Thelonia Saunders has been learning about Tarot cards since a young age, though her fascination is more on the skeptical side. For the Science section‘s Skepticism Month, we asked her to take a look at the cards of everyone’s favorite, gruesome new character, the Batman Who Laughs (of DC’s Dark Nights: Metal), to see what she thinks.
Tarot decks exist in every style imaginable. It’s not surprising, then, to see one in the DC Universe . Slightly more surprising might be that Tarot is one of the trademarks of the horrifying new villain of Dark Nights: Metal, the Batman Who Laughs.
In the one-shot that describes his origin, a Joker-like Batman uses Tarot cards with representations of DC characters on them to recount the tale. The exact methods are a bit iffy scientifically, but if you accept the concept that the chemicals that made the Joker would release like a grenade upon his death, then you’ll be fine taking the leap of logic to its next step – when pushed to finally kill the Joker, Batman becomes infected himself and slowly turns more and more mad, as the nanotoxins eat up his brain.
Rather quickly, Joker-Batman manages to take out basically all of the Justice League, wrapping up his story with a hellish vision of things to come.
Despite its heavy presence at the core of the story, the Tarot deck is used as less of a divinatory tool (as it has been for centuries) and more of a physical representation of different characters in the story, with a few added judgments in regard to which cards they’re chosen to represent.
Of the few cards shown, most are clearly modeled after the most iconic Tarot deck, the Rider-Waite. In the few cards we see clearly, Batman replaces The Hermit (a card which represents isolation and wisdom), Superman is The Magician (representing power and magic), and Wonder Woman, being a sort of ambiguous figure who could be seen as Justice, The Sun, or the High Priestess (her lacking any specific identifier reflects her status as a multi-faceted character). The last card is probably the most important – the Joker.
Interestingly, the Tarot deck, unlike a regular playing card deck, does not have a Joker card. The closest Tarot card is The Fool, who is seen to be the common thread of the deck, and often represents the reader. This would reflect his presence in the story as the main actor behind it all, and his central presence in all other characters’ lives, despite not being pictured on more than that one card.
There is another bit of conflation with regular playing card decks – when the Batman Who Laughs says the King is the “highest valued card in the deck,” it’s more applicable to regular playing cards. Tarot, of course, has the suites that make up the card deck, though they are named differently – the Tarot’s Pentacles, Swords, Cups, and Sticks/Wands translating to Diamonds, Spades, Hearts, and Clubs.
The King is indeed the highest card of the Minor Arcana suites, but in Tarot the Major Arcana (containing cards like The Sun, The Hanged Man, Temperance, etc.) are the more important cards. This could be a slight confusion on the writer’s part of course, but it’s interesting in that it highlights the way in which there is a difference in characters’ deemed importance – the King is thought to be highest, but he is nothing when compared to the forces that control all players.
In many ways, this use of the cards as a storytelling tool is a return to Tarot’s roots – first appearing in European texts around the 15th century, one of the suggested games you could play with a deck used the iconographic cards (78 in all, each with their own unique meaning) to tell a story. In The Batman Who Laughs #1, the idea is less to tell the future (as would become popular in the 1800s), but rather to expose the past.
It’s interesting to examine a Tarot deck using DC characters as the illustrations, because there is a strange contradiction here in regards to the design of Tarot cards. While the traditional Tarot cards are not supposed to represent anyone in particular (mostly due to the main use of the cards being the actions of symbols), the deck shown in this issue puts more emphasis on the characters than the symbology.
But the characters themselves hold such a rich history and background that the net effect is basically the same – a Tarot deck is traditionally meant to be readable to everyone who looked at them without knowing the meanings beforehand. For DC fans, and people familiar with the characters, the DC deck would be more immediately understandable. Which is ultimately what you want in a Tarot Deck.
These cards in Green Arrow #32 are more specific, though they’re not actually Tarot cards, but rather something more like Oracle cards. Here, they read more like a LeNormand Deck (a deck created in the late 18th century by Marie Anne Lenormand, darling of the French high Society). These are less iconic because they’re more straightforwardly illustrative, but they remain popular, mostly due to the ease with which one can read them.
All in all, I could definitely see more being done with the cards here. There are 78 cards in a Tarot deck, so the surface has only been scratched there, especially if we’re bringing other types of divination decks into play. I was going to end with a crack about being sad there’s no deck by Dave McKean (the artist of the Arkham Asylum graphic novel), but I just found out that he did in fact illustrate a Vertigo Deck, so I’m off to find a copy immediately. Cheers!