WARNING: Full spoilers for all of Three Jokers will follow.
Well, here we are.
DC’s Rebirth line began over four years ago now, and when bookended with Dark Nights: Death Metal, we see one of the most interesting creative trajectories a comic book company has made in recent history. What started as a critically and commercially acclaimed soft reboot of DC’s line – one that built its premise on hope and fighting metatextual corruption – soon spiraled into a series of controversial stories that seemed antithetical to the relaunch’s initial premise. When Wally and Barry hugged at the end of Rebirth, did anyone expect Wally to kill a dozen people at a mental health institution in Heroes in Crisis? When Superman started to raise a son, did anyone expect him to disappear and be aged up into an adult, predominantly off-panel? When Doctor Manhattan was revealed to be behind the New 52, did anyone expect Doomsday Clock to look quite like it did – a comic that didn’t even finish before it was overshadowed by an Emmy Award-Winning Watchmen television show?
I mention this because – and I think this is important – Rebirth’s unique quality lies in its honesty. Whether or not you agree with the mission statement of Rebirth is one thing, but the entire premise hinges on the concept of the “mistake” of the New 52. Like Infinity Crisis before it, Geoff Johns posits that the world of DC had grown too dark, too bleak, and that it was up to a line-wide push to set things right. This, more than anything else, made the heel-turn towards darkness even more overt when it happened: so much so that we’re now getting another event comic that sets out to tell us this exact same thing.
And this is the problem, isn’t it? If you create a story that promises to separate characters from dark and edgy pasts, yet your follow-up stories don’t commit to that vow… then your voice is doomed to sound hollow in the face of your actions. With this, we reach Three Jokers #3: The final ember of Rebirth, and the last comic we know of Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok working on at this time. In some ways, it reminds me of Rebirth as a whole. The storytelling is incredibly well-constructed, and it includes a lot of pieces I genuinely value… but when I reach the end of it all, I have to wonder what the point even was.
Three Jokers #3 opens on our main characters discussing the mystery of their three adversaries, and immediately I’m a little put off. When I wrote my review of the first issue, one of the things I was most impressed by was how it felt like Johns’ Batman had developed over the years – changed into someone more mature and capable, who doesn’t hide from relationships behind his own arrogance. We saw this in Green Lantern, Justice League, even Doomsday Clock at points – but it did seem, for a minute, that we were looking at a Batman who’s evolved beyond that. That’s before he shoves his surrogate son to a wall and screams at him, of course.
This scene bothers me, but it’s also symbolic of a larger problem I have with this book. The fight between Bruce and Jason doesn’t last long, but it’s never resolved – the last Bruce says of it is that Jason never understood him, and we never reach a conclusion on that front. In fact, this story doesn’t seem particularly interested in concluding much, despite the five years of buildup to this ending. Yes, the plot itself is resolved, but what almost seemed like a story about Barbara and Jason until now ends with Bruce at the forefront, with his two proteges taking a hard step to the sideline of the comic. What did either of these two learn by the end of it? Barbara’s existence in this issue is to reject Jason, and Jason’s existence in this issue is to fawn over Barbara. Gone is the exploration of their grief, save for the obvious symbolism of Barbara hitting “The Comedian” Joker with his own camera. Instead, we have what seems like a tacked-on B-plot, that feels deliberately engineered to go exactly nowhere. What have these characters learned from the journey? To me, it comes across as something from the second arc of a comic with no predecessor – nor, apparently, a successor.
Bruce, however, does walk out of the story having gained something: and it’s one of the parts of the book I do genuinely like. Going into Three Jokers, I knew Johns pitched it as an exploration of grief – and while I think Barbara and Jason are ultimately more interesting vessels for that, the steps they make with Bruce turn out to be a pleasant surprise. By using Joe Chill as a somewhat contrived plot device, it ultimately allows for a really nice exploration of how Batman views the man who killed his parents. Is he angry with him? Does he hate him? Can he, ultimately, forgive him? In that sense, I think the comic was worthwhile: a story about Bruce finding it in himself to save and understand his parents’ murderer is a story worth telling. It’s a shame a lot of it’s been done before.
I’m not sure how much blame I can really put on the creators for the crime of repetition: in comics, most everything has been done before, and in 80 years of Batman stories, finding a wholly original concept is like finding a bald patch in Alan Moore’s beard. That said, one might also argue that this could have been somewhat mitigated, had Johns decided to spend some more time in the world of Gotham. This is Johns’ first Batman story “in continuity” (more on that later), and it shows – because almost everything from this story has been done somewhere else. The forgiveness is new, but we’ve seen Batman saving Joe Chill in Endgame – and confrontations with him in both The Dark Knight #0 and the Darkseid War Batman one-shot. We’ve seen a romance between Jason and Barbara happen in Batman Eternal – only this time, the role of who likes who has been reversed, and we have even less of a resolution than we had in that comic. Batman has a confrontation with Joker in the Monarch Theatre? Arkham City and Joker War fit the bill. Finally, there’s the matter of the Joker’s past: something we’ve seen explored in Hush Returns, of all comics. Three Jokers doesn’t rip off any of these, but it covers the same beats – and I’m not sure if it does any of them all that well. As a result, it feels derivative of stories I’m not even sure Johns has read… which brings us to the story he obviously has read.
Alright, I have to take it back. In my review of Three Jokers #1, I praised the book for taking stylistic inspiration from The Killing Joke, without seeming wholly derivative… but I can’t stand by that statement in good conscience after reading the conclusion. Putting aside the obvious reference by making Alan Moore’s take on the Joker being named “The Comedian”, the story can’t help but tie itself down to the iconic Joker story more and more as it goes on, culminating in an ending that literally hinges on you having read – and remembering – the flashbacks in the original story. I’d go so far as to argue that the ending only works if you’ve read the story… though if you’re a fan of The Killing Joke, I get the feeling that Three Jokers isn’t exactly what you’d want from a follow-up. More on that in a minute.
Let’s not get too crazy here – I’ve gone over a thousand words without talking about the saving grace of the story, and I want to bring it up now before my biggest critiques. Jason Fabok on the art of Three Jokers has not only been consistently fantastic, but has elevated a story I don’t care for to a point where it almost sells me on it. It’s not just a singular thing, too: it isn’t just the cross hatching on every character in every panel, or the fact that I can zoom in and see even minute details from the city of Gotham looming behind our characters. It’s not just the fact that Fabok is capable of making an entire page spread of Joker lookalikes, each of them seeming like the villain while retaining unique elements to their appearances. More than that, it’s the inherent understanding Fabok has with Johns as they tell their story: the trust that they have in each other to get the point across with visuals alone, its choreography clear and well-mapped out (if not particularly memorable). Some of the best moments in the book are the silent ones, tension building between the panels as Batman and company walk into the Jokers’ trap. Reading three consecutive issues where Fabok has been given the time to really show off has been an absolute delight: no one is more passionate about this story than Fabok, and he spends every panel trying to make you as excited about it as he is. When the story is strong enough to support his passion, it succeeds with flying colours – if I had to recommend this book, it’d be to admire the three years of hard work you can see on proud display here. Honestly, it’s something you often don’t get in a mainstream comic nowadays. I just wish that it was enough for me to love this book.
I feel like I’ve been forgetting something important. Does anyone know what that might be? No? Well, I guess the review’s over—
OH YEAH. THE JOKERS. Much like Geoff Johns, I almost forgot!
Before continuing, I want to take a moment to voice my appreciation for some of the comments on my last review (thank you for the birthday wishes!). Not everyone agreed with me, which I respect, but I particularly appreciate the comments that went into detail as to why. There was a great analysis about the difference between the Clown and the Comedian Jokers, and I appreciated another comment pointing out that the Criminal Joker was likely meant to be Alfred Stryker from Detective Comics #27. These are great insights, and it’s always a good sign when a book inspires its reader to look into its content like that. That said, I’m not so sure the book actually cares about the Joker like its fans do.
The ending to Three Jokers really hones in on what I’m talking about, with Batman all but revealing the “real” Joker’s identity. Of course, it doesn’t seem concerned with explaining all three Jokers and their connection, relationships and origins – despite never actually putting in the time to sell us on the concept at all – but it IS happy to tell us that yes, the flashbacks in The Killing Joke ARE real! Not only are they real, but Johns has decided to retroactively change them. No longer is Moore’s epic a tale about Joker’s “one bad day”, but now simply the selective memory of a man who was always abusive, always a monster. It acts as if it’s an obvious reveal too – it cuts to scenes from The Killing Joke as if seeing them is supposed to make us gasp, reeling from the startling insight that Johns is presenting us like it’s going to make us see the Joker in a whole new light. Oh my god, he was an asshole BEFORE he was a homicidal clown?! That… does nothing but devalue the mystery that every other Batman writer has taken the time to set up, around if the Joker’s past is real or an elaborate con. Oh great, Batman always knew about the Joker’s thoroughly unexciting past – yet can’t figure out what the deal was with his two lookalikes. The World’s Greatest Detective, everyone. I’m thrilled to know exactly nothing about the two other Jokers, and way too much about the only one that’s still alive by the end of the book. Not that it even matters.
Because, really – what does this book accomplish? If it’s not in continuity, it’s a story about a concept that is never explored, with only one protagonist that actually finishes their story arc. If it is in continuity, then its impact is minimal. Jim Gordon now knows his daughter is Batgirl? Okay, decent development (undeveloped, surprise surprise). Bruce Wayne has forgiven Joe Chill? Genuinely a good moment, and one that I thoroughly expect to be forgotten. The Comedian Joker’s origin is real? Great, I can’t wait for it to be ignored by writers yet again, just like we saw in Hush Returns. Nothing substantial is gained from this story: we know nothing more about the three Jokers than we did at the beginning of the book, we never see a conclusion to whatever Johns was trying with Jason and Barbara, and relative status quo is eagerly restored by the end, just in case you thought that this was supposed to amount to anything. This comic revels in stagnation, celebrating itself like it’s any different from any other book that wants to rock the world of DC without any follow-through. The only difference with this book is that I love its coat of paint. Ha.
- You don’t actually care about knowing what the deal with the three Jokers is.
- You’re a fan of The Killing Joke… but, you know, not that big of a fan.
- Jason Fabok’s art makes the story worthwhile for you, which is a completely reasonable opinion.
- You want this book to actually have an impact: the only way for this to have any relevance in the future is for fans to let DC know they want to read more of it. I’m so-so either way.
This is a decent Batman story masquerading as a masterpiece, which honestly makes it worse in my eyes. There’s a lot to like here, from the pacing to the storytelling on a technical level. If it were in a vacuum, I might rate the story higher… but it’s not. This, like it or not, is the final chapter of Rebirth – and somehow, it manages to end with both a bang and a whimper. Despite the art’s best efforts, the story doesn’t matter. The protagonists don’t matter. The Jokers don’t matter. As much as I hate to admit it after five years of waiting… Three Jokers isn’t special.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.
Author’s Twitter: @ObnoxiousFinch