When it was first announced that 100 Bullets creator Brian Azzarello would be taking on the Joker, this Batmaniac sat up and took notice. I didn’t know what to expect, only that it would be interesting, brutal, and quality.
And it is. Joker, with art by Lee Bermejo, is definitely the big Bat graphic novel of the year, and the antidote to all that R.I.P. nonsense as well. It’s a well-conceived, hard hitting tale, a look into the world of the most popular super villain of all time, told through the eyes of a henchman who wants more for himself and stands a little too close to the fire to get it. Jonny Frost is a thug who volunteers to pick the boss up when he is somehow—inexplicably—released from Arkham Asylum, and who thinks that by proving himself to the Clown Prince of Crime he can become a made man himself. Naturally, he gets a lot more than he bargained for.
But you’d think that nobody in their right mind, and even quite a few people in their wrong mind, could have failed to see that coming, wouldn’t you?
And therein lies both what’s interesting about Joker and what’s wrong with it. Because the big book of the year, the one that is positioned to really pull back the curtain and give us an inside look at Batman’s greatest nemesis, the first major work to deal with the new, scarred Joker, and bridge what little gap there is between the villain of the comic books and the villain of the recent film, isn’t really about our Joker at all. Azzarello chooses a take on the character that may look the same on first glance—Bermejo’s artwork certainly looks like concept art straight from The Dark Knight—but the more one scratches at the skin beneath the scars, the more one realizes this is its own animal.
Now, all’s fair in love and comic books, right? I mean, the Batman himself started out as a gun-toting avenger heavily “influenced” by the Shadow (i.e., ripped off—read “Partners of Peril” some time), quickly ditched the guns and gained a plucky sidekick to become a sort of Dick Tracy busting 40s era gangsters, went through a science fiction phase (complete with trips to outer space in the Bat Rocket), ditched the sidekick to become a no nonsense Sherlock Holmes-esque detective, and then became the grimmest crime fighter in the roster of costumed vigilantes ever. So what do I mean by saying this isn’t “our” Joker?
I’ve written elsewhere and at length about how, despite there being multiple interpretations of the character and no one fixed continuity, it is still possible to speak of a “definitive” Batman. Graphic novels like Batman: Year One, Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman: The Killing Joke, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns—and even elements of Batman: The Animated Series—have come to be accepted by fans and critics as comprising an essential body of work, into which the most deserving new stories may be slotted and against which all new works are judges. A large part of the success of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight films, indeed, can be their willingness to draw inspiration from these key texts. Fans around the globe have expressed their excitement that, after decades of lame and embarrassing spoofs, the “real” Batman has finally been filmed. And it’s that essential body of work against which we have to compare Joker if we’re going to ask ourselves if this is another Killing Joke or Dark Knight.
As mentioned, the look of the Joker—specifically the aforementioned scars on his mouth—would seem to tie this directly in with recent events in Batman comics, where Grant Morrison scarred the character’s mouth to bring him in line with the latest film. But other events in the comic make this impossible to take as a part of the current continuity. Nor does it fit in with the accepted canon of major works listed above.
A digression if I may: The Batman’s Rogues Gallery has its origins in the larger-than-life gangsters of the 1930s. Personalities like Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Faced Nelson were the inspiration for the Penguin, Two-Face and other of Gotham’s criminal kingpins (and for the aforementioned Dick Tracy’s Rogues Gallery as well). Azzarello’s story hearkens back to this era, projecting it forward as a kind of Sopranos interpretation of the characters, who operate like low-level modern mobsters squabbling over territory and cuts of prostitution and extortion rackets. This Joker, newly released from the Asylum and angry that his territory has been divvied up among other mobsters, is looking to get “his own” back. Now, since when did the Joker have territory? The Joker we’ve known since the 70s is a homicidal maniac, akin to Charles Manson or Hannibal Lecter, interested only in causing as much death as possible, not someone who would or could maintain the drugs and prostitution rackets of a section of Gotham.
But Azzarello’s Joker pops pills, chugs whiskey from the bottle, parties all night at strip bars, and partakes regularly of prostitutes. He talks about his early days of pimping on the street and complains about the work of running things. Take this line: “Work. I got into this business to avoid it. There’s the rub—it is a business. You never know it. At first—gettin’ that free taste in the alley chocking whores for milk money.” Now, does that sound more like the Joker to you... or Tony Soprano?
It’s not our Joker. This Joker is a mobster, whose madness is limited to the sort of Al Capone-with-a-baseball-bat outbursts. He chastises fellow mob boss Two-Face—who lives respectably in a mansion I initially mistook for Wayne Manor, and has cops on his payroll—for committing a crime they can actually pin on him. He says, “There’s a lot of things people in our position can get away with... murder being one... Wives ain’t two of them. Bigamy is like tax evasion. Once a prosecutor has a crime he can try in the public eye...” implying that he himself operates in a similar fashion. In other words, this Joker also avoids too many crimes you can try in the public eye. Again, not our Joker. Though perhaps the scarred face begins to make some sense in this context.
Because what Azzarello has done—perhaps inevitably from the writer of 100 Bullets—is to take the scarred face literally and map the 1983 Al Pacino film Scarface onto the world of the Dark Knight. In fact, it’s only in this context that something as implausible as the Joker being declared sane makes any sense, because the Joker of The Killing Joke, the Joker who killed Jason Todd, and paralyzed Barbara Gordon, who has murdered thousands with gleeful abandon, that Joker could never, ever be pardoned.
So, read it as an Elseworlds aside, a look at what might have been if the earliest interpretations of these characters had been maintained, an interesting and alternative “take” on the familiar, but by no means come to the material expecting Joker to slot in somewhere between Year One, The Long Halloween, and The Killing Joke. It doesn’t. For all its appearances, it belongs to a different world entirely.
This is both its strength—the source of its originality—and its Achilles’ heel. Azzarello’s choice, to tell the tale through the eyes of a flunkie, means that we are cut off from the key elements of plot that might make this a completely satisfying aside. The most hard to swallow aspect of the tale—how the Joker managed to get declared sane in the first place—is avoided by his simple refusal to explain whenever he is asked. Nor do we ever find out exactly what he is planning, or how he intends to carry out his threat to kill only one half of Harvey Dent. Batman, who only arrives in the last few pages of the tale, arrives before Jonny Frost—and hence the reader as well—learn any of the answers to these questions. All these plot points are kept from us; they aren’t the point. The point is point of view.
Superheroes and correspondingly supervillains are largely static characters. They don’t change and evolve past their origins the way that regular protagonists do, and as largely static characters, the pleasures in reading about superheroes are for the insights—the glimpses into their natures—that different situations and narratives reveal. This is true from Sherlock Holmes to Doctor Who and is why it is often the companions of superheroes who go through character change, as opposed to the protagonists. For this reason, the best stories, the ones that rise above, from “A Scandal in Bohemia” to “Human Nature/The Family of Blood,” are the ones that afford us special glimpses into the internal workings of our heroes and villains.
In this context, this kind of incomplete slice of life narrative, though I am rarely fond of it, can work if the slice is from a world that matters. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, to use but one example, works because we all know Hamlet. But if Tom Stoppard had chosen to write his play based not on Hamlet, but an interpretation of Hamlet significantly divergent from Shakespeare’s classic, while withholding his original plot points for us, and then not really exploring what that interpretation is, the result is something much harder to care about, being at too many removes from its source material and not providing enough in place of it.
In the same way, without a real plot to hang on, Joker only works as a character piece, but since it’s not about “the character” of the “actual” Joker, but a one-off interpretation that doesn’t fit with what has come before, then the insights it imparts are useless, at least to the fan who comes to this material for these insights.
So, an interesting one-off, well-written and suitably grim, the Rogues Gallery as pushed through the filter of a Martin Scorsese Or Brian De Palma movie, Joker needs to be treated and read as an experiment, and not an entirely successful one. Worth reading, enjoyable, certainly enough to make you seek out other work by Azzarello, but ultimately, probably not a work you’ll go back to again and again and again to the degree that something like The Killing Joke engenders. Which is not to say you won’t enjoy it the first time through. I am certainly glad I read it, and it’s given me a lot to think about. But I admit I came expecting a bit more to the punchline.