Brian Azzarello, writer of, among other titles, the Batman graphic novel Broken City and DC Comics’ 100 Bullets, has delivered, seemingly out of nowhere, a fresh, stunning take on the Dark Knight’s arch nemesis, as well as a unique interpretation of Gotham City, surely the most despicable metropolis in modern popular fiction.
Joker began life as a miniseries planned for October 2008, but DC instead decided to release it as an original hardcover in time for Halloween. This has proven a wise decision, for the book works incredibly well as a concise chunk of dystopian mayhem, an innovative reading of an equally beloved and feared character.
Ingeniously narrated by muscle for hire Johnny Frost, Joker begins with the clown prince of crime’s unexplained release from Arkham Asylum. Frost is a typical Gotham scumbag, a thug fighting his wife over divorce papers, trying to make ends meet. Tasked with collecting the Joker upon release, he is quickly invited to the villain’s after-party, and it is through his naive eyes that we observe Joker’s subsequent rampage through Gotham. Frost tells his tale with a sense of growing fear and irony. Hoping initially for a role as one of the Joker’s henchmen, he winds up, predictably, in way over his head and looking for a way out. He acts as the reader’s eyes and ears, asking questions while we contemplate the answers. Much of the narration, like the action itself, is far from clear-cut and open to interpretation.
Enacting revenge on those who have wronged him during his incarceration and catching up on the evisceration he has been craving while behind bars, though he claims he is a changed man, Joker shows little sign of remorse. And while he wreaks havoc, Frost narrates and Two-Face trembles, the nagging absence of Batman himself hangs over us, for this is the Joker’s journey, and Bruce Wayne has apparently taken a holiday.
Azzarello, however, makes fine use of other assorted misfits. Cameos from Penguin, the Riddler and Harley Quinn, and extended roles for Killer Croc and Harvey Dent broaden the scope of the crisis, as Joker manipulates his way through the city, showing Gotham’s dirty underbelly who’s boss with flamboyance, black, black comedy and some sickening violence. And we really should emphasise the violence, because this is an adult comic, and should be approached with caution by even the most seasoned and hardened of readers. Yet, stomach churning as the thing is, it really is beautiful.
The book is lushly illustrated by Azzarello’s regular collaborator Lee Bermejo, and this is the artist’s finest work to date. Combining gorgeously painted pages with traditionally rendered ink and colour work, Bermejo brings Gotham to life with every panel, the Joker erupting from the shadows like a match struck in the dark.
As for the clown himself, comparisons with Heath Ledger’s recent portrayal are inevitable, not only because the late actor’s performance is fresh in the minds of readers, but due also to the uncanny visual similarities between the two interpretations. However, though Bermejo’s mouth scarring, clothing, wild hair and makeup are reminiscent of Ledger, describing the two as one and the same is doing both a grand injustice.
Bermejo and Azzarello’s creation, if possible, is a meaner adversary, a bubbling schizophrenic hell bent on frightening the afterlife out of all in his path. This is a more terrifying and intricate manifestation than we’ve seen in previous works such as Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, and fully deserves to take its place in the high echelons of the DC Universe.
Ultimately, Azzarello weaves his tale together with a common theme. The brilliant, ambiguous ending serves to emphasise the cold truth that the Joker, this ghastly, purest of evils, will always exist in one form or another, and it is the hero’s – the Batman’s – duty to fight, rather than defeat, it. This is a recurrent theme, one that has cropped up in much of Joss Whedon’s Angel, Frank Miller’s Sin City comics, and films centering around a nightmarish city – and the demons within it – such as Seven and, of course, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. That Joker is able to close its character-driven narrative with such a strong finale is hugely impressive.
Azzarello and Bermejo succeed in not only presenting for us a new, fascinating side to one of comic’s most complex villains, but do so by way of a brutal, haunting, intelligent and thoroughly entertaining graphic novel.
Joker is out now.