Review: Punchline: The Trial of Alexis Kaye hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)


As compared to the truly dynamic main story in James Tynion’s Joker, the Punchline backups by Tynion and Sam Johns, collected in Punchline: The Trial of Alexis Kaye, feels somewhat lesser.

I am, to be sure, happy that DC collected the backups, also including a couple of sundry other Punchline stories for completeness. Also, Punchline is certainly purposefully different than Joker, eschewing Joker’s hard-boiled police drama for something poppier, manga-inspired, and all the more superheroic than Joker is, and maybe that’s just not to my tastes. But to me Punchline felt at times overlong, melodramatic, and what serves as mystery is perhaps too wrapped up in minute details.

But to the story’s credit, I did appreciate that Punchline is also doing what Joker does with Jim Gordon — Punchline’s name is on the marquee, but this is as much Punchline’s story as it is Bluebird Harper Row’s, a character I think many have wanted to see return to the spotlight. The juxtaposition of Harper and Punchline is particularly interesting; inasmuch as I’ve had some reservations about the Punchline character, Johns and Tynion do well here showing her viability.

[Review contains spoilers]

Punchline is a character who’s posed a conundrum for me. We’ve seen the Joker and Harley Quinn’s relationship examined and reexamined long enough to understand it as abusive, and it’s hard to square that with Punchline’s immediate success and apparent longevity as a character who rolls with the Joker's punches, so to speak. We might argue Harley was always inherently good while Punchline is simply “evil-er” and better able to play in villainous circles. At the same time, I worry about Punchline’s place in the Joker-as-abuser metaphor, a figure who suggests the Joker’s not so bad once he finds a woman who really understands him.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

But I am certain that’s not what Punchline’s creator Tynion was going for, and rather it seems to me the conundrum is the thing. In-story, since Tynion’s Batman Vol. 2: Joker War, Punchline has become a cause celebre, symbol of the establishment’s disregard and persecution of those who might think different. Where before Batman was the hero and Joker the villain (or at least both sides viewed with equal wariness by the public), now teen gangs roam the subway in Joker masks.

In the real-world zeitgeist, if it ever seemed that bad actions equaled a bad person, even the definition of bad actions has become a matter of opinion, and Punchline fits right into that uncertain space. Whatever darkness spawned Punchline, whatever evil she conducts or is done to her, none of it seems more the point than what the public within the story (and perhaps without) perceive her to be themselves.

All of this also makes Bluebird Harper Row a fascinating — and perhaps very knowing — choice for Punchline’s current arch-enemy. If Punchline is a gilded “TikTak” influencer of a villain, Harper has been the Robin so over it that she never even took the Robin name and then stepped back from the hero business entirely, the punk rock sidekick of purple hair and hyper-tech costume. Johns and Tynion need not have brought Bluebird out of retirement, but she’s so clearly the right hero to pit against Punchline, the collision of villain whose power stems from public noteriety and hero who’s avoided the limelight even more than most.

But for what seems a promising setup, Punchline never emerges as gripping as it might be. I’m not sure the nine-page format of backup stories does the chapters any favors — in some prison chase scenes, in Harper and Leslie Thompkins interviewing a witness to Alexis Kaye’s crimes, there’s no small amount of repetition or scenes drawn out perhaps longer than they need. At the same time, more important details seem glossed over, like the Royal Flush Gang introduced as considerably different than we’ve seen before (and even in the contemporaneous Justice League) without any explanation.

And again, there’s no shortage of melodrama — see the outrageously angry lawyers who badger the witness to an unbelievable degree — or actions that don’t quite mesh with the real world — a college dean coming to Alexis' dorm room to lecture her about the dress code (whom she subsequently murders) or Punchline posting to social media from prison and no one batting an eye.

For me, the story particularly began to fall apart about the time Harper has herself committed to Blackgate Penitentiary to try to break out the potential witness, one of Alexis' high school friends. I’m put in mind of a couple of CW’s Black Lightning episodes, Season 1’s “Black Jesus: The Book of Crucifixion” and Season 4’s “Book of Ruin: Chapter Four: Lyding,” each of which also saw main characters imprisoned, submitted to a cavity search, and deprived of their freedoms, but presented with much more gravity than Punchline’s blithe handling of the same. And then Harper isn’t in jail for more than a minute when her cover is blown, rendering the whole thing moot.

Afterward, a complicated plot point turns on different times Punchline referred to “Harper” or “Bluebird” during the prison chase, the importance of which — to reveal Harper’s identity or to trick Batman antihero Orca into revealing herself as a traitor or something — is never quite as clear as the writers might hope.



No doubt that in Punchline, James Tynion has created a villain for our age — never seen Lex Luthor inspire a “TikTak” challenge! And Punchline: The Trial of Alexis Kaye gets extra credit from me simply for featuring Bluebird — Harper Row and Leslie Thompkins as a street-level Birds of Prey is something I never knew I needed until now. But that’s still not enough to smooth over the flightiness of Sam Johns and Tynion’s book, particularly in comparison to the strong detective horror of the main feature. Tini Howard’s got Punchline next, for the first time without Tynion’s involvement, and I'm curious to see what that's like.

[Includes original and variant covers]

Comments ( 3 )

  1. AnonymousJuly 13, 2023

    Could you please clarify what issues are collected in this? I've seen various reports that it may or may not contain the Joker 80th special story, Punchline #1, and (puzzlingly) Batman: Urban Legends #950, which never actually existed. Thanks!

    1. Despite actually that the Punchline book’s copyright page only lists Punchline #1 (the single-issue special by Tynion and Johns) and Joker #1-15 (the backup stories), this does also contain the Punchline story “What Comes at the End of a Joke” by Tynion from the Joker 80th Anniversary 100-Page Super Spectacular. That’s it. Obviously the Batman: Urban Legends #950 listing is a mistake; I hunted around but can’t figure what they meant there — there’s no other Punchline appearance that sounds similar that they could have added.

    2. AnonymousJuly 14, 2023



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