WARNING: I will try my best to make this as spoiler-free as possible, but if you’d rather go in completely blind, I would recommend buying and reading the book before this review.
The year is 2016, and we’re on the back end of the New 52. I’m heavily invested in Justice League: Darkseid War: a story written by Geoff Johns, with the majority of the artwork illustrated by Jason Fabok and coloured by Brad Anderson. As Darkseid War ends and Rebirth begins, we’re thrown one of the most interesting curveballs of recent comic book history: The Joker, who has been mostly absent from comic books as of late (save for some major New 52 events), has secretly been a group of three people, operating under the same criminal moniker. At the time, I had no clue what to think of the revelation – but as a huge fan of the Joker, I was VERY eager to see where this would go. Who would follow up on this story? Scott Snyder? Tom King? Geoff Johns? When would we get it? I was excited and impatient to find out, and as the wait for the answer grew longer and longer, I found myself thinking: “wow, I wish we were getting more Joker stories.”
And the monkey’s paw curled.
There have been points (during this year in particular) when I have been so god damn tired of the Joker. Even a villain as charismatic and compelling as the Clown Prince of Crime doesn’t need to be the centre of every story, especially when not all of these stories seem to actually suit him. I do think a lot of this content has been good – great, even – but when looking at the deluge of his appearances since 2016, to say he’s been oversaturated wouldn’t be a stretch. By the time I received my review copy of Three Jokers, made by the very same team behind Darkseid War, I wondered if this would be a problem. Would the impact of this book be lessened? Have we finally had too much of the Joker?
Absolutely not. When you live in a glass house called Batman News, it’s best not to throw stones: there could be one or one hundred Joker stories this year, and Three Jokers would be fantastic either way.
This will be one of my biggest reviews so far, because there is a lot to say about this issue. It’s one of the longest I’ve tackled on the website, clocking in at about the same page count as The Killing Joke, the (in)famous story that this tale takes great inspiration from. What was particularly shocking about this book was that, despite the obvious homages and references, it doesn’t really feel that derivative of Alan Moore’s classic. Unlike Geoff Johns’ Doomsday Clock, you won’t get the sense that this book was forced into existence: rather, it seems like a very natural and unique take on the Joker that stands on its own, regardless of if you’ve read many previous stories about the villain. This was my greatest fear about the book, and it’s been fortunately put to rest: it chooses to use classics such as The Killing Joke and Death in the Family as building blocks to the story, rather than roadblocks that hold it back.
Before continuing, I want to take a quick moment to address the continuity issue, before someone brings it up in the comments: no, it doesn’t particularly fit within the world of DC right now. I honestly don’t expect it to either: Alfred is alive, Batman retains the scars that he lost at the end of Superheavy, every character is wearing an outfit unique to this story, and the very concept of there being three Jokers doesn’t really mesh with what’s going on in comics right now. One issue in and this comic has already taken the path of pseudo-continuity that’s akin to Doomsday Clock… but I don’t particularly mind. Seeing as nothing makes sense in the world of DC at the moment, I imagine there’ll be a reboot sooner or later, and DC will continue to adapt its modus operandi of selective continuity. Three Jokers will make an impact on the larger universe then: if fans choose to let it, of course. Judging by how the story’s going so far, I’m inclined to suggest they should.
Seeing as the issue is primarily setup, I’d like to focus my review on how Johns handles the main characters of this story: Batman/Bruce Wayne, Batgirl/Barbara Gordon, Red Hood/Jason Todd, and the three Jokers. This is Johns’ first major Batman story that’s set in-continuity, so it’s important to tackle where I feel he succeeds, and where I feel he can improve. One of the most regular critiques I’ve heard of Johns’ writing is when he’s writing Batman, so it’s a very pleasant surprise to see that I loved his depiction of Bruce here. In previous stories, Johns has depicted Bruce as an arrogant, abrasive, untrustworthy man… and while this is not an inaccurate interpretation, it sometimes felt as if his character was being held back for the sake of making others look better by comparison. Here, we don’t have this problem. Batman is still a dark, haunted man, but he’s one that can put aside his pride: not only do we see Bruce openly accepting help from Batgirl (as well as showing genuine concern for her), but this attitude even extends to Red Hood. It’s honestly refreshing! After spending so long in a Möbius comic strip of Batman admitting he needs to accept help more (and then forgetting the lesson two story arcs later), it’s great to see him actually applying what he learned in works such as Death of the Family. Hell, I like Bruce so much here that I don’t even mind seeing yet another flashback of his parents’ death!
…That’s a lie. It was very annoying. But I understand that it was there to represent Bruce’s trauma, and how he’s grown from that life-defining moment. Trauma, as you’ll see, is the lynchpin of this comic.
Batgirl and Red Hood are handled with similar care, and have very different roles in this story – even if the two are bound together by their suffering at the hands of the Joker. It’s clear that neither of them have completely moved past their trauma; how could they, when the villain responsible is still so prevalent in their lives? Despite this, though, the two have handled their recovery very differently. Barbara seems to be handling things the best (incidentally, is it actually possible to run so fast that you break a treadmill?), while Jason seems to be somewhat trapped in his own anger. This is something of a step backward for Jason… but seeing as the only writer who has had the chance to tackle Jason’s recovery in the last ten years has been Scott Lobdell, I’m inclined to let another creator present their own take on it. This is as much a story about Barbara and Jason as it is about Bruce – perhaps even more so. But to go into it would be to give too much away.
Finally, there’s the matter of the three Jokers. I’m not going to say much here, other than that I think it works. I remember reading Grant Morrison’s Batman: The Clown at Midnight, and being utterly enchanted by the concept of super-sanity: the idea of the Joker rewriting his personality to create a new kind of enemy for the caped crusader to face. I still love the concept to this day, but I can see why it wouldn’t work in a more grounded noir story such as this one. So, how would super-sanity work in a more literal sense? Through just one line, this book provides something of an answer: and it’s the core of the mystery behind the three Jokers. The dynamic between each of the maniacs works quite well, too! While I’m not sure I agree at the distinction Johns has made between each Joker – and I have mixed feelings on what he implies about one of the Jokers’ origins – I think he does a good job of distinguishing each antagonist from one another. Of course, the bulk of that work is thanks to Jason Fabok’s art.
And good god, that art.
The moment I opened this book, it was as if all my complaints about delays were forgotten in an instant. Johns and Fabok made the wise choice not to release this story until it was complete in its entirety, and the quality that resulted from this decision is impossible to deny. This is far and away Fabok’s greatest work yet, from the character work to the action sequences, from the mood to the panelling. Every single panel has the intricacy some artists give to an entire page, and I’m positive that it’s in no small part to the time Fabok had been given to develop it. References to Brian Bolland’s work on The Killing Joke – along with homages to an assortment of other Joker stories – are entirely seamless, and you’ll often only pick up on them during a second or third read. Brad Anderson’s colouring only heightens this, creating a slew of striking imagery that’s delightfully easy on the eyes. Even when all three Jokers are in one scene, the two manage to make the distinction between them subtle yet effortless to recognize, and not a single moment in the story feels too cluttered. Rob Leigh’s lettering takes some getting used to, but by the end of the story you’ll likely feel it’s an essential part to the atmosphere of Three Jokers.
Because of how great the art is, it means I can focus my criticisms on smaller, more constructive areas. I think my second-biggest concern about Three Jokers – and one that hasn’t been entirely put to rest yet – is how Johns and Fabok will handle the story of Barbara Gordon. What happened to her in The Killing Joke has been the subject of intense debate for over twenty years now: both in the specifics of what happened, as well as its treatment of Barbara’s pain as a plot device. While Barbara is her own character with her own agency in this issue, there are still echoes of that exploitation here. In the beginning of the comic, there’s a short scene where Barbara takes a shower, highlighting the gunshot wound she received in her gut. As she reflects on the Joker’s actions against her, we see Barbara’s hips cocked, elbows splayed out as she ruffles her hair, before moving in on a close-up of her belly. When I read this, I recall a similar moment during Heroes in Crisis, where Batgirl shows off the same wound – and I feel like both scenes suffer from a similar problem. I don’t really think it’s Fabok’s fault that the scene feels somewhat sexualised – anyone with half a brain can see that it’s not Fabok’s intention when drawing this moment. That said, when you’re working in a medium such as superhero comics, and imagery of sexualised women has been commonplace for decades at this point, it likely comes naturally for this to carry over; even during what’s supposed to be a vulnerable scene for the character. This hasn’t affected my opinion of the book overall, but it’s a point that I think was important to bring up – especially if Fabok wishes to continue evaluating and improving upon his work.
That being said, to have your greatest nitpick be a single scene in your book? That’s to have a great book altogether. I was blown away at the talent bursting from these pages: both from Johns’ subdued but impactful writing and plotting, to Fabok and Anderson’s meticulous directing of the story. I went from being cautiously optimistic about Three Jokers to being beyond excited, and I am desperate for the next issue.
- You’re looking for a Joker story that is quite singularly unique, and effective in its characterization.
- Jason Todd’s development is something you’ve wanted to be tackled by a different writer with a new perspective.
- You want a neo-noir superhero story that isn’t afraid to make bold decisions, and lead the audience to places that will genuinely throw you for a loop.
I honestly don’t think I could have asked for a better start to what’s sure to be the biggest Joker story of the year – and perhaps, if it continues at this level of quality, a classic comic in its own right. This is a dark, enthralling mystery of a Batman story: with a cast of characters sharing an electric chemistry, a trio of charismatic and sinister villains, and an ending that’s both shocking and cathartic, yet leaves you wanting so much more. I’m happy to say that this book receives the highest rating I’ve given a comic so far: you’ll want to be paying close attention to this one.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.
Author’s Twitter: @ObnoxiousFinch