Joker was released over the summer of 2008, and had the great fortune to closely mirror the Oscar-winning performance of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Author Brian Azzarello claims that the similarities in the character here and on the big screen are a coincidence, but there’s something uncanny in watching this version of the character, with his Glasgow smile and foul teeth, attempt to take control of Gotham’s criminal underworld in a manner that his big screen counterpart would probably approve of. Azzarello paints a grim and gritty version of the Gotham City underworld, avoiding the more obvious superhero clichés and instead offering an exploration of the madness of one of the medium’s enduring antagonists.
Something of a counterpart to Azzarello’s examination of that other great supervillain in Lex Luthor: Man of Steel (soon to be repackaged as Luthor to cash in on the success of this release), the writer shrewdly avoids letting us inside the clown’s head. It’s very difficult to narrate the inner thoughts of a psychotic without either going over the top or making it seem banal – as the character indicates repeatedly over the course of this collection, it’s the Joker’s unpredictability which makes him so fascinating and that could easily be lost in translation were we allowed inside his head for even the briefest of periods. So, instead, Azzarello gives us a narrator in the form of a small time hoodlum, Jonny Frost, who finds himself caught up in the villain’s return to Gotham (“You don’t know me,” he introduces himself, “but all my life, I knew you would”).
Through Frost, Azzarello introduces us to his own unique take on the Joker. While he obviously brings to mind Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayal – there are no gags here, just guns and knives and broken bottles – he’s also unique in his own way. Here there’s no grand philosophy underpinning the character – no call to anarchy or desire to topple the system. We’re never really given a reason why the Joker wants to control the Gotham rackets (“I don’t care about money,” he explains to Two-Face during their gang war for Gotham), other than that he greatly enjoys upsetting the establishment and causing his own brand of chaos. Near the end of the book, he shares a story with Jonny about a man trying to do something any rational individual would deem impossible, but refusing to accept it. “I admire that,” he explains.
In many ways, this is a more personal brand of insanity than the one that Nolan and Ledger brought to the screen. He asks Jonny to explain what he sees out a car window in the night. “I see lights,” Jonny answers. “Those lights?” the Joker replies, “They’re just pin pricks… in the dark.” This is a character who has no sense of value in any human life, even his own. When he needs a place to rest, he breaks into a hotel room of an elderly couple. When asked who they are, he replies, “Who… cares?” You can imagine what he does next.
As ever, the Joker is still defined by his opposite. Batman hovers over the book, casting a long shadow even though he barely appears. “He’s out there,” he observes at one point. He doesn’t specify who he is talking about, but we all know who it is. Azzarello hints that the whole point of all this is to tease his opponent. After a murder in a small Italian restaurant, he looks up to the roofs and asks, “Not enough for you, huh?”
It’s stunningly effective little portrait of the character. I don’t know that it says anything new (is there anything new left to be said?) but it states it well. This is a character study which fundamentally understands its core character. He’s a monster, he’s a random hurricane of violence, he’s an on-coming storm. He’s a freak of nature. “Joker, I was learnin’,” Jonny observes, “wasn’t about thinkin’… but all about doin’.” Perhaps that sums up the violence of the character perfectly – it isn’t malice aforethought, it’s just the embodiment of random carnage.
The story is populated with little side cameos from various members of Gotham’s none-too-shabby rogues gallery. There’s some keen insight here into the Penguin and the Riddler, cameo’ing as smaller criminal figures orbitting around the big fish. Killer Croc is reimagined as a musclebound individual with a skin complaint. Two-Face even gets a little insight added (with not one, but two clever little twists thrown in). This is a rich and vibrant version of Gotham city, populated with the same villains, just with the noir themes turned up to eleven. The book’s atmosphere works almost perfectly.
As with Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, the art is done by Lee Bermejo, who offers a rather wonderful watercolour portrait of the city. It’s seedy, it’s slimey and it’s grey. Even the colours – the Joker’s traditional purple, for example – are shaded perfectly; not too muted and not too loud. There are some jarring transitions where Bermejo has used traditional colouring methods (there is some idle speculation on-line that the book was rushed to make it to shelves while the movie was in cinemas), but it isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. There’s an almost macabre sort of beauty to the book, which fits the subject matter well.
If you’re looking for a Batman book to pick up in the wake of The Dark Knight, but don’t want to venture too far into the crazy world of comic books, Joker seems a sensible choice. It shares the same gritty gangland feeling and avoid the more zany tropes associated with the Caped Crusder. You could do a whole lot worse than this wonderful little collection.