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Graphic Novel Slugfest: The Joker

Posted: Wednesday, November 26, 2008
By: Tom Waters and Patrick Wedge

Brian Azzarello
Lee Bermejo (p&i), Mick Gray (i), and Patricia Mulvihill (colors)
DC Comics
After yet another stint in Arkham Asylum, The Joker finds "his city" divided among mobsters and costumed villains. Not content to settle for a piece of the pie, The Joker vows to take back the whole damn enchilada by any means necessary. Look for appearances by a slew of Gotham's most wanted--including gritty takes on Two-Face, The Riddler, Killer Croc, The Penguin, Harley Quinn, and even The Batman!

Tom Waters:

I’d honestly thought that Brian Azzarello had peaked as a writer. I was wrong. Dead wrong.

After running his original pun-heavy, staccato-laden street dialogue with a twist ending plot scenario right into the ground (what made him so original when he popped on to the field in the first place), Azzarello has learned some new tricks.

It’s rare to find a Joker story that measures up to the greats--such as in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (and as a well-developed cameo character in Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween and Dark Victory).

To get two incredible Batman stories in one calendar year is statistically mind roasting. However, Batman: Lovers & Monsters and now the unassumingly titled Joker (which arrived in stores just in time for Halloween) are as good as they get.

Instead of placing most of his eggs into his own baskets (100 Bullets and Loveless), Azzarello is pouring a lot of his creative efforts into existing franchises--for either the first time or the first time in a long time--and the results are astonishing. When I interviewed Azzarello a few years back, we talked about some of his classic detective influences (Chandler and Hammet) along with some of his favorites in the comics industry (Bendis and Jim Lee, to name two). He’s obviously been reading some new books before he sat down to pound out Joker--and it’s safe to say that DC gave this gentleman full reign to run free with the Heath Ledger-style, real-world portrayal of The Joker.

This book is damned good. Much like Lovers & Monsters, you’ll tear through it in one sitting and want to read it again.

Azzarello fleshes out a Dark Knight universe for the rest of the characters that would make him a perfect pick for penning the third Christopher Nolan Batman film. Killer Croc is a muscular black man with a skin issue; The Penguin is a regular sized, portly man with a slightly deformed nose; and we’re all familiar with the realism that Harvey Dent’s origin story had in Nolan’s film, so there’s no change there.

As both a Batman/Joker fanatic and someone who can appreciate a good film adaptation that doesn’t paint the comics by numbers on the big screen, I really hope that one of these characters as presented by Azzarrello carries over to the third film (either with a new script or the exact same story).

An older Joker (in his mid 40s) convinces his handlers at Arkham that he’s sane, rehabilitated, and ready to return to the land of the normal. A street thug (Johnny Frost) looking to work his way up the ladder picks him up and helps Joker reclaim all of the territory he’s lost since his most recent incarceration in the madhouse. Most of the narrative is told from Frost’s perspective.

This is the first comic I’ve seen that carries the likeness of Ledger’s Joker--the sweeping scars and clown makeup instead of the chemical bleaching of the skin and change in hair pigment to green. Lee Bermejo is not copying Ledger’s appearance, mind you. He is too talented of an illustrator to do that. Bermejo brings his own glorious perspective to the best Batman villain ever by adding a few gritty elements of his own--such as skewed teeth and shorter hair.

A good artist will add a flourish (or four) that is makes enough of an impression that these traits will carry on to the way the character is depicted by other artists coming after him. Bermejo has done just that.

Joker is Azzarello’s best superhero story yet. For a man who swore that he was done with cape and cowl stories, thank god he changed his mind. Never say never.

If the Cohen brothers can take a break from noir for a few years, there’s no shame in putting one hell of a spin on an existing, financially rewarding genre. And one of the many, many things that makes this story so enjoyable as a longtime reader of both Batman comics and Azzarello’s work over the years is that we barely see the Bat until the end. He’s in about two dozen panels. Total.

Azzarello’s last crack at realism where the Bat was concerned (Batman: Broken City) was a failure. Good concept, but corny execution. The same things that worked so well in 100 Bullets (such as a line of dialog beginning with one character and finishing in a separate panel with a different character or 1930s-styled staccato gangster conversations with bad puns that are intended to be ballsy) came off as flat and phoned in. It worked like a charm in Cage at Marvel (2003), but it had sputtered out when Azzarello got around to Broken City.

Azzarello took Nolan’s ball, hefted it into the air, and knocked it out of the park with finesse, true talent, and vision. Well done, Brian. It’s good to have you back.

Tom Waters lives and writes in Lancaster, NY. He is the other of seven books (mostly rants, some poetry), a weekly columnist for Night Life magazine, a pod cast radio host and a celebrity interviewer and bar reviewer for the Buffalo News. For more information, click over to: www.tomfoolery4.wordpress.com.




Patrick Wedge:

In reading the Joker GN by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermjo, one has to be prepared to not only take a journey with some twisted characters, but to also look into some pretty messed up situations, perspectives, and motives. The story is primarily told through the view of small-time hood Johnny Frost, who sees an opportunity to fast track his future by signing up as one of the Joker’s henchmen. This decision is both a risky and rewarding situation.

Being with a crook has built in dangers, and being with someone in the mob would multiply that factor. However, being with the Joker . . . there aren’t mathematical equations invented to handle that factor yet. Nevertheless, Johnny is enamored with the Joker in the beginning and takes the risk. As the story progresses, though, Johnny will start to question not only his decision but his motivations about his true role in life.
Azzarello teams the Joker up with a twisted version of Killer Croc and Harley Quinn. The approach with Killer Croc immediately took me back to the Cage mini-series that Azzarello did at Marvel with Richard Corben in which Luke Cage was presented as a large, intimidating, fist-swinging, and fearless thug from the hood. It’s not that the characterization of Killer Croc in this same way is bad or inappropriate, but it seems like a default persona that Azzarello used.

Harley on the other hand was handled perfectly--unwavering till the end but supporting The Joker in every sick, and sometimes depressing, way. Additionally, there are cameos by re-envisioned characters in the Batman Rogue’s Gallery--such as Two-Face, Penguin, and Riddler. All play small-but-critical parts in the story.

As the story plays out, we see that while the book is titled The Joker, Johnny is the focal point as the story presents his journey from idolizing The Joker to realizing what his idol is truly like. The Joker is just crazy to be crazy--and Bermjo’s choices for depicting the character were spot on in presenting The Joker’s mental state.

In fact, Bermjo’s art was a joy to see throughout the story. He has a reputation for not being a prolific artist. However, when you see his work, you can appreciate that he doesn’t skimp on details. Additionally, his storytelling and layouts are exceptional. All of the pages are dynamic when they need to be, and somber when the moment requires it--most of all, though, they are always distinct.

The combination of painted panels and “standard” panels really did to things. The shifting between art styles helped to evoke the twisted, off-kilter nature of The Joker, and Bermjo also used this approach to draw more focus to important moments in the story.
Overall, I think the team provided exactly what most readers would want out of a graphic novel featuring The Joker. This book is not a cheap attempt to be another Arkham Asylum, but it is one that will hold up in comparison to Grant Morrison’s novel for insight into The Joker’s character.



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