HEAT VISION

How 'Curse of the White Knight' Explores Batman's Hidden Past

Creator Sean Murphy explains his take on the Dark Knight and the Joker.
Sean Murphy/DC
Creator Sean Murphy explains his take on the Dark Knight and the Joker.

Even Batman doesn’t know everything about what’s going on in Gotham — or about his own family history. What he doesn’t know is at the heart of the new comic book series Batman: Curse of the White Knight, launching this week from writer/artist Sean Murphy.

The eight-issue miniseries continues the story set in motion by Murphy in 2017’s massively successful Batman: White Knight, and continues that series’ combination of thrilling superhero adventure and exploration into the basic Batman concept, and the characters around him. The Joker, having “recovered” from his time as the sane (yet still dangerous) Jack Napier, has a new plan in motion, and it’s one that involves the history of Gotham City, Bruce Wayne’s ancestors and a certain religious figure with a flaming sword who might be familiar to Batfans of a certain age.

Heat Vision talked to Murphy about the series, and what other plans he may have for the future of the White Knight property as a whole.

At what point in the creation of Batman: White Knight did the idea of continuing the story occur to you? Curse of the White Knight feels like a surprisingly organic follow-up to a story that felt complete.

When I was scripting the final issue.

I wrote the series thinking it might be my only chance to write and draw Batman. As the numbers for issue three came in — they'd kept going up each issue — I realized DC would probably let me continue a White Knight series indefinitely. I was wrapping up issue eight at the time, and thought, “I should probably add something that will get readers excited about a sequel.” So when Bruce is reading the note from Alfred, who died saving Bruce, I added a “PS: Check under the floorboard in my quarters. There's something there you're ready to see,” not really being sure what that would be.

My original idea for the last page was for Bruce to discover what Alfred had buried. But my editor thought it was tighter to end on Bruce revealing himself to Gordon.

One of the things that made White Knight so interesting was that it was a Joker story that was, well, about the void of the Joker. Jack Napier was — especially to hear the Joker talk about it — explicitly not the Joker, but instead an alternate persona. Curse features a very Joker-y Joker prominently; was it strange to finally use a more traditional version of the character? 

It's funny, my editor called me after reading the script for Curse, and he said, “It's funny — White Knight was one of the best Joker stories ever, and you did it without really writing the Joker.” So I really had to think about how I wanted my Joker to act.

So, I made Joker a fanboy. And Batman is his favorite toy.

I started with the version of him from the Animated Series cartoon in the '90s, voiced by Mark Hamill. I kept asking myself “What would Mark do? What kind of Joker did I like when I was a kid?” and tried to go from there. Mine isn't a super violent Heath Ledger type — in my world, GCPD have never been able to prove Joker actually murdered anyone. Even though everyone knows he's probably a serial killer.

Talking about characters who have changed and not changed from where we left them: It’s interesting — and rewarding — to see that Bruce Wayne is still dealing with the lesson he learned at the end of Batman: White Knight; that Batman is far from the effective tool for the good of Gotham that he had imagined himself to be. And yet, Bruce Wayne continues to be Batman, even after admitting that so much of who and what Batman is, is rooted in his ego and not in the altruism he imagined. Beyond simply, “It breaks the series too much,” why is that? After pointing out the limits of Batman in White Knight, does Curse of the White Knight attempt to rebuild Batman, in a way?

I think of the White Knight series as a constant “3rd Act” story. Meaning that each book will feel like the last chapter of Batman. But they won't be.

In Curse, Bruce is struggling with where to take Batman. On one hand he knows Batman has helped Gotham. On the other, he knows continuing to be Batman is problematic, and that you can't really have law, order and justice while also allowing vigilantism. But coming out might also hurt the city.

To make things worse, Joker decides to begin his “finale” — one he doesn't plan on surviving — by telling Batman “the greatest joke in Gotham.” The joke is this: Batman can never fix crime in Gotham, because of the “curse” brought on by the Waynes.

Batman’s working with the Gotham Terrorist Oppression Unit — or at least Nightwing and Batgirl — in this series, but sees himself as separate from them; he’s clearly not lost that ego even despite what should/could have been his humbling in White Knight. The GTO is a fun new twist on the familiar trope of Batman’s family; it’s got very familiar faces, but distanced from the Dark Knight in a way that’s not been shown before. Are we going to see more of them, and the tension between them and Batman, throughout the series?

Yes — the GTO are an important element to the book because they represent “vigilantism evolved”. Bruce is tempted the join them — he very much wants to fix Batman and the damage he caused to Gotham. But it's hard because he's not a team player.

The GTO is an idea Bruce would have endorsed long before he became Batman. But after years of being Batman, he's having trouble accepting them. And he can't figure out why.

Your reimagining of Azrael is arguably the biggest departure from traditional Batman canon of everything in the White Knight mythos. What brought you to this version of Jean-Paul Valley? And what can you say about him, without spoiling the story?

I based Jean-Paul Valley after John Rambo in First Blood — a misunderstood veteran who takes it too far.

Azrael's very much the antagonist, but his PTSD and his “warrior culture” code of ethics makes him more empathetic than other villains.

Why Azrael? He’s not the most obvious character to follow up White Knight with, and a character who, dare I say it, may be relatively obscure for those who weren’t reading Batman comics of the 1990s.

I loved reading [classic Batman storyline] Knightfall back in the 90s, and I really wanted to revisit the idea and push it even further than before.

And obviously I wanted to draw fire-swords.

I actually planned on creating a new character for Curse. Part of leaving your mark on Batman is adding a great new villain, and collecting lots of future royalties. [Laughs]

What I created was actually very close to Azrael — a warrior from an ancient cult that had been in Gotham Valley for centuries. I needed a character that was ancient, one who allowed me to revisit historical Gotham, and one who offered a lot of great sword fighting action — I’m a big Zorro fan. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I should just use Azrael.

It's been 20 years since the Knightfall stuff, so I figured the timing was right. I could reinvent him while also getting him back to basics, putting him back in his original costume. DC told me they didn't really have plans for him, so I jumped at the opportunity.

Curse feels like a very different comic than White Knight, in terms of the scope of the comic, if nothing else: The historical opening! The mystery involving the Waynes of the 19th century! What do you hope audiences who enjoyed White Knight get from it? For that matter, what itch does it scratch for you that White Knight didn’t?

I think White Knight is about the present: our politics, our infighting, our fear of the where society is heading. For Curse, I wanted to focus on the past. If Bruce fretting about Batman's impact on Gotham was interesting, imagine if the Wayne's impact on Gotham was much worse! That would screw him up even more.

White Knight is a separate universe, so it deserves a separate origin. So the reader can expect to get a full history of how Gotham began. And the “curse” that eventually lead to Batman.

So what can you tell us about the future of the series as a tease to lure in those who still need to be convinced about it? You talked about White Knight continuing indefinitely earlier. Do you know what that looks like? 

Well, if Vol. 2 is about the past, then Vol. 3 will be about the future. So I'm considering doing a White Knight spin on [animated series] Batman Beyond.

And after than, maybe Superman.

Batman: Curse of the White Knight No. 1 will be released in comic book stores and digitally on July 24.

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