new breed of criminal that he can’t understand, Batman eventually tracks down Jack and hands him over to a gang of criminals and tells them to do what they will. The crooks beat Jack half to death before he finally gets bored and starts to fight back. Batman, seized by his conscience, eventually turns around to rescue Jack. Just as Batman bursts onto the scene, Jack falls into a vat of chemicals. He manages to swing out of the vat into the drainage area, but his time in the chemicals changes him. Jack emerges with pale white skin, bright green hair, and a mind that has finally slipped from slow, simmering insanity into the full trademark Joker madness. At this point, Joker begins a more sadistic, horrific crime spree that has no particular goal except spreading fear, madness, and Joker’s twisted version of fun. The madness culminates in a rooftop scene where Joker tests Batman’s ability to save people by endangering far more than the Bat should be able to save. After Batman has shown his determination to save everybody “because life matters,” Joker tests the Dark Knight’s dedication to that ideal by throwing himself off the roof. Batman very nearly lets him die, but finally forces himself to save the Clown Prince of Crime because he decides that he cannot live with being deliberately responsible for the death of another human. As he pulls the Joker to safety, Batman begins to realize the full weight of the burden he has taken on by saving him, but resolves that because he is largely responsible for the creation of the Joker, he must take on the mad task of keeping him under control. Joker is at last thrown in Arkham Asylum, but Gotham is still shaken by the fear he spread throughout the city. The story closes on Batman keeping uneasy vigilance on the rooftops, not with triumphant satisfaction that the Joker has been caught, but with the grim admission that the city has fallen into silence.
This story is really enjoyable and quite excellent. Despite not being in fully continuity with the rest of the Batman universe, it still captures the spirit of the conflict and relationship between Batman and the Joker, as well as several other key aspects of the Batman mythos. The art style tends to lack hard lines and over-emphasizes shadows and soft lines, giving the story a more gritty and blurred look. This style does help convey the gradual transition from order to madness brought on by both the Joker and the Batman as well as cementing the story’s central themes of blurred lines in morality, sanity, and balance, but it can be distracting and annoying at times. It is very stylistic, sometimes to the benefit of the story and sometimes to its detriment.
There is some nice foreshadowing in the course of the story with references and brief meetings between the main characters and other side characters such as Harleen Quinzel and Dr. Jonathan Crane, who become more important later on in Batman’s timeline but have not currently been swept away by their own inevitable slides into villainy. There’s also a secondary plot about Bruce Wayne trying and ultimately failing to keep his life balanced enough to maintain his crime-fighting persona and a romantic relationship with a woman named Lorna. Ultimately, Bruce decides he cannot be fair to Lorna given the amount of time he feels he must devote to his war on crime. While there are a few poignant moments in their relationship, it often feels like a poorly fleshed out side story with a fair bit of unused potential, which is not unlike the treatment Bruce gives their relationship in the story. It is almost poetic that in giving up his chance at a romantic relationship in his life as Bruce, he has locked himself into a stable, long-term simultaneously antagonistic and somewhat sympathetic relationship with the man who would become his most iconic enemy.
This is largely what makes this story so good in the larger context of the Batman mythos. It is, to an extent, a symbolic representation of Batman’s paradox– the better he gets at crime fighting and the farther his actions reach, the more good he can do and the more of an effect he has on the world. However, his effect does not stop at crime and sometimes his actions spur the creation of a new type of threat to ordinary people. Batman must then rise to the challenge of this new danger, improve himself and his methods, and expand his reach to bring this new enemy under control, thus setting off further events which spark the rise of more dangerous foes and the cycle marches on. Batman constantly has to wrestle with the fact that many of his most dangerous enemies likely would not exist without his interference, but now that they are here, he cannot just walk away in regret or as some noble attempt to prevent the creation of more monsters because doing so would leave innocent people defenseless against the madmen he has inspired. Thus, through his crusade on crime, Batman joins the legions of madmen in Gotham, led by his own unique brand of insanity, fighting a war that can never truly be won against an enemy that will continue to grow as long as he continues to fight. It is the great tragedy and problem of Batman and it is a great reason for any fan of the character to read this story.