Batman: The Smile Killer #1 review

Batman: The Killer Smile is a one-shot epilogue to the excellent three-issue miniseries, Joker: Killer Smile, so if you haven’t read the miniseries, this epilogue probably won’t make a lot of sense to you. As great as I think this comic is, The Smile Killer is not a comic that stands on its own as it builds on themes established in the miniseries. I just wanted to make that clear before jumping into the review itself. So, with that out of the way, let’s have a look!

I was somewhat disappointed with Killer Smile’s ending as I felt it abandoned its psychological horror themes in favor of a more by-the-books Joker versus Batman brawl. That doesn’t mean that I disliked it, but I certainly wished that it had stayed true to the horror that had made the miniseries so great to begin with. While Batman: The Smile Killer isn’t as freaky as the first two issues of Joker: Killer Smile, I’m happy to report that this epilogue is much closer to the type of ending that I prefer for this type of story.

What drives the narrative in Joker: Killer Smile is the unnerving question of what is real and what is part of Ben Arnell’s psychosis. In Batman: The Smile Killer we follow Bruce instead of Ben, and the same question is asked about Bruce, and the narrative is constructed to plant seeds of doubt in our minds at nearly every turn. The story jumps between three different versions of Bruce. We see Kid Bruce watching Mr. Smiles on the TV after school; we see Batman chasing after Joker, who escaped at the end of Killer Smile; and we see Bruce locked up in Arkham Asylum. It’s never quite clear which of these different realities is actually true. Of course, as a long-time Batman reader I’m inclined to believe that it’s all a trick and that Bruce really is Batman, but the narrative doesn’t always support this.

For example, we find Bruce in his cell in Arkham. After a fight with orderlies, he’s taken to Dr. Gordon’s office. The moment that Bruce enters the office, the story immediately cuts to Kid Bruce talking to a younger Dr. Gordon, and Kid Bruce talks about how Mr. Smiles on the TV has been instructing him to do bad things (such as hurting himself and other people). Once Kid Bruce tells Gordon this, the story cuts back to the present day, with Gordon asking Bruce what people he’s trying to hurt. Bruce tries to reason with Gordon, to make him see through what he perceives to be an illusion, but Gordon interrupts him by saying, “We were getting somewhere, Bruce. Let’s stay focused.” The way in which the dialogue flows linearly through different timelines creates a sense of existential horror by presenting an alternate history for Bruce that may or may not be true. Bruce wants to hold on to what he knows, but these events support quite the opposite of what he knows: that he’s suffering from psychosis and that he’s an inmate in the asylum instead of Batman.

This doubt is written in quite cleverly. At no point is anything confirmed, but it’s like Lemire expects his readers to assume that the Batman reality is the one and only true reality. Rather than going out of his way to make readers doubt that assumption, Lemire puts the focus on just a sliver of doubt. Yes, the assumption that Bruce is really Batman is perfectly reasonable, but then you have to take into account that this is a Black Label comic that’s not set in regular continuity, so technically anything is possible. In addition to that, we also see Ben Arnell again, still in his Arkham cell, right across from Bruce. Ben Arnell is an unreliable narrator who has lost his mind, so whatever he’s trying to tell Bruce becomes questionable by default. Either way, rather than offering some kind of contrived explanation or reverting to a standard Batman narrative, this book allows for the reader to make up their own mind, which enhances the sense of alienation and mystery that makes this book so eerily intriguing.

The art plays a big role in creating this intrigue; it is something that Sorrentino and Bellaire capture beautifully. In the brightly colored opening scene, where we see Kid Bruce in front of the TV, we see only the arm and part of the shirt of the puppeteer that’s controlling Mr. Smiles. There’s no doubt that this puppeteer is Joker, but how Joker can be on the TV talking to Kid Bruce, years before Batman came to be, is never explained. Furthermore, Joker only fully appears during a Joker gas-fueled fight scene, which inexplicably transitions to Bruce finding himself in an inmate uniform in his Arkham cell. Joker is barely in this book, but his presence haunts the story, as if he could show up in any panel, in any time and in any place.

The contrast in colors and art styles is also an effective way to further emphasize the mystery. The bright colors in the opening scene are contrasted against a pitch-dark, nightly Gotham, which in turn is contrasted against the sober plain white walls of Arkham. The artists switch up these different aesthetics seamlessly, which creates a dreamlike experience, and especially the sudden cuts to the one place or the other serve to maintain that dreamlike quality.

Speaking of place, this is highly problematic as well, but in a good way. For example, when we find Kid Bruce in front of the TV in the opening scene, I don’t recognize the room as one that you’d find in Wayne Manor. It looks more like an apartment to me. And yet this is presented as Bruce’s childhood home. Gotham City at night, with Batman gliding across the sky, looks much like the Gotham City that we’re all familiar with in regular continuity books, but it’s never quite clear where exactly Batman is going or where the crime scene is located. This vision of Gotham is also different from the one we saw in Joker: Killer Smile, because Sorrentino and Lemire deliberately chose to render Gotham as a modern metropolis without the gargoyles and the zeppelins in the miniseries. If all locations are meant to resemble the same city, and all could be real, then they also cancel each other out in a way. As such, there is no real sense of place here. There are only separate locations that seem strangely disconnected from one another, as well as distinct enough that they could be entirely different worlds altogether. It’s disorienting, which, once again, strengthens the narrative in subtle ways.

To wrap this up, I have a few comments on the ending, which you can find in the spoiler tag below.

On the final pages we see Bruce escaping Arkham. Bruce feels lost and asks for a sign so he’ll know what he is, and as he looks up he sees the Bat symbol lighting up the sky. Then he smiles, and starts running, but the final panel presents a stark night sky without a Bat symbol, as if it was never really there. Sometimes in fiction light is linked to illusions or hallucinations, and it seems like the creative team wants to raise that possibility here once more in the final panel, to hammer home that not everything is as it seems. In doing so, the question of what’s real and what’s not, which is at the core of this story, is concentrated in that single frame. Now, to some this ambiguous ending might not be satisfactory, because no answers are provided and it feels like this comic is actually the start of a story rather than the ending of one. For all we know, maybe DC has plans to continue this storyline in the future, but, as much as I’d love to see Lemire, Sorrentino and Bellaire work on a Batman story again, I think that maybe it’s best if this particular story is left the way it is. I like the ambiguity. I like that this book makes me wonder what is going on. In a world where most comics are filled with exposition dumps to ensure that every reader will absolutely understand everything in the way that the creative team intends, Batman: The Smile Killer offers a refreshing reading experience, because it makes its readers figure these things out for themselves.

Recommended if…

  • You are a fan of Joker: Killer Smile.
  • You love trippy horror stories with ambiguous endings.
  • You want to read a different kind of Batman story.

Overall: Batman: The Smile Killer is an intriguing epilogue to the Joker: Killer Smile miniseries. It embraces themes such as psychosis, existential horror, hallucinations and mystery, all of which can be found in Killer Smile as well, though in a slightly different context. It also embraces ambiguity, as it doesn’t hold readers by the hand, nor does it provide any clear answers to what’s going on. This is a book that makes you think, and I definitely recommend adding this to your collection, provided you’ve picked up the Joker: Killer Smile issues as well.

Score: 9.5/10

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