Review: Batman: The Man Who Laughs hardcover/trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, June 15, 2009

[This review comes from Adam J. Noble, a public librarian living in Eastern Canada. At Noble Stabbings!!, he is blogging his attempt to read all of the comic series Cerebus in 2009.]

This edition has, like Batman and The Joker themselves, a really weird and convoluted back-story. Here goes. Batman: The Man Who Laughs was originally a 2005 prestige one-shot by Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke (The Mask, Major Bummer) that told the story of The Joker's first caper, a direct sequel to the penultimate page of Batman: Year One, a.k.a. the best comic ever in history. The Man Who Laughs went out-of-print, and Brubaker's name gradually became more and more of a selling point.

Early last year, DC republished the book as a hardcover, and found some Brubaker-penned filler bound The Man Who Laughs together with three issues of Detective Comics in which Batman teams up with Alan "Green Lantern, no not that one" Scott, who is significant to the Bat-mythos in that he was the first superhero (in current DCU chronology, at least) to operate out of Gotham, and if you go by Hush, then Scott served as a major inspiration to young Bruce Wayne's initial idea to become a crimefighter.

Now, in 2009, The Man Who Laughs comes to us in softcover once again, still including the GL-team-up. And here's the thing: I bought this knowing that the titular story isn't very good. Brubaker is a great writer whom I've admired for more than a decade -- Criminal, Scene of the Crime, the under-read The Fall, Daredevil, Gotham Central (-- and Catwoman! -- ed.) are all masterworks of the crime comic form. Some of those books may feature superheroes, but nevertheless ... Brubaker is not a great superhero writer.

He doesn't know how to just let superheroes be ridiculous/stupid/fun, which I think is one of the criteria for the title of "great superhero writer." And if you are writing a Batman comic that attempts to fill in the gaps between Year One, The Killing Joke and Matt Wagner's twin Hugo Strange mini-series Mad Monk and Monster Men, you are one-hundred-percent obligated to provide another masterpiece, or just don't bother. This is not that thing, particularly in hindsight, now that a certain billon-grossing movie has given us (arguably) the definitive Joker, and at least the definitive Batman-fights-The-Joker-for-the-first-time story.

Doug Mahnke does a great job here, but the wild energy of his MAD Magazine-meets-George Perez style isn't right for Brubaker's psychological, low-key writing (a year later, Mahnke would be matched with his perfect writer on Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers of Victory: Frankenstein!, a book which is made of such unadulterated "win" I'm astonished it still isn't an ongoing). (Seconded! -- ed. again)

The Man Who Laughs' plot itself is just a re-hash of Batman '89 and Batman #1 with Joker seizing the airwaves to terrify Gothamites and assassinate prominent fat rich guys. But! I shelled out for the softcover, ultimately, because, primed by the silly and wonderful Batman: The Brave and The Bold, I wanted to see Batman on a really dopey team-up with Alan Scott, an 80-year-old media baron who wields the world's most powerful weapon, whose existence makes no sense in a Post-Crisis DCU, and whose only weakness is wood. (If Alan Scott didn't already exist, Jeff Parker would have had to invent him.)

But I should have known better: Brubaker is far too left-brained a writer to really have fun with this team-up. Something like a goofier, super-powered version of the "Beware the Grey Ghost" episode of Batman: The Animated Series should ensue, with Batman discovering that not only is one of his inspirations fallible, but, really, if GL had decided to remain in Gotham instead of joining the Justice Society and moving to New York, really could allow Bruce to take a weekend off now and then (maybe even the occasional Spring Break!).

Instead, we get a story of supervillain revenge that could have featured just about any other superhero. Brubaker manages to script a touching moment between the two heroes in the Batcave at the end of the final chapter, but it doesn't really feel earned. It feels like the end of a more interesting story, where Batman got to work out some super-abandonment issues with Alan Scott as a surrogate dad like those wire monkeys from the experiments, only powered by alien ore.

Anyway -- Tim Sale provides the original covers for the Green Lantern story, so those are at least unique and striking. I also have to wonder why DC didn't take the opportunity to cash in on the popularity of Brubaker's Criminal and Marvel's superhero Noir line and re-package Brubaker and Sean Philips' similarly out-of-print Gotham Noir one-shot here. But regardless, the book we have fails to live up to any of the potential the characters or creators should have brought to the table.

However, if you're anything like me, you will buy this trade anyway, because it is, after all, a sequel to Year One, after all, and you'll stick it on your shelf next to The Long Halloween. I guess the joke's on us.

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