Review: Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 5: The Joker War hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

March 31, 2021

In his penultimate collection of Detective Comics, Peter Tomasi certainly doesn’t hold back. At the center of Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 5: The Joker War is a story that involves at least five of Batman’s villains and involves storylines almost a decade old. If the tie to the “Joker War” crossover feels like a little bit of a contrivance, interrupting what if anything Tomasi originally had planned for this story, then the madcap energy is still epic and worthy of the “event” Detective has been dragged in to. I’m pleased to see artist Brad Walker back on this title, and his large, in-your-face art is a perfect complement to the book’s Joker chaos.

[Review contains spoilers]

Detective Vol. 5 kicks off with the Batman: Pennyworth RIP special, written by Batman’s James Tynion and Tomasi. I recognize DC not wanting to break up the flow of the prominent Batman collections, but this is a story that, had it been stuck at the beginning or end of Batman Vol. 1: Their Dark Designs, if not Batman Vol. 2: The Joker War, would’ve made Joker War make a lot more sense. Indeed, things seemed more or less copacetic at the beginning of Dark Designs, with Bruce Wayne planning a(nother) aspirational rebuild of Gotham with only the barest hint of trouble around the edges; that Barbara Gordon seems so angry with him in Batgirl Vol. 8: The Joker War was puzzling, as was Batman’s big apology to his family in Batman: Joker War proper.

With Pennyworth RIP, the contexts for Bruce’s rebuilding projects, the Bat-family’s ire, and “Joker War” itself are much clearer. In fairness, the placement of RIP at the start of this book does match with publication order for Detective, though it’s out of step by a hair from Batman. In this, I can’t help but see Detective’s “always a bridesmaid” curse; of course DC puts the special in Detective instead of Batman because Batman is the pristine, prized child and Detective is the catchall. But no one following along at home was going to read Detective: Joker War before Batman: Joker War, and therefore Batman: Joker War lacks a piece it needs that most won’t discover until afterward.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

That we’re still trading in “emotionally closed off Batman doesn’t support his family” after so many fresh starts have promised otherwise is also annoying in its repetitiveness. Further, Tomasi seems to go out of his way in Detective: Joker War to show a gentler Batman, polite to bystanders and children, such that Tynion and Tomasi’s depiction doesn’t quite mesh. And, moving to Tomasi’s Detective Annual #3 collected here, I must say I’ve never bought into the idea that, sans Alfred, Bruce Wayne is a terrible slob who leaves clothes everywhere and lets dirty dishes pile up. Perhaps this is indeed evidence of the privileged billionaire inherent in Batman’s character, but I have a hard time believing the world’s keenest detective and epitome of human fitness can’t by habit keep a mess off his desk.

That’s all in regards to the first two chapters, which given there’s about nine stories here, suggests Detective: Joker War offers at least a lot to think about. And this is before a crazy-in-the-best-way-possible multi-faceted pitched battle between Batman, Two-Face Harvey Dent in Jim Gordon’s DC You “Rookie” robot bat-suit(!), a whole mess of Court of Owls Talons(!!), and a Jokerized version of super-Talon (and sometimes Batman’s long-lost brother) Lincoln March(!!!). Which is to say, while I’ve sniffed occasionally at Tomasi’s Detective, he seems to have taken advantage of an opportunity here and delivered.

Tomasi’s Two-Face story is a direct sequel to his Batman & Robin Vol. 5: The Big Burn, nine years and a continuity ago, not to mention that he uses elements like the no-face Joker and Lincoln March that stem from even earlier than that. I recalled not liking Big Burn that much, though looking back I see I praised it highly; what I didn’t like and might’ve been remembering were some alterations to Two-Face’s origins and what seemed the unsustainable idea that he knew Batman’s identity.

In the interim Two-Face hasn’t been used that much — what seems too long a time — and so Tomasi is able to pick up (after a decade!) about where he left off. Two-Face has turned cult leader now, and it seems tied to the end of Big Burn where he’d shot himself in the head. That was interesting, including the Harvey persona teamed with Batman against Two-Face, though it was hard to see where “Joker War” would tie in.

The answer is that, through quite the flashback, it seems that Joker operated on Two-Face after his attempted suicide, fitted him with a controlling device (by way of Hugo Strange and Mad Hatter), and has been forcing Harvey to build up his cult ever since. The result is that most of the beginning of this book doesn’t actually matter, and that Harvey’s stated reasons for his cult are nonsense because it’s all actually just the Joker making chaos. I prefer a mystery where the clues add up to something over it all being a ruse, and again charitably I tend to wonder if Tomasi always meant to lay it all on the Joker. That said, at the point in which all hell breaks loose and Tomasi pits Lincoln March and his Owls against the robot from Scott Snyder’s Batman Vol. 8: Superheavy, any complaints I had faded away.

3.0

Rating

Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 5: The Joker War is among the final “Joker War” tie-in books for me to read. Is it the best? Very possibly so, when Batgirl, Nightwing, and Red Hood all suffered from their own in-title problems and a Joker often more silly than scary. Detective only offers the Joker remotely, but one does at least feel big things are afoot here. The book ends with a couple of “Joker War tales” by Tomasi and incoming Detective writer Mariko Tamaki; I was glad to see these, though it’s a reminder that so far the only place to find the Joker War Zone special is in the dedicated Joker War Saga collection. Given all the other “tales” and extraneous material here, this would have been the place for it.

[Includes most original covers and variant covers]

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