“I understand that people have disagreed with me on my assessment of this series, but I hope I’ve been able to articulate how I feel about it; at least, well enough for people to understand where I’m coming from. While I’m still not a big fan, this issue gives me hope that I’ll have a good time with the rest of the series – if it embraces the fact that the “realism” of the story isn’t where I’m having fun.”

This is how I concluded my review of the previous issue, part 4 of a 9-issue story. It’s strange to think that this book was one of the first on my reviewing plate, and despite its nature as a miniseries, it’s become my longest-running comic. I think before issue 5, I’m going to have to reread everything that’s come before at once, to get a fresh perspective on the second half of the story.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, it’s because I am happy to admit I need to eat my own words right now. Secret Files is the most realistic issue of the Criminal Sanity story so far, and I just so happened to have a great time with it.

I have to wonder if my enjoyment of this issue says more about me, or about Criminal Sanity… because, strictly speaking, it’s not a traditional comic. There are elements of a comic in here, in that a couple of pages are what you’d find in a comic… but the comparison pretty much stops there. Save for two pages that connect to the larger comic at hand, this entire issue is filled with supplemental material.

I love supplemental material.

While I don’t consider Watchmen to be the perfect book (really, what book is?), it’s a masterpiece for a myriad of reasons: not least of which is the worldbuilding Moore and Gibbons establish in the “extras” you would read at the end of every issue. Some were overly long and clunky, some weren’t much more than surface-level, but they became greater than the sum of their parts by creating a glue that holds its world together. The same can be said here! I have to admit, while I’ve had reservations about the comic so far, the way Garcia, the large collection of artists on this book, and special guest writer Edward Kurz (MD) have constructed this book is honestly something to be genuinely impressed by. I love the touch they added by beginning the issue with a spread of the entire investigation wall, before moving in to look up close at each piece of evidence as every page goes by.

I read in interview with Garcia and Kurz that sheds a little light on their thought process behind making this comic; and while it does justify some of my previous complaints on the series, it also reinforces why I really like this issue. Both creators are clearly very intelligent people, and the series is an active attempt to approach what a version of a serial killer like Joker would look like in the real world. In some ways, I think that’s a big mistake; there is undoubtedly a sensation around serial killers in the entertainment industry, but what often makes them both popular and acceptable is their fantastical element. Hannibal Lecter is popular because he is a very charming, suave and elegant interpretation of a horrible monster, and that anachronism is what makes us feel like it’s okay to like him. Joker’s popularity comes from a similar place, and separating him from that element risks turning him into something that isn’t really Joker, beyond the clown facepaint.

(If anyone reading this wants to bring up the Joker movie or a myriad of other stories where Joker is portrayed differently, I’m happy to discuss those cases in the comments; I still stand by that what I find appealing about Joker is that separation from what’s possible in the real world.)

With this in mind, I will still concede that I think it’s done well here. People who have read my previous reviews know my complaints about this version of Joker, but if you’re going to commit to a realistic angle, then you might as well go all the way. The profiling that Garcia and Kurz made of Joker is one of the lynchpins that created this story, so it’s actually very gratifying to see Harley Quinn’s profile of the killer, created by both an experienced writer and capable doctor.

I’m also very happy to see some content expanding on Harley in here. Reading her recommendation from medical school, the reprimands she received from her jobs, and the correspondence between Jim Gordon and Police Chief Loeb about the decision to bring her on board? That’s the kind of stuff I love to see. It’s expository without being unnatural – making them look like files littered across a desk essentially makes them a form of environmental storytelling, and it’s a really compelling way to shed insight onto characters without them saying what they’re thinking. Really, it’s as if you yourself are part of an investigation! I also like the “Harleen Quinzel” touch here – making that her legal name, while the preferred name that she is referred by is Harley Quinn. It addresses a nitpicky complaint that I had in earlier issues, without making it seem like an unnatural backtrack. Nice touch!

Honestly, there’s almost too much to cover here. This is a dense issue, and unlike a regular comic, it doesn’t tell you one story so much as it throws a ton of information at you. Some of it is very relevant, some of it doesn’t seem relevant now but might be later, and some might be entirely superfluous. I don’t know what’s what yet, and maybe I’ll look back on this issue with disdain if it proves to not contain much that’s very significant, but the mysteries that it presents here are enough to keep me enthralled, and reading from page to page.

As for the art? Honestly, I’m not sure I’m qualified to talk about it, because I wouldn’t even know where to start. Before I say anything, I’d like to quickly name every artist credited on the project, so I can congratulate each of them on making a near-seamless piece. David Mack, Jason Badower, Mico Suayan, Mike Mayhew, Cat Staggs – each of them contributed to Secret Files, yet you wouldn’t ever call this a case of too many cooks. While some artists have dedicated their time to creating the profiles of various victims, subjects and items, others turned the work into a collage of files and evidence that really seem to exist in the same room. I adore this. Meanwhile, remaining artists dedicate their time to more in-universe content. I’m particularly impressed by the incredibly detailed layouts of what I believe is Joker’s hideout, as well as the various tools and equipment that he’d have in such a location. Knowing the specifics of the house is great for getting a sense of scale, and could make for some great dramatic irony if we ever see a character who we like exploring the house, getting closer and closer to Joker’s basement and “kill room”.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out the wonderful sketches that presumably belong to Joker, littered throughout the book between autopsy reports and criminal profiles. There’s an eclectic beauty to these pieces, and while the equations littered throughout can sometimes feel a bit much, they do an excellent job of portraying an active imagination attempting to portray a typical vision of beauty, before letting it become marred by thoughts of depravity. Some of them remind me of doodles I’d make while bored in class… not that I was this good. Or a psychopath. Not in any way you can prove, at least.

Recommended If…

  • You’re a sucker for some good fucking
  • Supplementary material serves to expand a world for you when you read a story.
  • You’d like to have a better understanding of how Garcia sees this version of Joker and Harley, without hearing it through expository narration.

Overall

Alright, you got me; I REALLY liked this issue. I still have inherent problems with Criminal Sanity, and this is obviously a very different style to the rest of the story… but if you want to sell me on the world you’re constructing, as well as convince me that you know what you’re talking about? This is the way to do it, and I’m really impressed with what the entire team has made here. Right now, you have my full attention, and while I have some scepticisms that I plan to mention next review, I’m interested to see what you do with it.

Score: 8/10

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

Author’s Twitter: @ObnoxiousFinch