This is not an easy book to review.
I think there’s a lot that Criminal Sanity – written by Kami Garcia and illustrated by Mico Suayan and Jason Badower – has going for it. This is especially true for those new to the crime genre, looking for a way to enter the field through characters they’re more familiar with. The art is incredibly detailed, portraying a world that often feels like it could be our own, making it easy to imagine you’re essentially watching a television show. The crimes that this reinterpretation of the Joker gets up to are genuinely creative, devious and compelling – as an antagonist, there’s a lot to love. In that regard, the book has an appeal that’s hard to deny… and yet, it’s not a book I’m very invested in.
Those of you who have read my previous reviews should have a decent understanding as to why at this point. Issue 4, Secret Files and even this issue have had moments where I found legitimate enjoyment, but it’s difficult to look past the problems I have: a frustrating narrative, characters that seem both unrealistic and inaccurate to their source material, and an incredibly spotty release schedule that doesn’t help its case. (For the record, I have no problems with delaying a comic if it improves the quality of the overall product – but the pacing of this book makes me want to have read it as a complete graphic novel, and the delays don’t help with the momentum of the story.)
To avoid repeating myself, though, I’d like to voice my criticisms of this book through a different lens. I’ve used the term “uncanny valley” a few times in these reviews before: for those unfamiliar with the term, it’s the uncomfortable feeling you get when something you’re looking at looks almost real, but not quite real enough. Oftentimes, I’d use this to describe some of the artwork – a common snag with naturalistic art in comics. However, I’d posit that a similar principle applies to the rest of the story. It’s close to a realistic crime drama in a variety of ways, the world is close to believable, and the artwork is close to immersive… but it’s that little gap between where it is and where it wants to be that holds it back. This issue is a great way to test this experiment, because it actually has a nice combination of scenes that prove my point, along with scenes that I genuinely enjoy to counteract it! So, let’s look at some examples.
Here’s a very obvious example of what I’m talking about, for starters. Harley’s relationship with her mother has been one of the story’s major emotional beats, and it comes to something of a head with her quite-expected death in this issue. The moment where she finds this out is one that I actually quite like: Harley receives a voice message from her brother, who talks to her with an incredibly dismissive tone. She reacts equally vacantly, and it’s a great way of visually portraying the damage her mother did to her in the past. (Although, what’s up with her eyes in this panel?)
What I enjoy less is the funeral itself. There are a lot of cliché elements to the book, which I can’t claim is unusual for the world of comics… but it’s a smidge more frustrating when the books are directly calling that out, while still falling into the same traps. The trope of “standing in the distance at a funeral” isn’t uncommon, even if it is for a family member, nor is disrespecting their grave. Making a metatextual reference is only going to remind the audience of the disconnect between the realistic story that this story is trying to be, and the collection of clichés that the book often is.
Sometimes, however, this disconnect can work in the story’s favour. The contrivance of Harley Quinn refusing to talk to the police about Joker invading her home still really bugs me – it’s just not a decision a character could or should make in her situation – but it also lends to a really cool reveal in this book, reminiscent of the killer’s reveal in Se7en. Now that Joker has turned himself in, Harley has to handle interrogating the man, without revealing her hand to the rest of the police force! It’s a plot contrivance that takes me out of the story, but it’s in service of a creepy scene that pulls me back in. What am I supposed to make of it? Is the trade-off worth it? These are the questions that I ask when I read the book.
Then, there’s the art, which I constantly go back and forth on. Sometimes, I really like it: I adore Jason Badower’s portrayal of the younger Joker’s crimes, along with the grizzly image of the latest murder victim. I’d also like to give a specific shoutout to Mico Suayan here, who drew my favourite scene from the issue! The reveal of Joker entering the GCPD genuinely took me aback, but the scene where he manages to cut the power is actually quite chilling. Suayan has an excellent understanding of how to make sinister lighting here, which is especially dynamic with his work being almost entirely in black and white. He has a great sense of contrast, and it works as a very solid cliffhanger to the issue.
But then – and I really should be talking about this more – another contrast lies in the pages of Criminal Sanity, and this one I’m not so sure I like. When Badower is working on the coloured pages and Suayan the black and white, I really enjoy the creators’ content – but Badower’s art doesn’t lend itself nearly as well to the black and white pages. I made the mistake of confusing the two in a previous review (and I still greatly regret that), but now that I’m paying more attention to the differences, it’s hard to separate the different styles: not exactly clashing, but not gelling as naturally as I’d like to. This is the book in a nutshell, really. There are points where I have an acute understanding of what the comic is going for, and it’s technically hitting its marks… but it doesn’t hit them with the punch it should have, in order for me to be emotionally invested.
- You’ve come this far!
- You’re excited to read an issue that’s honestly a pretty good uptick in quality, if you’ve been struggling with previous issues.
- You want to see what Batman looks like in this world, who gets a brief panel here… wait, why is Batman in this story again?
You know, while I’m frustrated that this book is taking so long to come out, there’s a part of me that’s happy about it as well. These reviews are incredibly challenging, but there’s a satisfying element to them when I’m finished with them. I think they’ve been a good chart for how I’ve changed and grown as a reviewer: finding new ways to tackle what I dislike about this book, and finding things I like about it in the process. There’s a lot to say here, and I think that’s in large part thanks to the creative efforts of Garcia, Suayan and Badower, who certainly care about what they’re making. It shows, and I’m happy that I’ve been given a platform here to unpack this fascinating uncanny valley of a comic book.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.
Author’s Twitter: @ObnoxiousFinch