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Week of Cool Superman Comic Book Moments – Superman Takes On Batman’s Pain

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All week long we will feature brand-new Cool Superman Comic Book Moments (all from the 75 Greatest Superman Stories of All-Time). Here is an archive of all the past cool comic moments that I’ve featured so far.

We open the list with Superman making a grand sacrifice for Batman during the Emperor Joker storyline.

Emperor Joker was about the Joker gaining the powers of Mr. Mxyzptlk and, well, going nuts with it. In the conclusion to the story in Action Comics #770 (by Joe Kelly, Kano and Mario Alquiza), Superman discovers what Joker had been doing with Batman the whole time…

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Pretty messed up stuff.

Superman seriously considers killing the Joker but instead, he finds Mr. Mxyzptlk and learns that Mxy can recover his power from the Joker, but Superman has to first cause Joker to have a lapse in concentration long enough for Mxy to nab the power back. Superman does so by explaining to Joker that while Joker BELIEVES he is the most powerful being in the universe, he is wrong, since he defines himself in relation to Batman. Therefore, BATMAN is the most powerful being in the universe, because no matter what Joker tries to do, he just can’t kill or erase Batman from existence. This realization disorients him long enough for Mxy to sweep in and take his power back. Mxy and the Spectre then repair all the damage Joker did to the world. Everyone will remember Emperor Joker as just one really messed up dream.

The problem is that for some, that dream is SO messed up that it will permanently scar them…

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What a pal Superman is!

23 Comments

Is that what happened? I was left with the impression that Batman’s memories were dumped in the Joker, since the final scene was of the Joker babbling (more than usual) in his Arkham cell. I guess Superman taking the pain makes more sense, but I didn’t feel any clues from that in the pages that followed.

I was torn on the whole “Batman can’t handle it” thing. On the one hand…no, he probably couldn’t. Nobody could. On the other hand, the late 90s was the era of “Batman can take anything.” I remember in the “DC Two Thousand” two parter, the JLA is being held hostage by the Spectre, and Batman helps them escape by *thinking* some of his pained thoughts at the Spectre. In other words, whatever pain Batman carries is so great, it was enough to get the Spectre’s attention.

So…tough call as to whether this was good Batman writing or not.

Oh, and I just caught your last line. This *did* come up again, if I’m remembering right, during the Action Comics tie-in to “Joker’s Last Laugh.” Superman comes clean to Batman about what he did. Batman’s pretty upset about it, but lets it drop by the end of the issue.

I didnt really like this story, but I can’t articulate why. Usually whenever I dislike something I can always fully explain why I did or didn’t but with this book it just left me cold. The only thing I really liked about it was that it was a welcome break from the “infallible Batgod” trend. It was very humanizing to see Batman broken. What kind of bothered me I think was how even at such dire levels Superman still seems so resolute against killing. A totally psychopathic serial killer has godlike powers and he’s more horrified at the idea of killing him than anything else? There seems to be a point where the DC heroes’ aversion to bloodshed graduated from admirable moral code to dysfunctional, almost obsessive, pathology in its own right, and this story is a perfect example of it leaning toward the latter.

Adam, I think it’s more that the JLA story was bad writing. That’s the exact type of ridiculous Batman powering up that I hate. The Spectre is a cosmic entity, the wrath of God. Humans should not be able to even contemplate a fraction of what God or something godlike can. That the wrath of God can’t contemplate Batman’s pain is just dumb IMO. At the end of the day, what is Batman’s pain? Losing parents young and seeing the work of serial killers? I’m sure the earthy and otherworldly genocides along with the literal seeing of evil men’s souls that the wrath of God must experience over a far longer time period has to top that.

I feel that’s another bad aspect of the Batgod era. It’s made it so that the average Batman fan is now someone who thinks Batman characterization is now only good if Batman is perfect, psychologically infallible, and all powerful. In his own way, on a psychological level, Batman became mentally what planet-juggling Silver Age Superman became physically.

Oh, and I just caught your last line. This *did* come up again, if I’m remembering right, during the Action Comics tie-in to “Joker’s Last Laugh.” Superman comes clean to Batman about what he did. Batman’s pretty upset about it, but lets it drop by the end of the issue.

Thanks, Adam, I’ll just drop the line, but what I was more alluding to was the idea that it was never really addressed what taking such pain DID to Superman, ya know? It was just, “Oh, this is so awful that it would drive Batman insane but I can just take it and it doesn’t affect me at all! I’m just off to fly around with Lois a page later!” That’s what I meant by it never being addressed again, but I get that I was unclear, so I just took the line out entirely.

The way they got the Joker reminds me a bit of Aladdin.

@T–

I think you can credit that particular story to Jim Corrigan’s influence on the Spectre. It’s not that Batman was projecting his pain onto God, but that he was projecting it onto God’s wrath, which is embodied in the Spectre and was, at the time, controlled by Corrigan. Whatever it was that the Spectre/Corrigan saw was particularly offensive to him, probably based on his 1940s sensibilities. I should point out that this particular story (if you haven’t read it) had the JLA traveling back to the 40s to prevent T.O. Morrow from mucking with history. Much of the story had the JSA being shocked by 21st century values–rock music, pornography, and whatever Batman had in his head. I’d further note that Batman was to be trying to get through to Corrigan later in the story–he addressed him as “Jim,” which shocked the Spectre into not doing something bad (I forget what).

The theology of the Spectre is something I try not to think too hard about as a religiously-inclined person. The idea of God being able to parse out his wrath onto a fallen angel which gets bonded to a human is at odds with how I think about the universe. Best to think about it as comic book logic and accept that Batman can tick off the Spectre. Comics, everyone!

@Brian–

Well, no problem–I guess it is too bad that this plot point was never further developed. I guess that doesn’t answer my original question, though: did Superman take Batman’s pain into himself, or did they dump it into the Joker? I think your answer makes more sense in light of Superman’s character, but I guess I’m still unclear based on the ending.

I don’t think it’s unclear. When I first read the story it seemed pretty clear that Superman took Batman’s pain onto himself. rereading the excerpts above still make it clear in my opinion.

First, the Spectre uses the term “willing.” The person who takes on Batman’s memories has to be willing to do so. So just forcing it on someone unwilling is not an option. Next, the person has to understand the gravity of the situation, meaning a full grasp of the undertaking. Joker doesn’t have the morals, empathy or ethics to understand that. Those two conditions alone make it clear in my opinion that Superman is agreeing to take the load and that dumping the load on an unwilling third party was never an option.

Yeah, I’m afraid I don’t get the confusion, either, Adam. Note what the Spectre says, “Unless someone is willing to carry them in his stead. Someone who understands the gravity of stealing a man’s memories…his pain.”

How could that be describing the Joker?

Argh! I’ve tried to post a response twice and had it eaten. Third time’s the charm…

I think my confusion was over two things: one, there’s no visible consequence to Superman, and two, the Joker is rendered more-insane-than-usual at the end of the story. The only people who were supposed to remember the Joker-verse are Superman, Spectre, Mxyzptlk, and whoever crossed over (like Ignition). There’s nothing to indicate that the Joker should remember what happened, but he’s muttering “rorepme rokej” in his Arkham cell over and over. I assumed, at the time, that this was from the Spectre dumping Batman’s memories into the Joker’s mind–he went “extra” mad from that. (Come to think of it, a p.o.’d Spectre is visible in the Joker’s pupil in that scene.)

I could be wrong, though! I just wish, as Brian said, that we’d seen more consequence to Superman.

Adam: Reread the Spectre’s dialogue here. “And that I cannot do, unless someone is willing to carry them in his stead. Someone who understands the gravity of stealing a man’s memories…his pain.” That’s not a description of the Joker. The Joker’s problem is the shock of going from omnipotence back to reality, with the side bonus of being forced to understand that he can *never* overcome Batman, not even in his own mind, not even when he’s practically God. He’s repeating “Rorepme Rekoj” as if he can undo the 5D stuff by saying his name backwards; he no longer wants it if that’s all it’s going to show him. The irony is that the Joker will never know he succeeded in breaking Batman; that’s part of what Superman means when he says, “Not because of *him*.” It may be that the Hal Jordan Spectre did punish him; remember, Hal-as-Spectre was less about “vengeful murder” and more about “suffer the pangs of conscience.”

T: While there’s an element of “Batman wanting to kill *proves* he’s broken,” the main thrust here is that Batman’s also so damaged by PTSD that his experiences are consuming his mind completely. It’s not apparent to me that letting him go kill the Joker is going to *help* him in any way, shape, or form. Most of the dialogue is not about “killing am wrong,” it’s about “Batman is horribly, permanently broken and won’t be able to keep going as Batman after being tortured horribly night after night forever.”

We might also ask how it would be right to punish the Joker for actions that have now simply not happened in any physical or provable sense. In a bizarre way, Batman is out to kill the Joker for something that has been almost entirely undone, and as we see at the end, the Joker is a gibbering shell of a man anyway. Killing a dribbling, helpless lunatic doesn’t even rise to the standards of effective capital punishment. Yes, we as readers know the Joker will be back next month, but the characters don’t know they’re in a comic, nor do they know the Joker’s coming back from this particular mental trauma.

Omar–

Yeah, if my prior two attempts hadn’t been eaten, I would have said “Yeah, I guess the Spectre’s line makes it clearer.”

You might add to your comments to T that the 1990s was full of the eternal debate of “should we kill the Joker”? I remember it being all over the internet in the late 90s. (It’s probably still all over the internet now.) DC grappled with the issue a lot: Chuck Dixon did a Batman GN on whether the Joker should be saved from the electric chair; one of the books (LOTDK or SOTB, I think) had a vigilante trying to track down the Joker and Batman needing to save him; John Ostrander’s Spectre (the Corrigan one!) had Batman excusing the Joker’s conduct on account of his sociopathy; etc. I’m sure there’s more. Point is, one of the hallmarks of 1990s Joker storytelling was striking a balance between “How nasty can we make him?” and “Heroes don’t kill.”

Curious: Why stop there? Why not have Superman also “take” the pain of Bruce’s memories of his parents being murdered right in front of him? Or Jason being murdered by the Joker? Or any other pain in his life? I know I’m playing devil’s advocate, but within the “logic” of this story/universe, it seems that Clark’s act isn’t one of self-sacrifice, but of selfishness. “We need the Batman, so let’s get him up and running.”

Just riffing here, BTW. I think it’s a nice moment, otherwise.

As I recall it the last panel of the storyline had the Hal Jordan Spectre in the Joker’s pupils. That for me is enough for a double take of confusion “wait a second, who ended with the memories then?”, between the Joker being catatonic and Superman no-selling the effects.

The dialogue here completely points to Superman getting them all but it was badly followed.

I forgot about that panel CriticalFel. I’d have to see it again.

Omar, Adam – I’m not so much talking about the conversation they were having when it was all over. I’m talking about the conversation they’re having at the bleakest moment, when it all seems hopeless. They’re trapped, Batman has been mutilated, the Joker who is the worlds most psychotic and prolific serial killer is now omnipotent, there’s no help in site, and Superman’s immediate reaction to the idea of killing him is “WHAT?! NO WAY! ANYTHING BUT THAT!” I can understand now wanting to kill him later when it’s all said and done, but not wanting to even consider the idea at the worst, bleakest part of the storyline?

You might add to your comments to T that the 1990s was full of the eternal debate of “should we kill the Joker”? I remember it being all over the internet in the late 90s.

Yes, I know. It’s what made me quit Batman comics. I view those examples as supporting my point.

I think we never really saw the effect of Batman’s pain on Superman, because it really isn’t that much more than what he deals with. One of the things that was more-or-less a constant in Old52 Superman is this: He didn’t pride himself on the good he did, he always strove to do more. He carried with him the pain of his failures, of everything he wanted to do but couldn’t. Adding Bruce’s pain to his own was a burden he could bear without comment.

I wonder if Joe Kelly is available to comment at all…?

Not sure if anyone still reads these, but I think the whole problem to the story is the opposite of what Erich points out (and then makes it being a “cool moment” very questionable). What pain has Superman ever really faced in his life? He’s had an idyllic existence, with the only real tragedy happening shortly after he was born. Batman has gone through ten times the pain that Superman has. So while it’s no problem to Bat-god broken, the idea that Clark could manage some pain Bruce couldn’t is just flat out ridiculous. If it broke Bruce, it would have crushed Clark. Or at the very least they should be equal in will. This was right in Kelly’s Superman fan wank era, which sometimes turned out really good, and other times was a mess; like this.

I’m Late to the party, and also in the “joker got the tortured memories” camp. But I will also point out that maybe clark could handle the memories of being tortured because it was not himself being tortured; that would make a huge difference.

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