DC’s latest crossover event Knight Terrors is here, plunging the superheroes and the supervillains of the DC Universe directly into their own worst nightmares. With the DCU’s biggest icons all affected by this insidious threat through their subconsciousness, not even the Joker is safe from the coming evil. However, whereas many of the other heroes and villains’ nightmares are more conventionally rendered firmly within the horror genre, the Joker’s foray into his mind offers a more unique Knight Terrors experience in the miniseries Knight Terrors: The Joker by Matthew Rosenberg and Stefano Raffaele.
Here’s how Knight Terrors is poised to shake up the entire DCU, what the Joker witnesses as he delves into his nightmare-driven mind while he sleeps, and what the Clown Prince of Crime’s bloody dreams reveal about his psyche in all its fittingly twisted glory.
The horrifying stakes of Knight Terrors
Helmed by Joshua Williamson, Knight Terrors is part of the Dawn of DC publishing initiative, which begins following the 2022 crossover event Dark Crisis on Infinite Earths by Williamson and Daniel Sampere. In the wake of the Justice League disbanding, a new supervillain named Insomnia surfaces and murders the other dream-manipulating villain Doctor Destiny as he searches for an artifact known as the Nightmare Stone. Realizing that Destiny hid the Stone away in his enemies’ dreams, Insomnia causes much of the world to fall asleep where they fall prey to his nightmares as he continues his hunt for the Nightmare Stone.
The Knight Terrors Free Comic Book Day 2023 Special reveals that, for those affected by the nightmares, the ordeal isn’t a simple matter of facing and overcoming one’s greatest fears brought to life. Insomnia delves deeper into his victims’ subconscious, unearthing more from each of his victims’ repressed minds to deliver a creepy and surreal gauntlet for them to endure. Unaware of the danger, the Joker falls asleep and finds himself in a nightmare that initially seems like his greatest dream come true: The death of Batman.
The Joker’s bad dream
The Joker’s nightmare begins just like another classic confrontation between him and Batman, with the Dark Knight confronting his nemesis on a Gotham rooftop during a rainy night. The usual pleasantries take a drastically different turn when Batman slips on the slick roof and falls face first on the hard concrete, knocking himself out cold. As the Joker and his goons watch in shock, the unconscious Caped Crusader then falls off the roof and plummets to his grisly death on the streets below.
After confirming his longtime foe is indeed dead, the Joker attempts to continue his criminal ambitions but finds that things just aren’t as fulfilling with his arch-enemy no longer around to challenge him. Languishing in his boredom, the Joker gets an office job at Wayne Enterprises under an assumed identity, caught in the humdrum of working of white collar employment. Even after getting away with murdering prying co-workers, the Joker is increasingly frustrated by the tedium of his daily life and, even worse, is annoyed when his co-workers find him hilarious.
A psyche more fractured than imagined
The idea of the Joker losing his love of crime and outright chaos in the absence of Batman isn't a new insight for the character but Rosenberg and Raffaele provide a bloody workplace comedy twist to it. Without Batman around, the Joker isn’t delighted by his victory at all, and certainly not because it was Batman himself who caused his own demise – an important distinction and one that leaves the reader wondering how the villain would’ve reacted if he killed Batman instead. Though the Joker initially tries to see if Wayne Enterprises possesses any experimental weapons or access to its corporate fortunes, he quickly settles into the white collar routine, if only because he has nothing better to do.
The more interesting wrinkle is that the Joker is more put off than pleased when his co-workers respond positively to his jokes in stark contrast to his usual comedic reception. Perhaps more than any other villain in the DCU, the Joker is a criminal who wants an audience to notice his terrifying ambitions but Knight Terrors makes it clear that the Clown Prince of Crime isn’t necessarily doing it for the applause. The Joker is spinning murderous gags for his own sadistic enjoyment and he doesn’t appreciate having to share that amusement with anyone else, with his co-workers’ laughter visibly driving him up the wall.
The Joker’s toxic codependency with the Dark Knight
The Joker quickly rose through the ranks to become Batman’s definitive villain, but the Clown Prince of Crime developing a noticeably unhealthy obsession with the Dark Knight really began during Steve Englehart’s run on Detective Comics from issues #469-476. When the criminal mastermind Hugo Strange learns Bruce Wayne’s secret identity as Batman and plans to auction it off to the highest bidder, the Joker derails the proceedings to preserve the secret as he wouldn’t want to be relegated to “humbling mere policemen.” Frank Miller cements this twisted connection between the two adversaries in The Dark Knight Returns, with the Joker emerging from catatonia when he learns Batman is active again after a lengthy self-imposed retirement.
The 1994 comic book story 'Going Sane,' by J.M. DeMatteis, Joe Staton, and Steve Mitchell has the Joker believe he succeeds in killing Batman in an explosion. With his criminal ambitions satisfied, the Joker develops a civilian identity for himself as unassuming suburbanite Joseph Kerr, before he gets a regular job and romances his neighbor. Upon learning that Batman actually survived their past showdown and is active once again, the Joker immediately ditches his new persona and resumes his supervillain rampage in Gotham City.
This story offers the most salient counterpoint to Knight Terrors: The Joker, with the villain able to enjoy his final victory, if only temporarily, compared to the Joker’s nightmare world. In both stories, the Joker outlasts Batman but whereas the Joker can’t help but fall into murderous habits in Knight Terrors, he quietly retires in “Going Sane,” feeling fulfilled in his presumed accomplishment of killing his nemesis. In Knight Terrors, the Joker is bitterly disappointed he didn’t get to deliver his final punchline on the Dark Knight, robbed of his chance by a lethal moment of pure slapstick.
As long as Batman exists, the Joker continues his criminal antics, seeing the Caped Crusader as something of a twisted playmate and the only one who can truly appreciate what he’s up to. Without him, the Joker’s life as a supervillain just doesn’t offer the same sense of the thrill, leading him to attempt to restore a sense of normalcy in his daily routine. However, as Knight Terrors reveal, the Joker’s broken mind has its own unique approach to this attempt at reformation and one with terrifying implications for both the Clown Prince of Crime and wider DCU.
Knight Terrors: The Joker #1 is written by Matthew Rosenberg, illustrated by Stefano Raffaele, colored by Romulo Fajardo, Jr., and lettered by Tom Napolitano. The story continues in Knight Terrors: The Joker #2, on sale Aug. 1.