Review: Batman Vol. 3: Death of the Family hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Scott Snyder succeeds in writing a truly frightening Joker story in Batman Vol. 3: Death of the Family, a collection well-timed for release near Halloween. Snyder already demonstrated his mastery of Batman horror in The Black Mirror, and Death of the Family feels like a successor to that -- but more intense throughout, even, and with a more palpable, continuous sense of dread.

The end let me down just a tad. Snyder finishes with a nice twist, and in all his take on the Batman/Joker relationship is both faithful and also groundbreaking, but it's possible that there's so much dread in Death of the Family that it can't deliver the horrors it promises. That's ultimately a small matter, however. Death of the Family sets a new bar for Joker stories; I'm curious, and perhaps a little scared, to see what happens when Snyder brings the Joker back again sometime in the future.

[Review contains spoilers]

Comics do gross-out pretty well, but arguably I think it's tough for many comics to offer real "makes you glance back over your shoulder"-type horror -- because of continuous paneling, because the book is usually set-up and finished all in twenty-two pages, and so on. Snyder and artist Greg Capullo land it, though, and they do so over and over -- when the lights go out in the police station and the Joker kills the officers one by one, when Bruce Wayne slowly searches his house room by room for the Joker, when Batman must navigate through the transformed Arkham hallways, and on and on.

See, for instance, the masterful pacing of that Wayne manor scene in the second chapter -- the long shot in Capullo's second panel of Bruce entering an empty hallway; the third panel, now behind Bruce, as he looks into an empty room; and then the last two panels, closer and closer on Bruce's face as he sees what's behind the door, just before the reader does. The pace, the sound effects, it all comes together to create a terror that's lasting, rather than momentary.

Snyder offers an exploration of Batman and the Joker here that fits the New 52 moniker -- a different, more nuanced, and more modern take than writers have done previously. There is a familial, almost romantic tinge to Snyder's Joker's approach to Batman -- it's not as though the Joker makes a pass at Batman, but there's a definite sense that the Joker sees himself and Batman as soul mates, with Batman's family getting in the way of their "relationship." This rightly differentiates the relationship between the Joker and Batman as something more intimate even than Batman and Two-Face's history or Batman and the Riddler matching wits, for instance.

There's also a theme of Batman as the king and the Joker and others as King Batman's subjects -- Scarecrow as the physician, Penguin as the bishop, and the Joker as the court jester. This is more than just a reference to the Joker's clown appearance, but rather a deeper insight into the Joker as the historical fool, the character often on the outskirts of a work that sees the plot more keenly than everyone else (despite that he's a "fool"). For those who believe the Joker may not be insane but rather super-sane, saner than the rest of us, Snyder offers more fodder there.

Snyder also illustrates the uniqueness of the Batman/Joker relationship through the idea of the "game" that they play. Joker's plot in Death of the Family turns on convincing the Bat-family that the Joker has known their secret identities all along, and that Batman never warned them. Batman claims it can't be true because in the Joker's psychosis, he just doesn't care about Batman's identity; the Bat-family won't believe him, though, because of course it seems illogical that Joker would deny his own best opportunity to strike at Batman. No one, Snyder shows, understands the Joker like Batman understands the Joker, and this plays out in the dagger-sharp moment that Batman violates the "game" by revealing he has actually learned the Joker's own identity (the Batman/Joker equivalent of "breaking up").

But the relationship Snyder explores here perhaps even better than that of between Batman and the Joker is the one between Batman and Alfred. This is done exceptionally well, even, given that Alfred is in absentia for most of the book, kidnapped by the Joker. Snyder clears away the chaff and trappings to get to the truth everyone knows but no one acknowledges, that Alfred is essentially Batman's father, and that all this "butler stuff" is just a mask over the fact that Bruce Wayne is a guy who lives in a mansion with his dad.

Every Batman reader is familiar with Batman calling Alfred from the road, ostensibly for some clue or analysis, but the clear fact Snyder brings to light is that Batman really calls Alfred for reassurance, to check in with his dad one last time before going into what could always be his last battle. Alfred's been in trouble before, even kidnapped, but Snyder takes that chestnut and makes it fresh, and adds a clarity that's quite affecting.

All of this -- the creepiness, the danger to Batman's allies -- combines to create a foreboding that permeates the book, buffeted well by Snyder's Joker's claims of buried secrets and traps to be sprung. What's in the Joker's bat-skin book? What is the Joker hiding under an ominous serving tray? What's Batman's dark secret that the Joker knows but the Bat-family doesn't? By the final chapter, when Batman sits down to the Joker's table, the reader is utterly convinced that something truly horrible is about to come.

But for reasons both legitimate and less so, that final horror never happens. First, part of the point of the Joker's "joke" is that his threats are largely baseless -- he has no secret book, no dark story tell, but rather all of it is a ruse to drive a rift between Batman and his family, which the Joker accomplishes. This is good and interesting, and legitimate within the confines of the story, though a reader who's been scouring the volume for clues to the Joker's book's contents may feel a bit cheated that it's all for naught.

More significantly, the book's final scares aim too high. The climax of this volume's horror is when the Joker opens those serving dishes, revealing the severed faces of Batman's closest allies. It's gross and horrifying, but I had a strange moment of both disgust and relief. The faces are gross, of course, but also immediately unbelievable -- I might even have believed Snyder could kill Alfred in this story, but there was just no way DC Comics was going to let him permanently disfigure some of their most popular media properties.

The book had built to a moment so terrible, and indeed it was terrible, but so terrible as to be easily dismissible. This is supposed to be the moment when the reader fully the most frightened, but instead I felt the most relieved -- I knew looking at the severed faces that everyone was safe, that Batman was going to get out of it alive, that in the end there wouldn't be any (physical) harm done. (At that point I thought the tied figures had been mutilated but that they weren't actually the Bat-family, not that the Bat-family remained unharmed below their bandages.)

Death of the Family redeems itself quickly after that with Batman's revelation about the Joker's identity, and the slight bump doesn't hurt it much -- I'd as soon the book scared me throughout and then slip at the end than not scare me at all except for one page. I'm put in mind of the "Court of the Owls" saga, which I also felt had an excellent set-up but a lesser denouement, also at the point where Snyder pulls back the curtain on the final trick. This doesn't lessen my esteem for Snyder's growing library of rollicking Batman volumes, which offers a more human Batman than Grant Morrison's did. Again, I'd rather enjoy most of the ride than none of it.

Batman Vol. 3: Death of the Family does deliver on its promise to "kill" the Bat-family (and, to an extent, the "family" Batman has with his rogues, too). I'd be interested to see Snyder handle the Bat-family's "reunion," though whether that's still to come in a Snyder book or takes place in Batman and Robin after the events of the second Batman, Inc. book or not, I don't know. I'm eager to see Scott Snyder's new origin for Batman in Year Zero Zero Year, but equally I'm excited for when Snyder finally gets back to the "Batman present" and can explore some of the fallout from this story himself.

[First printing includes acetate jacket revealing Joker's mutilated face, original and variant cover, Greg Capullo pencils]
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20 comments:

  1. As someone who read it month to month, I was pretty disappointed by how it all played out. There just didn't seem to be a story here, Joker just being around seemed to be the only point to the story. "We're doing a Joker story" isn't a story in itself. And I just really disliked the last issue especially, nothing the characters did made any sense to me.

    I'm a fan of Snyder's, or at least, I was, and I hope to be again soon.

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  2. It's Zero Year actually, Snyder has been pretty adamant about it being called that instead of Year Zero.

    Anyhow, I loved this story and thought the conclusion stuck the landing a good deal better than The Court of the Owls...I think the Snyder-Capullo team is producing some of the best Batman comics we've gotten since Morrison's initial Batman and Robin series, if not since Miller even. I realize that sounds like hyperbole, but I haven't been this excited about the title, month in and month out, in a number of years.

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  3. I anticipated this collection for some time and I was very pleased with the acetate slipcover package as well as the story. I think it reads well as a collection and I was thoroughly satisfied. The ending left a little bit to be desired, but (as you state in the review) since I knew there couldn't be any real repercussions I thought it was a good job. The bit where he drives the Bat-Family to crazed violence just when you think they're "safe" was a good ploy, helped to establish Bruce's faith in his compatriots as well as a little more suspense (though, for the same reasons stated, very little.)

    Oddly, the Joker: Death of the Family companion is largely unnecessary to this story. It shows how the Bat-family members are captured, but it's an uneven work that adds nothing to Batman: Death of the Family proper. This is unlike the City of Owls companion to the first two volumes of Batman, which added a lot of back story and intrigue to an already gripping story. Batman: Death of the Family stands better alone.

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    1. I have only read the Batgirl tie-in so far, but I too was surprised at how "un-specific" the story was; obviously the Batgirl events happen somewhere before Batman #17, but when exactly the Joker had his conflict with Batgirl vis a vis the events of Batman, I wasn't sure. This as compared to Night of the Owls, which was exceptionally specific as to what happened when. Two ways of doing things, I guess.

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  4. Many people where disappointed with how this story ended, but I wasn't one of them. In these event-driven days of super-hero comics, its seems a lot of people are convinced that a story can only have real impact if an important character either dies or suffers a permanent injury, so I was very relieved that Snyder didn't resort to any of those cheap gimmicks. Sure, the Joker had something quite permanent done to his face, but that happened in Tony Daniel's Detective Comics run, and Snyder simply ran with it.

    I think Death of the Family is well-crafted and meaningful enough to join the ranks of the great Joker stories with no need to outdo The Killing Joke when it comes to shocking tragedy.

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    1. You have a good point here; inasmuch as I was surprised about the impermanence of Death of the Family, it is something of a relief that it wasn't a story that made sweeping changes or killed off one of the Bat-family. To an extent maybe that hearkens back to Batman crossovers of yore like Contagion or Legacy, where the changes, if at all, are character-based (internal) and not external.

      What I'm curious to see now -- having not read much farther in the Bat-verse since Death of the Family -- is whether the other titles preserve this seeming rift between Batman and his family, or whether events in Batman, Inc. and such end up negating said rift. Also very eager for when Snyder takes on Joker again and follows up on some of the revelations in the final issue.

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    2. "What I'm curious to see now -- having not read much farther in the Bat-verse since Death of the Family -- is whether the other titles preserve this seeming rift between Batman and his family,"

      They don't. Or if they do, it's been so subtle as to not be noticed. Yes, Batman has been growing distant from the others, but it's not because of the Joker, it's because of the death of Damian.

      The story was a complete non-event. Nothing happened. I wouldn't have minded so much if it wasn't overhyped and crossed over with so many books as if it was some huge event.

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    3. You know what, I'd love another crossover wherein the repercussions of this "Death of the Family" is explored. The problem is after this, Snyder/Capullo immediately went to Zero Year. Add that to Damian's death and the resoultion of this storyline seems to fall flat.The epilogue where they show the family not wanting to be with Bruce doesn't count.

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    4. At least Snyder has hinted at revisiting the fallout of the end of "Death of the Family" (http://www.bleedingcool.com/2013/07/20/batman-zero-year-news/). Hopefully we get something worthwhile.

      Unless, of course, we get further editorial shenanigans which lead to a repetition of what the death of Damian did the first time.

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    5. "Further editorial shenanigans which lead to a repetition of what the death of Damian did the first time."

      Specifically?

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  5. I'll echo the folks not too perturbed by the ending; in fact, I was relieved that the family was strong enough to overcome Joker's scheme. It was a kind of shaggy dog story, but then again that IS a style of joke (one we don't see Joker use too often). Reading it in floppies was agonizing because of he sense of dread CEB identifies, but the last chapter was a perceptible relief.

    Snyder has said this was Joker's love story with Batman; the next time will be a "hate story." After reading some of his Riddler stuff, I'm dying to see Joker come back. I loved the way Snyder played on all the big Joker stories in the past, and I agree that his is a new benchmark.

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    1. I'm glad Snyder has a sequel planned. Obviously it can't come too soon, but also I hope it isn't held out so long that circumstances change and Snyder isn't able to get to it.

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  6. seeing as I plan to get this and the companion volume, what reading order do you recommend? - Steve

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    1. What James offers below, while technically correct, is the publication order, which I wouldn't favor -- that has you switching between Batgirl and Catwoman, for instance, when the Batgirl story follows from issue to issue and I think Catwoman and the other stories do, too. To answer your question another way, I'd suggest reading Batman Vol. 3 first in its entirety, and the companion Joker volume second. You get the main story and the real details in the Batman book, and then the other fills in the gaps. I think we all agree that the companion volume isn't super-important for understanding the main points of this event.

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  7. Here's the reading checklist from the monthly releases:

    http://www.thirdeyecomics.com/third-eye-blog/checklist-batman-death-of-the-family/

    It shouldn't be hard to jump back and forth between the two collections.

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  8. There /was/ a death of the family. Joker saw HIMSELF as Batman's family and Batman broke their bond by saying he had figured out Joker's real name.

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    1. Agree completely. As I said in the conclusion of my review, Death of the Family does live up to its promise -- it "kills" the Bat-family, at least emotionally in terms of their trust of Batman (for however long that lasts), and it also kills the "family" Batman has with his rogues, in terms of Batman breaking his "contract" with the Joker.

      You are right that those of us expecting some physical reprecussions from this book would do well to note the title -- it's the death "of" the family, which the story delivers, and not death "in" the family, which it doesn't (but doesn't purport to).

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  9. Just noticed that this book doesn't collect the actual death of damian. None of the books do, not even the crossover book! This can't be right?

    I need to get Batman Inc. Vol 2 for this? What the hell? I don't even read Batman Inc. Who at DC thought this would be a good idea?

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    1. This didn't bother me necessarily since Damian's death wasn't actually related to "Death of the Family"; it happened after DOTF in Batman, Inc. Vol. 2. The Batman Vol. 3 DOTF volume ends before Damian's death, so the correct reading order is Batman Vol. 3, then Batman Inc. Vol. 2. Similarly none of the stories in the Joker: DOTF crossover book involve Damian's death, either, so you could read Batman Vol. 3, Joker, and then Batman Inc. Vol. 2 and have it all make sense.

      Now, it's true that the tie-in books like Batgirl: DOTF and Catwoman: DOTF do deal with BOTH "Death of the Family" and Damian's death (aka "Requiem"). That's just the perils of being a tie-in book, essentially. In that case, your reading order would be Batman Vol. 3, Joker (optional), Batman Inc. Vol. 2, and then titles like Batgirl, Catwoman, Detective, etc.

      That pretty well makes sense to me. Yes, you have to get Batman, Inc. Vol. 2 to see the death of Damian, but a Batgirl reader, for instance, "has" to get Batman Vol. 3 in order to see the full extent of the Joker's scheme. Just the way inter-title crossovers work, I think. Would you prefer to see it handled another way?

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    2. I didn't know that Damiens death isn't part of DoTF. DCs' twitter account just spoilered this information one day and I thought the stories would be connected.

      In an ideal world I could read the crossover book just on itself and maybe a companion book if I'm interested in tie-ins. If it also contained the requiem story the better.
      Sort of like Final Crisis and Final Crisis companion.

      Maybe have the individual trades skip the event alltogether and collect the event in the crossover book. Yeah, that would be best I think.
      You could also prevent the individial books from getting too disjointed by simply variyng the size of them.

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