February 21, 2011

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Batman: Joker's Asylum 2

Written by Various Writers
Illustrated by Various Artists, including Keith Giffen, Kelley Jones, and Bill Sienkiewicz
DC

I enjoyed the first Joker's Asylum project, so it wasn't a stretch for me to grab this one off the shelf when I saw it at the library. I'm a suck for anthologies like this, and the Joker-as-Cryptkeeper idea is brilliant. After all, we all know he's a talker, so why would it surprise anyone that he likes to tell tales on his fellow inmates?

This time around, we've got the Mad Hatter, Harley, the Riddler, Killer Croc, and Clayface 1 (is there only one Clayface now?), so it's not exactly the most familiar names. However, that doesn't mean there aren't good stories to tell about these characters, as we soon see.

The collection starts with the Mad Hatter, drawn by veterans Giffen and Sienkiewicz. They put together a patchwork quilt of a visual narrative that gets the reader inside the head of the Hatter, who is trying to forgo the use of hats or tea, but cannot shake his need for Alice. In the end, his insanity controlled is just as deadly as his insanity released, as the story collapses around him. Arguably the most solid story in the collection, and a good one to begin with.

Harley is next, with a Valentine's Day love story that would have fit right in with the days of her solo book, which author James Patrick clearly read before coming up with this story. Nothing but nothing will keep Harley from her man (Mr. J, of course), as even Batman himself comes to realize. Full of fun and violence but free of darkness, Harley's murderous rampage is an actually enjoyable read, though I still wonder about her taste in men. There are some holes in this one, of course, when you stop to think it over, but luckily the story is just good enough to keep you from thinking too hard. A nice holiday tale that's done in one.

In what looks a bit like an inventory story that might have been re-purposed, the criminal version of the Riddler can't find a way to make the girl of his dreams love him. The story is set up as a riddle with no solution (because the Joker is jerk), but my bigger question is how this one got out of the planning stages. The Riddler used to be a big name guy, but he's ill used in this one, out of character and stuck in a story we've seen a million times before. When is a story not really a story? When I could telegraph the ending for miles. Props to the artists for drawing in a goodly chunk of Batman's rogues, however.

Killer Croc's tale also has a familiar ring to it, but Mike Raicht does a much better job of giving it a fresh coat of paint. He uses the Joker-as-narrator quite well, slipping him seamlessly into the story, which I thought was a nice touch. Croc is a tough character to write, because it seems like Dc can't decide if he's a human with a skin issue or a monster that can speak. I don't know that Raicht has an opinion one way or the other, but by the end of the story, it's clear that Croc is the only remotely human animal among the protagonists. In the end, he'll take his chances with Batman, and I for one don't blame him.

We close things down with Kelley Jones doing a Clayface story. When Jones is on, his work is so much fun to read. When he's off, it just looks like bad illustrations. This is not his best work, though the Joker-themed chapter headings are right in the insane Jones style that I love best. Unfortunately, the rest of the script is too pedestrian, so while there are several neat visual tricks, the whole effect is far too normal for Jones to Shine. Basil Karlo finds out that he's as popular as Tim Curry, and convinces his followers to literally worship him. Bats is a harsh movie critic, however, and ruins everything in the final act. There are some funny moments, like Bruce asking for movie candy, but overall, this one had more potential than product.

Looking at the anthology as a whole, it's interesting to me that love is a strong theme in all these stories. I wonder if that was intentional, because I don't recall the first Joker's Asylum having a common link beyond their insane narrator. It certainly would be cool to have this be a bi-annual event, with stories relating to a particular holiday or time of year (Joker's Asylum: Spring Break pops to mind), doing them just often enough to be fresh and not play out the idea.

In an age when Batman stories are so closely linked, it's nice to see stories you can just pick up and read. Of course, Batman himself is scarce within the narrative, but what do you expect when the Joker is calling the tune? I wish DC did more trades like this that can easily be read without needing pages and pages of context. Lord knows, they've got enough back material and people willing to write tales of the Dark Knight. In the meantime, I'll enjoy these as they come up, and fans of Batman and his rogues gallery should, too. This definitely gets a recommendation from me, just as its predecessor did.