Sean Murphy’s Batman: White Knight is a slow burn of a comic that favors scene setting and world building over huge narrative payoffs from issue to issue. While this week’s issue doesn’t push the series’ plot forward terribly far, it does reveal an interesting tidbit about Gotham’s finances, and a brand-new Joker.
Batman: White Knight is purposefully slow-paced because the newly-reformed, sane Jack Napier’s (formerly the Joker) scheme is an incredibly long con. He wants to expose Batman as the true menace to Gotham City. While Napier is busy building libraries in Backport, the city’s impoverished and predominately black neighborhood, to drum up goodwill among the citizens, he’s also wrangled Gotham’s villains via mind control to draw Batman out and highlight what a destructive presence he is.
This week’s issue opens with Napier’s plan in full effect as Bane, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, and the rest storm Gotham’s financial district to rustle up some mayhem, which promptly draws out the Dark Knight. While the villains cause their fair share of garden-variety destruction—a wrecked car here, some bullet holes there—it’s Batman who ends up putting the most people in potential danger.
Correctly concluding Napier had orchestrated the attack, Batman drags Croc and Bane directly to Backport’s new library, thinking that the henchmen wouldn’t dare destroy the boss’ darling project. On this one rare occasion, Bruce ends up being wrong and the villains promptly begin tearing the incomplete building down as part of their escape. Despite Batgirl’s pleas for him to mind his own safety, Batman rushes in after them just as the library collapses, and he’s badly injured.
Beaten and embarrassed, Batman drags himself back to the Batmobile and retreats to the Batcave to recover from his wounds, but both Batgirl and Nightwing know that something is wrong with their former mentor.
As obvious as it is that the villains’ group attack was a diversion, it isn’t until later that Batman pieces it together and informs Jim Gordon of what he thinks Napier was actually after—records about the city’s finances. During a terse conversation, the vigilante and the police commissioner deduce that Napier was actually hunting for proof of the Batman Devastation Fund, an off-the-books silo of taxpayer dollars dedicating to fixing the collateral damage caused by Batman.
How much are Gothamites paying each year to clean up after Bruce? Three. Billion. Dollars. To put that in context, the US spends about $100 billion annually on policing nationally. Sure, Batman’s dealing with all manner of supervillains, but even still, $3 billion is a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a single man’s actions. While White Knight is an Elseworlds story, from what we’ve seen so far, this universe isn’t all that different from DC’s primary continuity, and it feels safe to assume that Gotham (or someone) spends a similar amount of cash on Batman’s antics there as well.
Gordon knows the documents will only strengthen Napier’s case against the Gotham P.D. and further prove that it and Batman are part of a corrupt police state, but Batman’s entirely nonplussed, reminding Gordon that he does what Gotham P.D. can’t.
True as that may be, White Knight also makes a point of showing us the objectively bad things Batman does that the police probably can’t. Elsewhere in the city, while Batman and Napier play their game of chess, the woman who desperately wanted to become a new Harley Quinn while the Joker was last incarcerated has been stewing in her feelings. This unnamed stan-girl considers Napier’s rehabilitation—a consequence of Batman’s actions—an affront to the Clown Prince of Crime’s legacy, and the fact that the original Harley has followed his example only rubs salt in the wound.
And so, because the Joker and Harley are no more, the woman decides to reinvent herself as a new villain, a fusion of Joker and Harley hellbent on making Gotham chaotic again:
If we’re being entirely honest, Neo-Harley isn’t the most unexpected thing to come out of Gotham, and you could argue that she would have popped up sooner or later with or without Bruce’s help. But White Knight really hits you in the gut when it reveals how Bruce inadvertently contributes to Alfred’s death.
Alfred is the human part of Batman’s operation who tends to the hero’s wounds when he comes back to the Batcave. He occasionally sustains serious injuries himself as a result of his proximity to the crimefighting. When a still bedridden (and in critical condition) Alfred sees a bloody, unconscious Batman lying on the floor of the Batcave, he selflessly gives up his own hospital bed and IV so that Bruce might live. The act of compassion ultimately kills Alfred and sends Bruce into a deep depression, but maybe he should have thought about that before rushing head-first into a collapsing building.
Even if Batman: White Night struggles to really nail the idea that Gotham’s citizens could ever forgive Napier for his crimes and take him seriously as a politician, it’s absolutely succeeding at exposing the parts of Batman’s psyche that are truly dark, broken, and self-destructive.