You know, Punchline is a character that I really want to like, but every time I try to dive further into the character, I find myself disliking her more and more. And I don’t mean in a “she’s such a good bad guy that I dislike her” sort of way. No, that would be a good thing. I mean, “She’s really not a great character and the continued effort to make her a great character – while telling us she’s a great character without actually delivering – is only making it worse.” Speaking of which… Harper Row returns as Blue Bird here… You know… If you’re connecting the dots…
After promising to tell Punchline’s origin in a previous issue – and then failing to actually do so – James Tynion returns with another special to make sure he does, in fact, deliver her origin. Now, there’s a lot to unpack here, but if I were to sum this issue up in one sentence, it would be, “Punchline is an over-written yet incomplete story that fails to elevate the character in an exciting way.” That should give you an idea of where this review will go.
I want to start with the story itself. The origin aspect of this story delves into Alexis Kaye’s (Punchline) life from the moment she met the Joker. She’s just an average student that gets caught up in Joker’s chaos. After the near-death experience, Alexis grows infatuated with Joker. Why? Honestly… I’m not sure. She just becomes a sycophant. Instead of being driven by fear, she’s driven by obsession, and considering there’s no Stockholm syndrome here, I can’t fully understand why. And it’s not even an obsession to understand the Joker, it’s an obsession pertaining to why people don’t understand the Joker. The premise itself isn’t bad, but the execution is where it fails.
From here, Alexis’ obsession with the Joker pushes her to study all of his crimes and visit the various scenes of the crimes. She decides to visit these locations and capture her thoughts on these crimes in a podcast. And, yes, in case you’re wondering, we get excerpts from a number of these podcasts. This is a James Tynion book after all. I know that Sam Johns is credited as the main writer, but Tynion’s fingerprints are all over this story.
We get to experience a number of these podcasts as Cullen Row listens to them. I’ll discuss Cullen more, specifically, later, but for now, I want to focus on the podcast. We get walls and walls of exposition as Alexis delivers her twist on Joker’s crimes, and it’s just a slog to read. Tynion/ Johns attempt to make these pages poetic and impactful, but they’re anything but. There’s a single moment in the first episode of the podcast that I thought was done well. Alexis talks about the Joker’s first crime, and how there was no weight to his name when the news anchors spoke of him. She goes on to say, “They called you a killer with a clown gimmick. They didn’t understand what they were dealing with. Not yet.” I honestly thought that was a great touch, but everything that followed… I’ll just be kind and say it isn’t great. And when you get to the Laughing Fish episode, you’ll probably want to throw the book away.
At some point, just speaking of the Joker isn’t enough, so Alexis creates her alter-ego Punchline and tries to recreate Joker’s toxin to get his attention. Her attempts are a failure, but she does, eventually, capture the clown prince of crime’s attention, and thus their infatuation begins. I don’t buy the Joker’s role in this at all. The idea that Joker loves Punchline because she understands him in a way that others don’t, and that she can share his message so that people “understand the joke” is just ludicrous.
Joker’s only interest in people – aside from Batman – is simply what use they serve to him. If anything, this just proves that Tynion – and I supposed Johns – don’t understand the Joker. He’s not looking to be understood. He purposely tries to make sure he isn’t understood because that gives him the advantage. He tries to create anarchy and often does so by telling lie after lie. This? This is way off base. And again, while I can completely imagine people being obsessive in this way, it doesn’t line up that Alexis would be one of these people. Maybe she would be this obsessive if she were looking for revenge, but she’s not. So, for me, none of this holds much weight.
The present-day aspect of this book focuses on the hearing leading up to Punchline’s trial. There are threads here that tie back to moments in previous issues – which is nice in terms of long-form story structure – but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there’s not much worth praising in this portion of the book. While I like the idea of Punchline presenting herself as the victim, but the execution is so half-assed and clunky that it fails to live up to any potential that’s there.
Beyond that, other story elements begin to seriously fall apart here. For whatever reason, Dr. Leslie Thompkins is used as a character witness to determine Alexis’ competency to stand trial. I… I just… Umm… Look, if this is going to be DC’s idea of fast and loose with continuity in the future, then I don’t want to read what’s coming. Thompkins is a medical doctor. She runs a clinic. She is not a forensic psychologist. *Sigh*
Anyway, this brings Leslie into the fold, and then, for whatever reason, brings Harper and Cullen into the story as well. If you’ll remember, Harper chose not to be a hero at the end of Batman & Robin Eternal – which was mandated by DC because fan response to her was so negative – and this story doesn’t explain why she decides to take up the mantle again. In fact, it almost makes it sound as if she never really stopped being Blue Bird, so… It’s odd. Also, have Harper and Leslie ever met? I genuinely can’t remember, and I don’t think Leslie knows that Harper is Blue Bird.
Anyway, I want to side-bar for a second to discuss the parallels between Harper and Alexis. Leading up to this issue, a saw a number of sites/ fans – even Tynion, actually – compare the two based on their obsessions. Harper was obsessed with Batman while Punchline is obsessed with Joker. I guess there’s some truth there, and Tynion has openly admitted that he plans on making Blue Bird the antithesis of Punchline. Meanwhile, I can’t help but look at the two and think that the main similarities are that they’re both characters who were pushed too hard, too fast, and fans were told why they should love them and why they’re awesome rather than showing us. Now, to be fair, I thought Harper was a great character until they pushed her to become a vigilante – same with Duke – and the fact that her presence came at the expense of other heroes who are already part of the Bat-family sealed her fate before it ever really began… And when I look at Punchline, I see a similar trajectory.
No matter how you feel about Harper – or specifically Harper as Blue Bird – she’s back. There’s an entire sub-plot created here between Harper and her brother Cullen concerning their stance of Punchline. Is she a victim, or is she a criminal? Harper views her as a criminal while Cullen begins to view her as a victim after listening to her podcasts… And this brings me back to Cullen.
In the same way that I can’t believe anyone would actually believe Punchline’s obsession – at least in the way it is presented – I can’t believe people would back Punchline in the way that they do in this issue. I’ve seen comparisons to how certain Americans view Trump, but I think this is extremely different. The conflict is nothing more than terrible melodrama as Cullen leaves his sister’s side to cuddle up with his new, Joker/Punchline-loving boo, “Bluff.” (Insert eye roll here).
The plot of the story finally starts to pick up as Punchline makes her way to the trial while Leslie Thompkins finds herself caught in a gridlock of Punchline supporters. Leslie has Blue Bird keeping an eye on her, and there’s a sense of dread that begins to filter into the store as it seems more and more likely that there may be an attempt made on Leslie’s life…
And then the issue ends with a promise to continue. I’m not joking. Punchline gets out of her police escort and is being led to the courthouse while Thompkins is stuck in the mob – which includes Cullen – and Blue Bird looks down on them. There’s no actual plot here. In true Tynion fashion, there is no actual story here, it’s just set-up for future stories that will also, probably, only be set-up for more stories instead of being a complete story in and of itself.
Mirka Andolfo delivers the art for this issue and does a solid job. For the most part, I really enjoyed the linework, but I’m not certain Andolfo was the right artist for this particular story. There’s a cartoony/manga style to the art, and it didn’t seem to jive with what Tynion and Johns were shooting for – which they also failed to land from an execution standpoint. Tonally and thematically, it just felt as though the script and art kind of missed the mark.
Now, as I said, I actually enjoy the linework. While this may sound negative, I would love to see Andolfo do more light-hearted work. Whether it’s YA or just something that doesn’t try to take itself so seriously – perhaps Harley Quinn depending on the direction DC decides to take the character. Anyway, it’s good work, I’m just not sure it was the right fit.
- You’re a Punchline stan.
Punchline is definitely a James Tynion book. By that, I mean that it is a misguided, overwritten mess that continues to yell to readers that “Punchline is awesome,” but we still haven’t gotten anything to really support that argument. Alexis’ origin as Punchline doesn’t really hold-up, and the inclusion of Harper, Cullen, and Leslie Thompkins is… odd. I wanted to like this, and the premise itself is solid enough, but the execution leaves so much to be desired.