February 13, 2009

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Joker

Written by Brian Azzarello
Illustrated by Lee Bermejo and Mick Gray
DC

About a year and a half ago, I wrote the following: "Still, the way Azzarello gets into Lutor's head and gives us an idea of how he thinks is spot-on, and that makes all the other stuff worth ignoring. It would be great to get a similar treatment of the Joker, for instance, though that would require a writer with a bit more subtlety."

Well, here we are with a Joker-centric story ala "Lex Luthor" just like I requested, though it, too, is by Azzarello. And though I'm sure my 2007 self would have had reservations, I think there's quite a bit of subtlty going on, as you'll see.

As with his Luthor story, Azzarello works without the confines of continuity to tell whatever narrative he wishes. It's fun, actually, to see the Joker using the other members of the rogue's gallery with impunity (except for Catwoman, for some strange reason), just as I'm sure the "real" Joker would like to do. Thus, Croc, Penguin, and the Riddler all do the Joker's bidding (some more willingly than other). He's the lord of everything, until the inevitable happens. (Apparently, just like in the old 1970s comic, the Joker must be caught at the end.)

You see, the Joker's sane now, at least according to Arkham. and Johnny Frost is the man welcoming him back to a city that had assumed he was gone for good. Soon the Joker, with the help of Croc and Harley, are taking back what's his. Alternating between sane crime boss and batshit crazy lunatic, the Joker cuts his way back into a strangely Batman-free Gothham. There's only one person (or should I say two people?) who can stop him now, and once he gets past that, there's no stopping him. Or is there?

The more I re-read this one, the more I think this is a story playing out in the "real" Joker's head. Think about it--he's declared sane, but no reason is given. The other rogues bow to him, the police are almost invisible as he commits crime after crime. And right up until the very end, there's no Batman--except for a mysterious person the Joker seems to keep calling for as time goes on, even implying that his killing of some of the mob bosses helps this mysterious person. Even Batman's one line sounds like something from the Joker's brain rather than the Dark Knight, as why Batman has a chin is really not a sane question, is it?

It also makes sense that "Johnny Frost" the narrator could be a construct for a pre-insanity Joker. He wants to make it big, like the Joker does, but he's partly terrified by the idea and often questions what is going on, mentally if not by outright comment. When he starts to laugh, just like the Joker laughes, that's when our Clown Prince of Crime turns on him. Other little ticks, like his desire to break out of the run of repeat offenders, the objection to pills, and the need for respect also point to him being a Joker within the Joker.

Or maybe I'm overanalyzing this, and the story is just an over-the-top romp with murder mayhem, and DC forcing artist Bermejo to NOT show any nudity because, after all, comics are for kids, even if they do have an implied scene of sexual violence and a man skinned alive.

Though I'm still not fond of Bermejo's pencil work, he does some nice splash pages. The Joker walking out of Arkham is menacing, and his closeups of Harley, Croc, Riddler, and the rest are stunning within the context of this graphic novel, even if they'd never work outside of it. Ironically, I think there's more lighting in this comic than in its sister work.

"Joker" is proof that I can in fact like a non-continuity comic as long as it's established right up front that it's not canon. Azzarello revels in making his own world here, and it shows. His Joker, while not quite as crazy as I'd like, does have the insanity that makes the character work, if with a darker edge than normal. Plus, if it really is supposed to be a "Joker Dream" where Batman wakes him up at the end, that would be really cool. Even if it's not, it's still pretty good.