written by Brian Azzarello
art by Lee Bermejo
hardcover, 128 pages
published by DC Comics (November 2008)
Here we are on a street in Gotham City. That there is Bella Roma, an Italian restaurant frequented by gangster Tommy Bang Bang. Inside Bella Roma, Tommy Bang Bang’s has just had the back of his head smeared across the wall by a rather large-caliber bullet. The revolver that fired the bullet is held by a villain of some renown. A white-faced, green-haired, red-lipped and leering devil known as the Joker. Tommy Bang Bang’s crime? He took something that wasn’t his to take. It was an honest mistake; after all, Joker was locked up in Arkham Asylum. But clearly things have changed, and Tommy Bang Bang was less than willing to change as well. And now, while Tommy’s blood is soaking into the carpet inside, Joker outside on the street and empties all the chambers of his revolver except one and he gives the cylinder a spin and he sticks the barrel in his mouth.
Most people might ask: why? The obvious answer is that Joker has taken leave of reason. No, that’s not quite right. Joker is insane. No, scratch that. Why has Joke decided to suddenly play Russian roulette in the middle of the street at dusk? Because he’s a homicidal bat-shit-fuckng-crazy maniac, that’s why.
At least, that would be the obvious answer.
Thankfully, Brian Azzarello isn’t interested in just the obvious answers. His graphic novel Joker, with art by Lee Bermejo, aims to show Joker in a new light. Many comic writers have attempted this; only a few have succeeded. Any writer who takes on the clown must do so while standing in the massive shadows of Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns) and Alan Moore (Batman: The Killing Joke), as well as the only slightly smaller shadow of Grant Morrison (Arkham Asylum). But this isn’t Brian Azzarello’s first shot at the Batman universe. The Eisner Award-winning creator of 100 Bullets gave us the hardboiled Batman: Broken City, and even managed to salvage a DC/Wildstorm crossover. (Batman/Deathblow: After the Fire. Deathblow, anyone? Remember him? Jim Lee’s blending of Wolverine, the Punisher, and Nick Fury? No? Imagine my surprise.) My point is this: no one has ever accused Azzarello of lacking big balls. Joker isn’t going to change that.
To start things off, Azzarello lets the Joker out of Arkham Asylum. No elaborate escape. No secret benefactor lobbing money at beaurocrats. The Joker is released and that’s all the explanation we get. Did he convince the doctors he wasn’t cured? Nothing is definitive. This omission of cause suggests two things: first, that any particular reason is irrelevant; and, secondly, that the reason explanations are meaningless is because once the Joker is out in the world, all bets are off.
To help ground us, Azzarello tells the story through the eyes of a low-level thug named Jonny Frost. If the name sounds kinda corny—if not outright stupid—it’s probably because Jonny Frost is more than a little corny himself; with his blonde hair, white suit and t-shirt, he looks like a Miami Vice reject. Jonny the ex-con has dreams of being a big shot. He quickly ingratiates himself with the Joker and comes to see himself as the clown’s right-hand-man. At this point we begin to see why Jonny Frost was in prison two times before: he’s just not that bright. It takes awhile before he begins to have some doubts about whether or not it’s a good idea to be working for a man who is genuinely disappointed when a bank robbery doesn’t end in a bloodbath.
Unfortunately, Jonny Frost is the weakest part of Joker. He’s lacking in smarts, and even though it’s interesting to see someone try to rationalize the Joker’s actions, Jonny makes for a dull narrator. But maybe that’s the point. As the Joker goes about reclaiming the criminal organization that was parceled off while he was in Arkham, he and Jonny Frost encounter some of Gotham’s favorite baddies: Penguin, Two-Face, a machine gun-toting Harley Quinn, a hipster-ish Riddler, and the always sadistic Killer Croc. Every single one of them outclasses Jonny Frost, and every single one of them has a healthy fear—or terror—of the Joker. The more time we spend with Frost and the more we see of his green-haired idol, the greater our certainty that poor li’l Jonny just isn’t bad enough to come out of this alive.
Now don’t go thinking you’ll come to feel sorry for the schmuck. Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo aren’t worried about creating a sympathetic narrator. It’s doubtful one can even exist here. They’ve created a filthy, gritty Gotham City – a “toilet,” as one person calls it – dark enough to rival even Frank Miller’s vision. But, toilet or not, Gotham is still Batman’s city – so where is he?
In interviews about the book, Azzarello has said that Batman is on every page, that he looms over Gotham. It’s true. Joker‘s creators have fun with our expectations – and with the Joker’s. From the Penguin to Killer Croc, everyone is on the lookout for the cape and cowl. Eyes are drawn to rooftops, searching for shadows that don’t belong. Here and there you can see evidence of his passing – a newspaper headline, a goon strung up for the police – but Batman is rarely seen. Where is he? He must know the madman is free, so what is he waiting for? When the Joker stands in the middle of the street and shoves the gun barrel in his own mouth, he thinks he’s showing off to Batman. Is Batman watching, or is that really only a collection of shadows on the roof? We don’t see anything, but the Joker does. Or maybe he’s just hoping.
Batman does, in fact, show up. Three times. He says four words throughout the whole book. One is in response to an unexpected request for help; the other three are spoken to a mass-murderer. I wouldn’t dream of telling you more. Why does he wait so long to appear? Perhaps he’s been waiting for the Joker to undertake some great scheme. There’s even a mysterious case that the Joker buys from the Riddler, but it’s a plot line that never develops. Some have criticized Joker for depicting the headliner as rather ordinary. It’s a fair criticism if you’re expecting your standard diabolical-plan-to-kill-everyone-in-Gotham plot. This book sure ain’t that. Instead, it gives readers a glimpse of what it’s like to be with the Joker on a daily basis. There’s no shortage of blood and gore, but at times, like when Killer Croc and the Joker both show up late and apologize to each other because they both thought they kept the other waiting, well, it’s oddly…domestic. I, for one, find that more interesting than if the entire book was about another plot against Commissioner Gordon or some elaborate trap for Batman.
Joker was largely a commercial and critical success when DC Comics published it in 2008. It may have helped that it came on the heels of Christopher Nolan’s movie The Dark Knight. Sadly, it is because of Nolan’s overrated sequel that Joker will probably never stand alongside Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke in the Batman canon (yes, there is such a thing). Why? Because Heath Ledger’s stunning portrayal of the Joker is eerily similar to the vision of Bermejo and Azzarello. Most striking are the scars.
Azzarello has made it crystal clear that Lee Bermejo’s original design sketches for the Joker’s scarred mouth pre-date The Dark Knight. He has said it’s simply a very rare and weird coincidence. I believe him. And I don’t think Christopher Nolan or Ledger somehow lifted the notion – but considering Nolan’s pilfering of Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Jeph Loeb (did I miss anyone?), I wouldn’t be entirely surprised. Because of those scars,it is difficult to read Joker without thinking of Ledger, without hearing his voice. Had Ledger lived, Azzarello’s story might have helped form the basis for a third movie – and yet even as I write that, I don’t believe it. After all, Azzarello and Bermejo’s story relies on clear action, interesting dialogue, jokes, suggestive shadows, and an expert mix of colors muted and vibrant (Patricia Mulvihill, Azzarello’s long-time colorist, is a treasure.) The Christopher Nolan who made the noir-ish Insomnia might dig it, but the one who shat out Inception would feel compelled to heap elephantine amounts of exposition onto the story. I can live without that. The Joker is a comic book character. You can put him in cartoons, novels, and movies, but it’s in comics that he’ll always be strongest, because that’s where he is most feared.
The best Joker stories remind us of why people should turn and haul ass in the opposite direction whenever he appears. Alan Moore tortured Commissioner Gordon and crippled Barbara Gordon to remind us. Jim Starlin locked Jason Todd, the second Robin, inside a shed with a bomb to prove it. Frank Miller killed David Letterman, gassed a studio audience, massacred an amusement park full of Boy Scouts, and had the Joker break his own spine. Brian Azzarello’s Joker skins a man alive; sneaks into a random house to surprise an elderly couple sleeping in bed; and, later, squeezes his hand into a glove full of broken glass so that he can use the shards stuck in his fingers to slice up somebody’s wrist.
So maybe Joker will continue to be overlooked. Maybe it will never stand alongside the likes of The Killing Joke. But it leaves no doubt as to why the scariest name in Gotham City isn’t Batman.