Review: The Joker Vol. 2 hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

June 18, 2023

I already knew Joker Vol. 2’s twist ending, what would have really put my estimation of this book over the top. Nevertheless, having now had some time to spend with Nice House on the Lake, James Tynion’s independent DC horror tale, I can assuredly see the skill involved in this second Joker volume.

In just four issues (plus a narratively separate annual), Tynion completes the remarkable feat of telling a story both exceptionally small — by virtue of the number of steps protagonist Jim Gordon takes — and also expansively large, building a grand conspiracy in the background. The horror here is not omnipresent, but comes in swift and unexpected waves. Some is even imaginary, narrated, told in stories; in four issues, and as Joker leans even more heavily into police procedurals, this is a book that turns on the conceit of interviews more than anything else.

Given, by necessity, how much of Tynion’s Batman run involved new-world building, it’s easy to think of Tynion as a writer not so given to nostalgia. But there is an unexpected amount of Batman’s past at play here, not to mention sequences in the annual that would feel right at home in Gotham Central. It’s almost a shame that the Joker’s name is needed to sell this book, because this is a great Bat-family book and moreover a great Jim Gordon book, the Jim-Gordon-as-gumshoe book that Greg Rucka always threatened but that we never got until now. Dare I say Tynion’s Joker might even be better than his Batman?

[Review contains spoilers]

I think it’s worth examing Joker Vol. 2 just on structure alone — in broad strokes, we have one issue where Jim Gordon is bopping around Paris looking for clues; one issue where he’s detained and interrogated by Interpol; one issue where he learns the origin of Vengeance, daughter of Bane; and one where Gordon faces off against the Joker. Arguably, nothing much is happening — and further, for those to whom it matters, Joker Vol. 2 is way more Gordon’s book than the Joker’s than Joker Vol. 1 — but at the same time Tynion packs every conversation with revelations, not to mention the rich cast of heroes and villains moving chess pieces in the cut scenes.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Indeed, Tynion’s making haste slowly never feels wasted. Gordon takes a leisurely, even romantic, dinner with French detective Isabella Hallows, recognizable only in retrospect to be absolutely necessary in order to make the start of the next chapter, where Vengeance rips Hallows' arm off and leaves her for dead, all the more shocking. Here too I think Tynion plays with structure well; it’s unusual to find one of the book’s most upsetting moments at the start of an issue, following a cliffhanger, rather than serving as the cliffhanger itself; as startling as it is in this book, it must have been all the more so when the audience waited a month only to open the book and find that. None of it would have worked without Tynion’s knowing lead-up.

That’s just the start of an issue where Tynion pulls off another unlikely feat, in the span of 22 pages taking what seems a knockoff Bane, dubbed with as silly a moniker as Vengeance, and transforming her from anonymous bruiser, and villain, to tragic protagonist. I think Tynion reveals a deeper truth about the horror genre here; if we did not have two — also terrifying — pages describing in detail how Vengeance would torture and murder the Joker, wholly outside her own control, I’m not sure she would ultimately be as sympathetic as she seeks to escape her inborn programming.

In this issue, too, Tynion begins revealing the conspiracy behind it all, what makes this really a Batman story though driven forward by stand-ins Jim and Barbara Gordon. In Tynion’s account, a cabal including government figures foreign and domestic offer whatever services bad actors can pay for, and often advertise their wares by setting loose their designer villains.

Not only, Tynion suggests, did members of the Network create Venom, and not only did they sell the Joker a cruise missile (see Death in the Family!), but they’ve also been responsible for a number of Batman’s foes, including having manipulated Bane himself behind the scenes. It’s a unified field theory of Batman’s life bigger even than the Court of Owls (and they’re here, too!), seeming as nigh unbelievable as it does perfectly obvious. Again, that Tynion puts together something this grandious without even Batman on the scene is even more impressive.

Inasmuch as the Bat-family hasn’t happened to be the center of Tynion’s work, he does a nice job here with Barbara Gordon-as-Oracle and also with the Batgirls, particularly a moment where Stephanie Brown saves the day (I guess we also saw Tynion writing the Batgirls for a piece in Fear State). And as surprising as the references to Death in the Family and No Man’s Land are (which the book mistakenly attributes to Cataclysm), even more so is seeing Julia Pennyworth back again. Clearly Tynion is having fun with his Julia-as-Bond portrayal; I do wonder if, when Julia and Gordon inevitably collide, we’ll also get a Batman: Superheavy reference.

Tynion and Matthew Rosenberg’s annual steps away from the present (just as the last issue of Joker Vol. 1 did, and drawn again by Francesco Francavilla) for a story of Gordon’s early days in Gotham. The Joker is here, tricking Gordon into supplying him some henchmen, but for the number of pages the authors have to work with, the Joker’s part is relatively small.

To that end, among a variety of the same, I count at least eight pages of Gordon going around with various GCPD officers about office politics, what again very much feels like the good old days of Gotham Central. I do wonder if these side stories will eventually tie into the main or if they’re simply meant as side stories; to have them disconnected seems mildly wasteful to me, but at the same time, I’d read a whole series of Gordon arguing with Harvey Bullock about which cops to trust and which to fire.

3.5

Rating

Again, it’s legitimate to read Joker Vol. 2 as a book where nothing happens — most of the “action” takes place in the form of stories, and Gordon perhaps moves from place to place more unconscious or in captivity than under his own power. For that reason, that Joker Vol. 2 is such a compelling read is all the more admirable, a feat of horror and detective fiction. I’m eager for the next volume, sorry it’s James Tynion’s last, but hopefully Matthew Rosenberg’s work with him on this will carry over to the series that follows.

[Includes original and variant covers]

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