The Taste of Death
Murderous mayo? Deadly Dijon? Some fatality on your French Fries?
Just what is the Sultan of Sauce’s weapon of choice? Because we learned something new in Batman #54, released earlier this month–the Condiment King is a serial killer.
“King robbed seven grocery stores this week. Killed three employees,” Batman tells his longtime trusted ally Richard Grayson.
This quick line penned by another King–Tom King, Batman’s current writer–reveals quite a bit about the Prince of Pickles, another interesting new layer for a character who already has plenty.
And it threw me–the self-appointed historian of the Condiment King’s reign of terror–back for a moment. Our lovable King, who only wanted to channel his love of additives to a useful purpose, is a blood-thirsty killer?
The Condiment King, perhaps one of Batman’s least-known and rarest foes, began as a cruel prank by the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series. As explained in my summer blog post on the character, he was originally a comedian who kicked a disguised Joker off a stand-up comedy competition, and soon found himself mind-controlled into an idiotic crime spree as a twisted and brilliant act of revenge. A meta-joke on Batman’s excessive villains from TAS co-creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, the King osmosed into the official DC canon and managed to quietly drip through 15 years of Gotham history. He became a mild favorite for writers when they needed a comic note–picked from the vast roster of DC malefactors and inserted into a scene here or there, probably without a ton of thought.
Could such a person actually be capable of taking a life? Upon reflection–of course he would. In his first official comic book appearance, he tried to set off a deadly mustard bomb at a mall food court. He was hopped up on Joker venom, but talk to any alcoholic–you can’t blame it all on the sauce. And it wasn’t the last time he tried out spice-based explosives.
As Robin pointed years later, “Sure, he seems like a joke. Until he blinds someone…or sends them into anaphylactic shock.”
And he is a villain. In Gotham. What on Earth convinced me he wasn’t up for some murder?
But that’s part of what makes him great. He’s kind of a villain, and he’s kind of not. And he’s half-aware of this and winking about it–and he’s still being a villain while he winks. That’s all part of the wonderful contradiction that is the Confounding Condiment King.
So just how did I come to become obsessed with one very unique figure in Batman’s rogue’s gallery?
It all started two years ago when I saw the Lego Batman Movie. I was intrigued, as I guess anyone would be, by the King’s funny appearance in the film’s opening sequence. At first I assumed (as does the airplane pilot in the scene) that the Condiment King was surely made up. Then I learned that, no, he’s an actual canon Batman villain. A little while later I learned that he was not, as one might guess, a crazy Silver Age creation. He was an in-joke in the normally quite serious Batman Animated Series. I thought that was interesting since jokes-on-jokes rarely worked, and this one seemed to. But I didn’t give it much thought.
I eventually ran into him again, reading Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty’s “Batgirl: Year One.” On the page, Condiment King is an apparently teenaged fast food employee, who lost it on the subway and began squirting passersby with ketchup and mustard bottles. Now I was really interested. Not only was this a clever way to introduce Condiment King to the official DC canon, it also seemed like some ingenious world-building. Of course Gotham would have usual yahoos on the subway alongside the brilliant megalomaniacs, and the interaction between them would be fascinating. I had to learn more.
My next discovery was even better. That subway incident was an origin story. It retold an event which Dixon had introduced a few years before in Birds of Prey #37. King’s arrest and incarceration at Arkham Asylum hardened him into your more typical Gotham ne’er-do-well, donning his familiar costume. And, just as in the show, the Joker was involved in his conversion to supervillainy.
And so on and so on. With every new appearance there was another little joke, another wink that added another layer of irony to it. It was turtles all the way down, but the turtles were Tabasco. And the whole thing formed a tragic arc that couldn’t have possibly been planned by anyone, yet felt real.
I decided I had to write all of this down. It would be a funny little blog post that I might have a shot at injecting into the bloodstream of the comic book world. But, honestly, I expected it to be barely noticed by anyone, just one of many bizarre things I do on a daily basis. I wrote it, tweeted it out, and pretty much forgot about it.
My first indication that I had hit some ketchup-filled vein is when my friend Jim Swift linked to it in his daily roundup for the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard. I definitely didn’t see that one coming.
“I found his deep dive into the history of the Condiment King very interesting. And I don’t even like comic books!” Jim wrote.
He wasn’t the only one. By the time my mom told me she liked that thing I wrote about “the guy with the mustard gun,” I knew I’d stumbled onto something special. It was suddenly my mission in life to spread this as thickly and widely as I could. (One thing I learned: there’s a point at which your brain simply refuses to make more condiment puns. I don’t know how the Condiment King does it.)
I began to frantically send the post to anyone I thought might be willing to promote something Batman-related. Many complied. I tried as hard as I could to get it circulated in the very insular world of superhero fans and creators, and while I didn’t quite succeed I still had a lot of fun. I got Paul Dini, the Condiment King’s original co-creator, to tweet it out on July 4th. I got Lilah Sturges, one of his writers, to brag that she had done “the world a service” by “killing that motherfucker.”
I had somehow crowned myself the world’s living expert on the Condiment King–I’d have to be because I can’t find a single other thing ever written about him. And now I was acting like some mad evangelist for mayonnaise, perplexing everyone since I’m not even a foodie, let alone a condiment fanatic.
I mean, no one really is, right? Folks like to argue about which one’s the best but that’s just because they like sandwiches and tacos. There are BBQ sauce connoisseurs who know the flavors of sugar and vinegar like a sommelier knows grapes. Some people, for some reason, have strong feelings about mayonnaise. No one really has strong feelings about ketchup because everyone knows Heinz is the best. (Everyone’s wrong, though–it’s Red Gold.)
But condiments in general? Who gets obsessed with that? I’m sure there’s someone out there who is as passionate about condiments as Jason Bateman is about extracts in “Extract,” but I don’t expect to ever bump into this person.
And that, of course, is the joke with the Condiment King. Batman’s famous for the goofy villains, but you can normally wrap your head around their concepts. It’s insane to think that one could really become fascinated with calendars, pennies, or 17th-century swashbuckling to the degree that it leads to a crime spree. But in the DC Universe you concede it’s possible. (In the modern canon, Tom King came up with a devastating reason why Kite Man is so obsessed with kites.)
But you couldn’t conceivably get so obsessed with condiments, in any universe. That’s what makes it so funny. It’s funny that the Condiment King slightly misunderstands the idea of being a supervillain, and it’s funny that the DC Universe is so absurd that he almost fits in anyways. It’s funny that he would think condiments are scary, and it’s funny that he’d do enough damage with them that the superheroes have to deal with it. The whole thing is just funny.
It’s funny even when it’s tragic, as when the King runs into a gang of actual villains and, consequently, runs into the Human Flame’s fist. (That’s the senseless homicide that Sturges was bragging about.) I felt bad about the sequence of events that lead him from being a subway miscreant to bad guy roadkill, but it was hard to feel he didn’t have it coming. He chose this life, after all.
It would feel different if the Condiment King were a loser with adorable delusions of villainous grandeur, like a Minion or the Brain. But he isn’t written that way. For the most part he takes his crimes seriously and the DC Universe sort of does too. And again, that’s funny.
The Condiment King is a delicious sandwich with tangy pesto, sriracha mayo, the finest ketchup, and no meat. It’s just all jokes, but jokes have been layered on top of each other to form a sculpture that’s exquisitely (and unconsciously) crafted.
That’s why, despite my copious research, I’d be stumped to come up with a description of his personality. That’s a hell of a thing to say about a Batman villain. I could stop a random stranger on the street and they’d be able to tell me at least one behavioral trait of the Joker, Catwoman, Riddler, or Penguin. Bane’s kind of a blank slate but his actions do the talking. The Silver Age villains are one-note, but you can feel the megalomania. With Condiment King–I guess he’s stupid because he’d have to be, but that’s all I’ve got.
That a villain with no personality could fit so easily in the background of Gotham–a city which literally exists to showcase villains’ personalities–is funny. And it’s funny, but also a bit jarring, when he comes into conflicts with the actual bad guys. Not just funny and jarring, but revealing.
The Condiment King is ultimately one of many examples of the Batman mythology talking to itself. There’s no need to belabor here what most already know, that Batman has veered wildly from noir, to extravagant and earnest sci-fi, to self-parody, and then back to gritty (and oxymoronic) heroic noir. But the interaction between these genres is an important and often overlooked point. There aren’t just many Batmen–they send each other notes.
Condiment King isn’t the only example of this in Batman: The Animated Series. This beloved show, pointed to by many Batfans as the purest expression of the mythology, mostly drew from the lean Neal Adams/Denny O’Neil years. But it occasionally glanced at Batman’s wild days–one episode riffs on a famous comic of kids trading Batman stories around a campfire to indulge in vignettes of old-fashioned Batman imagery and the brutal cyberpunk of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. The mercurial extra-dimensional imp Bat-Mite once appeared as a toy robot.
Speaking of Bat-Mite, he’s the occasional narrator of the underrated “Batman: The Brave and the Bold,” a three-year animated series which explores the Silver Age adventurism with a self-awareness that never curdles into ironic distance. The show loves that era of Batman, but the whole point is that you know, and they know, that it’s in the past. (When it comes to fourth-wall breaking, Deadpool’s got nothing on Bat-Mite, who in the series finale accidentally uses his reality-altering powers to erase his own existence in a bid to make the show darker.)
Or consider the grandaddy of them all, the famed Adam West show–which now can only be watched as an absurdist satire but was served up sincerely at the time as children’s entertainment. The actors performed it with such mad conviction you could never quite tell. (This is why I find the recent animated work trying to expand on this to be nearly unwatchable.)
The changes and evolutions in the Batman mythology, which always seem so natural and organic to me in retrospect, actually felt like nothing of the sort at the time. In The Caped Crusade, Glen Weldon details how Batman grew internally through a mix of editorial decisions and reactions amidst the strange new phenomenon of interactive fan obsession. Batman feels so hugely important that it’s kind of mind-blowing to remember that he’s just this thing some people wrote–people doing their desperate best to use whatever artistic sensibilities were at their disposal to meet relentless market demands. They had no idea if they were doing “real” Batman or not–and fans weren’t shy about letting them know when they felt it was the latter. But they had to publish or perish.
Of course in the mad dash for new material they’d start to look backwards. And eventually looking backwards became an important part of the legend too.
If you want to see this happening now, in real-time, check out Lego Batman. Will Arnett–as any Bojack Horseman fan knows, a maestro of voice-over work–and the geniuses at Warner Brothers have created something that’s already made a cultural mark. He first descended on his Bat-Plane into the Lego Movie as a perfect comic note in a deliriously fun movie.
The Lego Batman Movie, while still a damn good time, didn’t feel quite as successful. Given center stage, he seemed like a parody stretched a bit thin. But is he a parody? There are so many things about him that don’t really feel like Batman to me–his extroverted cockiness, his transparent egomania, his over-sensitivity to criticism. And what to make of how he flies through all of the different eras and tones of the Caped Crusader’s mythology, with no apparent grounding? (The movie has Condiment King and the quite serious Mutant Leader from “Dark Knight Returns” working together.) The overall Lego Batman concept hits the mark perfectly as a satire, but can it be thought of as the real deal?
(Given how unsuccessful the latest live-action movies with Batman have been, the dynamic reminds me of the late 90s, when the Austin Powers franchise started to outshine the dwindling Pierce Brosnan James Bond movies.)
But if Lego Batman is a parody, what do you call Adam West? And if both are parodies, is there any distinction? (Unlike West’s Batman, Arnett’s deals with his parents’ deaths.) If I hadn’t read Weldon’s great book and learned more about how this works, I might plant my flag on this and deny Arnett his official Bat-ears. But now I know too much about how this works–as contradictory as it seems now, the Lego Batman will soon be absorbed into the mythology because Arnett and his co-creators have earned their place in it. And this is always what happens.
But I’m not just talking about the goofy stuff.
Superstar Scottish writer Grant Morrison took the helm for Batman in 2006 and shocked everyone with a 7-year run that took the legend to totally unexpected places. (Including, literally, the grave.) As he tells it, he was daunted by the challenge of adding to a 70-year-old character and became frustrated as he found that anything he thought of had been done decades earlier. He eventually decided that was his angle and tried to compress all of the history into one lifetime. He took the contemporary incarnation and doubled it back over into the Silver Age craziness, finding new and inventive ways to reconcile the wild changes. (It involves a lot of drugs.) The aforementioned Bat-Mite became Bat Might, some weird expression of Bruce Wayne’s id. The Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, a mirror Batman from a distant planet in the 50s, became a brutal back-up personality he stored in case his brain ever got hijacked. Morrison’s obsessive desire to drill down into the comics mythology to find new concepts is quite infectious. When it’s good, it’s really good. When it just barely misses the mark, it’s an ungodly mess.
Morrison trimmed a lot of the overt tortured anti-hero stuff that seemed so definitional to Batman, claiming it wouldn’t have made sense for such an accomplished figure. But the character doesn’t feel much lighter because of the weight of all this history, and the world he inhabits. The concept gave Morrison new freedom–Batman was somehow fighting a still-terrifying Joker while also jet-setting around the globe to set up new Batman franchises in a play on the hero alliances of decades ago. Just how weird does this get? There’s a Batcow–and it isn’t out of place, logically or thematically, in a story about a skull-masked supervillaness trying to destroy the world with an army of murderous vampire bats and giant mutant offspring.
It feels like the good Batman, the one you really like–that infusion of expressionist noir, macabre Gothicism, high stakes and grim heroism. But it somehow has all of it, even the bizarre sci-fi stuff. And Morrison forges a new, strong connection between Batman and the reader because both are trying to process how this all could possibly have happened to one person. Haven’t we all wondered that about Batman?
Five years later, the Morrison run is an integral part of the Batman mythos that’s still influencing the organic whole. (I see Morrison’s fingerprints all over Lego Batman Movie and its emphasis on Batman’s family.) It’s just one more part of this pop culture concoction’s conversation with itself.
Where does Condiment King fit into that conversation? I see him as an imp hovering in the background, adding a bit of lubrication over all of these parts with a concoction of sauces. A walking wink, adding an almost invisible level of self-awareness, letting readers know it’s OK to laugh at the weirdness of it while still loving the whole thing.
So to round this out, let’s absorb the new information that Tom King has given us. Batman #54 is a one-shot which darts around in time, so it’s not entirely clear to me when his brief appearance takes place. This is important because when we last saw him he was living a crime-free life as a Coney Island hot dog vendor in Harley Quinn #41. It would be a pity–but somehow also an inevitability–if that peaceful dream was shattered.
Aside from his body count (3), we’ve learned that he’s knocking off grocery stores, which I also think is new. Why do that? Oh right–as Willie Sutton might say, that’s where the mayo is. I’d think one real bank heist would net enough to buy all of the ketchup and mustard that one would ever need–but after all, no one said this guy was the Brain Surgery King.
He’s the Condiment King, dammit.