Joker: A Visual History of the Clown Prince of CrimeA book review article by: Alex Rodrik
As the Joker legacy takes a hit with the recent retirement of this writer's personal and professional favorite (don't you hate when people make that distinction...? Shouldn't they be one and the same? Anyways, I digress...). The recent retirement of Mark Hamill's Joker -- one of if not the best voices of the Joker of all time -- is ushered out with a release from Universe, Joker: A Visual History of the Clown Prince of Crime.
This book seems to promise a lot with an introduction written by Hamill and a plethora of interesting artwork, but unfortunately it falls short of that hardy promise. While the book is wonderful as an introduction to our favorite sadistic clown, if you're fan enough to buy this thing, you probably already know most -- if not everything -- that's in it.
The book is split up into segments of what I presume Wallace perceived as the various facets of the Joker's mythos: "The Beginning," "The Batman," 'Arkham Asylum," "Bag of Tricks," "Partners in Crime," "Crimes and Capers," "Shattered Mirror," "Mad Love," "The Clown Prince" and "Killer Smile.'
The chapters offer pretty much what you'd expect from each title. "The Beginning" gives you a (in my opinion) skewed version of the creation of the Joker. Bob Kane is made the star of this section while Bill Finger]and Jerry Robinson are more like cameos to the origin of the Joker. I found it sorta disappointing,k to be honest. While I'm not saying to pull all the credit away from Bob, it'd've been nice to feel like I was actually learning something here. It felt more like they were trying to solidify that Bob created everything there is about Batman. I just wasn't diggin' the tone here. But anyways, moving on...
The next section: "The Batman," offers a mild analysis of the two's relationship. Nothing revolutionary. Same ol' same ol' Joker needs Batman, Batman and Joker are a yin-yang of one another, blah blah blah... Next. (I won't linger if I don't need to.)
"Arkham Asylum." Not a lot to say here, really. Wallace mentions as much as he can, I suppose, about how Joker always ends up back in Arkham. Also gives us a brief look at the asylum's history. But again, nothing new to those who are fans enough of the Joker or the Batman mythos to keep up just a hair.
"Bag of Tricks." This section was a bit more fun. It was nice to get a look at all the quirky and sadistic tools Joker used over the years, including "The Joker's Utility Belt!" Dear God, he had Mexican jumping beans in the damn thing. Why?! Who knows, but I'd sure like one of them cigars. That joke was for you Joker fans out there -- wink, nod, nudge, nudge -- moving on.
From there we jump to "Partners in Crime." I gotta be honest -- this whole section was unnecessary for me. I'm reading a book about the Joker, I don't care about the other guys. Yeah, I get that he interacts with them and how he screws with their lives, but still... A section on Harley? Ok. A section on the rest of the rogues gallery? No thanks, not here. My suggestion would've been to have a section about the psychology(s) behind the Joker and tie these characters in where applicable.
Onto "Crime and Capers." While this section only really focused on a few key crimes/capers (i.e. the murder of Jason Todd, the laughing fishes, and paralyzing Barbara Gordon from the waist down) it still made for an interesting enough read. It was nice to get a look at some of the off shoot Joker stories where he ventured to other cities and titles.
"Shattered Mirrors." This section showed promise, which quickly lead to disappointment. I was hoping that here Wallace would really delve into the character. Make new discoveries and share how even the fragments that litter the various incarnations of the Joker share a unifying charm (yep, charm). But, no! It was just 10-pages that said there's no set origin story. The section was mostly excerpts of comics, reiterating the less than exciting observation.
To "Mad Lo--," wait a minute. "Mad Love"? I thought we covered the Joker's partners in crime already, but okay, hit me. This section follows the Joker and Harley's relationship throughout the various incarnations of the two characters, while also mentioning the various characterizations of the Joker throughout these incarnations. In this writer's opinion, I think it would've been equally as effective if this section had been broken up and integrated into the "Partners in Crime" and "Shattered Mirror" sections. Wallace uses Harley as a through line, but I didn't feel the resonance of their relationship was conveyed to the degree it could (and probably should) have been.
From here we move on to "The Clown Prince." This is where things get campy. In short, this is Adam West territory. You get a nice overview of the classic series and Joker's evolution out of it. We look for a moment at the Joker's short-lived comic (nine issues) and some less than exciting spin-offs like Duela. (Raise your hand if you know who I'm talking about. It's the Joker's daughter -- yeah, I know.)
The last section is "Killer Smile". I think this section is really why I'm so critical of the book. One would assume after making it this far, the last section of the book would be a conclusion of sorts -- a recap, if you will. With visions of what's to come and musings of a long and eventful history. But, no. This just continues on about the different incarnations of the Joker, never really offering anything new in relation to the rest of the book. And then, feeling as quick as your first time -- it's over. Yep, just ends. One word: Fail.
Now, I know the book is called the "Visual History of the Clown Prince of Crime" so undoubtedly the imagery must be great. To this I say, it gets a solid 7 out of 10. Again, if you're already a fan and have actively spent time scouring the net looking for cool Joker images like I have, then you've seen most of this. But, regardless, you'll really love seeing them fresh and in large form. Some of the spreads for this thing were beautiful. My favorite being the Jim Aparo and Mike DeCarlo piece from "A Death in the Family" on pages 46 and 47. Love it!
It was also really interesting to see the drawing Jim Lee sent Heath Ledger when he got the role of the Joker. I'd actually never seen that one before, so that was a treat!
Something that could have improved the book would've been more about why certain writers and artists decided to move the character in the direction they chose to (both visually and as a character). What inspired them? How did they feel the Joker would evolve thanks to their choices? I didn't feel any of that was in these pages.
The last less than positive thing I'll say is that the book had typos. Yes, typos. (Throughout...) One of which is a missing caption on page 190 which read "Above: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx". How does something like that happen?! Where is the continuity editor? I caught that instantly! Perhaps it's the OCD editor in me, but things like that really bother me. Sigh.
Despite how hard I've been on the book up to this point, I still liked it. I didn't love it. But I liked it. It didn't do anything new and exciting. I wasn't wowed by it. And, the lack of a real ending or definitive summary with musings for the future made for an ending that left me feeling cheated. But, it's a good intro book to the Joker. Not sure if a non-hardcore Joker fan is going to part with $50 for an intro book though. And, at $50 a hardcore fan -- and I'd dare to say even a moderate Joker fan -- will most likely be mildly disappointed. But, it does serve as a refresher on what you already knew for those who are already loyal followers of the Clown Prince of Crime, so I suppose that's a plus. In the end, it's a "sure" to "meh, if you can get it at a decent price" book.
On a more personal note: 'Twas the Joker changed by life (I know, odd statement to make. But a true one nonetheless...). So, a special thanks to Heath, Jerry, Bill, Bob, Mark and all the others who've keep this character kickin' ass for so many years. I hope that someday soon I'll be able to leave my own mark on this enduring legacy.