A few years ago, a small independent studio called Moonhead Press made something of a splash with a Batman fan comic entitled “The Deal,” to their blog. “The Deal” was… well, it was pretty good. And not “good for fan fiction” good, but genuinely compelling. The writing, reimagining the conflict between Batman and the Joker as a millennia-long battle between reincarnating soulmates, was clever enough to carry the story across the comic’s fourteen pages. The art, at times evocative of Paul Pope, is energetic and animated. “The Deal” was far from your traditional Batman comic, but it was just as far from the relatively short blocks of descriptive prose that comprise most fan fic.
But the story also has a moral punchline. At the story’s climax, as Batman and the Joker plummet together toward their death, a quotation from comedian Bill Hicks on poverty, war, disease, and all the things the human race hasn’t done to solve those problems enters by way of captions. The struggle between hero and villain, we are implicitly told, is a distraction from the (similarly dialectical but not antagonistic) process of improving the world for human beings.
I’ve argued in the past that Moonhead’s Batman story exemplifies a unique benefit of fan fiction—freedom from continuity. For good or for bad, die-hard fans just get annoyed when you kill off characters, or tell them that legendary adversaries like Batman and the Joker were married in a past life. A story like “The Deal,” especially the ending, violates the “illusion of change,” a principle (that maybe originated with Stan Lee and maybe didn’t) that has enabled many superheroes (and supervillains) to continue much the same lives for decades, enabling fans to return time and again to characters who are essentially unchanged.
If Peter Parker, the 15-year-old genius and original instant expert, can barely manage to graduate college in the eternity of American history that elapsed between 1968 and 1978, then what the comics show us is really true: ten years of passionate inventiveness are lost in wheel-spinning, cooking up newly durable costumes and new types of web-shooters only so they can be broken and ripped to shreds by Rhino and Vulture and Kraven every few issues. Spider-Man (and we can easily imagine scaling this problem to Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne, billionaire “philanthropists”) models the American military-industrial complex in miniature, expending time, effort, and money (despite his family’s precarious financial situation) in the latest invention merely so it can be blown up in combat and improved upon later.
But the illusion of change is not change. That’s the point. And so anything that looks like change is necessarily conditional, likely to be upended and undone in four to eight weeks. If the world is ever truly made safe, if the villains are ever really vanquished, superheroes would immediately become obsolete. Extraordinary threats, we are told, require extraordinary heroes (“the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun…”). Without one, the need for the other collapses.
It’s easy to see how the “The Deal”‘s creators may have meant for it to be read as a nerdy counterpart to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” reminding us all that our self-centered pursuits take time and attention that could otherwise be spent improving the lives of humanity as a whole. That’s a nice message, and none but the grouchiest misanthropes would outright disagree with it, but what exactly does it have to do with the story? What makes a story where the Joker is the reincarnation of Batman’s wife a good vehicle for well-intended liberal agitprop?
Joe Krawec, in her article “Batman: The Real Deal,” riffs on the fact that “The Deal” explores a time-honored interpretation of Batman, played with by critics and by comics writers alike: namely, that Batman’s villains are nothing more than dark mirrors of the Caped Crusader himself, that Batman and Joker model the interdependency of hero and villain, and the intractable nature of the fight between “order” and “chaos.” (Cue the perennial debates about whether Batman “should” or “should not” kill the Joker.)
Rather than a “hero” who is every bit as twisted as the villain he fights, The Deal suggests, Gotham needs an omnipotent Bill Hicks, or someone like him, to snap his or her fingers and effect a social transformation from the ground up. Eliminate poverty, illness, and the destitution of Bruce Wayne’s hometown (as if he and, e.g., Holly Robinson truly came from the same city), and the criminal element will fall away.
Simply put, superheroes (or, at least, the big ones) are powerful archetypes for the simple reason that they are not realistic. We may want billionaires to spend more time and money repairing the inner city, improving the educational system, and feeding the hungry in the developing world—but comics’ history (and arguably its appeal as a visual, action-oriented medium) mean that truly utopian visions that don’t hinge around formative instances of violence are rare. The Batman of DC canon, it’s well known, is a privileged businessman who gets his jollies (largely) by terrorizing a criminalized underclass.
The Deal offers a way out of the narrative shape the superhero genre compels. Its ending depicts a moment of redemption for Batman as he and the Joker plummet together to their deaths, literally dying into the Bill Hicks quote as the cycle of violence they embody dies with them.