An Apple Cleft in Two: Batman and Joker as Shadows of the Self in “Death of the Family”

Here is my undergraduate thesis, completed at Marylhurst University, focusing on the intrinsic relationship between Batman and Joker, especially focused on the story “Death of the Family”. For the accompanying video, see here.

In the literary tradition, stories of goodly heroes and the defeat of their reviled nemeses have existed since the earliest narrative constructions, typically seen as reflecting back the cultural moralities of the societies from which they were borne. A hero bests a villain, the world is made a better place for it, and the audience’s occupation of a moral high ground is reinforced. But as Joseph Campbell thoughtfully observes, “it is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse,” indicating that a hero’s journey can also impart revelations in the individual and the greater social group. There is no better place to find these heroic guiding stories than in the comic book medium, where complex dichotomies between hero and villain have thrived since the art-form’s inception (Campbell ch.V.3). And of all the pairings of heroes and villains in the comic tradition, none challenge and subvert the conventional triumphing of good over evil better than Batman and the Joker. The best Batman-Joker stories deviate from established tradition, and change the reader’s expectation that Batman must (or even can) “win” against the Joker, instead implying that only a temporary balance between them can be struck. This tilt towards a more unusual narrative complicates the way we understand the dynamics of how good and evil operate within the bounds of a typical hero’s story, and emphasizes the bond that good and evil share within human nature to the reader.

In the Judeo-Christian literary tradition, it is rare to find stories that deviate from the standard Western depictions of the duality of good and evil, where good must inevitably triumph over wicked, harkening back to early religious depictions of such dichotomies (e.g., Adam and Eve’s sin, God and Satan, etc.). In modern narratives, while evil is occasionally allowed to succeed in the end, whether for shock value or narrative effect, scarcer are depictions where this duality remains ambiguous through to the end of the story, where audiences are left with the uncomfortable reconciliation that both good and evil are necessarily linked, with neither able to completely overtake the other. Such a duality is especially prominent in the case of Batman and his foes, and as Langley notes, “Duality and obsession, his enemies’ and his own, fill [Batman’s] stories” (ch.1). And of all the obsession and dichotomy to be found among the rogues of the Dark Knight, none so perfectly complements his moral resilience like the Joker, with his colorful appearance and unpredictable nature contrasted against the grim, calculating detective. Joker is also the only villain who has been with Batman since his very first issue, spanning seventy-five years of publication history alongside the Caped Crusader[1]. This complementation between the two characters, as well as their mutually tied history to one another, indicates that they are fundamentally linked, entwined together as two extreme sides of human nature.

Nichols sees this linkage as an echo of the “combat myth”, an ancient Mesopotamian religious narrative comprised of a recurrent struggle between the personified forces of order and chaos. The myth is comprised of four stages of encounters between a storm-god/hero of order and a water-dragon/monster of chaos, which closely mirror confrontations between Batman and Joker: First, a monster associated with water arises to threaten societal order; second, a hero-god associated with the sky or storms confronts the monster-dragon to defend order; third, the monster-dragon is defeated and pushed back to its watery realm, reestablishing order; and fourth, the monster-dragon returns or there is perpetual fear that it will (Nichols 2). Batman, perched on skyscrapers or soaring over the city streets on patrol, vividly evokes the sky-hero of the myth who fights to defend order, and is often depicted against lightening-filled skies (most iconically in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns), and as Rollin notes “…it is Batman who defeats the city’s dragons” (437). Joker’s vicious crimes and maniacal demeanor, so outside of societal norms, give him obvious connections to the monster-dragon, and he has a well-trod history of being associated with water and liquid[2]. But while Nichols’ argument is compelling, his most astute points come in how he sees the characters’ respective natures, with Batman “represent[ing] not only law and order, but the force that undergirds order”, and Joker as “a sadistic purveyor of anarchy” (7,4). These descriptions perhaps best characterize the duality inherent in the relationship between the characters, where each is a complement to the other. It is this implied balance between order and chaos, more than the idea of a mythic cycle, which is most relevant to understanding the nuanced relationship between Batman and Joker.

Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman-Joker story Death of the Family exemplifies just such a complement of these forces. The Joker returns to Gotham City after a yearlong absence, intent on manipulating Batman into killing his “Bat-Family”[3] so that Joker might “save” him from what he sees as a weakness developing from Batman’s reliance on his allies (Snyder 13.21). Once Joker makes his violent debut[4], Batman instructs the rest of his Bat-Family to stay out of the conflict, forgoing the hard-won trust and intimacy he’s achieved with them in favor of taking on the Joker alone. The Joker has dealt violent, personal blows to Batman’s inner circle in the past,[5] including against current members of the Bat-Family, and in returning with this particular agenda, Joker has made this fight a deeply meaningful one. The story begins with numerous allusions to duality: the Gotham River floods and runs backwards for three days, a two-headed lion cub is born at the city zoo, and Commissioner Gordon helps a subordinate officer spot a counterfeit bill by pointing out that the face of Andrew Jackson is looking left instead of right (Snyder 13.1-4). The two-headed cub especially suggests a permanent joining of what should be two separates into one whole, and fittingly alludes to the connection between Batman and Joker. After all, as Nichols argues, “Batman and the Joker are really reflections of one another” (Nichols 9). Reynolds takes this idea further, and suggests that the characters are more than enemies, in that “the Joker epitomizes the dark and negative side of the personal obsessions which fuel Batman’s crimefighting career” (Reynolds 68). And where Batman is obsessed with justice and order, the Joker is obsessed with Batman. This bond is so strong that, on numerous occasions, Joker’s actions are linked directly to Batman’s. In the ubiquitously acclaimed The Dark Knight Returns, for example, Joker has remained catatonic in the ten years since the retirement of Batman, but once the Dark Knight reappears on a news broadcast, Joker’s signature smile spreads across his face along with the dialogue, “Batman. Darling”, and he soon becomes active again, indicating that Joker is fueled by Batman’s presence, and is inert without him (Miller 41, emphasis original). With Joker’s reemergence in Death of the Family, however, he becomes more than just a symbolic moral opposite to Batman, and instead engages him on so deep a strategic level as to indicate a dualistic philosophical dialogue, rather than merely juxtaposition of the two characters.


The Dark Knight Returns (1986), p.41.

Through a Jungian lens, these dualistic elements at play between the two characters become at once clearer and more complex. Firstly, we must clarify three of the primary areas of the psyche: the ego, the unconscious, and the shadow. The ego comprises “the subject of all personal acts of consciousness”, forming the center of the field of consciousness and the observed personality (Aion 3). The unconscious comprises the “unknown in the inner world”, that within us that is yet beyond our consciousness (Aion 3). The shadow, most importantly to our discussion, is the component (or “archetype”) of the personal unconscious with the “most disturbing influence on the ego”, whose nature can be “inferred from the contents of the personal unconscious” (Aion 8). The shadow comprises the “dark aspects” of Batman’s personality, formed from inferiorities that have an obsessive, emotional quality (Aion 8). Particularly in Bruce Wayne’s case, these elements would be formed from the most traumatic moment of his life—witnessing the murder of his parents. Profoundly impacting his ego in the decision to become Batman as a young Bruce Wayne, this moment would also have had deep, repressive impact into his unconscious—especially the shadow. And while the psychological effects of this murder on young Bruce could warrant an entire study in their own right, a few particulars are indispensible to this focus on Batman and Joker.


Batman #1 (1940), p.2.

With a random act of violence taking the lives of his parents before his eyes, Bruce Wayne becomes a purveyor of order on his journey towards becoming Batman. In part, he conquers his fear of chaos by mastering its opponent. He spends years preparing[6] for all negative outcomes, trying to pare himself of any vulnerability that could be used against him, and achieves this in as much as he can once he takes up the cape and cowl of Batman—a personification of part of his shadow in the projection of a fearful creature[7]. Yet all this does not go so far as to nullify the lingering fears he retains of chaos and the perils that spring from unpredictability. Langley notes that, “[Batman] will never finish avenging the parents who died before his eyes”, but perhaps more accurately, Batman will never be able to bring them back, regardless of how stringent his self-discipline might be (ch2.3). He might have made himself more than a man, able to adapt to nearly any threat, but he will forever be haunted by the powerlessness that consumed him when a moment of indiscriminate violence stole his family away. As Jung notes, “we carry our past with us…it is only with an enormous effort that we can detach ourselves from this burden. If it comes to a neurosis, we invariably have to deal with a considerably intensified shadow”, illustrating that no matter how strong he becomes, how invincible criminals may perceive him as, Batman will always carry with him an element of victimization (Psychology 76-7). And a key word here is “neurosis,” for Batman is certainly a textbook neurotic. He is obsessed with his mission to the point of letting all other aspects of his life diminish, prone to emotional volatility, and famously paranoid[8]. If anyone has an “intensified shadow”, it is Batman. Part of this exaggerated shadow is manifested in the Batman persona itself, expressing the repressed fears and emotions aforementioned. But a secondary shadow, a split within his deep unconscious away from what gave form to Batman himself, is given shape and personification through the Joker.


Cover to Batman #15 by Capullo, Miki, and Plascencia.

The Joker is the embodiment of the darkest fears and impulses Batman has: the personification of chaos, a motiveless killer, and perhaps worst of all, a distorted reflection of himself in the way he is driven to dismantle where Batman is determined to improve. The brooding, analytical Bat juxtaposes perfectly against the maniacal, impulsive jester, and, as Nichols has pointed out, together they form a cyclic pair of dueling ideologies. But if we pull the lens further back, it becomes clear that each is only half of a greater whole, each encompassing and personifying extreme aspects of the dualism of human nature. Together, Batman and Joker form a complete Self, what Jung calls a “total personality” (Aion 5). Each character’s strengths are nullified by the other’s, and we could view their battles as if they were fierce moral debates taking place within a single human mind. Above all, this notion that Batman and Joker are so intrinsically linked as to be part of the same Self allegorically demonstrates how good and evil can exist simultaneously within a single personality.

In the events preceding Death of the Family, Batman’s reliance and bond with his Bat-Family has reached a high level of intimacy. He’s never had more wards and allies than at this point in his publication history, including his biological son, Damian Wayne. This progression shows a deviation from the traditional emotionally removed portrayal of Batman, and indicates a willingness for deeper intimacy, and perhaps a healthier way of coping with the tragedy that led to his becoming Batman in the first place. By letting others get close, Batman is making personal strides towards a restored personality. But if we understand Joker to be a shadow-split of Batman’s unconscious, such a move towards closeness would indicate oblivion—if Batman were to become a healthy, intimate individual, the Joker aspect of the Self that embodies his fears of chaos and impulses to tear down relationships would be invalidated. Joker points specifically to the Bat-Family as the cause for what he sees as this lapse in Batman’s resolve, and implies that Batman must realign with Joker through the Family’s deaths:

I’ve come back to save you! Save you from the ones you call your allies. Your table. The ones who make you slow. The ones who make you weak. So you may be reborn as the Bat-Man [sic] this city deserves! (Snyder 13.21, emphasis original)

Here Joker illustrates his aims to boil Batman down to his core persona, what he sees as the counterpart to his own being. Instead of trying to overcome Batman, Joker views himself as bettering the Dark Knight, who wants, as Langley notes, “a Batman who has no other self…whose only deeper layer is further darkness” (ch.2.1). To do so, Joker must rid Batman of his emotional attachments outside of the bond he shares with Joker, specifically the Bat-Family, who connect him to his childhood and reinforce a familial relationship. They are all extensions of his moral code, helping to reinforce the intent behind Batman’s persona, but Joker despises the support Batman shares with them, and wants these “true villains…who’ve ruined [his] dear king” out of the picture in favor of the “criminals [that] feed him…give him purpose” (Snyder 14.22,26). Like Joe Chill, the man who murdered Batman’s parents, in Death of the Family Joker acts as a force to destroy this connection, thereby strengthening the bond he shares with Batman and further equalizing the pairs’ place within the Self.

This kind of reasoning shows a deeply complex deviation from traditional villains, who conventionally try to avoid those heroes that confront them in favor of their own personal schemes, or to destroy the hero altogether and eliminate future threats against them. But Joker has no such motive. His actions come from a need to respond against Batman’s ego through his own shadow-manifestation. The more order and stability Batman achieves, the more chaotic and vicious Joker becomes in kind, acting as an unconscious equal and opposite response to Batman’s awareness within the greater Self. Yet it’s also clear that total dominance is not the Joker’s goal, but rather a shared balance with Batman within the Self. By refusing to kill him, and in trying to make him stronger by killing off what he sees as his attachments, it’s clear that “the Joker needs Batman. The two are a yin-yang swirl of light and dark…” (Wallace 37). Snyder explores this idea even further than a simple need in Death of the Family, elevating Joker’s attachment to Batman from obsession to something deeper:

You stare back and you see it. The smallest flicker in the pupils, but still. And you say to yourself, see? Beneath it all he’s just what you thought he was. A man. And ignore the fact that what you saw those tiny pupils do was expand. Expand for you after you stared back long enough. Ignore the fact that what you saw those black points expand with…was love. (Snyder 15.21, emphasis original).

Joker’s attachment to Batman goes outside any easily explained connection, primarily because he has so few attachments at all[9]. To view the world with chaotic malice while showing such affinity for Batman that it might be construed as love indicates the deeply wrought link between the two characters that goes far beyond any typical adversarial nature.

Conversely, where Joker’s attachment reaches levels of love for Batman (with violent flashes of rage and frustration), Batman’s connection to Joker is based on fear and hate. For a man who has taken on the fearsome persona of a bat, beats criminals into bloody pulps, and has conquered nearly every human weakness within himself, the Joker nullifies Batman’s strength in how deeply he can affect him. Numerous times in Death of the Family, Batman’s usually menacing slitted eyes are rendered as wide orbs of terror by Capullo’s pencils. It’s only the Joker, the shadow-split of Batman’s darkest unconscious, who can arouse such fear in him, because Joker is formed from the very darkest fears that Batman rebels against. Where Batman is entirely defined by his past, Joker has no past at all.

Where Batman can periodically break from the intensity of being consumed by the Batman persona by removing his mask, under the Joker’s grin is “just more grin” (Snyder 17.8). And where Batman steels himself against a line he will not cross—the line of murder—Joker kills so indiscriminately that often a death simply serves a punch line. Superficially, this dichotomy drives Batman towards violence in encounters with Joker, where he channels his emotions into anger to try and stop the villain. But on occasion his resolve slips, and the fear that drives that anger is revealed, illustrating one of the key components of their relationship: attraction and repulsion.

Death of the Family 16.13Death of the Family 17.4Death of the Family 17.5Death of the Family 17.7

During the climax of “Death of the Family”, Joker has kidnapped the Bat-Family, bound and seated them around a table within the Bat-Cave system with bandages around their faces covered in blood, placed silver dining cloches in front of each of them, and sat Batman at the head of the table in a throne-like chair rigged to engulf the room in flames if he moves. After removing the cloches, which reveal the severed faces of the Bat-Family, placed before each respective member, Joker tries to emphasize the connection between himself and Batman:

They’re not like you and me, you see, not under the skin. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you! Why I did this to my own sweet mug. To show you… Show you that beneath these faces, well, it’s just soft, tender stuff. Stuff you could poke your finger through. Beneath my grin, though, is just more grin! Ha ha! And beneath that face of yours is something snouted and fanged and lovely and that’s what this is about. Reminding you of the bond we share, you and I! (Snyder 17.8, emphasis original)

Here Joker perfectly illustrates how he and Batman are both intrinsically connected while being separate from all other intimate connections. As the shadow-split of Batman’s unconscious, Joker sees the Bat-Family and their connection to Batman as falsehoods that distill the only true linkage he sees as relevant, that between him and Batman, the two greatest components of Bruce Wayne’s shadow. When Joker first confronts Batman in Death of the Family, he tells the Dark Knight explicitly, “I couldn’t stand it anymore, missing you … my shadow”, making this link all the more clear (Snyder 13.20). Yet while Joker needs Batman, is indeed a piece of him that has emerged through his inability to form relationships and confront disorder cathartically, through his intimacy with the Bat-Family, Batman no longer relies on Joker to fulfill the balance within the greater Self. For while Batman can exist without the Joker, the inverse is impossible given that the Joker is a product of Batman’s inferiorities. This is a truth that Joker spends the story failing to accept, until its climactic ending, where Batman threatens Joker not with a fist, but with the supposed knowledge of his true identity:

…I did it, Joker…I broke the spell. I did what you wouldn’t do. Right here is where you turned back, isn’t it? Right at this drop, where the boat dives. Not because you couldn’t hold on, but because you wouldn’t want to know [who I really am]. But see, me, I’m not like you…Not anymore, Joker. And this year, while you were away, I finally deduced it. Who you were before. …Your name, your real name is—

[Joker shocks Batman with an electric buzzer in the mouth before leaping off a cliff]

Joker: SHUT UP! (Snyder 17.20-3)

Joker recoils, and falls from a cliff into a dark abyss to disappear. Batman defeats Joker by inverting the very nature of what he is as this shadow-split—he gives him an identity, he gives him order. Like two polarized magnets, Joker is repelled away from this very idea, because to accept such a thing would mean assimilation into the other shadow-split, into Batman himself, thus nullifying Joker’s very existence within the Self.

And yet, Batman has not been truly victorious in the end. He has sent Joker back to his dark corner of the unconscious, temporarily weakened, yet the dichotomy remains. In the wake of Death of the Family, Batman and the Bat-Family’s relationships are wounded due to Batman’s inability to trust them, and in a way Joker claims a victory here too. Simply through Joker’s reappearance in the events of the story, Batman receded away from the Family towards his shadow-split, and has lost footing with them in the process. The way which Batman and Joker reset at the story’s conclusion emphasizes how good and evil are necessarily linked, with neither able to overtake the other. As allegorical narrative, then, Batman and Joker become a mechanism for the exploration of human nature, albeit in typically heightened comic book form. Their psychic tug-of-war exemplifies forces that exist within all of us, as our perceptions are struck upon by the shadows we haven’t the awareness to see.


[1] Batman and Joker debuted together in Batman #1 (1940) shortly after Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 (1939).

[2] Death of the Family (2012) takes place during a violent storm, with Joker’s appearance and disappearance relative to the coming and receding of heavy rains. The Killing Joke (1988), too, is bookended by explicit images of rain droplets, and also occurs during heavy rains.

[3] Batman’s inner circle of crimefighter allies: Robin (Damien Wayne), Red Robin (Tim Drake, formerly the third Robin), Nightwing (Dick Grayson, formerly the first Robin), Red Hood (Jason Todd, formerly the second Robin), Batgirl (Barbara Gordon), and Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler, childhood guardian, and Batman’s greatest confidant.

[4] Joker murders numerous police officers at Gotham’s Police Department by snapping their necks under cover of darkness all the while taunting Commissioner Gordon by telling jokes.

[5] Joker had previously killed Jason Todd by beating him to death with a crowbar (who was later resurrected), shot and paralyzed Barbara Gordon, tortured Jim Gordon, and murdered Sarah Gordon, Jim’s second wife.

[6] See Batman: Year One by Miller and Mazzucchelli (1987), The Man Who Falls by O’Neil and Giordano (1989), and Batman: Zero Year by Snyder and Capullo (2013), among others.

[7] Young Bruce Wayne had a notorious fear of bats, and in becoming Batman he conquers this phobia and uses it against his foes.

[8] While Batman is one of the most trusted members of the Justice League, he has also revealed on many occasions his specialized contingency measures for each hero within the group in the event he must ever confront them (e.g., a Kryptonite ring for use against Superman, etc.).

[9] One notable exception being his sometime companion Harley Quinn, though Joker treats her incredibly cruelly in Death of the Family in favor of carrying out his plan to bring Batman closer to him (See Snyder 13.22,13.25-30).


Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2008. ePub.

Finger, Bill, writer. Pencils by Bob Kane. Inks & letters by Jerry Robinson, Sheldon Moldoff. Batman #1. New York: DC Comics, 1940. Comixology.

Jung, Carl G. Aion: Researches Into the Phenomenology of the Self. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. New York: Pantheon Books Inc. 1959. Print.

—. Psychology and Religion: West and East. Eds. Robert Read, Michael Fordham, Gerhard Adler. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. New York: Pantheon Books Inc. 1958. Print.

Langley, Travis. Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2012. ePub.

Miller, Frank, writer & artist. Inks by Klaus Jansen. Colors by Lynn Varley. Letters by John Costanza. The Dark Knight Returns. New York: DC Comics, 1986. Print.

Nichols, Michael. “I Think You And I Are Destined to Do This Forever: A Reading of the Batman/Joker Comic And Film Tradition Through the Combat Myth”. Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 23.2 (2011): 236. Academic OneFile. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

Rollin, Roger B. “Beowulf to Batman: The Epic Hero and Pop Culture”. College English 31.5 (1970): 431. JSTOR. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

Snyder, Scott, James Tynion IV, writers. Art by Greg Capullo, Jock. Inks by Jonathan Glapion. Colors by FCO Plascenia, Dave Baron. Lettering by Richard Starkings, et al. Death of the Family. NY: DC Comics, 2013. Print. Issues #13-17. Vol. 3 of Batman.

Wallace, Daniel. The Joker: A Visual History of the Clown Prince of Crime. New York, NY: Universe Publishing, 2011. Print.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>