With there being so many classic Batman arcs, it can be tricky to tell original stories about the Dark Knight that don’t retread old ground. Sean Murphy had to overcome that challenge when he set out to write Batman: White Knight, and he succeeded in creating something that felt completely fresh.
Set in an alternative timeline, White Knight brings a new dimension to the relationship between The Joker and Batman. What would happen if the Clown Prince of Crime was cured of his madness and set out to atone for everything he’d done? The idea of a repentant Joker is an interesting take and is explored within a graphic novel that contains themes of police brutality, political infighting and corruption.
Becoming the white knight of Gotham
The story begins with Batman hunting Joker down after another scheme to destroy Gotham City. Murphy’s Joker is portrayed as a superfan who believes he makes the Caped Crusader a better superhero every time they fight. But frustrated with the lack of acknowledgement, Joker finally snaps and challenges Batman to face up to the notion that fighting crime has become his therapy and that he enjoys taking out his pain on the criminals he helped to create.
“Your vigilantism isn’t about justice. It’s about control. Fixing this city is your pathetic way of salvaging the broken bits of your anima. But you’re too stupid to see that it hasn’t worked – crime has become your therapy, and Gotham your victim. You’ve dragged us all into your perpetual Halloween.” – The Joker
To prove that Batman is nothing without him, Joker swallows’ pills that cure him of his psychosis. As he recovers in his cell, Joker becomes Jack Napier and resolves to become Gotham’s greatest saviour. Napier manages to escape his jail sentence by filing a lawsuit against Batman and the GCPD for endangering his life. From there, he plots a political campaign that sees him rise towards the office of council.
Meanwhile, Batman searches for a way to save Alfred, who has become terminally ill. His grief, mingled with his growing paranoia and recklessness against Napier, starts to turn Gotham against him. Murphy’s version of Bruce is much darker than other interpretations, and there’s a sense that his control is always hanging by a thread. Bruce’s single-minded mission against Napier alienates him from Nightwing, Batgirl and Commissioner Gordon, who is eventually forced into arresting him.
The role reversals between Joker and Batman is the most compelling part of the story. Napier genuinely wants to atone for his crimes but isn’t above manipulating the legal system to get what he wants, while Batman’s reckless vigilantism pushes him into the role of a criminal in the eyes of Gotham.
Bruce and Napier are forced to put aside their differences when a Neo-Joker emerges to try and bring back the original. The new female Joker had once taken over as Harley Quinn when the real Harley had grown tired of being abused by Joker. This creates a twisted love triangle between Napier and the two women who care about the two different sides of his personality.
“Joker might have been responsible for terrorising Gotham, but you weren’t necessarily making it any better. Someone needed to help break the stalemate before the two of you tore this city apart. I had to do something. Because no one else knew you like I did: two of the most enigmatic personalities in Gotham. Or should I say three.”
“If this city was going to forever condemn Joker, they deserved to know Jack Napier. And I was betting that Jack had a lot to show us. A lot to show you. And I was right.” – Harley Quinn
With the original Harley’s help, Batman and Napier are able to stop Neo-Joker. But it comes at the cost of Napier becoming Joker again. Forever changed by the experience, Batman reveals his identity to Gordon and vows to share his resources with the city so Gotham can have a hero that they truly believe in and trust.
The reimagination of several classic Batman characters is another strong part of Murphy’s story. A good example is Mister Freeze, who Murphy reinterpreted as the son of a Nazi determined to make up for the mistakes of his father. The White Knight version of Harley Quinn is interesting as well because she is portrayed as Harleen Quinzel rather than her alter ego.
In addition to writing Batman: White Knight, Murphy also handled the art duties with Matt Hollingsworth. The two of them make an excellent artistic team, creating panels that capture the moodiness and grittiness of Gotham City. Some of the best panels depict Joker’s transformation into Napier and vice versa.
Batman: White Knight is one of those rare graphic novels that not only helps to build on the foundation of an iconic character, but has helped to create a new continuity that I’m sure will be visited for years to come. Buy it now on Amazon.