So, I might be a little tired of the Joker right now.
That’s saying something too; I love the Joker. He’s probably my favourite Batman villain. I know it’s a very basic choice, but it’s well-warranted; some of the stories we’ve seen Joker in are masterpieces, and he often elevates other stories to greater heights because of his presence alone. I still believe that, even if I’m sick of seeing him. Joker, Harleen, Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity, Joker: Killer Smile, Batman: Damned, Batman: Last Knight on Earth, Batman: Three Jokers, the new Joker War story arc – it’s all so exhausting, especially when we could be seeing standout stories like some of these with a variety of other Batman villains. And with the two biggest Joker stories of the year on the horizon, we’re not slowing down any time soon… but maybe with this anthology issue, we’ll get to see some genuine love letters to the character from creative teams who know what they’re doing, and won’t overstay their welcome. Let’s find out!
One of the first comic books I ever reviewed was an issue of Wytches; a review I actually sent in to apply for this job. Wytches is one of my favourite horror comics, and while I wouldn’t say it’s particularly frightening, it has a fantastic understanding of the ingredients for a dark, foreboding, creepy tone: the most important part of a horror story. Knowing that this is from the creators of that – not to mention several other dark Batman stories such as The Black Mirror – I was immediately enthralled by “Scars”. Written by Scott Snyder and illustrated by Jock, this story makes the very wise decision of leaning away from the tried and tested relationship between Joker and Batman, and into that more nebulous realm of how the Joker ruins the lives of everyone around him.
I’ve read interviews with Scott Snyder before, and the monologue from the therapist is essentially verbatim to what Scott’s been saying about Joker for years: that he’s designed to find your worst nightmare, make you question what he knows about you, and how well you know yourself. Do I think that Joker really is a demon? No. Do I believe that Joker is the monster at the edge of our bed? Yes. And that juxtaposition is the realm in which these two creators operate to great effect. “Scars” is a strong, chilling start to the issue.
“What Comes at the End of a Joke?”
…Okay. We’ve put it off long enough. I guess it’s time to talk about Punchline.
I’m sorry, but Punchline sucks.
I’ve spent an entire quarantine holding my tongue, because I thought that writer James Tynion IV and illustrator Mikel Janin (both of whom I like!) might sway my opinion with her origin story – where we find out what her personality is beyond being a woman with huge breasts (seriously Guillem March, calm down) and lots of knives. So, we get to her solo short: her origin story, the pages that are meant to hook us on her character… and she’s an edgy college student??? The Joker’s “girlfriend” is a twenty-something woman who hasn’t even finished a degree? And she wants to be a murderous psychopath because… “because??????” Society????? Why is it that every character who doesn’t like “society” jumps to the green-haired serial killer?
What is Tynion trying to say here? What does Punchline bring to the table, other than a half-decent design? Her character spends the entire issue delivering one of the most milquetoast anti-establishment speeches I’ve ever heard, as a roundabout method of explaining why she acts how she does. I remember none of it, because none of it stuck with me. A character should not talk for so long if there’s nothing to listen to.
Also, just- “what comes at the end of a joke?” isn’t really that amazing wordplay. It kind of implies Punchline’s trying to assassinate Joker, really, which- like, you’re not going for that, and you’re not important enough to be Joker’s zinger, so it’s just another example of this character trying to seem more important than she is. That might be petty, sure, but I’ll be less petty and harsh when I read a good Punchline story.
So yeah, Punchline’s boring and so is this issue. It’s in a college dorm so it’s not visually interesting either; apart from being technically proficient, I see no benefits to this short.
“Kill the Batman”
Garry Whitta and Greg Miller have a significant presence in the industry: Whitta having written Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Miller being a popular internet personality. Neither, however, have much experience in the world of DC, so it was a nice surprise to see how much I really liked their story. I can’t deny that much of it’s carried by Dan Mora, who is a fantastic illustrator: able to bring real life and a distinct voice to the DC Universe. This is especially important here, when Whitta and Miller attempt to sell us on a universe where Batman is dead, and the world is mourning both Batman and his secret identity, Bruce Wayne. It’s a nice montage of praises for Bruce, from heroes and villains alike, and does a great job of establishing small but different anachronisms about this world: story beats that have never happened in main continuity. The short, from Alfred’s mourning to Joker’s monologue, reels you in by making you believe this could be a cool, alternate universe that you could read more of, understand more of… until they throw it all away to hit you with the punchline.
Good. The punchline is the funniest thing in this entire issue, and the fact that it sells you on the story beforehand is just more praise I can heap at the short. I had a great time all around with this one.
“Introducing the Dove Corps”
Written by Denny O’Neil and illustrated by José Luis García-López – mainstays of the comic book industry – “Introducing the Dove Corps” is a very silver-age, early bronze-age story, a refreshing break from how grim Joker always is nowadays. I don’t particularly love the story; Joker randomly managing to join in on a United Nations military operation seems weird for a premise, and there’s not really much to latch onto beyond that. But, honestly, who cares? It’s fun! Joker has a fun new non-lethal weapon, reminding you of all the pranks you might have seen back in the Silver Age, and his personality is a treat to read here. Flamboyant, playful Joker is one of his best interpretations, and a story about that version of himself serves as a great break between the other stories; despite it being essentially average, at the end of the day.
“The War Within”
I have to say, when I saw Peter J. Tomasi was doing a story for this special, I was not expecting poetry. That’s what this short is, through and through: a poem, leading the author along a funhouse mirror of illustrator Simone Bianchi’s wonderful, psychedelic designs. Bianchi’s work is the real standout here, with Tomasi’s poem being more supplemental than anything else. It’s not bad (I quite liked it!), but the real attraction is watching Bianchi’s depiction of Batman navigate grimy waters, braving strange, twisted variations of a dozen Jokers across forms of media, from comics to films. Your mileage may vary depending on your thoughts on the style, but the short leaves a strong impression on you when you’re done; definitely a great example of what you can get when a writer trusts their illustrator to carry the show.
“The Last Smile”
Writer Paul Dini and artist Riley Rossmo are industry giants, so their book was bound to be good. The best in the issue? Not quite, but definitely solid. I always love a story that tackles Joker’s greatest fears, as everyone has a different interpretation of them: Batman himself, the concept of Batman, irrelevancy, ridicule, all compelling arguments if you find the right writer. Dini leans into the final fear, but only after establishing, among other things, a wonderful prison riot, drawn expertly by Rossmo’s playful yet crisp art style. There’s a short epilogue to the story, and it’s Harley’s only major appearance in this issue; her presence and send-off to Joker gives this story a distinct flavor that makes this book pack a nice punch. Definitely one of the simpler reads of the story, but probably better off for it.
Tom Taylor has a lot of great points in his favour, regarding writing in the DC Universe. One of his best qualities, in my opinion, is his characterization: with few exceptions, Taylor takes his time to really get a sense of each and every voice in DC, before using them to his and the story’s benefit. His stories also usually involve Joker mostly dead, so to see him covering the anniversary with artist Eduardo Risso was an interesting angle on DC’s part.
More than anything, this is a character piece: how does Joker interact with an innocent child? Risso does a great job of portraying Joker as a creature who could strike at any moment, yet takes enjoyment out of interacting with the lonely kid who tortures bugs. Combined, it creates a strong, if not outstanding, package. I don’t want Taylor to break away from the interesting stories he makes out of continuity, but if he’s this consistent in continuity, I feel he’d have a strong presence on a regular Batman comic.
“No Heroes” covers the regular people in Joker’s orbit once again, much like the earlier “Scars” and “Birthday Bugs” stories. This is nothing but a good thing; the impact that this psychopath has on people, regular people, always hits you in a different spot than when it’s between Joker and Batman. The issue is predominantly written and illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque, with Eduardo Medeiros co-writing; and you could do a lot worse on either front! Albuquerque’s artwork is always a treat, but I did not know he and Medeiros could write this well either. I felt genuine tension and fear for the character of Ronald, not sure whether Joker – who delivered a really concise but effective monologue – was going to kill him or let him live, with the story slowly peeling back through flashbacks to give you the full spectrum of what happened. Definitely one of the more tense stories in the comic, and it also ended up being the short that made me realized this book is pretty damn good.
I’m not huge on Tony S. Daniel. I like his art, but I’ve found that a lot of the stories he’s written don’t have the same bang for their buck as when he’s helping another writer; his Detective Comics run being a prime example. He’s penned and illustrated this short too, and this ends up being another example… albeit a less egregious one. This story definitely isn’t bad, and the artwork is phenomenal – as is the par for Daniel’s work. That said, the story is still, for the most part, “just there”. It’s a character piece like others before it, but Joker’s presence doesn’t add much of anything special to this story.
The one thing I’d say I liked was the dream sequences from the mob boss, Braccio, where he finds himself as Batman and keeps dying to the Joker, even as he improves every fight; it’s a nice inverse of the usual dynamic, and reminds us of how competent Joker is outside of Batman’s purview. So, definitely not a bad comic by any stretch of the imagination! It just doesn’t really strike me as necessary reading.
“Two Fell Into the Hornet’s Nest”
I don’t know what to say about this one.
It’s definitely not what I expected from the writer-artist team of Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo. Normally, I’m not a huge fan of their work on Batman, but this… this is something else. The effect of living in an Asylum and not knowing what’s real from what’s warped is incredibly powerful here, helped by Bermejo’s use of a pulpy style and distinct, striking colours; a far cry from what we might see in Batman: Damned. It’s played like that of a comic strip instead of a comic book; plucked from the pages of Mad Magazine, we see commentary on what’s been done to the Joker, outside of his own twisted universe. Batman stands there, looking like he would on a children’s colouring book, taunting Joker throughout the issue… yet it’s hard to believe Joker’s seen Batman in years. It’s hard to know what Joker’s seen, trapped in an endless loop of pills and shock therapy. If one can decipher what the book means, I have to imagine it’s from his scene with the nurse in the story. With how much I’ve had to read about the Joker recently, its hits home pretty hard.
“You don’t belong here. You belong on pajamas and lunch boxes. You’re a brand. Children love you. You know they do.”
- Joker isn’t too overdone for you yet.
- You want several stories that are… wow, actually great? This book ended up having a lot to like.
- You’re looking for interpretations of the Joker that range from jovial and maniacal to downright demonic; there’s a lot of range here.
- Punchline is your favourite character, and you want me to think less of you! <3
- You want some genuinely masterful artwork; some of the prints in the issue are also real standouts.
Wow, holy crap. This might be the best anthology issue I’ve seen from DC yet, where almost every comic has brought its A-Game to the table! I counted seven out of ten stories that I’d consider genuinely good reads, and only one short that I actually thought was bad. That’s a ratio I haven’t found in the other anniversary specials, personally. I’m not sure if any of this will bring you back around on Joker if you need a break on him; but if you’re in the mood to read some short but sweet stories about one of the greatest villains around, you can not go wrong with this comic.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.
Author’s Twitter: @ObnoxiousFinch