Batman and Joker travel across countries (this time it’s “Prague”) in search of a cure for a deadly virus that threatens to take them both out. That’s the simple premise of this four-part untraditional team-up between most everyone’s favorite arch-enemies.

On the downside, that appears to be the whole gist of this book: Batman and Joker crashing through Europe on dwindling energies, driving one another crazy, and chasing phantoms. I’ll confess I’m easily amused, so I’m perfectly okay with so thin a plot, but others may be frustrated that there’s not more meat on the bones. And, while lushly painted, the book is paced quite deliberately. I like a story that’s got lots of big splashy pictures and room to breathe, but again, if you’re hoping for a complex mystery with lots of twists, you won’t find it here: the dialogue is spare, the narrative almost dismissable. I can watch Batman and Joker sit around catching cockroaches all day, but that might not be to everyone’s tastes.

Let’s talk about the particulars:

Batman and Joker’s main adversary in Prague is a creepy barber-shop-looking fellow who we’ll call the Golem Master (he never does get an actual name). He commands an army of wooden automatons. If you’ve never seen a wooden automaton in real life, they are just about the creepiest things ever invented. The ones in the story don’t quite capture that, unfortunately–they just look like wooden robots, some of which are dressed vaguely like droogs. On second thought, maybe that’s scary enough.

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Seems like Joker should be enjoying this a lot more

Even in his weakened state, the clockwork dummies are no match for Batman, but they’re mostly there to divert his attention so that the key to this mystery, a woman named Nina, can be kidnapped by our creepy Golem Master, who then makes his escape. In a reveal that’s not so surprising, Golem Master isn’t the brains behind the operations, but it’s too soon for full disclosure just yet.

Anyone want to conjecture as to who is pulling the strings?

The Clocks that Work

Giuseppe Camuncoli turns in a stunning piece of work. The contrasts between the giant flaming automaton Golem, the antique streets of old Prague, and the hellish interiors of the Golem Master’s workshop create a visual feast of color from page to page. Last issue, Alex Sinclair’s colors gave us a blue and grey Batman that was muted enough not to be distracting. Camuncoli’s colors are a little less sedate, but they serve well to give us a Batman from a bygone era.

As a side note, I am less enthusiastic about Camuncoli’s cover, which feels rather flat with the deep red wash. If you can find it, you might prefer the variant cover by Massimo Carnevale. It’s much more dynamic and speaks to the heart of the action in this particular issue.

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The Springs and Gears Out of Whack

I’m enjoying this book, but there are moments that are a little too vague and the script occasionally seems to undercut or obfuscate the action. While the art shines for the most part, it also has missteps that stand out. One particularly peculiar upshot focuses all the attention on Batman’s crotch. If you’re not a fan of the old-school suit, it might knock you out of the action a little. I grew up on Bats in big blue briefs, so it doesn’t faze me, but it is a very peculiarly staged panel since it’s not like the falling cockroach is actually crucial to the storytelling.

Matteo Casali and Brian Azzarello have once again placed the framing of the story in media res. This worked in the first issue, but it’s not terribly effective here because we know the Joker hasn’t been taken out permanently this soon, and it kind of spoils the giant flaming Golem. I think this book could have been served better without the conceit of leaping in time.

This is one of my small complaints about the overall story so far: it lacks spontaneity. I’m okay if there are no real surprises so long as the action feels fresh and engages me on other levels. While the art and the premise continue to drive me forward, the narrative is the weakest part of the work, with the scant dialogue a close second.

This may sound like a fatal flaw, but it’s not. The book is still interesting and personally, I’m not yet frustrated with it. But we know it’s only got two more issues for it to explode with the epic sort of event we’re all hoping for and right now the first two acts haven’t exactly ramped us up to where it feels we ought to be. This book starts and finishes almost exactly like issue No. 1 did, with our disastrous duo just launching off to a new location. It’s not building tension.

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Now now, boys…

Casali and Azzarello push it forward with mere baby steps. This provides a lot of space for character interaction, but for all of its extra pages, the book continues to feel spare, like an arthouse film. I have a sense that’s what they’re going for and I think it works, but the dialogue lacks arthouse depth and that makes the marriage uneven.

We get a fairly predictable conversation between Bats & Jokes about taking the mission seriously early on, and then later Joker makes a good deal of fun over their next destination. If you’re not familiar with Casablanca, all of this will fall flat for you. I don’t fault the references, though: you should be familiar with Casablanca. In fact, go watch that before you read this comic. The wiki link will tell you everything you need to know, but watching the movie will enrich your life and then you can appreciate the closing pages of this book without making it an academic study.

Recommended If…

  • You love painterly artwork: Camuncoli renders beautiful scenic Prague in plenty of detail while giving us characters that are expressive and nicely textured. His designs for Batman and Joker are colorful and classy.
  • An out-of-continuity romp with the Bat is just the palette cleanser you need.
  • You enjoy spare and straight-forward comic book storytelling with an emphasis on the art.

Overall

The sophomore issue of this limited series is no less visually stunning than the first, but the story feels a bit thinner than the paper it’s printed on at this point. The richness of the history between Batman and the Joker might yet save it, but I’m personally feeling the need to adjust my expectations. Doesn’t make it a bad read, but it does have the strange quality of offering astonishing art and yet not a lot of story despite an inflated page count.

SCORE: 7.5/10