Review: Joker: The Deluxe Edition hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

August 24, 2022

Given the long runway that both comics and movies have before arriving in the world, it’s hard to say if either Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Joker or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, released the same year, had any influence on one another, or if each was just reflecting the same cultural zeitgeist.

Either way, there’s considerable reflection of the late Heath Ledger’s performance in Azzarello and Bermejo’s baggy-pantsed, scar-faced, mob boss Joker. To my eye, this Joker is not so much insane as he is just sadistic and impulsive, and with a strict (if self-serving) moral system — valuing loyalty, abohorring weakness, punishing without mercy.

Moreover, Azzarello and Bermejo’s Joker is shockingly “real” — not a mythical cackling devil, but a mortal man whose erraticness might be partially explained by all the drugs he’s shown doing here. Brutal, frightening — if you want Joker horror, here it is. The Joker is a “prince of crime” in this book, but hardly a “clown.”

[Review contains spoilers]

So indeed DC piqued my curiosity enough with Batman: Damned that I went ahead and picked up the Joker deluxe edition. And yes, everything makes more sense now, Damned both beginning and ending where Joker ends, and John Constantine in the role in Damned for Batman that Jonny Frost plays for Joker here. That said, I still feel Damned’s ending comes on awful quick and without sufficient explanation; having read Joker, I feel more confidently that Damned’s ending is a letdown, and knowledge of the connection to Joker doesn’t mitigate that.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

This deluxe edition offers that the book delivers “new levels of complexity and intensity” for the Joker. To this, I’d venture, intensity yes, complexity no. Not that the book is simplistic; it’s well-written, and if you gauge maturity by carnage and gore, it has that in spades. But in contrast to Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke or even Geoff Johns' Batman: The Three Jokers, Joker did not for me so much complicate the Joker — add mystique to his origin, plumb his insanity — as it did present him as more scrutable than normal — given to flights of whimsy, expressing his emotions through violence, but not insane, unless simply choosing to do bad is insanity.

At Joker’s outset, the villain has been released from Arkham — under mysterious circumstances, but released nonetheless. Rather of course than go straight, however, Joker enacts a campaign to take back his criminal enterprises that were scooped up while he was imprisoned. But as the Joker quips later, he doesn’t care about the money — rather the mission seems a means to an end, an excuse for rapidly escalating carnage until it’s finally enough to draw Batman’s attention.

Again, though I think the Joker regaining his territory is largely a feint, we see in the Joker’s actions a recognizable moral code. Joker respects new henchman Jonny Frost because Frost seems unafraid of him, and skins alive henchman Monty for mismanaging the Joker’s fortunes. Joker is enraged when Two-Face Harvey Dent disrespects him; arguably, then, murdering one of Killer Croc’s men and blowing up his own bar is insane, but the cause and effect is clear. As opposed to Tom King’s Joker, for instance, we never see Azzarello and Bermejo’s Joker kill without an inciting incident; when he kills, he kills indiscriminately, but he’s not indiscriminate here about when he kills.

Notably, the creators draw strong connections between Joker and Killer Croc (who’s known in comics circles but in the grand scheme is a much lower-tier villain than the iconic Joker). Azzarello’s Croc, also in Batman: Broken City, hews to his pre-Crisis depictions, himself more in the mob boss style than we often see him. Throughout the double-dealings, Joker and Croc are inseparable, and it seems only Croc knows the safe path around the Joker, loyal and without drama. They bond over their mutual unusual appearance, but moreover, Croc seems to innately understand how to calmly ride the Joker’s wave as long as it lasts.

Batman is largely absent from the book until the end, though not nearly as absent as the Joker is in Damned, and in Joker Batman’s presence is felt throughout. Indeed, again, the entire point of Joker’s night of terror seems to be to discern how much he can get away with before Batman gets involved, and throughout the Joker taunts Batman aloud, whether his presence is real or imagined. To an extent it seems the Joker understands this all, recognizes his borrowed time outside Arkham and the point it all starts “slipping away.” When Two-Face spurns him, another explanation for the Joker’s rage is that he perceives all the steps in the chess game, and knows that war with Two-Face must necessarily bring about the presence of the Batman and the end to the Joker’s freedom.

Included also in the book is Azzarello and Bermejo’s story from the Joker 80th Anniversary 100-Page Super Spectacular (also collected in Batman: 80 Years of the Bat Family). This is “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by way of Joker in Arkham, which is clever enough, but it goes by awful quick to be all that effective. Joker here is cast as both McMurphy and Chief, which confuses things; mostly what impresses me here, and throughout Joker and Batman: Damned, is Bermejo’s range of styles, from “Two Fell Into the Hornet’s Nest”’s animated style to Joker’s flat grittiness, to Damned’s gorgeous painterly aesthetic.

2.25

Rating

There are those who’d rather read about the Joker than Batman, of whom I’m not one; Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo present horror well, and the Joker is horrific when he starts this book and horrific when it ends. If anything, reading Joker: The Deluxe Edition after Batman: Damned makes me rather skeptical of Damned’s conclusions; we’ve got a Joker as bad as he’s ever been and a Batman who, with the Spectre’s encouragement, sacrifices his life to give the Joker back his own. Maybe justice is that Batman should never kill, regardless of the cost, but at the end of these two books, it hardly seems like justice to me.

[Includes introduction, original proposal, promotional and unused art, character sketches, black and white pages, more]

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