The first issue of Joker: Killer Smile is excellent. Lemire, Sorrentino and Bellaire have introduced a different version of Gotham City than I’m used to, and while I was slightly disappointed when I first learned that their Gotham’s lacking the gargoyles and zeppelins, I think I’m starting to see why the creative team has made that choice. By making the world look realistic, they are able to play around more with the themes of madness and hallucination. Of course these have been the main themes since the start of this story, but I feel like the creative team is taking all of this a step further in this second issue. It makes for an unsettling reading experience, but do these creators manage to keep up the quality of the opening chapter? Let’s have a look.
What we have here is perhaps one of the most intricately crafted comic books among DC’s latest offerings. Within this issue, different parts speak to each other, thereby creating a cohesive narrative that still leaves a lot of room for mystery. While Ben’s hallucinations in the first issue certainly are shocking and intriguing, it still feels like reality and hallucination can be told apart because there seems to be some degree of separation between Ben’s working life at Arkham Asylum and his personal life at home with his wife and son. In this issue, however, those lines are completely blurred to a point that it becomes impossible to tell what’s even real anymore, and powerful storytelling emerges from this.
While Ben has been a likeable character from the start of this series, it’s in this second issue that I find myself empathizing with him on a deeper level. With all the contradictory information that the creative team is providing here, I want to know what’s going on as much as Ben does, and so I’m truly rooting for the character and I’m worried about him. In a story like this, which features some of my favorite characters in comics, it’s interesting how the creative team has managed to make their original protagonist stand out the most, despite the long histories of established characters such as Joker or other members of Batman’s Rogues Gallery. I’ve seen various creative teams attempt something like this before, where they have a normal dude from Gotham star opposite Joker, but the latter has always overshadowed the normal dude. That isn’t the case here. This is Ben’s story, and Ben has earned that spotlight even when he’s in close vicinity to Joker because of how well-developed the character and his struggle is. This is not a mean feat, and I applaud the creative team for this.
That said, Joker continues to be scary and intimidating, but, above all, he’s mostly a mystery. It’s not even exactly clear to what extent Joker is manipulating Ben anymore. In other words, is Ben’s obsession with Joker driving him mad, or is Joker the one that’s actually pulling the strings, or is it somewhere in between? The fact that this is so mysterious makes the story all the more unsettling, because now it’s even less clear when Ben is projecting his own insecurities and fears and when he’s being fed fears. The relationship between these two characters is complex, and it’s, in large part, what’s driving the story.
Furthermore, the comic starts with a nightmare sequence in which the story’s main themes are presented with the following question: “When you go mad, will you even realize it?” The rest of this issue answers that question, in a way, but this answer is never literally spelled out. It’s only implied with visuals and hints in the dialogue, and so this book requires active participation from the reader to piece together the puzzle and make up their own mind as to what’s going on. In a comic book landscape where so many stories are either pure escapism or where supposed meanings are forced down our throats, I think this is not only refreshing, but also exciting. While I have nothing against pure escapism in and of itself, I do prefer stories that make me think about what I’m reading, and whereas it’s as of yet impossible to know exactly what’s going on, I do find myself still thinking about this story long after reading this issue.
Starting the issue off with that nightmare sequence is also a clever choice because dreams are, of course, extended hallucinations that are often so convincing that the dreamer doesn’t realize that they are dreaming. With the lines between reality and hallucination blurring, the story as a whole is starting to feel like a fever dream, appropriate to Ben’s growing madness. The issue also goes full circle in the end as the final pages hearken back to the opening nightmare sequence, in the sense that Lemire writes the same lines at the beginning and at the end, except the meaning of those lines change slightly and gain more poignancy. The visuals follow suit: a scary image of Ben’s face covered in clown make-up shows up in the dream and reappears on the final page, which can be interpreted in a number of ways. But, most importantly, it makes for one hell of a terrifying cliffhanger.
The artwork is brought to us by the amazing team of Andrea Sorrentino and Jordie Bellaire once again. What strikes me is how Bellaire is able to imbue the pages with psychedelic colors, where green, red and purple are dominant (so Joker’s presence is felt throughout), before switching back to more grounded, realistic tones, while still maintaining a cohesive aesthetic. In other words, she seamlessly switches between these different color styles. The book is also rather colorful for a horror story—even in the darker scenes there are still plenty of different shades that make this version of Gotham come to life.
Sorrentino offsets more traditional page layouts with the occasional experimental panels, which not only make for a more interesting viewing experience, but contribute a lot to the storytelling itself. For example, to show how Ben’s mind is breaking down, he draws a number of small cubes, which also function as panels that each show a part of Ben’s screaming face. The cubes are lined up in rows, but are disconnected, and some at the bottom are falling away. And on another page, Sorrentino creates a spiral in which he embeds each panel, leading to a circular panel in the center of the page. This, too, speaks to the idea of losing your mind. Of course this book also has horrifying visuals, like the first issue. But where Sorrentino relies on mostly gory imagery in the first issue, the visuals here, aside from what you’ll see in the opening sequence, are of a more creepy kind, stuff that gets under your skin—true nightmare fuel.
- You want to see what the most scary Gotham story that’s currently on stands is like.
- You love stories that make you think rather than spelling everything out for you.
- You want to see Sorrentino’s take on all the most recognizable Batman villains, including a mean Killer Croc.
Overall: This story has been pushing just the right buttons for me. Not only is the writing very clever, making the different parts speak to each other to create a cohesive narrative, Lemire also manages to create a lot of suspense that makes me hungry for the conclusion. The pacing is impeccable, too, and Sorrentino and Bellaire’s art is equally beautiful and horrifying. This book is different from any other Gotham-related comic that I’ve read in recent years, and if there’s one book that you’re going to get this week, it better be this one. Highly recommended!
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with an advance copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.