Have you ever heard someone mention another person living in their head rent-free? Now, imagine if that expression was literal and that person was the Joker. If you’ve been reading Sean Murphy’s newest Batman: White Knight saga, Batman: Beyond the White Knight, you know what we’re talking about here. Jack Napier, aka the Joker, aka Gotham’s erstwhile White Knight has managed to cheat death by implanting a virtual version of himself in Bruce Wayne’s mind. Why, it’s enough to drive a sane man crazy—something Jack claims couldn’t be further from what he wants. To make matters worse, Bruce has found himself at odds with his former Boy Wonder after escaping prison, doesn’t recognize the city he’s left behind, and must track down a young man named Terry McGinnis who’s stolen one of his Batman suits. As you can see, there’s a lot going on and things are just getting started.
Murphy’s unique take on Gotham is also getting explored in Batman: White Knight Presents: Red Hood, a two-issue limited series written by Sean Murphy and his longtime creative collaborator Clay McCormack. Drawn by the remarkable Simone Di Meo, Red Hood wraps up today with the release of issue #2, which promises to provide crucial context to Jason Todd’s actions in Beyond the White Knight. With so many interesting things happening within the White Knight world, we thought it would be a great time to sit down with Sean and Clay who explain how this two-tiered storyline came together and tease some of what lies ahead.
I'd love to talk about Jack's role in the book because even though he's dead, he's very much a presence haunting Bruce. The specter of his past is hanging over Harley as well.
Sean Murphy: I wanted to use the idea of the villain coming back as a hologram in the sequel to Punk Rock Jesus, a Vertigo book I did. I decided it would work really well if Jack, the good version of Joker, came back and he was there to not just torture Bruce a little bit, but also to help him. So, Bruce has someone to talk to on his adventure, someone to bounce ideas off of. It's just helpful as a narrative to have that other character with him. Plus, being networked into the grid and internet is an asset to Bruce. Bruce doesn't really understand what the hell Gotham City turned into, so he kind of needs Jack and he hates that.
Even though Jack's helping him, it's fun to do little buddy cop movie things where you could just tease Bruce, like when he talks to him. Jack just gets a little too close to his face and boops him on the nose sometimes. Things that you would never get out of another Batman comic. That stuff's been the most fun for me. Clay has been helping me build the story since the beginning in 2017. When I told him this idea, I think he liked it.
Clay McCormack: Yeah, Jack seemed to be a character that everybody resonated with. He's one of the more unique versions of the Joker that has been around. Having put a bullet through his head in the last volume, we needed to come up with an interesting way to get him back into the story. A hologram inside Bruce's head that only he can see and might be a representation of his darkest innermost feelings was a very interesting way to handle it.
SM: Scott Snyder did this talking Joker head thing in Last Knight on Earth. At one point, I was thinking about making it like, “What if this wasn't a program in Bruce's head? What if this is just his psychosis creating this?” But Scott kind of did that. It's definitely a microchip that can be removed.
CM: And it's really Bruce's worst fear, right? Having the Joker literally stuck in his head. Not only the Joker, but arguably the more annoying version of the Joker—the nice Joker. Because he's not trying to kill Batman anymore, which is almost harder for him to do.
SM: Joker can't help but geek out too because he gets to be Robin, and he gets to be with Batman on an adventure. He's commenting all the time. And when Bruce lands, Joker yells, "Hero landing!" He's sort of the stand-in for what the reader might be thinking.
CM: There's also a bit in one of the issues coming up that’s a really fun 1966 Batman homage run through this filter of the Joker being in Batman's head.
SM: In issue #5, Bruce is seized by a panic attack and he can't move, so Jack takes over his body. So, suddenly Jack is dressed like Batman, and Bruce is like, "What the hell did you do?" And Jack's like, "I can't believe it worked!" And then he looks at the mirror and he's like, "My muscles are huge." And Bruce is like, "No shit, your muscles are huge. You need those to fight crime."
So, he’s now helping Jack kick ass. He's like, "Hit this guy first, that guy second, elbow him in the neck. I can tell by the way he's standing that guy's going to crumble.” So, Jack does everything he's told, but he's yelling out his own sound effects. POW! BOOF! BAZOING! Bruce is like, "You don't need to shout out your own sound effects." I think that was a joke that Clay gave me to use.
Ha! Can we extend this for another fifty issues?
SM: We're going to tease some Justice League stuff towards the end of the book, and I'm not sure if Jack should go or if maybe he could be part of the Justice League in some way. Or maybe a fight with him and Brainiac in the future because he's an AI. Who knows where it's headed?
Beyond the White Knight brings in Terry McGinnis. How would you compare your take on him to the one from the animated series?
SM: I think we stuck pretty close to the animated series.
CM: I would say so. I think one of the tough things going into this volume what there were so many threads going at once. Adding Terry McGinnis in and giving him the time that he needed was going to be a difficult task. Sean found a really smart way to introduce him as a new character, but not take him so far away from the show that he wouldn't be recognizable, and still keeping all the Batman Beyond stuff I think people are going to want to see.
SM: The goal for this whole series has been unique, but familiar. It should feel like Terry, but he's working for Powers instead of Bruce. But he's still a thief who gets caught and steals a suit. The bones are still there.
I think you can tweak characters a lot within certain boundaries. I didn't realize this, but when he was created by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, they made him to be half-Asian, or all Asian, I don't remember. And I think the suits were more interested in a traditional Batman, because the young kids would be more likely to watch that kind of show, which we know that in hindsight, that's ridiculous. So, Terry did have kind of an Asian spin, and he sort of looks a little Asian. I saw this as an opportunity to really make him half-Asian—to make his mom Asian. There's a lot of kanji in Gotham and signage like in Blade Runner. It made all the sense in the world to diversify the cast.
How has Bruce’s past failures with his other Robins affected how he's perceiving his relationship with Terry?
SM: He spent ten years in jail meditating on it and he knows that he's dropped the ball a lot. As much as he tries to relate to young people, he just knows he's not good at it. I would imagine he doesn't want to make the same mistakes with Terry that he did with Babs, Dick and Jason. Towards the end of the book, I do have him talking more and trying to be more warm. And it's actually at Jack's insistence. Jack's helping him psychologically too. He can see the emotional angle better than Bruce can. He becomes like a pseudo therapist in some ways. It's really fun building that stuff.
It turns out Joker is a really good family therapist.
CM: Well, he dated one for a long time,
SM: That's true!
On that subject, let's talk about Harley as a mother. How has motherhood changed her? How have the years changed her?
SM: I think she's struggling. It's funny, someone just made a custom Harley action figure with her pregnant in her robe and I thought it was amazing. In White Knight, I really wanted to remind people that she was a doctor and get back to classic Harley, and get away from the newer version. I think there's room for both. That's kind of why I split Harley into two characters. If one Harley is great, then two Harleys are even better.
So, to acknowledge her problematic relationship with Joker, I thought, what if she had grown beyond it? What if she had moved forward in a lot of ways? By having kids and having Bruce be their uncle, it's really like a whole new step forward for her, but she still struggles. When my wife, Katana Collins, wrote the White Knight Harley series, she wanted to show Harley struggling with kids. She's got the kids literally riding around on Harley’s hyenas, which was adorable, but would a good mother do that? Unclear, but I feel bad for her because she's doing her best.
CM: I always saw her as the only sane person out of every one of these characters. Somehow she managed to remove herself from the equation. She can kind of take a step back and say, “You guys are all nuts.”
SM: She sees everything. She sees stuff we can't. That's why she's a good balance with Bruce. Their relationship started out as like a close friendship, but eventually my readers were telling me they kind of like the idea of Bruce and Harley getting together. Not in the main line, but in this version, they're sort of pushing for it. I didn't know what “shipping” was at the start, but they're shipping Bruce and Harley. And then ironically, for a lot of people who are shipping Bruce and Joker to get together, this idea of Joker literally being inside Bruce's body is going to fuel that world immensely. I look forward to reading what people come up with!
The mini that launched 1,000 ships! Switching gears, tell me everything about designing the new Robin costume in White Knight Presents: Red Hood, because I love it.
CM: We kind of collaborated on that when we came up with Gan, this new Robin character. Jason Todd is a Robin in the classic mold where he's an acrobat—he's very fast and quick on his feet. We wanted to put Jason in a situation where he had to impart his Robin knowledge on someone who wasn't the same kind of fighter that he is. We envisioned Gan as more like a rugby player. She has a really low center of gravity. She’s someone who's not going to be doing backflips and jumping off of roofs and stuff. Jason has to find a new way to train her. That kind of is the first step of him being like, "Oh, maybe I don't have all the answers I think I have."
SM: And then I'm like, "Well, let's not make her traditionally fit. Let's make her a little bit on the heavier side, but she's still like Serena Williams—she’s muscular." Like you said, lower center of gravity. And then you suggested rugby, and I'm like, “That's great. She can wear rugby socks and have this sort of cosplayer Robin costume with a beach towel as a cape.” You can see the symbol is sort of stitched. She's just a Robin fangirl who's riding around trying to solve small crimes like saving cats out of trees.
CM: She's doing her part to clean up her city. When she runs into Jason, a whole new door opens whether or not he wants it to.
SM: The other influence on her suit was because she's Mongolian, I was looking at traditional Mongolian weaponry and tunics. I tried to give her a kind of Mongolian-shaped tunic and a short, smaller Mongolian bow.
I'd love to hear about the working relationship that you guys have with one other.
CM: He sends me scripts, I send him notes, he gets real mad at me. (laughs)
SM: Clay is my target audience in a lot of ways. Someone who really loves comics and stories and movies like Blade Runner and all that stuff. He is very opinionated, and he can explain why he feels certain ways—and I think he's right in a lot of those ways. I’m good at throwing ideas out, but I do need some guidance to keep me aligned with what my ideal reader would like. Clay is kind of like my ideal reader. He's able to straighten it out if I'm going in the wrong direction or suggest things. So, after trying to get him credited, we realized why don't we just make him a writer and bring him on board officially? So, that's what this past year has been.
CM: Since the first volume, I've had a ton of fun working with Sean. It's entirely his story, don't get me wrong. He just has so many ideas that we just trim the edges off of some of them and dial some of them in. It's been an interesting time getting to look at things from the other side of the table and then finally to get a chance to write one myself has been a blast.
Batman: White Knight Presents: Red Hood #2 by Sean Murphy, Clay McCormack, Simone Di Meo and Dave Stewart is now available in print and as a digital comic book. Batman: Beyond the White Knight continues next month with issue #5!