The Joker and Jason Todd.
Illustration: Sean Murphy (DC Comics)

In the winter of 1988, thousands of people across the country voted to decide whether Jason Todd, the second Robin, would live or die in an upcoming issue of Batman. Some 5,271 people wanted Jason to survive the Joker’s brutal assault and torture; 5,343 did not. You do the math.

It’s wild to think that there was once a time when a comics publisher would leave the fate of one of the most popular characters in one of its most popular books up to fans like that, but the ‘80s were a different time. Despite how gimmicky the real world circumstances of Jason’s death were, the change had a profound and lasting impact that sent ripples across DC’s books for years to come.

Jason’s death changed Batman both on the page itself and in the minds of readers because for the first time in his life, Bruce had lost someone who depended on him—one of his adopted children, really—because he wasn’t prepared for something. As tectonic a shift as the event was, though, there’s never been all that much of an explicit reason as to why the Joker went way beyond his normal obsession with tormenting Batman. Sean Murphy’s Batman: White Knight might not take place within DC’s prime continuity, but this week, the comic revealed a far more compelling spin on the Joker’s motives.

Gotham City is a place where nothing good can happen unless there’s something much worse waiting just around the corner, so it’s fitting that the Joker’s recovery from his various mental illnesses comes along with a side of unforeseen mayhem that’s out of his control. With Jack Napier (the ex-Joker) on his new antipsychotic meds, the former supervillain gives up his life of overt terrorism in favor for a new career in politics as Gotham’s newest city council member.

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Napier’s goal is to expose the rampant corruption in the Gotham PD as well as the organization’s history of police brutality—brutality carried out by Batman, who Napier (correctly) argues is essentially an unofficial arm of the GCPD. Unsurprisingly, neither Commissioner Gordon nor Batman take kindly to that accusation, but Napier’s refusal to revert to his old Joker self (for the most part) makes it so that neither of them can touch the councilman. Oddly enough, Batman and Napier’s holding pattern actually ends up keeping Gotham relatively supervillain free for a while, but the peace slowly begins to come to an end when a young woman calling herself Neo Joker steps onto the scene.

Like all of Gotham’s very best weirdos, Neo Joker’s got a disturbing backstory that’s (blessedly) easy to sum up: Once upon a time, the Joker robbed a bank and the teller held at gunpoint just so happened to be a young, suicidal woman who’d been cutting herself under her desk wondering whether anyone would notice. The moment the teller came face to face with the Joker’s gun, however, she suddenly discovered her desire to live and decided to play along when the Joker offhandedly called her “Harley” as he robbed the bank. Rather than getting away the moment she was safe, the woman stays with the Joker and eventually becomes an ersatz Harley, affecting Harleen Quinzel’s classic catchphrases and mannerisms.

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It’s Napier’s retiring his Joker act that brings Neo Joker out of the woodwork. At first, she assumes that she can simply convince Napier to come back to her, but when Harleen shows up, kicks her ass, and walks away with the guy, Neo Joker decides that it’s time to get serious about getting her man.

Neo Joker reasons that even though Napier insists he’s cured, it’s really Batman that’s keeping her from being reunited with the Joker, so she does what any self-respecting Gotham villain would do and blasts the whole of downtown with a gargantuan ice ray commandeered from Mister Freeze. Neo Joker’s attack on the city prompts Batman and Napier to enter into an uneasy alliance with one another and as they’re speeding off to meet their shared enemy, Bruce demands that Napier confess why he killed Jason Todd all those years ago.

The answer, though simple, is heartbreaking. The drugs in Napier’s bloodstream make it difficult for him to access his Joker memories, but in time, he’s able to explain how he only ever murdered Jason out of jealousy rather than any sort of real personal hatred. Multiple characters throughout White Knight have repeatedly told Batman that he and the Joker are two halves to the same whole, and Napier admits it himself. The Joker saw the intimacy that Jason had with Batman as something he himself would never be able to experience, and he was enraged by the fact that Jason knew Batman’s true identity, something he did not.

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It’s worth noting that in Batman: White Knight’s universe, the Joker doesn’t actually kill Jason Todd; once he divulges Bruce’s identity, the Joker lets him go, something that shocks and confuses Batman. The reason Jason never came back, Napier says, is because it’s the life Bruce led him into that broke him that night—not the Joker’s attack. The Joker just thought it was funnier to let Batman assume that his protégé was dead, only to later be devastated by the truth that he’d simply left the Bat-Family.

Napier’s tale is tragic and twisted, but it’s also the source of one of the first and only moments of genuine light and warmth in White Night. Learning what really happened to Jason hurts Bruce deeply, but it also drives him to seek out Nightwing and Batgirl to tell them, in his way, that he loves them and everything he does as Batman is to keep them, his family, safe.

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If this were the end of Batman: White Knight, you could nearly convince yourself that the story was going to close on something of a positive note. But there’s still one issue left to go... and things are almost assuredly about to get much worse.