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Batman: The Man Who Laughs

What we have here is an interesting companion story to Alan Moore’s seminal The Killing Joke, a sequel of sorts to Frank Miller’s classic Year One, a direct follow-on to the two Matt Wagner miniseries Batman and the Monster Men and Batman and the Mad Monk and a bit of an introduction to Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween. That’s one hell of a nexus to find your story at the centre of, even if you weren’t trying to tell the definitive first encounter story between Batman and the Joker. So, does Brubaker pull it off?

What a Joker...

What a Joker...

Sorta.

Some parts of it work stunningly well, but others work less well. The first Batman/Joker story has been told and retold time-and-time again in any number of mediums from Batman #1 to Lovers and Madmen to Tim Burton’s Batman to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The largest and most recent of those attempts is dominated by an oscar-winning performance by Heath Ledger and has probably set the definitive story of the encounter in popular consciousness. It’s a hard act to top.

Brubaker manages to avoid trying to play too much with the idea – and it’s a smart move – by adapting Batman #1 for the modern day and age. Rather than come up with a new flashier narrative to tie the two characters together, he maintains the stripped down assassination/poisoning the city plot that originally introduced the character. Brubaker wisely avoids excessive foreshadowing about the relationship that would develop between the two – that heavy-handedness would have tied the book down – instead having Batman treat him as a foe who he only expects to encounter once.

They'll put anything on TV these days...

Brubaker also manages to hint at the social panic that surround the character. He doesn’t develop the threat that the Joker poses to the city’s social fabric quite as well as Nolan’s take on the character, but it’s interesting to see the character cause almost as much panic as “a hurricane warning” or watching Gordon describe the lull between his appearances as “the calm before the storm”. It’s also hard not to hear the mocking tones of Heath Ledger as the Gotham Police Department scramble to protect a string of wealthy white men while the Joker can amble into a psychiatric ward carrying a machine gun without anyone noticing.

In a way this book transitions quite well between Year One and The Long Halloween. Batman here is a year into his crime fighting career and is finding almost a comfort zone with the murderers, thugs and rapists – the criminals borne of Gotham’s metropolitan decline. Here the Joker emerges as an entirely new breed of criminal, one that Batman has no read on, one that is probably more destructive and dangerous than the mobsters and pimps that populated Frank Miller’s Gotham. Brubaker manages to make the Joker scary, even stripped of all his backstory and history with the Bat (he also avoids giving the Joker an early fixation on the hero) – the warehouse of horrors that Gordon discovers at the start is like a Pandora’s Box, letting the craziness out, and the intimation that the Joker has been living in Arkham scrawling graffiti on its walls is somewhat chilling.

Stop it, you're killing me!

Stop it, you're killing me!

The problem is that Brubaker seems too tied to what has come before. His assassination storyline works well without the additional last-minute-upping-of-the-ante that he takes from his source material. The novel also seems intent on tying the Joker’s past to the history presented in The Killing Joke. I don’t mind the passing references that Gordon makes to the Red Hood, but it seems a bit… odd for Batman to figure out who the Joker is and what created him. The character is a mystery and some of that gets lost. Brubaker hints at the Joker’s attempts to undermine Gotham’s social fabric, but he gives him an exceedingly obvious (and explicit) motivation for his killing spree that seems… almost rational, given what happened. It all seems to tie the character down too much, but it also perhaps hints that the Joker hasn’t (or couldn’t) completely abandon his sanity until he followed through on this story. If you believe that logic then this story is arguably as much about the creation of the Joker as Moore’s is. I am skeptical, however. It is interesting to see the continued trend of the character’s bitterness and pettiness framed through his nihilism and insanity – he’s not liberated by his insanity, he’s haunted by it.

Still, it’s an interesting and – for the most part – well crafted story which benefits greatly from Brubaker’s unwillingness to ham it up or to turn everything to eleven. This restraint is a welcome commodity, particularly given the story’s place in the Batman canon and it’s function in welcoming Gotham to a “new world”. The artwork is okay – it’s actually in the artwork that The Man Who Laughs suffers in comparisons to its older brother. It’s generally solid throughout, but it’s nothing special – it certainly doesn’t compare to Bolland’s work on The Killing Joke either before or after the recolouring. That said, some of the images are stunning – in particular, the Joker’s ‘rehearsal space’at the start.

There's a man enjoying his work...

The hardcover comes with a back-up feature, Made of Wood. I have absolutely no idea why this was chosen. No idea at all. It was written by Brubaker, but it might have been nice to include some other more traditional Brubaker Batman stories, or even a variety of samplings on the Joker’s origin, for example, by different authors over the years – or play on a theme of first encounters, as I know countless writers and artists have tackled that meeting. Instead we get Brubaker giving us an original Green Lantern semi-nostalgic fest.

The story offers an interesting premise – Batman wasn’t the first vigilante to protect Gotham, Alan Scott protected the city as the Green Lantern. What is it like to be a retired superhero (and retirement is a theme here – a retired Commissioner Gordon is a supporting character)? Or what influence did Adam Scott have on a young Bruce Wayne? Did he motivate him to fight crime outside the law? We get literally a page on this at the end of the three-issue story, and it’s a shame – there’s a lot of food for thought there.

Laughing stock...

Instead, we get a solid middle-of-the-road story which will confuse many readers who picked up the book because of the fantastic cover. Readers who hear the name ‘Green Lantern’ and think of Hal Jordan and his new renaissance. Even I am relatively unfamiliar with Scott and I’m a geek. For a book with as broad an appeal as this one, it’s a bizarre choice for a supporting feature. The story isn’t bad, per se, but it isn’t good either. It’s a shame to see it eat more than half of the book. I just don’t get it.

Ah well.

Still, it’s a good read for the title story anyway, particularly if you are interested in the modern take on ‘early Batman’. It’s not earth-shattering or ground-breaking, but it is an entertaining read that is very well put-together from the dozens upon dozens of pieces that needed to be pieced together.

3 Responses

  1. I thought the Green Lantern story was a pale addition to the title story, especially how it’s thicker. The Man Who Laughs didn’t really impress me all that much. I don’t quite know how to explain this, but I don’t quite think there should be a first Batman Joker encounter. Both The Animated Series and the Christopher Nolan trilogy* didn’t have this type if story and wear no worse for wear.

    *they didn’t previously meet in the Dark Knight, but both had a working knowledge about each other, so I’ll count it.

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