Review: The Joker Vol. 1 hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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In the heyday of Gotham Central, I remember an interview (even perhaps an introduction to one of the trades) where the creators expressed enthusiasm for a Jim Gordon, private investigator-type series — that it would have been a bigger prize even than Gotham Central, if I recall correctly, had it been allowed. It’s some 15 years or so later, the creators are totally different, but with James Tynion’s The Joker Vol. 1, that idea of a Jim Gordon, PI series somewhat comes to fruition.

[Review contains spoilers for Joker and Infinite Frontier]

This approach seems the right one, perhaps the only one — there’s no question at this moment in time (or a couple years previous) having a Joker series on the stands was an utmost necessity, DC’s version of printing money. At the same time, an ongoing Joker series seems difficult, if not misguided1 — the very things that make the Joker interesting could easily be extinguished by overexposure (if not already) and by giving him a supporting cast and a bunch of friends and etc. (distinctly, it’s hard to imagine a Joker series working in the style of Harley Quinn).

But what does seem wholly workable is a Joker series in the style of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal or Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming’s Eclipso series — a series where the villain is the subject but not the protagonist, a series where the villain towers in the background over everything that happens. Which is not to say Tynion doesn’t bring the Joker in, but for instance he only appears in the flesh on four pages of all of the first fourth of the book. I can see a rotating cast of protagonists, even stories of the struggles of the Joker’s victims, but for the first “season” Tynion needs a character with as much stage presence as the Joker has and that’s certainly Jim Gordon.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

After a certain amount of not-undeserved hemming and hawing, Joker feels a place where DC, via Tynion’s steady hand, finally comes to some resolution with A Killing Joke. It is a complicated story in terms of what should or shouldn’t have been allowed to happen to the Batgirl Barbara Gordon character and, once done, whether such ought or ought not have been made canon. As with many things in the New 52 and adjacent eras, like a pendulum DC kept swinging way far one way and then another — Barbara was injured and was Oracle, Barbara was never Oracle, Killing Joke happened, Killing Joke never happened.

Though not Barbara Gordon-centric, here Tynion gets to engage with Gordon’s experiences in Killing Joke head-on — not tap-dancing around it, not did it happen or didn’t it, but that it did and here’s the effect it had. And the effects and implications of Killing Joke are not uniform, something readers have known for years but that Tynion finally makes explicit — that even as Killing Joke was horrific, it was also a terrible, nonsensical plan by the Joker (as if one night of terror would actually break Jim Gordon’s mind irrevocably) that did indeed fail. Tynion’s got it all here, helped handily by Guillem March’s lurking Joker figures in the background — that Gordon is haunted by the idea of the Joker but is still able to be defiant in the face of the Joker himself, that everything happened2 but that doesn’t mean the takeaways are monolithic.

At a time when horror comics are seeing a resurgence — or at least, the bigger publishers are picking up now on what the smaller ones already knew — Joker fits right into Tynion’s burgeoning wheelhouse. As the Talon and Detective Comics writer, Tynion’s penchant for horror wasn’t so apparent — even unto Justice League Dark, though I started to get an inkling there — but between Something Is Killing the Children and The Nice House on the Lake, now we know. Tynion and March build horror here, in addition to the omnipresent Joker faces, in images of torture and death, the melange of serial killer miscellanea that rides in the Joker’s wake (again, not unlike Fuller’s Hannibal).

An aspect of Tynion’s Batman run I find interesting is his suggestion that Gotham has citizens both terrified and starstruck by the famous rogues, and that this tends to break along political and socioeconomic lines. The Batman #100 story included at the end of this book sees the Joker’s henchman Punchline making a bid for Gotham’s disgruntled to rise up and revolt even as she pleads her own innocence. In Joker, Gordon travels a Gotham more dangerous and frightening than I can recall, as teenagers slink into the shadows wearing “Free Punchline” T-shirts. It is a landscape I expect Tynion won’t be able to explore as fully as he might’ve with the sudden end of his Batman run, and more’s the pity.

This also includes a vision of Gotham’s Caribbean communities mourning the death of Bane during the events of Infinite Frontier. As Tynion’s Gordon notes, what’s presented here is a Gotham more nuanced than we’ve seen (perhaps since No Man’s Land) — that Bane could simultaneously have just recently enslaved Gotham and also be a symbol of cultural strength for a disenfranchised Gotham neighborhood.

On the topic of Bane, it remains a pity that the important Joker War Zone issue is only available in the Joker War Saga collection, but at least we get Tynion’s Joker/Bane story here. It’s hard not to read this — intended or not — as Tynion’s critique of Tom King’s Batman finale, as Joker takes Bane to task for “wasting” Alfred’s murder. Quite aside from the fun of seeing the two rivals for Batman’s “arch-enemy” face off, Tynion offers a fascinating glimpse into what the Joker understands about what motivates Batman and how to hurt him (see also Tynion’s Joker on Gordon as the brains behind “dumb !@#% kid” Batman). Another thing to appreciate about this volume is that Tynion makes the Joker as irreverent as always but also startlingly intelligent when it counts.



I’ve got a tall reading pile having waited a while before diving into the Infinite Frontier books, but it still feels like a long wait until James Tynion’s next Joker book in August. As with The Nice House on the Lake, in Joker Vol. 1 Tynion builds enough sense of doom and danger (the pundits might say, without delivering overmuch in terms of forward motion) that I’m very eager to see what’s going to follow. Again, more’s the pity the end of Tynion’s run is already in sight, though DC has plenty of writers on board — Matthew Rosenberg, Ram V, Tom Taylor — who could pick up a title like this.

[Includes original covers]

  1. Not to overlook the fact that this Joker series itself is already “on hiatus” for a “second season,” though I venture that has more to do with James Tynion's sudden departure from DC than low title sales.  ↩

  2. What is never mentioned here, and therefore does not seem to have happened, is the Joker murdering Gordon‘s wife Sarah Essen during the events of No Man’s Land. Had it, then surely in the litany of Joker‘s sins against Gordon, including the assault on his daughter and influencing his son’s death, Essen would have been mentioned. We know so little about how “everything happened” works, but one wonders if Batman will wake up one evening to suddenly recall that time Gotham got cut off from the rest of the United States.  ↩

Comments ( 1 )

  1. When it comes to Sarah Essen wait for it I don't want to get into any spoilers but it is explicitly mentioned in future issues.


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