WARNING: There’s no way around it – this review is going to contain heavy spoilers.
It’s no secret that I’ve been incredibly excited for this book.
As someone who grew up with Geoff Johns’ Justice League run – it’s honestly a big part of what motivated me to get into comics at all – Three Jokers felt like it was, in some ways, a culmination of that story. What began in Flashpoint led to Trinity War, which led to Forever Evil, which led to Darkseid War… until finally, we saw the conclusion to his DC universe-spanning epic in the pages of Rebirth and Doomsday Clock. Flawed, but a complete narrative with a jumping on and jumping off point. The only loose end?
The Three Jokers.
How the hell would this concept work, anyway? The question immediately drew skepticism, and plenty of it was well deserved. I found myself able to suspend a level of disbelief, however, and grew more and more excited for the book as its release grew closer. To my delight, I thought that issue 1 was a massive payoff! I sang plenty of praises about the book in that review, and I was beyond ecstatic to see my review appear on a promotional image for the comic. I was riding high, and I opened my review copy of this issue with high expectations.
Unfortunately, I don’t believe DC will be as eager to promote this review. Three Jokers #2 is not as good as its opening chapter, and I expect it’s going to have a seriously contentious reaction.
I’m not gonna jump the gun here, though; I don’t hate the book whatsoever! I think there’s a level of quality to the pages that you can only get from creators who have spent a long time and put a lot of passion on this product, and that’s something we should always take the time to applaud. However, I have serious criticisms, and I’d be a disingenuous reviewer if I didn’t address them… although they might not be the same critiques as everyone else’s.
Let’s compliment sandwich this motherfucker: there are a lot of things I wanna talk about, so it’s best that I bookend this review with things I actually like. First, and this cannot be understated: Jason Fabok is on fire. The artist of a book is most oftentimes the “director”, and Fabok directs the everloving hell out of this beast. When scenes work, Fabok is responsible: not just for the detail within each and every page (and there is so much detail), but for the entire tone of the book! Fabok creates the ominous mood that gives these events serious weight – weight that I might not normally feel from the content of this issue. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m reading a softcore horror book: sure, being surrounded by an army of white guys in Joker makeup is horrifying enough as it is, but Fabok really sells it, successfully deterring me from cosplaying as the Clown Prince for yet another year.
Fabok – working with Brad Anderson, who is on impeccable form here – does fantastic character work as well. There’s something to be said about an artist if they’re able to emulate another’s work without seeming to rip off their style, yet it’s accomplished to wonderful effect here. The “Comedian” Joker looks like he was ripped straight out of Brian Bolland’s sketchbook, and Jason Todd has these brief but poignant moments where his face looks like you could have snatched it right out of one of his classic “Robin” stories. If anything sells me on this book, it’s the acting that Fabok manages to portray from panel to panel, even on Batman’s stoic and unreadable mug.
But you don’t need me to tell you how good Jason Fabok’s art is. You’re the one looking at it, you know how good it is. What you really want is for me to talk about what I dislike about this book! Those of you who’ve read it already (or seen some spoilers lurking around the web) know what happens, and so you probably know where I’m going with this. That’s right: we might as well talk about the elephant in the room.
The book is kinda boring.
…Oh, you thought I was gonna talk about Jason and- no, don’t worry, we’ll get there. But when it comes to this comic’s shortcomings, whatever decisions the characters make fall short when faced with a much larger problem: what really happens in this book?
We see a little of the fallout from the “Clown” Joker’s death, sure – and we see the mystery deepen a little more, following the bait-and-switch of Red Hood’s confrontation with the two remaining Jokers. We end on a cliffhanger that I’m going to refrain from discussing until next issue, and… wait, how long is this book again? Oh, it’s the length of the entirety of The Killing Joke? Yeah, that’s a problem. While I always appreciate a book taking its time to do a story right – and there are many nice character moments that Johns and Fabok squeeze in here – this is an entire third of the biggest Batman story of the year. It really shouldn’t feel as meandering as it is… and yet, it does.
Here’s the thing about The Killing Joke. Alan Moore is obviously a master at his craft, so I won’t pretend it’s easy to emulate his work (as Geoff Johns probably knows already). That said, if you had to take anything from how he wrote one of the greatest Joker stories of all time, I would argue it should be his economic storytelling. With the invaluable help of Brian Bolland, Moore manages to tell a clear and concise story across ~50 pages: an origin for the Joker, a devious plot to drive Commissioner Gordon insane, Batman’s detective work to find him, and the impactful climax that still haunts the mind of the child I was ten years ago. Does anyone think that The Killing Joke is a fast, frenetic book? No! It’s slow, ponderous, and manages to get a lot done without ever feeling like it was breezing past things, or padding for time. Three Jokers is three times the length of the book it is clearly hoping to be a pseudo-sequel to, yet I get no sense like there’s that same level of efficiency here. You’re dealing with more characters than the original book, that’s true: but in balancing all of them, you don’t get the chance to do anything particularly new with any of them. Even the Jokers – the hook of your book, mind you – don’t get much time to shine here. So, what are you doing with all these pages, if not expanding on your core concept?
Speaking of which, why are there three Jokers, anyway? For a book entirely about the mystery behind Batman’s greatest enemy, the harlequin(s) of hate have barely taken up any space on the page, save for a select few scenes. While the death of the “Clown” Joker had some impact at the time, it’s begun to dawn on me how little impact it actually has on anything. Story-wise, the “Criminal” and “Comedian” Jokers fill the same roll – and there is conflict within the story itself about whether or not it was the “Clown” or “Comedian” who did half the horrifying things that the Joker is responsible for. The two are indistinguishable where it counts… so why not make the story about two Jokers in the first place? I mean for god’s sakes, there are only two Jokers in a deck of cards anyway! Why do things have to come in threes?
This is a problem that I might have less of an issue with if the story didn’t take itself so seriously. I liked it at first: it created a strong opening that packed a powerful punch, and it’s why I reviewed issue 1 so highly! However, it’s a double-edged sword. The more it wants us to view it in that lens, the more introspection we’re going to have on the basic premise of how three different men avoided detection from the world’s greatest detective. The story abandons any supernatural element you might normally find in comic books, making the circumstances around Jason Todd’s death vague; as if to deny that Lazarus Pits are a dime a dozen in Batman comics is to give Batman the gravitas he finally deserves. You can’t have it both ways: if this is a real, grounded crime drama, then people are going to read into it, like I’ve been doing with Criminal Sanity. This is partially why Morrison’s theory of Joker’s supersanity is so popular: it embraces the nature of comic books, rather than denying and rejecting it. While this concept of multiple people is a fun reinterpretation – and possibly more accessible – it requires effort to sell you on it. Effort that, sadly, just isn’t where this book is focusing its time.
Alright, I’ve delayed it long enough. You guys wanna talk about the kiss? Let’s talk about the kiss, and why I don’t entirely hate it – okay, hang on, hang on, hang on. Put the gun down, I’ll explain.
Listen, it’s no secret that Barbara Gordon is the romantic hot potato of the DC Universe. Despite my personal feelings that she doesn’t gel with most of the Batman cast – and the rest of the world’s feelings that she doesn’t gel with anyone but Dick Grayson – I can’t think of a single woman in the world of DC who’s been shoved into as many romances with so little regard to her own agency, or what came naturally for the character. Here are a few examples I just found lying around, whether they were successful romances or not:
Needless to say, I wouldn’t call myself a fan. But, out of all the characters Barbara could be with, I really don’t think that Jason (Todd) is the worst offender. I don’t think it’s great by any stretch of the imagination – in fact, I audibly groaned when the scene emerged – but the scene and its follow-up aren’t that shocking in the context of this book. Babara and Jason are, really, the main characters of this story; Batman is mostly relegated to the sidelines, with Jason’s struggling with his grief being the driving force of the narrative. It’s here where we get the scenes that actually hit home: Jason waking up in Barbara’s room and looking at the records of her physical therapy, along with the help she received from her father. While Jason’s character has regressed a little from Lobdell’s work on him, and I found his literal nakedness in the interrogation sequence to be somewhat tasteless, I do think in his writing we find evidence of Johns’ experiences with grief. It might not hit as hard as some independent works I’ve read, but it does hit: and that’s not always easy to portray in a mainstream superhero comic. To me, the kiss wasn’t one of overt romance, but one of bonding over the trauma that two people share. It’s still not great, per se… but, honestly, it’s a whole lot better than some of the other romances Barbara has been shoved in. And with that, you have your compliment sandwich: a sprinkle of genuine heart and a good helping of masterful artistic delivery, trying its best to carry a relatively middling narrative.
- Jason Todd’s story in Scott Lobdell’s Red Hood and the Outlaws didn’t quite do it for you, and you want to see a different writer (who has also been accused of harassment) take a crack at it.
- You like seeing stories that cover Barbara Gordon’s recovery from trauma in a healthy and productive way – and don’t hate Jason Todd’s pecs being involved in that conversation.
- You’re into the moody, ominous tone of the first two issues, brought to life by an artist who really knows what he’s doing.
- The core concept of the three Jokers hasn’t lost you, and you’re curious what the finale will reveal about each of them… whether that’s good or bad.
- You don’t mind paying a hefty price for a story with a lot of meat to it!
This is one of the hardest reviews I’ve ever had to write, because it wasn’t until writing this sentence at 5am on my birthday morning that I managed to crack how to score this beast of a comic. This is not a bad book on a technical level, and I must reserve some judgment for how issue 3 plans to tie this all together. I didn’t dislike this book at all, in fact; but it’s got problems that I believe persist from beginning to end, and it’s going to need a bombshell of a conclusion for me to call this book the masterpiece it’s trying its hardest to be.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.
Author’s Twitter: @ObnoxiousFinch