The Joker has returned! After enlisting the Dollmaker to remove his face back in the New 52’s first volume of Detective Comics, the Clown Prince of Crime has been AWOL. Batman should know better than to expect peace in Gotham, though, and with the Court of Owls defeated, Mr. J is back to fill in the void.
I’ll be reviewing the paperback, sans hideous Joker face. If you’re hoping to find out if you’ll get a skin rash wearing Mr. J’s sweet mug to Comic Con, I won’t be able to help you. Included in the paperback are all five installments of Death of the Family, by Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion, and FCO Plascencia, plus the backups for the first four installments by Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, and Jock, all of which originally appeared monthly in Batman #13-17. Letters throughout are provided by Richard Starkings, Jimmy Betancourt, Sal Cipriano, and Taylor Esposito.
We also reviewed this story as it was published, so for some more detail on specific installments, check out the original single-issue reviews:
Stop me if you’ve heard this one
Batman has kept his eyes and ears open during Joker’s year-long absence, but he—and the rest of the Bat-family—is caught very much off guard when his old foe shows up to the GCPD to reclaim his disembodied face. With his mug reattached, he sets in motion a grand plan to free Batman from the burden of his close associates, those partners in crime-fighting whom the Joker believes have made the Dark Knight less than he should be. Explosions, kidnapping, fisticuffs, and a modest assortment of Gotham’s criminal elite pave the way for a final showdown between the Bat and the Clown.
A strong voice (that maybe talks a little too much)
There’s a lot to love in this book. I don’t always agree with Scott Snyder’s plot choices, but his narrative skill is unquestionable. Even when there are holes or logical leaps in his work, or I do not particularly enjoy the outcome, his ability to set a stage and build tension on that foundation makes his stories an easy investment. A large part of his success lies in the strong inner voice he gives to Bruce, who is our rightful hook into the story. Snyder writes a lot—a lot lot—of text, but it never feels like a chore to read through it all.
The downside, however, is that he sometimes gives himself too much room to tease out an idea. This Joker sees himself as the loyal court jester to Batman’s king. It’s a decent metaphor, but the villain monologues about it for far too long, and Snyder gets into the weeds with court jester trivia. He’s trying to strengthen the metaphor, but I think it actually ruins it a bit. If you’ve read the single issues as released, you’ll likely notice that the language in this scene has been tinkered with for the trade. To me, that suggests that even Snyder recognizes that something is a bit off here.
A clown walks into a police station
Jester metaphor aside, Snyder’s Joker is truly terrifying. It’s difficult to take him any way other than seriously, even as he’s smiling and laughing. There are no laughing fish, no parade balloons, no dancing (ok, well, maybe a little dancing, but that comes later). He is not appointed U.N. Ambassador of Iran. Throughout the whole book, he is nothing but cruel, with no relief (even when he’s trying to be funny).
In my favorite takes on the character, the Joker is most dangerous because he does things that make you think he’s just nuts. He’s a viable threat because everyone who’s not Batman makes the mistake of laughing when they should be shuddering. You start believing that nobody’s really in danger, even though it was just a short while ago that the Joker beat Robin to a pulp with a crowbar. You start believing it’s safe to put him on T.V. because Dr. Wolper wrote a book and anyway, Batman’s the real criminal.
There is not a moment in Death of the Family where I am not scared of what the Joker will do next. That may not be a problem for you, and it’s not a deal breaker for me, but it is not my ideal approach to the character. To Snyder’s credit, it works well in the sorts of world-shaking, eternal good versus eternal evil stories that he likes to tell. And really, even though this isn’t my favorite Joker, he is an effective one in this story, and his characterization doesn’t hang me up unless I stop and think about it.
As you might expect, Capullo plays a significant role in pulling this version of the Joker off. The backups for the first four issues are illustrated by Jock, and his rendering of Joker’s face is sloppier (by design) and less consistent than Greg’s. To me, this makes the Clown less threatening, and reading this straight through, I find the visual language of the backups an unwelcome distraction.
Capullo’s style, on the other hand, is consistent and clean, less abstract, and thus all the more intimidating (and, quite frankly, gross). His Joker never looks silly or happy, even with his enormous grin and spritely countenance. And when you look at the wider story, everything Capullo touches here looks outstanding. This book is chock full of instantly-iconic Batman shots, and other than a few exceptions, his eye for perspective and layout is one of the best in the business.
Strength of the family
While Snyder’s Joker at times rubs me the wrong way, I feel like his Bat-family dynamic is one of the strongest elements of the plot. I love the interactions, whether it’s Damian showing a particular disrespect (and disregard) for Jason, Barbara shushing the boys so Bruce can finish a story, or Dick exhibiting a respectful firmness with his mentor. It really does feel like a family, even without the benefit of prior experience with all of these characters.
It’s the family that ultimately makes this story work, because it represents genuine vulnerability in Batman. I might have a hard time believing that the Joker could best Bruce physically, and I suspect that there is a subconscious assumption that Batman himself will never be irreparably damaged. But who knows what will happen to the family? They have, after all, been hurt before. By making the family convincing, Snyder makes the conflict convincing, and the resolution matter. And by focusing on the family, Snyder creates a more sympathetic Batman. Striving for a city might be hard to understand, but striving for sons and daughters and fathers—that hits you in the heart.
One last note from a fussy comic critic
My first experience reading “Death of the Family” was in trade, and as such, there was a moment inside Arkham where I felt like the page layout spoiled a shocking surprise (I won’t spoil you here). I suspected then that it must not have been this way when the story was originally published, and after acquiring the single issues from a second-hand store, I confirmed my suspicion. It doesn’t ruin the story, but it does ruin a moment that was meant to play a little bit differently. The best advice I can give if you haven’t read this is to try your hardest not to peek at the right-hand pages after turning.
Like most of the New 52 trades, Death of the Family has a few goodies in the back. There’s the standard variant cover gallery, some sketches, and a few pages worth of interiors from Batman #15. I’m personally not crazy about most of the variant covers included, and I’d rather have my variants on single issues, anyway, but that’s all a matter of taste. At the end of the day, I’d rather DC include them than leave them out.
Value: Full Price
At the time of writing, you can grab a brand new copy of the hardcover for a little more than $16, and the paperback is about $10. You’ll have to pony up $26 if you want the creepy face mask, but even that isn’t a bad price for the addition of the…err…collectible. Bottom line: for the quality of the content, these prices are well worth it. My only word of caution on the paperback is that, though I take good care of my books, the cover is starting to separate a little bit. I’m not sure how much longer it will hold on, but you might get more life out of the hardcover.
There are a number of things I don’t like about Death of the Family. As a Joker story, it isn’t my favorite use of the character, and Snyder at times gets lost in the weeds with the Clown Prince’s speech. And yet, I would still consider this one of my favorite Batman stories. Capullo’s art brings Snyder’s vision to life, and is just as responsible for the tension (and resulting payoff) that drives the whole arc. All things considered, the centrality of the family adds so much heart to this book that I’m able to get over my expectations for the Joker and enjoy the thrill of watching Batman strive against him.