Review: Batman: Three Jokers hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)


A few refrains went through my head while I was reading Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok’s Batman: Three Jokers: “Time heals all wounds … if they don’t kill you first,” the veritable frontispiece of this very book; “That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day,” the recurring theme of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke, upon which this book is largely based; and “You can’t heal under a mask. Wounds need air” (yup, still mulling HBO’s excellent Watchmen). Each of these relate in some way to the “three jokers” of the book, and by that I mean Batman, Batgirl, and Red Hood Jason Todd; this is their story, largely, far more so than the three clown-faced killers who populate these pages.

Three Jokers is about trauma, and impotence — the frustrating inability one can sometimes have to reach out to others, to help another through their trauma especially when one is traumatized themselves — and it also offers a moment of startling grace. Johns, whose long comics track record has only fleetingly included the Dark Knight, does well portraying Batman at his best and worst here, and in demonstrating why the relationship between this triptych of characters is so fraught. Often Three Jokers is best when it is its own thing; when it ventures to Moore’s territory, the strain more clearly shows.

[Review contains spoilers]

We have seen the particular pairing of Batgirl and Jason Todd before, but not often — Batman Eternal is the example that comes to mind — and not, I think, delving into their shared trauma. There have been times in which the idea of a scene with Barbara Gordon and Jason Todd standing upright and talking to one another would have been ludicrous, but it speaks to the twisty, turn-y path of comics that brought us to this point. They are two opposite corners of this book’s triangle for a reason; both were brutalized by the Joker, but as Batman says, the ultra-violent Jason “healed wrong” while Barbara got stronger. Why, Barbara asks, didn’t Batman try to help Jason? He says, “I was hoping he was more like you.”

Johns' vision of Batman is the emotionally stunted man, the one who, as in Marv Wolfman’s recent 80 Years of the Bat Family story, would as soon chase Dick Grayson out of the Batcave than bid him farewell to forge his own path. Even after this book’s most shocking sequence, when “a” Joker beats Jason again with a crowbar, Batman’s first instinct is to throw Jason up against a wall when he talks about killing the Joker(s).

A few pages later, Batman makes a halting attempt to offer Jason a new path and the opportunity to give up the Red Hood persona. But it’s in two small panels of a nine-panel grid — the very definition of too little, too late. Johns makes the distance feel near palpable; Batman has waited all this time, hoping Jason’s problems would simply go away, and even when it’s come to such a crisis point that Jason’s killed one of the Jokers, Batman still treads lightly. There’s an explanation given that arresting the Red Hood would involve Jason unmasking and then Batgirl unmasking to testify against him that’s Silver Age-y in its silliness — clearly Batman can throw the Riddler in Arkham without unmasking — but that demonstrates the verbal gymnastics to which Batman will go to avoid talking to Jason or to reconcile what he’ll abide from the murderous Robin he wronged.

That’s all contrasted with the most bizarre of Joker plots1 where “the” Joker has set this up so that Batman will have to save the life of Joe Chill(!) and ultimately forgive him for the Waynes' murder, so that Bruce’s childhood wound is healed and the Joker can truly become Batman’s greatest enemy. That’s too complicated by half, but leads to a momentous scene where Chill actually apologizes to Batman, the two speak kindly to one another, and we even find in the end that Bruce Wayne comforts Chill on his deathbed (a wordless page that could have been a whole story all on its own).

It’s touching, all the more so if one can employ enough cognitive dissonance to separate it from the earlier scene of Bruce’s dogged inability to provide Jason any sort of comfort. Though the Joker’s motives are suspect to the extreme, one might even go so far as to say the Joker does a better job healing Bruce than Bruce can do healing one of his own wards. The book’s victories are pyrrhic — it’s Batman’s name in lights and Batman who saves the day, Batman who finds peace, and Batman who provides the final, great insight into the Joker, but it’s clearly at cost to those around him. There’s word already circling that Johns and Fabok plan a sequel to Three Jokers and that doesn’t seem out of place; one surely has the sense Jason Todd doesn’t get his final due here.

“Three Jokers,” of course, started as a teaser line in Johns' New 52 Justice League: The Darkseid War, later echoed in his DC Universe: Rebirth. Already we know those events seemingly did and did not happen — that was a different Superman, for instance, though parts of that event got specific mention as recently as Scott Lobdell’s Flash Forward — but to stave off any disappointment, one should know going in to Three Jokers that they get nary a mention. There is no fulfillment here of the story started in Darkseid War, nor at this point should one ever expect such; this is as close as we’ll get, and it’s still far away.

The real spiritual predecessor, of course, is Killing Joke, though that seems mostly around the edges and in Fabok’s artistic inspirations; we’re never, as one might expect, taken back to the carnival, nor is there talk of how Batman might one day kill the Joker or vice versa. It’s Killing Joke-esque, but I hold fast to the argument that this isn’t really the Joker’s story at all, except perhaps in the epilogue. The three Jokers are largely tertiary, a complication of the plot; we never truly get into the changing characteristics of the Joker from Cesar Romero through to the Joker that sliced off his own face, and there is assuredly a version of this story that can be told with “the” Joker and Joe Chill without the inclusion of the other two.

But Three Jokers does feel like it comes full circle to Killing Joke in that it’s this separate, “mature readers” Batman story, from a time when “mature readers” Batman stories only needed a label as such on them, to the time when that kind of thing was unheard of, to now where “mature readers” stories can exist as long as they’re cordoned off in their own Black Label imprint. Of course, though Killing Joke was originally intended as “separate,” it didn’t stay that way for long, and one might venture the very ouroboros that the popularity of mature readers stories caused them to be integrated into the mainstream, which then negated the propriety of telling mature readers stories.

Though launched from Darkseid War, it becomes quickly apparent that Three Jokers can be nothing but separate, from Batman and Batgirl’s costumes to Batman’s interactions with the Joker that must surely fly in the face of James Tynion’s regular-titles Joker War. It’s confusing, for a moment, because Three Jokers is my, at least, first Black Label book not set in a post-apocalyptic future or clearly written in an “alternate reality” a la Sean Murphy’s Batman: White Knight. Johns and Fabok’s story seems to step “out of today” but is not “of today” and I’m glad not to see DC marketing claiming it is (a favor not afforded to Johns and Gary Frank’s Doomsday Clock). Here, again, we begin to see how DC Black Label has precedence within the long history of (especially) DC prestige format books post-Crisis on Infinite Earths, and also how DC’s long-rumored new publishing schema might work, books lightly continuity-adjacent but able to make whatever changes they want with no obligation to the regular-series titles on the other side — where the Killing Joke publication started, if not where it finished.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Batman: Three Jokers



Visually is a lot of where Three Jokers resembles Killing Joke, with Johns and Fabok imitating Bolland’s nine-panel grids, though — anecdotally — it felt as though Johns and Fabok used them more than Bolland did. I’ve liked Fabok’s work for a long time and overall Three Jokers is very clean, though in the beginning letterer Rob Leigh was crowding in some of the dialogue, super-small, such to make me think Bolland’s grids weren’t serving Fabok well. This is part of a pair of Alan Moore’s works that Johns is “reprising,” along with Doomsday Clock; it’s an increasingly uncomfortable dynamic that I hope has reached its end — Johns and company on Return to the Saga of the Swamp Thing would enter the realm of satire.

Batman: Three Jokers is a story not really about the Joker, but about the trauma that the Joker has inflicted on three members of the Bat-family: Batman, responsible perhaps for all of this destruction and the primary target of the Joker’s ire; Batgirl, whom the Joker crippled and ended her career as Batgirl; and Red Hood nee Robin Jason Todd, whom he killed. Circa the late 1980s-mid-1990s, Three Jokers would have been a fever dream, the-Barbara-Gordon-who’d-never-be-Batgirl-again exhorting the-Jason-Todd-who’d-never-be-resurrected not to kill a defenseless villain. But here we are. A study of the eras of the Joker this is not, but as a study of the weird history of the Bat-family and the damage that history does to the characters in its wake, it’s bar none. Geoff Johns takes all the shouldn’ts, wouldn’ts, can’ts, and nevers and makes out of it a compelling entry to DC’s Black Label line, perhaps the first to truly chart the imprint’s way forward.

[Includes original and variant covers, promotional art]

  1. Though fitting with the modern portrayal of “Batman's best friend, the Joker” since Scott Snyder's Batman: Death of the Family on through.  ↩

Comments ( 8 )

  1. Probably just a slip up with Doomsday Clock on your part, but the artist on this is Jason Fabok, not Gary Frank. Both are fantastic, but I thought Fabok was awesome here!

    1. Fixed, thanks! Got myself turned around there.

  2. That the sequel preview is the centerpiece of the Relaunch coming in March ...Makes me think this is more important then Joker War....With the whole hypertime "thing" , I believe this and Doomsday Clock are what the whole reboots continuity , will be set in

    1. Though, at the moment we only know that to be a rumor, right?

    2. the DC sales rep told me, the 3 Jokers sequel is the lead story in the 2021 Preview book (book will be similar to what we received with Rebirth)

    3. Hmm ... guess we'll see pretty soon ...

  3. Looking forward to reading this again after reading your review. Did anyone notice how pricey this hardcover is? $29.99 for three issues (which although the issues are longer in length) is a lot of money for those that are paying full retail. I hope this isn't the trend with DC making their hardcovers more expensive.

    Finally, I think at this point Geoff Johns is one of the primary bankable writers at DC......he at least brings a must read feeling to the table each time.....

  4. "This is part of a pair of Alan Moore’s works that Johns is “reprising,” along with Doomsday Clock; it’s an increasingly uncomfortable dynamic that I hope has reached its end — Johns and company on Return to the Saga of the Swamp Thing would enter the realm of satire."

    Havent you heard the announcement for John's upcoming "V for Vendettier"?


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