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

September 15, 2019

Despite the supposed end to Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's Batman collaboration with Batman: Last Knight on Earth, on stands now, in many respects it feels like Snyder's second act with Batman is just getting started. Sure, Snyder's writing the whole Justice League now, but with books first like Dark Nights: Metal and then leading in to The Batman Who Laughs, it's clear Snyder's League has a lot of basis in his Batman work and in his Batman mythos.

Indeed, too, it's not just the presence of artist Jock that hearkens back to Snyder's earliest Batman work, Batman: The Black Mirror, it's the story as well; Snyder has written a sequel. It's subtle — one need not have read Black Mirror (now shockingly almost a decade old) to enjoy this book, but the connections are there (plus shades, too, of The Killing Joke). Also there are connections to the themes of Snyder's New 52 Batman run, placing Batman Who Laughs firmly in the Snyder canon — more so, even, than Dark Nights: Metal, since Laughs is set firmly in the Gotham that looms so large in Snyder's books.

Man Who Laughs is perhaps not the horror masterpiece that is Black Mirror, but is still a powerful (and powerfully drawn) treatise on Batman and his quest, his relationship to the people of Gotham, and questions of whether to save the day through intimidation or inspiration as demonstrated through the metaphors of Batman's various villains. Like Black Mirror, however, Man Who Laughs shows instant staying power; this is a book surely deserving of inclusion in Snyder box sets and republishing in deluxe and Absolute formats for years to come.

[Review contains spoilers]

Black Mirror famously posited the corrupting power of Gotham City, that perhaps there was something intrinsic within the makeup of Gotham (chemical, architectural, or supernatural) that ultimately brought out the worst in people. This is best symbolized in James Gordon Jr., saving the life of whom was among Batman's inaugural successes (in Batman: Year One), but that something — a vagary of how Batman caught the falling baby James, poison in the food supply, living in Gotham — then caused James to grow up a psychopath. From there, Snyder proceeded to break down the Batman/Gotham relationship and build it back up — introducing the Court of Owls, a demonstration perhaps of how little Batman knew Gotham, all the way through "Zero Year" and a reestablishment of Batman as Gotham's folk hero and a symbol, into "Superheavy," of Gotham's can-do-it-yourself, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps aesthetic.

That crests in Man Who Laughs in the form of James — having terrorized Gotham and Batgirl and, for a time, the Suicide Squad — now working through a rehabilitation program as a clerk in a grocery store. Though the audience watches for a lapse the whole time as James plays Hannibal to Batman's Clarice, Snyder seems genuine in the idea that James has reformed. In the end, the book vacillates, in the form of Batman and Alfred, as to whether a conquering Batman would save more lives than a vigilante Batman — or whether Batman is the right way for Bruce Wayne to save lives at all — it ultimately comes down to the idea that Batman inspires people "to be better than you're supposed to be." It's a theme strong in Snyder's other works, and the strongest repudiation of Black Mirror's conclusions yet, given James ultimately rising above what Gotham has done to him.

In terms of the Batman Who Laughs, Snyder's post-Metal interview on Comic Conspiracy about the character is an insightful explanation of how the character is meant to be interpreted. He's villain, as I understood it, who always has a plan (like Batman), and to whom enacting his plan and achieving his aims is more important, say, than taunting his opponents or explaining the minutiae of his brilliance. That's interesting in concept, a way that the Batman Who Laughs is not, specifically, the Joker, though I do feel I've yet to see this in actual practice. Here, the Batman Who Laughs taunts incessantly (for a horror thriller, Laughs is exceptionally dialogue-heavy, for better or worse) and he's also incessantly theatrical, not so far from the Joker despite the story defining their differing philosophies.

A Batman who strikes from the dark, but without Batman's morals, would be frightening indeed. I like the Batman Who Laughs as a character (Snyder's Dr. Hurt, as it were), but I still can't reconcile what's on the page with how Snyder otherwise describes him. I also find the Batman Who Laugh's red on black word balloons hard to read, and the toxin-infected Batman's red-on-white in this story isn't much easier. I feel like this is an example of an idea cool in theory but poor in practice, and now unfortunately we're stuck with it unless some reality-bending crisis should gift us with changing the Batman Who Laugh's voice.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase The Batman Who Laughs

The Batman Who Laughs continues into Joshua Williamson's new Batman/Superman book, which to be sure has some big shoes to fill — whether Batman/Superman can match the tone of this book, how long it can ride the Batman Who Laughs storyline, and what it'll do afterward are all things to watch. In the meantime, Scott Snyder and Jock's Laughs is really strong — I'm put in mind, suddenly, of Dan Jurgen's Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey in terms of a creator returning to write their original character — and shows Snyder's got plenty of Batman still left in him; hopefully indeed Batman: Last Knight on Earth is not truly the end.

[Includes original and variant covers, sketchbook and page layouts]

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
The Batman Who Laughs
Author Rating
4 (scale of 1 to 5)

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