Made of Vice
In 1639 an Englishman known to history only as R. Willis writes an account of a morality play that he saw seventy years before. At this time morality plays are widely popular and simply constructed, portraying not flesh and blood characters but Characteristics: Willis and his contemporaries watch spellbound as Mankind, World and Youth wander a stage hindered by Vice, All-For-Money, Riot. This is Christian country—it is clear who wins in the end. But for a short time the audience is allowed to cast off its strict morals. Riot is funny, Vice is captivating. They drag their innocent charges into taverns for drink, brothels for pleasure. The attraction of evil and its comic buffoonery is exploited, allowed.
Around 1584, not long after Willis saw The Cradle of Security, William Shakespeare writes Titus Andronicus. The groundlings love it. Critics deride it. It is too bloody— outrageously so—exhibiting rape, cannibalism and madness. The most excessive violence is coordinated by Aaron the Moor, messenger and clown. He seems simply enamored of chaos, and sports a perverse sense of humor that he tosses about along with ferocious intensity. In the end he is buried alive by his detractors. But living, he is methodical in villainous planning, chaotic in his use of nonsensical force.
Watching The Dark Knight in 2008, the Joker is the focus. In truth he always has been, even in the comic books: Batman relied on force, stealth and the good old one-two, the Joker is an artist, meditatively calculating. Laughing his way through the colored pages, he deploys miniature circuses, exploding footballs, overflowing canals, mist emitting coffee mugs. Just as Aaron discloses his evil plans to the audience, we catch glimpses of the Joker’s clockwork mind ticking in museum basements, and next to tower windows, as he explains his next act.
Motive is irrelevant, madness underlies method, put your head to this gun and flip your coin to see if you live. Introduce a little anarchy.
In the end the Joker isn’t buried. He doesn’t awkwardly disappear in the face of Virtue like Willis’ specters did. In the movie we last see him swinging wonderfully from his feet, hair flying, makeup laughing. The cops are coming to take him in. It seems that the Joker, force of anti-virtue and cold violence, has laughed his last.
But perhaps that’s not what audiences want to see: the Joker’s demise is not what interests us in Batman. Like Aaron and the Vices, who drive their dusty plays, promising relevancy, the Joker is brought back and back again by reader demand. In the history of comic books, he is the first character ever to be un-killed.