You’re traveling through another dimension - a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. Gotham City is about to experience the most shocking event in its history. The Joker…has gone sane. Gone is the Clown Prince of Crime and now we have Jack Napier, a man looking to bring true change to the city. He has the disenfranchised supporting him and Batman has been thrown into Archambault Asylum. But when a villain of Napier’s own making threatens everything, the two enemies must team up. You’ve just crossed over…into the Murphyverse.
In all seriousness, this is one of my favorite Batman stories. Hell, it might just be my favorite Batman story full stop. It brings in the right kind of real-world analysis while holding onto the elements we love about reading a comic. It respects the mythos and shows love for the world and characters while making it feel new with how it approaches the mythology. I think the best way to go through this is to analyze the 3 main characters.
Let’s start with Bruce Wayne AKA Batman. We’ve seen several stories where Bruce’s actions are affected by his emotional state. This story takes the natural next step more than most of those stories and really makes you feel how bad it feels when he makes the wrong choice or makes a mistake in judgment. Right from the beginning, the story makes it clear he is acting more reckless than usual, then shows us that’s because he is about to lose Alfred. This is on top of the years-long mystery of what exactly happened to his very first sidekick, Jason Todd. This story has shown us multiple examples of just how close he gets to crossing some sort of line but someone pulls him back. Whether it’s Gordon, Batgirl, or even Harley, this is a story that focuses on the importance of others in Batman’s life.
This is why I would argue that Batman isn’t the protagonist in this comic. Sure, he plays a crucial role. But this is a comic that looks at how the legacy of Batman has affected those closest to him and Gotham on a larger scale. He has made choices that had unavoidable consequences. I would classify him as an antagonist to a certain degree. But at the end of the day, there is love for him and what Batman stands for. For example, it is at first believed that the Batman Devastation Fund is paid for by the taxpayers, but it is then discovered it is replenished by companies owned by Bruce Wayne. This book is trying to show that Bruce is indeed trying to do good for the people of Gotham. It’s just that he has a compulsion to handle it himself in his way. Allowing Batman to operate has been a band-aid solution - for both Bruce and Gotham. In order for real healing to begin, both need to recognize their larger issues and find new ways to approach them.
Now the real protagonist is Joker…or more accurately Jack Napier. That’s right, Joker gets a real backstory and origin in this universe. Originally a farm kid, he left the countryside to head to the big city. Despite being around more people than ever and being surrounded by so much, Jack Napier felt more alone than ever. He was desperate to connect with anyone, and soon his eyes fell on Batman. The below images are splash pages, the left being a dream Napier has after supposedly being cured and the right is his surroundings when he wakes up. The dream uses images tied to clearly critical parts of his life that relate to the creation of the Joker as well as the trauma he no doubt experienced. And waking up from the dream is a clear confirmation that Batman was the one person he thought he had a connection with. There is even a moment where Napier briefly explains how he created the Joker and why he is obsessed with the Dark Knight. All of this shows us that this version of the character is actually very similar to how is portrayed in the main universe as well as how we view him from a meta perspective.
The initial response from Gotham about Joker being supposedly cured is what you expect. A lot of disbelief but Napier keeps showing through his words and actions that he is very different from the supercriminal they are familiar with. It starts with him speaking in court, his full speech is seen below.
Then he goes on to try and build a library in a deliberately ignored part of the city, Backport. From there he reveals that Gotham has a secret fund specifically created to deal with the fallout of Batman’s actions that the citizens are unknowingly paying for. And then he goes on to run for City Council, with a surprising amount of support. We even see the media of this world arguing about Napier and what he is doing, similar to how it was done in The Dark Knight Returns. But while TDKR was clearly one-sided when it did it, there is an actual debate being shown and both sides do make valid points.
We also get insight into how narrow Batman’s perspective has been. He is disgusted when he learns how people with similar wealth have profited off of his actions. But while people were shocked to learn about the secret Batman Devastation Fund, he barely acknowledged it, simply saying he assumed it existed already. We eventually learn his businesses have actually been footing the bill for this fund. However, this is still a big sign that Batman is seemingly unable to rethink what is best for the city, preferring to do things the way he has always operated. Napier shows us that Gotham is at an internal standstill, unable to actually grow. And Batman has so far done nothing to actually help the people.
While similar realistic approaches to Batman have criticized the vigilante’s actions, this comic goes further and offers an alternative solution. The creation of a task force using the Batman Devastation Fund to give cops gear and equipment on par with Batman. A way to actually stop the super criminals of Gotham and hold them as opposed to waiting for them to break out and keep the cycle going.
Everything regarding Napier’s approach to reforming his life and giving back to Gotham touches on issues that directly connect to our own world. These are actual first steps in helping Gotham and all of the city’s citizens, not just fighting criminals while unknowingly keeping the financial elite in power. This is the comic that arguably has the most political/social/economic commentary in years. But the main thing to remember is that none of this is about simply criticizing the world of Gotham and Batman. It’s all about finding ways to make it better. Doing it out of a place of caring. This now brings us to our final main character.
Harley Quinn is probably given a unique interpretation. This character is actually split up into 2 people. But let’s start with the proper Harley, the real White Knight. There is no doubt that Napier and Batman wanted to help Gotham. However, it was also clear that each one wanted to do it their way partly to prove the other wrong - a twisted competition that still got others caught in the middle. But in the end, when it was revealed that Harley set everything into motion, we see her as the character she should be viewed as in every continuity. Don’t get me wrong, I love Harley Quinn. It’s just that in this universe, all of her skills are utilized. The main DC universe will sometimes have Harley mention she was a trained psychologist or do a quick mental breakdown of a person as a joke. More often than not she is used as the chaotic wild card with good intentions. Sean Murphy reminds us that those skills she learned weren’t wasted. She knew how to get Joker/Napier and Batman to act in a way that will eventually create a better system moving forward. It still had risks and a few things happened she didn’t completely plan for. But Harley Quinn did everything because she loves Gotha, loves Napier, and even loves Batman. And that is where all change should come from, a place of love.
Now let’s take a look at the second Harley, real name Marian Drews. She started off years ago as a depressed and suicidal woman working at a bank where the Joker appeared one day. He had her carry the money and suddenly started referring to her as Harley. She went along hoping it would mean she would survive, only to end up back at his hideout. And when she was there, Joker actually took care of her. He didn’t hurt her or force himself on her. He even wrapped up her arms where she had cut herself. You can check out the panels below to see her thoughts on the moment and how she viewed Joker.
Her character is important to not only understand how she relates to the other people in the comic but also some of the more prominent themes of the story. This comic talks a fair bit regarding how to approach crime, how corrupt institutions can actually be, and the difference between reacting to a problem versus actually solving it. But one huge theme I think all these other ideas fall under is the importance of community. If Batman were truly alone, he would have crossed moral lines long ago and become what he fights against. Harley could have left Joker/Napier forever, but she would have deserted someone she truly cared for and betrayed her own ethics. Napier turned to crime because he felt isolated and was trying to form a connection with the Dark Knight the only way he knew how. And even though the Joker persona started off as an actor, he lost himself in it and became trapped within his own mind.
This comic repeatedly shows us that the group and our connections to others are vital. Individuals like Batman may be a symbol of inspiration, but it can often come at the expense of endangering others. We need connections to grow and change. Marian’s relationship with Joker was unhealthy and toxic. But she fought hard to reclaim that, going so far as becoming the Neo Joker, because it was the best thing in her life. And without it, she cannot find a way to move forward despite the option being presented.
This is a comic that recontextualizes the Batman mythos while showing love for the history of these characters. It’s a story about being self-aware and properly healing from trauma, about connecting with each other. I look forward to revisiting this world and will share my thoughts on Curse of the White Knight & Beyond The White Knight in the near future.
EPILOGUE - VON FREEZE
This is only a one-shot and is technically included in the trade for Curse of the White Knight. But considering how integrated Freeze was in the original Sean Murphy story, I’ll just give my quick thoughts here. Having Freeze’s backstory connected to World War 2 was an interesting way in enhancing the character’s sense of tragedy. While other modern versions of Freeze’s backstory usually keep it vague, this was a great way to add detail and show how nuanced he can be. I would love to see some version of this used to help bring a new live-action version of Freeze to the big screen. (And while the below picture isn’t from the one-shot, it is still from the original Sean Murphy book.)