The newest Clown Prince of Crime in Batman’s hometown isn’t insane. He didn’t fall into a vat of chemicals. Honestly, he’s just kind of a dick. That’s what’s scariest about him.
For the better part of the last year, Gotham City’s been recovering from a near-extinction-level attack by the Joker. The climax of that Endgame story arc was a fight between the archvillain and Batman that left them both grievously injured and presumed dead. In the power vaccuum that followed, former police commissioner Jim Gordon became a different kind of Dark Knight and a creepy new botanic bad guy called Mr Bloom rose to rule Gotham’s underworld.
Other people rose to either take advantage of the chaos or protect Gotham as it stood without its hometown superhero. Among the latter group was a unruly crew of teenagers who took up the colours and insignia of Robin. Like many of today’s crowdsourced social phenomena, the Robin movement can claim thousands of adherents. But the We Are Robin series mainly focuses on a core handful led by Duke Thomas. Thomas has been searching for his lost parents ever since the Joker Virus attack and his sudden orphaning puts him thematically right in line with Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson and other Bat-family members.
This week’s We Are Robin #8 — written by Lee Bermejo, with art by Jorge Corona, Rob Haynes, Trish Mulvihill and Jared Fletcher — introduces a character that lives on the flip side of Duke’s circumstances. Wrapping up his last day in juvenile detention, Johnny Bender is a repeat youth offender getting picked up by his dad. Unlike Duke, Johnny has his parents around physically but they’re not present emotionally. His parents got plastic surgery done on his face after it was became evident that Johnny was born with Moebius Syndrome, a disease that left him unable to move his facial muscles. The operation left him with a permanent grin. The obsession with the Joker and the fuck-the-world attitude? Those came later, likely the result of the same distracted neglect that we see on display when Johnny comes home.
As villainous origin stories go, there’s not a whole lot of trauma here. There’s a semi-sympathetic element to Johnny’s psychological profile, in that he’s been saddled with a neurological defect and his parents are clearly too vain, narcissistic and pre-occupied to help him cope. He could’ve found some other, better way to get through life than by becoming an arsehole who starts shit and embraces nihilism. But he didn’t. There’s a thread of choice there that makes Johnny Bender more real and more chilling than the meta-disturbed murderer who inspired him. It could be argued that — pre-villain traumas aside — the Joker had no choice than to become a freakish serial killer after he fell into a vat of chemicals and came out with green hair and chalk-white skin. He may simply be incapable of being any other way. (His most recent appearance shows a resurrected, amnesiac Joker struggling with his true nature.)
Johnny, however, has options. With parents like his, they may be less-than-ideal ones but they still exist. He could’ve talked to someone about his rage instead of giving into it and killing his parents. In the comfortable middle-class environment we briefly see him in, the existence of better choices was probably not a mystery.
We Are Robin #8 is far from the first time that we’ve seen people so enthralled by Batman’s biggest enemy that they decide to imitate him. Recently, DC introduced a character called the Joker’s Daughter — wearing the villain’s peeled-off face over her own — as a psycho-acolyte for the killer clown. The early-2000s Batman Beyond cartoon was set in a near-future where Bruce Wayne was too old to swing from rooftops and the show’s Jokerz street gang wore whiteface and lipstick in homage to the absent menace to society. And, of course, Harley Quinn’s initial appearances showed psychologist Harleen Quinzel refashioning her entire being to better align with Mr J. Johnny Bender is different, though. He’s just a barely formed teenager who got a raw deal, not unlike Duke Thomas or millions of other kids in the real and fictional worlds. He doesn’t have to put on that lipstick and emulate the Joker. He wants to, and judging from the events that will likely follow, the Robins will be facing up against teen Jokers. That act of Joker worship — and the fact that an empty, all-too-familiar everyday banality is its impetus — is terrifying.