I mentioned this in my review for Criminal Sanity, but we’re getting an awful lot of Joker content recently. It’s understandable, of course; not only is his hit movie making the rounds to critical acclaim, but he’s always been one of the most iconic villains in comic book history. The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, Death in/of the Family, and the countless adaptations that have done him justice – there are so many good stories to tell with the Joker. Bad ones too, of course, but I suppose that’s the nature of this industry. That’s why I don’t really believe in fatigue of comic book characters – I believe that fatigue comes from the exhaustion in looking for truly great stories with these characters. To that end, I can’t help but wonder if they should save such iconic characters for truly interesting and remarkable stories, instead of just slapping a “Year of the Villain” title on it and-
…Sorry, did you just say John Carpenter is writing this story?
Okay, okay. It’s important not to get starstruck. Sure, it’s only one of the greatest horror creators of all time, but, you know, no biggie. It’s an impressive team besides that too, though – cowritten by Carpenter and Anthony Burch (of Borderlands fame), and illustrated by Philip Tan, this book has the makings of a very successful one-shot. Keeping with stories like Batman (2011) Annual #3, this tale is a whole issue of Joker just messing with one guy. While it’s not a knockout, and not exactly visionary, it’s certainly effective – and has an oddly wholesome message hidden underneath the brutality, offering a sort of counterpoint to the movie Joker.
The issue centers around a young man called Jeremy, who escaped from Arkham Asylum with the Joker in the latest breakout. Jeremy is mentally ill, and writing that is a dangerous line to walk; you need to capture a level of nuance and sympathy for this person without belittling or misrepresenting them, and that’s made all the more difficult when paired with one of the biggest psychopaths in literature history. As this issue points out, mentally ill people are far more likely to be victims of violence than the perpetrators, and the book makes Jeremy a rather sympathetic character, who seems to be guided by Joker through a funhouse of horrors for most of the issue, without having agency (at first).
The story of Jeremy is one we’ve seen before, but having him standing next to the Joker as he goes about his crimes creates an important contrast between the two. Along the way, we spot several cameos; some are funny and appropriate, such as Condiment King, and some feel a little confusing. I’m looking at you Enchantress. The story is best when it keeps to its street-level roots, so the bombastic superhero-level scenes don’t feel that effective.
Throughout the issue, though, Carpenter and Burch have a good grasp on Joker’s voice. This is the kind of Joker I’m the biggest fan of; the trickster who’s always a second away from exploding, with a gag in his mouth and a gun in his hand. Joker is unapologetically cruel in this issue, and it creates a few moments of rather dark comedy. There also happens to be a reference to an episode of The Batman throughout this issue, which I greatly appreciated – that was the show I loved to watch as a kid, and I have a “Top Ten Episodes” list on the way to this site.
The gag of Joker in a Batman outfit is never not great, and I’m so glad the two writers built most of the issue around Joker’s “superhero” act. Ultimately though, the strongest elements of the writing from Carpenter and Burch are what amount to a rather dark exploration of a mentally ill boy’s mind (surrounded by the usual bombastic nature of these comics). At first, I had to admit I was a little worried about where the two were going with this story. While the book does point out how mentally ill people are often the victims more than the perpetrators, the line immediately following that is “maybe that’s what makes Gotham special” … so I was a little concerned about what the message of the story might be.
Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised at how effective and impressive the climax of the story was, without losing any of the Joker’s edge. When Jeremy finally finds agency in the story, the mood shifts to create an important distinction between him and the Joker, and what the nature of sanity is. I won’t spoil this issue, but I absolutely WILL share this out-of-context panel.
The man responsible for visualizing the demented Joker erotica now floating around your head is Philip Tan, and you can see how his artwork really makes this issue. His Joker is equal parts demented and bubbly, like the earlier image of “Batman and Robin”, where you can see Joker’s suit trying to escape his Batman outfit. His Joker seems to have a new, interesting and equally twisted look from every angle, and it’s a delight to read for just the art alone. His work also serves an important part of conveying Jeremy’s state of mind, such as how his thoughts blend together with the destruction the Joker is causing on the page.
One particular part that stood out to me was how Tan constructed the panels – while some are traditional borders, others are replaced with the Joker’s laughter, particularly when we dive deeper into how Jeremy is feeling. The “hahahaha” symbol everywhere is a little overdone, sure, but it adds to the mood of the story rather well.
Tan has some experience with Batman comics, working on the Morrison Batman and Robin run in particular – but this issue reminded me how well he could fit back into Gotham’s world, especially with as strong a team as this at the helm with him.
- John Carpenter is a name that strikes a chord with you, and you want to see more from the talented team he’s working with.
- You want a Joker story that’s a little more in-line with the comics, and has a clearer (and probably healthier) message.
- Stories about mental illness are important to you, and you want to see more positive (mostly) interpretations about them in comic books.
- You enjoy explosions. This IS still a superhero comic.
I would absolutely love to see more from this team, if the quality is about at the same level as this. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, as it doesn’t do anything to blow my mind – but for a first outing, it’s a strong standalone that gives you a refreshing one-off story about the Clown Prince of Crime. If they continue to make stories together about this villain, I don’t think I’d be feeling fatigued any time soon.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with an advance copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.