The Batman Who Laughs #4 review

The first half of The Batman Who Laughs (#1-3) has been terrifying, exciting, powerful and, above all, great fun. And the Grim Knight one-shot, which could be read as an interlude in the middle of the miniseries, blew my mind with its wonderful art and solid writing. Now we’re going into the second half of The Batman Who Laughs proper with issue #4, and the question is, will Scott Snyder and Jock be able to keep up the level of quality that we’ve seen so far? Well, fellow comic fans, I guess it’s about time that we have ourselves a look.

I’m not going to beat around the bush. This issue is extremely effective in showing us Bruce’s current state of mind. From the writing to the art, and from the art to the lettering—every element of this comic blends together and contributes to Bruce’s character-building and puts us in Bruce’s mind, which makes reading this book a very immersive experience. So let’s look at how these elements work together by using panel 3 on page 4 as an example.

In that particular panel we look through Bruce’s eyes, and right in front of us, in the center of the panel, we see Alfred. Bruce and Alfred just had a fight in the Batcave and this panel shows us that Bruce is losing control over the darkness that’s been inside of him since he got infected with the poison from Joker’s heart. While Alfred himself is recognizable, he’s surrounded by distorted shapes and figures that resemble him but actually look quite demonic. David Baron uses various shades of red to color Jock’s pencils, and red, of course, can have different meanings, especially in a work of art. For one thing, red is the color of anger and hate, but it could also mean love. It’s interesting to see, then, that the real Alfred is actually expressing his love for Bruce as he tries to get Bruce to pull himself together, whereas the demonic Alfreds are screaming insults and threats. Cipriano’s lettering also plays a role in this panel, as the demonic Alfreds’ words are colored gray, while the real Alfred’s words are solid black: it’s a nice detail that instantly tells us what’s really said and what’s hallucination.

Speaking of Cipriano and the color red, we shouldn’t underestimate the role that his lettering plays throughout this entire issue. In line with the panel I described above, Cipriano uses the color red to visually convey to us what’s going on in Bruce’s head. Red font suggests that the darkness in Bruce is taking over, and Cipriano chooses the right moments for using the colored font. There are word balloons where none of Bruce’s words are red, and these are Bruce’s most lucid/rational moments. Then there are balloons where only several words appear in red, which is where Bruce is still in control, but he’s slipping. Lastly, there are the balloons which are completely red. The color always matches the actual words that Snyder writes, as well, so it seems likely that Cipriano and Snyder have discussed how and when to apply the color. What’s also interesting to note is that BMWL’s dialogue is put in black word balloons with red outlines and red font, and of course that’s to show how evil this character is. But I also think that BMWL’s word balloons seem more menacing now that I realize that Bruce’s balloons are starting to look more and more like his. In other words, there’s a real story-telling element to the font and it’s not just a gimmick.

That brings me to my next point. To make Bruce’s transformation even more tangible and visible, Jock is slowly starting to change Bruce’s costume. The first thing that we notice is, of course, the visor. And, to be honest, this is the part where I’m in two minds about this particular artistic choice. On the one hand I appreciate that there’s a practical reason why Bruce has forged the visor: he needs it because it helps him see things the way BMWL sees things, which is supposed to give Bruce an edge over his opponent. However, if Bruce is still capable of coming up with this kind of plan, and therefore still capable of some rational thought, then why would he add all the spikes to the visor? It’s not like he needs to have the spikes to make the visor work, is it? But on the other hand, perhaps it’s Bruce’s dark side that makes him add the spikes in order to look more like BMWL. So, all things considered, while the spikes seem silly to me on first glance, they also add some layers of complexity to the character of Bruce Wayne. He doesn’t want to become another BMWL, and yet it looks like he can’t really stop himself from becoming exactly that.

As for the story itself, clearly Snyder has a lot to say, because there’s a lot to read here. In fact, while there certainly is some exciting action and fighting in this book, the majority of what we see are conversations. This, however, is absolutely not a bad thing, because every single conversation serves to move the story forward, whether that’s on a character level (such as the heartfelt argument that Bruce and Alfred share in the Batcave, and the confrontation between BMWL and Gordon), or on a plot level (such as the conversation between Bruce and a security officer in Blackgate which masterfully builds to this issue’s impactful cliffhanger.)

Perhaps my favorite dialogue in the entire comic is the conversation that Bruce has with Joker. To avoid spoilers, I won’t go into too much detail, but I like how this conversation sums up the relationship between Batman and Joker in such a simple yet effective way, while simultaneously staying relevant to the story itself. In my opinion Snyder has always been great at writing dialogue, maintaining a natural ebb and flow in conversations, but he’s also proved time and again that he understands the characters that he’s writing by giving them the right tone of voice and by having them say the right words. And, in the case of this comic, when characters do sound unlike themselves, that’s for an actual story reason, so it still works out in the end.

To wrap this up, I want to comment briefly on some of the parallels/contrasts that the story draws not only between Bruce and BMWL, but between Bruce and almost every single character in this issue. For example, on page 1 there’s a lot of emphasis on seeing things through the eyes of one’s children; i.e. seeing things through the eyes of Robin. This is written in the captions, but it’s also illustrated by Jock as we see Robin (Dick Grayson) soaring through the sky above Gotham while looking straight into the “camera.” Then there’s the element of Bruce’s eyes turning red (which also ties in to the use of the color red as I explained above). Not only does this contrast the all-white lenses in Robin’s domino mask, but it’s also a parallel with BMWL’s eyes as we find out elsewhere in this issue. Joker, too, has red eyes. And James Jr wears glasses, which not only cover his eyes like each visor covers Bruce’s and BMWL’s eyes respectively, but James Jr’s panels are also colored in shades of red which makes it look like his glasses reflect red light. These are all visual clues that hint at the interconnectedness and themes of this issue, but it doesn’t stop there.

Robin is paralleled with BMWL’s demonic Robins, which makes that particular theme come full circle. James Jr tells Bruce important information and warns him to take care of himself so he won’t turn into a complete psychopath like James himself used to be—except Bruce is obviously already going down that path. Bruce and Alfred have an argument which gets to the core of the meaning of Batman as a symbol and also Batman’s mission, and during this argument Bruce seems to think more like BMWL, whereas Alfred repeats Batman’s core values. I could go deeper into these observations and write a more extensive analysis, but by then this review will turn into a full-blown essay and I don’t want to go that far right now. However, as you’re (re)reading this issue, make sure to look out for these things, as it will become clear to you just how much thought and planning went into making this book. This isn’t something that’s hastily thrown together. Every scene connects and every panel counts. This is a fantastic comic.

Recommended if…

  • You really dig Jock and Baron’s art.
  • Themes in comics coming full circle is really satisfying to you.
  • You’re looking for a book that’s put together extremely well, from the script to the art and right down to the lettering.
  • You want to see what’s beneath BMWL’s mask.

Overall: Snyder, Jock, Baron and Cipriano are on a roll. This book is put together really well and it’s a joy to read and reread. There are so many layers to this story—it’s exhilarating. The art leans more to horror than superheroics, too, which is, from what I have seen so far, Jock’s greatest strength as an artist and it’s a great fit for a book like this. It’s well written, too, with a lot of energy and confidence. If you’re a Batman fan, it’s very likely you’ll enjoy this story, so run to your LCS now and snatch up this issue along with #1-3. Highly recommended!

Score: 9/10

Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with an advance copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.