SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Batman: White Knight #4 by Sean Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth, on sale now.
The genesis of The Joker's transformation from villain to hero was seeded in a single Rodney King kind of moment in Sean Murphy's Batman: White Knight #1. Batman's long held role of good guy was immediately challenged, even as The Joker began his ascent as Gotham's new savior. Murphy began his conversion of Jack Napier from The Joker to Gotham's White Knight as a mere flip of the characters' dichotomy, but its meaning continues to deepen.
Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson's initial creation of The Joker, in fact, was rooted in the notion of the villain being a polar opposite to Batman. If the hero has historically served as Gotham's so-called "dark" knight, then like an opposing chess piece, his foe would naturally take on the identity of his "white" counterpart. In Murphy's story, like the traditional white-clad good guy, Napier's ascension to a presumed hero figure adds another level to his new identity as The White Knight. In addition to serving as the yin to Batman's yang, this evolution of the character adds new figurative meaning.
Throughout the series, Napier has been gaining support from the city's denizens. Last issue, in fact, he met with none other than Duke Thomas. In Murphy's story, Duke is the gang leader of Gotham's troubled Backport district, who professes to have done more to keep the peace there than Gotham's corrupt police force. Now, thanks to the events of issue #4, and the added support of Duke and his gang, Napier has made himself a running candidate for the City Council.
And A (Former) Villain Shall Lead Them
Also in the series latest chapter, Murphy adds even more meaning to Napier's moniker. Yes, Murphy goes there – Duke deems Napier as Gotham's "white savior." And by white, he means his skin color. And by skin color, he means his race, not the chemical accident that had once bleached his skin. It's mere wordplay – Duke all but directly calls Napier the city's White Knight. And in (not) doing so, Duke wins his street gang over to Napier's side.
Within Murphy's story, the actual term is subsequently referenced by a conservative political commentator. "He's trying to White Knight a bunch of minorities," says the talking head. Again, Napier himself isn't given White Knight as an actual name, but the sentiment is abundantly clear - Jack Napier, a white man, has officially become Gotham's social warrior for its oppressed minorities.
And with that, let the controversy over this title really begin. A former criminal wins over a bunch of current ones and is hailed as a hero, even as he runs for political office. A corrupt police force is hamstrung by its commissioner, who refuses to arrest the man who stands to expose his department's crimes. And the traditional hero who worked alongside these tainted officials only seems to keep making matters worse. Heroes have become villains and vice versa, and no one can really be sure who to root for.
The moral ambiguity continues in Batman: White Knight #5, on sale February 7.