Ed. Note: Spoilers for Three Jokers (and more or less the oeuvre of Geoff Johns) follow!
0. Let’s just get this out of the way: The Killing Joke is not that good of a comic. Even by the standards of bad Alan Moore comics, this sticks out in terms of its quality. Where most other trademark bad Alan Moore comics are bad for more interesting reasons (Neonomicon and later volumes of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are bad for interesting yet horrifying reasons), The Killing Joke is perhaps Moore’s only major work that’s bad for the boring reasons most other comics are. It’s bad because it lacks ambition to be anything other than a story about Batman and the Joker. It’s bad because it treats Barbara Gordon more like a prop than a character. It’s bad because the environment it came out of was toxic to the point where Alan was explicitly told to “Cripple the b*#ch.”
In short, it’s bad in the same way comics like the Vigilante arc “Father’s Day,” the Violator miniseries, and Three Jokers are bad.
There’s nothing to find in these works that’s worth taking out. At most, you can expect some good artwork and, if you’re lucky, some great coloring. But more often than not, that coloring will be taken out in favor of something far less interesting. Because when you’re working on something with a desire to solely please an insular fanbase (be it intentionally or because you’re trying to pay the bills), then you’re not going to make anything worth reading.
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We keep coming back to this: The Seduction of the Innocent. From Legends to Legion to Crossover, we always come back to this. The psychologist who sees the superhero as a broken, evil idea that corrupts those that it touches. He was wrong for a number of reasons, not the least of which being homophobia, but that’s not the point. The point is that we keep coming back to this. The possibility of the comic book medium being canceled by some intellectual is something of an intrinsic terror for many comics fans, in particular the more conservative among them.
This anxiety is dwarfed only by Doctor Who fans in terms of death drive, this sense that comics are doomed because of some outside force that doesn’t understand our medium and doesn’t care about it, seeing it solely as something to be destroyed. Never mind that the Comics Code wasn’t created by Wertham and his lot. Never mind that The Seduction of the Innocent was just one of many texts out there “exposing” the dangers of comics. Never mind that it’s been over fifty years since it happened and we still can’t get over it. Once bitten, twice shy as they say.
Of course, the methods for trying to be seen as respectable within the wider culture have taken a number of forms. There’s the Comics Aren’t For Kids crowd where all the lighthearted aspects of the medium are cauterized out in favor of grim, dark stories full of dark darkness. Then there’s the initial effort of the comics code, where anything too grim and serious, anything with teeth that would dare to challenge authority, was euthanized in favor of non-confrontational stories about how the law must always be trusted and Superman is America’s Dad, Batman has a Rainbow Costume and fights Space Mobsters from the Moon, and Wonder Woman is heterosexual.
Going forward, fans have also attempted to align themselves with political organizations akin to #gamergate while using the political tactic of claiming your blatantly political actions are apolitical. And, much like any bad sequel to an already bad thing, it fails miserably at even the meager goals its initial version was selling. More successfully, a number of new stories outside the major comic book publishing companies (and some within) revolutionized the form into weird and interesting shapes. Look no further than the success of YA comics like Smile
and This One Summer or Web Comics like Lore Olympics and Dumbing of Age to see what new perspectives offer outside the insular base audience of Three Jokers.
2. One of the more interesting aspects of Tom King’s flawed Batman run (as if there are any that aren’t fatally flawed to some degree or another) is that torture isn’t seen as a tool in the Dark Knight’s arsenal. By and large, Batman (in the present day of the run) isn’t seen dangling crooks off of buildings or beating them to a pulp in order to discover information. He investigates crime scenes, analyzes evidence, or talks to witnesses. The most notable of these is in the final annual of his run, where we are presented the everyday life of the caped crusader. He fights dragons, rides horses atop rooftops, and walks old ladies across the street. But he also investigates. In one instance, he is presented with a traditional Clue-esque mystery with a colorful array of suspects. Using his wits as opposed to his fists, Batman is able to determine who killed the victim and why. Batman, as presented by King’s run, isn’t a brutalizer. He isn’t a thug who punches his problems away (though he is also not a pacifist). He solves the mystery.
That is, until he starts to break. It starts off with Mr. Freeze. We are presented the story of “Cold Days” from outside the perspective of the investigation, at the trial. Bruce is on the jury and he thinks Mr. Freeze is innocent, despite Batman’s findings. Those findings mainly being a confession delivered by Mr. Freeze after having his face beaten ten times over followed by some loose threads agreed upon because he’s Batman. But the truth of the matter is Bruce just wanted to hurt someone because he wasn’t ok. This goes on throughout the rest of this section of the run. Batman punches his way to find the man who shot his son. He beats the criminals of Gotham because he can smell a mystery he can’t solve. Because he’s not okay.
The story isn’t about him not being okay. It’s about how he can become okay. Many Batman stories try to be that, offering answers that rarely ever allow things to let him be okay. But still, he tries to be okay. In the end of this story, he is. In the next, he’s not. But that’s the thing about detective fiction. Rarely is it ever about solving the mystery. More often than not, it’s about a man who isn’t okay trying to be okay. Sometimes, he succeeds and sometimes he doesn’t. Bruce is, after all, only human.
Alan Moore once described the creation of Blackest Night as being akin to a raccoon rifling through a dumpster. There are many conversations to be had about the nature of work for hire ideas, but perhaps the one that isn’t talked about is the nature of the remixes. After all, “Tygers,” the Green Lanter story Moore wrote, took the question “Why was Abin Sur in a yellow spaceship?” and did something more with it. It told a story about a tragic hero brought low by his paranoia and fear, believing a story because he was told it was a true story when, in fact, they’re all imaginary.
Conversely, Blackest Night took the lie spun by literal, actual demons, added zombies to it, and had the heroes win in the end because resurrection. Both are honestly superfluous at best to the world at large, but ultimately one added a new context that at once filled a fan question and a small modicum of depth to an older story, while the other was just a story about itself. And then you remember who wrote the first Watchmen sequel, where the world is saved through apolitical humanism, and Superman punches a small refugee child in the face to defend the President of the United States, Donald J Trump, and you just sigh at the world.
It is often brought up when a police officer shoots a black kid on the street that the victim was no angel. He had a rap sheet. She had smoked pot. What isn’t said aloud is the implication that the kid deserved to be shot.
5. The Superhero killing the supervillain making them just like their nemesis has always rankled me a bit. It feels like a cop out. The superhero choosing not to kill because they think it’s wrong, sure. That makes sense. Most people don’t actually want to kill other people. The act of killing someone is a genuinely horrific act that rarely ends well for anyone involved, especially the victim. But there’s an ocean of difference between a hero choosing not to kill due to their morality and because it makes them just as bad as those they’re fighting.
Because, truthfully, it doesn’t. It’s the both sides logic that argues that the protestors arguing that they shouldn’t be murdered by the police are just as bad as the protesters mad they can’t kill black people indiscriminately. Protestors whose methodology involves running over people with their cars in contrast to the other side’s, at most, acts of self-defense against a police force and members of an armed militia who want to kill them. You may think that comparison is out of place in a review of a comic about there being three Jokers, but I’d like to remind you that the previous Thesis was an argument about a criminal deserving to die because “they were no saint.”
6. As is often the case with The Joker, banal, uninteresting takes can easily come to roost. Typically, these are of the “I AM THE GOD KING OF DEATH, LOOK AT MY BODY COUNT” variety from edgy teenage boys and old men who miss being edgy teenage boys. But also among these… takes is the “The Joker is insane.” Not that The Joker and mental illness isn’t a subject that’s worth exploring. Rather, takes such as these often stop at “The Joker is Insane™” and don’t do anything more than simply note it. There is no exploration of what it means to be mad the way the Joker is. It’s just another excuse to commit pointless violence and cruelty towards everyone else. There’s no art, no comedy. Just mere, banal death. The best takes on The Joker do more than mere banality.
There are certainly a number of angles you can take this with. Grant Morrison’s Super Sanity offers unique angles akin to the work of JG Ballard with regards to where we could be going. A reaction to the environment rather than an aberration within it could yield fascinating results. Equally, a cosmic horror Joker, that of an idea/mindset that looms and infects the world rather than an individual person could get a lot of mileage. Equally, what a mindset like the Joker’s actually looks like would be fascinating. How does someone like the Joker think? Why does he find the things he finds funny? More importantly, what doesn’t he find funny? What are the lines the Joker won’t cross. You could argue that there are no lines for the Joker, but then we return to mere violence and cruelty, a vacuous hole that is nothing more than a kill box who laughs.
7. You know what would be a novel idea? Treating Arkham like it’s an actual hospital and not a prison for Batman’s rogues gallery. A place where people, even supervillains, can actually heal. You can still have baddies escape from Arkham, but if you’re not going to humor the idea that people can heal, why even bother with sending them to a hospital? Why not just lock them up in a super prison?
Healing is not an endpoint. It is a process. Sometimes, it looks like you’re backsliding while progress is being made. The point isn’t to get back to where you were before you were hurt. The pain can’t be undone. The point is to deal with what has happened and be better. This, it should be noted, is not the same thing as being stronger. Healing is not about strength, power, or any individualist bullcrap Three Jokers tries to pull with Barbara’s arc. It’s not just reading a bunch of self-help books and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It’s typically working with other people to better each other. That’s not to say that a one size fits all approach to therapy and healing will always work (indeed, that’s one of the major critiques levied by the fascinatingly flawed Heroes in Crisis). But healing, ultimately, is a communal act.
That being said, given we have rejected healing as a thing supervillains can do, why is Jason’s approach wrong? Sure, he killed a man (as he has done before and will do again and again and again), but some could argue there’s a degree of catharsis to killing the Joker. A chance to take back control of his life from the man who took it away from him. Batman seems pretty blasé about the prospect, especially given there’s two other Jokers running around. And the only person who seems angry about all of this is Barbara, who “healed right.”
This is a conversation that could go on for a while and indeed has been going on for the history of humanity: When is it alright to kill another human? Be it in the service of one’s country, for personal reasons, in self-defense, or any number of other reasons to kill. But the core of Batman’s critique of Jason’s healing is to answer that question with “Never.” Whereas his attitude to Jason killing the Joker is “When there’s an exact duplicate of him running around that can replace him for marketing reasons.”
I know these theses have been largely ethical discussion and analytical in nature, but sometimes you have to note when a bad line shows up. Just, wow Geoff. That’s a sh*t line.
Oh for f*cks sake.
Scott Snyder is a writer whose main issue is he gets stuck in a rut of ideas. And when he gets stuck in that rut, he will deteriorate into worse and worse stories (contrast Metal with Death Metal to see what I mean). This isn’t to say he’s a bad writer, just one who should be doing something new every two or three years. He needs to detox himself from the ideas he’s been immersed in. Take a break from the capes and do something new.
(Well, that and not go into critics DMs to softly bully them into not talking about the flaws of his work.)
Johns is writer with a similar problem. The difference is he hasn’t been asked to move out of the rut he’s in and feels very comfortable regurgitating the same ideas over and over again to lesser and lesser effects. And the ideas were, at best, OK. He has no vision of himself as a writer outside of DC Comics. He can imagine the end of the world before he can imagine creating something new at Image.
11. Grant Morrison is often considered to be an ardent hater of Alan Moore. A person who has a nigh pathological obsession with Alan Moore whose every fiber of being acts to subvert and rebuke the Northamptonite so as to save Superhero comics from his grim vision in favor of something with a flair of Silver Age nostalgia. Who will take every opportunity to talk about their hatred of Moore. A closer glance at Morrison’s work will indicate that this is far from the truth. Certainly there’s an air of anxiety towards his influence, but more often than not, there’s an awareness, conscious or not, that their, for lack of a better term, feud is ultimately a futile one that ends poorly for the Scot. Equally, Morrison is more often than not asked questions about Moore in interviews rather than bringing him up, and when they do it’s either in praise or expectation of being asked an Alan Moore question.
Conversely, Geoff Johns is literally the author of both the Watchmen and The Killing Joke sequels, frequently lifts plot details from Alan Moore such that you could argue quite convincingly that Flashpoint is just Twilight of the Superheroes with the names swapped, and he literally marketed the term “Rebirth.” This might seem innocuous to many comics fans, even ones familiar with the works of Moore and Johns. However, if one does enough digging, they’ll discover that the first issue of the Eclipse run of Miracleman, the run that introduced Americans to the series, was called “Rebirth.”
12. It should be noted that Jason Todd has spent the past ten years being defined by noted sex pest, Scott Lobdell. Out of all the creators who have worked with him, Scott is his defining one. Any attempts at rehabilitation must deal with this fact.
Geoff Johns, unfortunately, is also a sex pest. As such, he would not be the kind of writer interested in dismantling the implications of Jason Todd’s history as Scott Lobdell’s self-insert who gets to be the biggest dick in the room and f*ck all the hot, sexy ladies. Instead, he merely gets a self-help book and some smooches with Barbara Gordon before losing it because the tape on his love letter didn’t hold due to Barbara running too fast on her treadmill. Because every hack writer thinks that the only thing to do with Barbara Gordon is ship her with the nearest male member of the Batfamily. One of these days, she’s going to kiss Tim Drake or Damian Wayne.
13. Why are there three Jokers? This is, in theory, the core mystery of the series. Batman discovers that there are, in fact, three Jokers and must uncover why. Instead, the series has been more interested in the creation of a new third Joker and healing “right” from trauma. But the question of why three still lingers. Three is a magic number, important to the rules of comedy. A repeating pattern that isn’t monotonous. But the Jokers have not been anything more than the same idea regurgitated. Just one Joker multiplied by three.
In theory, as the story has been presenting it, the Jokers should each represent different versions of the character. The prankster of the Silver Age, the Mobster Serial Killer of the Golden Age, and the God Killer of the Modern Age. And yet, in practice, they have all been option 3. Just a set of killers who kill because they like killing with no rhyme or reason and can be anywhere and anyone. Nothing distinguishing them beyond the clothes they wear.
You could argue that the reasoning behind this was, in fact, to parallel the Bat family members. But Tim, Dick, Damien, and all the others have all been touched by the Joker. Just not in comics that are famous for the Joker being a baddie. Or, to be more precise, comics that have frequently sold trades where the Joker is the main baddie of them. The quality doesn’t matter (I’ve talked about The Killing Joke already, but egad does A Death in the Family hinge itself on the shock value of Jason Todd dying. And not even in the sense of being about nothing the way The Killing Joke can be, but rather in the way of disguising its stumbles in international politics (and oh boy, is that a mess that I don’t want to get into with this article) with Jason’s death), only the money that can be made off of them.
It is a frequent pattern within this series that Geoff Johns will have a scene that has nothing to do with anything that is immediately forgotten. The Joker’s hallucination, Jason provoking Batman despite their arc reaching a point of reconciliation (or understanding). It is plausible that backsliding is happening. Old habits die hard as they say. But at the same time, padding is equally possible. Given Bruce’s line here about wanting to ignore what’s happened after Jason called him out and Jason’s willingness to do so despite his feelings…
More than anything else, this series is tiresome. Nothing more than a series of moments reiterating the same information again and again and again. A banal, uninteresting story about comics. An ouroboros with no end in sight. It claims to be about more than that, about trauma and healing.
But the thing about both those things is… they’re ugly things. Things that are spiky and painful to look at. Things that take work and effort to actually be approached as opposed to merely lobbing people at therapy. As if the system that’s currently around is a completely good one. As if healing is a one size fits all problem and the solution is obvious. That isn’t to say that therapy doesn’t work, but rather that it’s a process. Something to be worked on over and over and over again with backslides. Sometimes, a breakdown is part of the process and that moment can be truly horrifying.
This book is too chickensh*t to be anything other than bland.
This feels like a moment that would work a lot better if Dick killed the Joker. Or, at the very least, if the kiss happened in issue one and the Joker’s death happened in issue two. As is, Barbara and Bruce both feel flip floppy about their stance on Jason based on what scene they’re in.
Within the work of Alan Moore, there is often a technique where the text will ironically juxtapose the visuals. Sometimes, it will act as a joke such as in Watchmen #1 where a long speech, visually juxtaposed with the view rising up a tower, concludes with “…and all of a sudden, nobody can think of anything to say” is followed with the most obvious thing one could say. Equally, the juxtaposition can be framed to highlight the irony as a means of a point, such as From Hell’s usage of Love is Enough in contrast to a Ripper killing to highlight the class nature of the comic’s vision of the killings.
It’s an extremely clever and showy method of comics storytelling that can be extremely grating in the works of those who lack the willingness to do anything other than the most obvious possibilities. Talking about Darkness in a dark panel, having the first flashback to the Wayne killings conclude with a comment about deep wounds, or Barbara on a treadmill while Jason talks about her strength and determination. All of these lack the imagination to make the poetry within juxtaposition truly shine.
18. Why does the Joker need a secret identity? Why does he have to be tied to Bruce’s origin? What does the Joker have to do with themes of trauma and healing? Why can’t the Joker heal?
19. Brian Michael Bendis has thus far only written one Batman series, Batman Universe. Admittedly, I’m a bit cold on the series as it feels a bit glib. Like he’s not feeling right in the page space he’s working in. Might’ve been better as a 12 issue series. But one of the key things about that series that Bendis does well (as well as let Nick Derington do his thing) is that it’s full of ideas, both old and new. It does things with the character in weird and interesting ways.
From western to space opera to the streets, this is what Batman is. Conversely, Three Jokers has only one idea for what a Batman Story is: The Killing Joke. A story about pain and misery and loss, but an old story. Three Jokers doesn’t have the decency to create a new spin on it. It just repeats with only the slightest of variations. There’s nothing to grab onto save references to old stories. It claims to be more, but it’s just the same old hat trick repeated again and again since the 80’s. Do something new with the tool box or stop using these tools.
S I G H
Geoff Johns cannot conceive of Bruce Wayne as anything more than an Amoral Dick. Even when he’s writing generic Batman, he writes him as a dick to be punched in the face by the real heroes. Sure, a level of contempt for Batman is healthy. He is a billionaire pulp hero after all. But there’s a difference between condemning him for the flaws of his narrative genre and stacking the deck against him. The trick is to find something likable about the bastard. His willingness to be there for trauma survivors, his devotion to getting the baddies, Batusi. Geoff Johns sees nothing admirable in Batman. He’s not tough enough to be the Comedian and he’s not soft enough to be Superman. He’s just sh*t. He just did this series because Three Jokers is going to sell like gangbusters.
So… Who was this series for? You could argue that it was for the continuity sticklers, those who want all the holes in the story filled and for it to make complete sense, but that doesn’t track since the ultimate ending of the story contradicts Darkseid War, where the notion of there being three Jokers was initially pressed. Indeed, this whole comic acts as if that story never happened at all. If Batman knew who the Joker was all along, why did he ask the Mobius Chair what the Joker’s name was and tease this story the way advertisements often do.
It’s not for people who want good stories. The story telling is bland, banal, and obvious. Johns feels like he’s bored out of his mind when writing Batman stories, lacking the ambition you can feel in comics like Doomsday Clock, where you can feel Johns’ delight as he has Superman defend President Donald J Trump from an army of foreigners led by his pet anti-hero, Black Adam, (a middle eastern man who kills fascists but is shown to be monstrous in his killing of fascists), and bringing back the JSA and (what was supposed to be) his vision of the Legion of Superheroes in a move that screams “I miss comics back when I was a kid, back before they replaced all the heroes with Kyle Rayner and his ilk.”
It’s not for people who are here for the art. While Jason Fabok’s art isn’t bad, it lacks the flair of Ivan Reis or Darwyn Cooke. It just shows what’s there as realistically as possible without the detail or flair an Alex Ross or a Lee Bermejo or a JH Williams III can provide. It just has the characters be realistic. It’s usage of the nine panel grid is dull in ways that the fetishization can lead it to. It lacks poetry, metaphor, and style. It’s just done because serious comics use the nine panel grid. The fight scenes feel stiff and the talking head sequences are boring.
It’s not for new readers. The story hinges itself on older texts and only barely provides context for it. But even then, the method of context feels more like it’s to remind old readers of the stories of the past rather than introduce new readers to these tales. The aesthetics chosen feel more at home to those familiar to the medium rather than those who are being introduced.
It’s not for old readers either. That it feels the need to regurgitate the death of the Waynes in great detail twice can tell you that.
It’s not to pitch a movie, there’s too much continuity involved to make it a movie.
It’s not for the future, there is nowhere to go with this story that’s genuinely worthwhile.
It’s not for the past, for the stories we used to tell all those years ago. It’s too invested in the modern age of comics, actively rejecting the past model of campy Joker who fought with Silver Age gimmicks and tricks and the Golden Age mobster in favor of the modern mass killer Joker who kills because he likes killing and he doesn’t have an origin.
It’s not for Alan Moore, he’d much rather it not exist. It’s not for Grant Morrison, they never cared about continuity bs, preferring the core idea of superheroes to the frankly rubbish reality. (What is Hypertime if not a statement of “This is an IMAGINARY STORY. Aren’t they all?”) It’s not for Tom King, Scott Snyder, or Brian Michael Bendis. Three Jokers subsumes their visions of the character in favor of its own. It’s not for Geoff Johns. Again, he feels quite bored with the whole thing.
Who then is this comic for if not itself? If not for the existence of a comic calling itself Three Jokers where three Jokers Three Jokers-themselves all over the page. There is nothing here worth gawking at, nothing worth pulling out from the pages and turned into an actually good comic, nothing worth following up. It’s not going to change the world for the better or the worse. It is not even so bad, it’s good. It’s just tiresome.
Brad McLeod says
I know, I’m late to the party.
I have not read the entire article, though I will. I am writing this comment because I want to argue/debate your 0 point that Killing Joke is “bad because it lacks ambition to be anything other than a story about Batman and the Joker.”
You also state that “There’s nothing to find in these works that’s worth taking out.”
I wholeheartedly disagree. I have read the Killing Joke multiple times, and it is my favourite book BECAUSE of the thing I took away from it. It is NOT a story about Batman or the Joker. It focuses on Batman and the Joker, but it is a story about James Gordon.
After he was kidnapped and mentally tortured; after his daughter was raped(?) shot and physically tortured; despite all these things, James Gordon retains his sanity and moral code. He still wants Joker brought in “by the book”.
This is a story about how stalwart and “White Knight”ish James Gordon is.
Tho I agreed w most of ur points, I found ur delivery snobby, nasty, and pretentious
It was perfect
Mat Shankute says
This article was far more thought provoking than that whole series. Bravo man.