Think about all of the comics you’ve read, and all of the knowledge you’ve acquired over the days, weeks, months, years, or decades you’ve been a fan. Think about the characters, events, powers, and personalities you’ve encountered in the funny pages.
Now, think about the most horrifying thing that could possibly happen in comics, the most terrifying plot twist that a creator could come up with to tell a story.
If “the Joker gets control of all reality” isn’t in the top spot, it has the bronze at the very least. That concept is what Superman: Emperor Joker is all about, and it had the potential to raise some interesting questions and let the creative teams go nuts.
Instead, it’s been one of the biggest chores for me to get through in recent memory.
When it was first published across the Superman titles back in 2000, this arc was initially titled “Superman: Arkham,” changing to “The Reign of Emperor Joker” when his involvement was revealed halfway through.
Right off the bat, that’s what I feel this collection’s biggest flaw is: there’s no mystery, nothing to intrigue you to keep coming back. Instead of “what is going on here?” we’re left asking “what does the Joker have to do with any of this?” and as such it’s a very boring, muddled read. The reveal that he had inherited Mr. Mxyzptlk’s powers due to the imp’s… let’s say irresponsibility is actually fairly interesting, but the execution of the concept misses the mark. Everything that happens in the book is weird, but ultimately straightforward, so nothing is really engaging and the stakes are remarkably low.
Make no mistake, I’m pretty sure that at this point you would know that I am one hundred percent into reading a book where Superman wakes up to find himself on an alternate Earth where Arkham Asylum is a U.F.O. and the Guardian is a fast food restaurant manager.
No, really: fast food manager Mr. Guardian.
It’s just that knowing the twist ahead of time makes all of the weirdness of this alternate world suffer. This is a place where Lois Lane is a tyrannical business mogul, the facsimile of a Justice League is led by Bizarro, and Jimmy Olsen goes by the name “Gravedigger Lad.” It’s weird, sure, but there’s order. That’s the last thing I would have expected upon finding out the Joker gained the ability to rewrite all of reality. Instead of recreating everything in a mire of chaos and surreality, the world of Emperor Joker is effectively just another Earth-3 where the villains are in charge and the heroes are on the run. Had this been “Emperor Luthor” this may have worked, with heroes and villains alike being subservient to him and his massive ego. That’s perfectly in line with Luthor’s character. The Joker, though, with his penchant for destruction and chaos in the pursuit of what he sees as a joke? Even if he didn’t outright destroy everything, the differences are still too familiar to make much of an impact.
With writers like Jeph Loeb, Joe Kelly, and J. M. DeMatteis steering the ship, you would understandably think that they’d have a decent handle on a story like this. After all, those guys kind of know what they’re doing. I’m not sure what happened, though, because there isn’t a single issue in the collection that is remotely satisfying from start to finish. There are bits of greatness scattered throughout, but every installment is just as slow and unfocused as the last, and even when the plot finally shows up everything just coasts along until the inevitable conclusion.
It’s difficult to put my finger on one specific thing that keeps the story from working, but I think a large part of it is the humor. There’s a scene early on where some characters sing the praises of Alfred E. Neuman, the MAD Magazine mascot, and that’s actually a pretty astute comparison: the jokes and characterizations herein are so broad that it almost borders on parody and farce. Instead of having the wit and self-awareness that makes a good parody work, though, it all comes across as forced and, even worse, dated. No joke, there’s a “wassup?!” reference at one point.
I know that ad was still fairly new at the time, but that just further goes to show how poorly this book has aged.
Truthfully, there are a few moments here and there that work. The Justice League is recast in roles that range from on the nose to almost offensive, but Martian Manhunter is pretty much turned into Marvin the Martian. It’s pretty great.
The Joker gets a few great scenes as well, though they are few and far between. There’s a hilariously macabre “conversation” he holds with the three dead Robins that has a punchline that genuinely made me laugh out loud for a good minute or so.
As black as that humor is, that’s what I wanted to see more of: a clown who does things because he thinks they’re funny, not because anyone else does. Jason’s end was a tragedy, no doubt, but that sign he’s wearing is like the “pencil trick” in The Dark Knight: we laugh in spite of ourselves because it’s so shocking, not because it’s a genuinely funny joke.
That tone also plays into what I thought was the best storytelling choice the writers made, which was the treatment of Batman. I’ll tag it in case you don’t want to be spoiled.
Still, I give them points for ingenuity, because even having an idea of where it was going I was still pretty unsettled with that big reveal.
Like the writing team, the artists and colorists have a great pedigree. The book consistently looks great, even if there are some expected clashes of style: Ed McGuinness and Scott McDaniel are similar enough that moving between the two wouldn’t cause any issues, but going from one of them to Doug Mahnke or Mike Miller is a pretty big stylistic change. Either way, the collection is always visually impressive even if the storytelling is lacking.
Given the talent involved, I expected so much more and was sadly disappointed. I know the arc has a pretty decent following, but I just couldn’t get into it. It might be that too much time has passed and too many other great stories have been told in the past sixteen years, but as much as I wanted to I just couldn’t love Emperor Joker.
I do still love dolphins, though.
Value: Deeply Discounted
It’s a lot of story and you can get it for around $13 new, which isn’t a bad deal, but it also isn’t a very good book so that really isn’t a great deal. If you love it, buying it new won’t set you back much, otherwise I’d say find it marked down or used if you really feel the need to read it.
Overall: A massive missed opportunity, the genuinely great art throughout and a few good moments and jokes hardly make up for the poor storytelling. The pacing is so deathly slow that it’s hard to care about where anything is going, and even after a few twists and turns it’s hard to care. There aren’t any stakes, it’s poorly written, and the characterizations are so broad that it would be farcical if there was any edge to it. Instead, Emperor Joker is a misfire of a “what if?” concept that, even when it touches on how this story should play out, plays it safe by backpedaling into lame gags and a rushed resolution.