Artist: Bary Kitson & John Stokes & Scott Hanna
WOW. It sure has been a long time inbetween updates. Time just slipped away, as it does. I kept making plans to update and then something would come up and well... as you can see, it never quite worked out. I think I partly needed a break – have been very busy and coping with a bunch of stuff “in real life” - and once you take a break and get out of a habit, it can be SUPER difficult to get back into it. But I really want to sustain this blog and so I'm going to make a really big effort going forward.
So, to recommence the Joker reviews! This old story was part of the Shadow of the Bat series, an ongoing comic that eventually wrapped up at 96 issues and was aimed at examining in greater depth the cast of the Batman mythos. The stories took place in the then-current continuity, so long arc cross-overs such as No Man's Land would take place in some of the later issues, but the earlier issues were really quite devoted to the villains, making effort to get into their heads and explore their psyches on more complex levels.
The Joker is one of the trickier characters to do this with because striking a balance between his reprehensible murderousness and the bizarre tragedy of his unknown past without wandering simply into the maudlin and contrived is exceedingly difficult. I have spoken before about how often I feel like the concocted tragic pasts for the Joker begin to read as some sort of 'excuse' for his current behaviour. Speaking personally, I prefer the mystery – the horror in the idea of an individual being more or less 'marooned' in a current reality with no sense of connection or resonance with a personal history. Just a really warped worldview to guide his actions and philosophies.
Unfortunately, the art of storytelling, whether in comics or any other media, is often plagued by cliche rather than what is innovative or creative – devices that are obvious and therefore easy – simple to use. But that doesn't make them good.
As a Joker fan, I just do not buy the reasoning that some horrid tragedy turned him into what he is. I don't need it to be convinced by his character because his nature and purpose is to be larger than life, an extreme, a chaotic force. This requires no explanation. Ultimately, the tragic past just isn't that convincing anyway, because none of the tragic pasts thus far concocted for him have actually been at a level that could convincingly create such a gleeful, remorseless murdering madman. I don't mind the exploration and the consideration of ideas and options – I just balk at the idea of any of them being set in stone and certainly I am long weary of them serving as character development.
I feel 'insert one tragic past here' can often be a very poor and lazy way to build character, particularly where the Joker is concerned. The challenge is in rounding him out as a character in exactly what he IS, not what he WAS. It can be done. It has been done. And it's wonderfully rewarding when it is done well.
To this story's detriment, in its efforts to round out the Joker as a character, it inevitably dips back into the old tortured past schtick – a trope so old hat and tired the Joker himself would be insulted. Yet this story has great potential in terms of other elements incorporated in it – some of which are actually excellent.
This stoy arc came out during the early 90s, a time when the concept of exploring the Joker on a more complex level was a fairly exciting one in the wake of stories like The Killing Joke - but really, the greater degree of nuance had begun in the 70s. TKJ marked the first time anyone delved into the Joker's actual past (beyond the camp classic Red Hood story of the 60s) and was such a blistering success that the idea of building on it – drawing inspiration from it – emulating the success even – must've been a titillating one to many writers. Whilst the tortured past falls very flat in this story, from other elements in it the reader can tell the writer was interested in what he was doing and wanted to do it well. No small surprise considering the author of this story is Alan Grant.
As a consequence, the story is well-written and excellently paced with great characterisation and, as noted, a lot of really good and interesting plot elements.
The tale told has varying threads running throughout it – the Joker is on the loose and kidnapping people without seeming rhyme or reason. Meanwhile, Dr Arkham has secured a mysterious bounty hunter to chase down the madman. We follow Batman and the hunter – Wilde – as they each persue their own chase. An ongoing plot thread featuring Bullock, Gordon & Essen-Gordon also features to follow on from previous issue's events, but is not key to the Joker plotline.
The first issue does not feature the Joker at all, but does feature a lot of excellent insight into him as a character – from some almost-comedic musings by his goons as they go about the kidnappings, to Batman's reflections on his driven hunt – to perhaps the most delicious and beautiful element of this story: Wilde's persuing of Joker's own writings from his Arkham file as he fights against memories not yet revealed to us.
I always loved those files with a passion. To read them now, some of Joker's answers seem a little contrived, but that isn't entirely out of place anyway as it's known he loves to fuck with his doctors. I always found this aspect of this story to be really interesting and innovative and I still think it's awesome. I can't think of another Joker story in which such a device exists so prominently and I think it's actually a really excellent story-telling technique very much in keeping with the show-don't-tell guideline to good writing.
What's also enjoyable about the first part of the story is the individual detective hunts taken by Batman and Wilde – how they both track the Joker in sometimes similar but ultimately very different ways.
Wilde's family, of course, were killed by the Joker and his is a vengeance mission with his ultimate objective to kill the Joker.
The Joker, meanwhile, has kidnapped this group of people because once, in a lifetime long ago, they booed him off the stage when he was still a regular schmoe trying to make it as a stand-up comic. He's put them in a deliciously Jokery-conundrum: he wants them to laugh at his jokes finally or he'll kill them – but he's got exploding collars around their necks that will be detonated by laughter. Either way, they lose. He's exacting his own vengeance.
Of course, Batman swoops in before Joker can kill ALL of them (he manages at least three) and so does Wilde and there's a showdown – and a tragic ending, though for who I won't say.
As well-told as this story is, it is ultimately let down by the inclusion of the tragic past – written to fit into The Killing Joke continuity. For one thing, it's wholly unconvincing – yes the Joker's an egotistical narcissist, but actually being anguished over a very small failure from a life that he himself would consider pitiful and best left behind? Petty vengeance is really not the Joker's style, and it is petty. He's got his pride, but this doesn't really seem to fit into what he would consider worthy of his attention.
And that's all just if you buy the idea he even remembers his past and, if he does, that the 'failed comedian' is even it. Neither of which I do. Especially as it's set up IN TKJ that his 'memories' of his past change.
This story simply doesn't need the tortured memories. It is not served by them. It could easily be a really excellent, insightful and well-told story by adjusting the purpose behind Joker kidnapping these men and torturing them in the name of 'comedy'. The trap he puts them in is in keeping with his style. But the reason? I feel like it detracts from the good elements of the plot – that it suddenly demands us to have this emotional response to a blatantly flimsy and contrivedly-sentimental device that fails to convince.
I feel like even if an adjustment as simple as making it clear the men have no idea what the hell Joker is even talking about, that they're not even who he's saying they are – indicating that Joker has once again remembered his past falsely – could add a new dimension of interest to it not to mention further insight into Joker's character – that he would actually believe his own false memories to the point of enacting vengeance for them.
Beyond that, this story is really enjoyable and very well told. I feel like the contrast between Wilde & Batman is well-executed and I believe it was pretty fresh at the time to consider the impact Joker's actions would have had on survivors of his crimes (though it really still isn't something done enough) as well as the difference between how individuals will persue their personal vengeance.
I feel the visual story-telling is truly excellent in this two-parter; well-laid out, clear and dynamic. Largely traditional, it does utilise some interesting arrangements to convey atmosphere and transition. And, in general, it's just damn good art – beautiful and clear. The Joker looks really hot.
On the whole, I DO highly recommend this story, with the reservations as detailed above. I'm fairly sure it's never been collected into a TPB, but as of this point, it's still pretty inexpensive to get as single issues on eBay or other places you can find lots of back issues!
WHEW! Now that I've finally got another review done it feels SO GOOD and was so much simpler than I was making it out to be in my head. Must make a mental note of this to spur me forward for next month!