Two recent films by Christopher Nolan may have all but washed the memories from mainstream audiences, but it wasn’t long ago that Batman and his cadre of allies and villains were better known for campy superhero comics and even campier films. But as graphic novels have matured with their audiences, so too have Gotham and its characters.
And while Nolan deserves credit for redeeming the Batman film franchise of the bitter taste left by Joel Schumacher, the transfiguration of Gotham started back in the comics realm by authors like Frank Miller (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) and Alan Moore (Batman: The Killing Joke).
Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets) is one of the latest to offer his mature take on the franchise with the simply titled Joker, a book noticeably mostly absent of the Batman. Instead, readers follow one night in the close company of Batman’s arch-nemesis.
“I don’t know the particulars…but…the Joker was being released from Arkham Asylum,” Azzarello writes in the first several pages, setting up the scene.
Lee Bermejo (Lex Luthor: Man of Steel) does the art and the book’s cover, which features a close-up of the Joker’s demented smile. His teeth are decaying and his crimson lipstick could just as easily be blood as makeup. It’s a strong indicator of the extremely dark character Azzarello and Bermejo have created together for this book.
The Joker’s appearance is eerily similar to Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the character in The Dark Knight, with scar tissue running up each side of his face to form a disturbing smile. And the same anarchistic tendencies are evident when we see the Joker willing to place a revolver in his own mouth and pull the trigger in a self-imposed game of Russian roulette.
But that’s where the comparisons end. Azzarello’s Joker isn’t a character pulling childish tricks out of his sleeves, nor is he a psychological mastermind, playing head games with his targets. He is instead a true maniac whom readers find laughing during the most disturbing of moments and crying at the knees of an apparent lover. He is a lord of the criminal underbelly of Gotham looking to get back his piece of the pie, and he’s not the kind of guy who thinks twice about skinning a person alive or putting a bullet through someone’s head to get it.
The story is narrated by Jonny Frost, a wannabe thug who thinks getting in as one of the Joker’s underlings will catapult him to the top of the criminal ranks, but he soon begins to realize the Joker is a man he does not/cannot fully comprehend. Azzarello is clearly using Frost as a conduit for the tale --- which sees the Joker running into the likes of the Penguin, Two-Face, Killer Croc, Harley Quinn, and the Riddler --- and a catalyst, but it’s a shame Frost isn’t fully fleshed out as a character with a bit more personality.
And though it can be inconsistent at times, most of Bermejo’s panels present richly detailed images with remarkable lighting with colors by Patricia Mulvihill. The final scenes of the book are some of the best seen in the comics medium.
Reviewed by William Jones on October 18, 2011