Written by James Tynion IV, (issue #5 by Matthew Rosenberg)
Pencils by Guillem March, (issue #5 by Francesco Francavilla)
Colors by Arif Prianto
Collects: The Joker #1-6
When James Tynion IV revealed he was working on a second Batman title, I was excited to see what it would be; when I found out the comic was Joker, I got nervous. It’s no secret that the Joker has been heavily overused over the past two years, from Stjepan Sejic’s Harleen to Geoff Johns’s Three Jokers to the Joker Movie and Lemire’s Joker: Killer Smile. Even in the last couple of months, we’ve gotten The Joker Presents: A Puzzlebox by Mathew Rosenberg, the Joker ongoing, a Joker/Suicide Squad Story, and the Joker showing up in Tom King’s Batman/Catwoman. I wondered when I started reading the book if I would feel the same Joker burnout here as well.
Fortunately, Tyion has a creative solution to the Joker burnout problem. Tynion’s Joker isn’t a traditional Joker story told from the Joker’s point of view, but rather a James Gordon story about his relationship with the Joker — about the trauma and grief that the former Commissioner has endured over the years and the way they make him question his morality.
Following the gas attack of Arkham Asylum, James Gordon has been hired by a mysterious, wealthy individual to kill the Joker for a cash prize of twenty-five million dollars. As he pursues his globe-trotting quest, readers discover that he isn’t the only person trying to kill the Joker. Forces from Santa Prisca have sent a mysterious female Bane to get revenge after Bane was killed in A-Day. There’s a mysterious Texas family based very heavily on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre called the Sampsons, and they want to kill the Joker due to their retconned deep connection to Arkham Asylum. These different forces really enable the scale of Tynion’s The Joker, with surprise guest characters and Tynion’s signature focus on new characters allowed to shine. The sense of scale and importance increases with a deep dive into the political intrigue behind the events of A-Day. What was the reasoning behind this gas attack? Is the Joker responsible? What is the Joker planning next for Gotham? And who is helping him? These questions, which drive the larger narrative of the story, have a major impact on the future of Gotham and keep The Joker tied into the events of the rest of the Bat-family.
While the Joker is still a major presence in the book, he mostly appears only at key story moments, and as such his presence feels like a surprise rather than an expectation. In the rare instances he is in a scene, his presence creates a strong sense of unease and unpredictability. More often, he appears in flashbacks or as a reference to James Gordan’s trauma. There are issues where the Joker only appears for a page or two outside of these flashbacks. When he appears in the main plotline, he is enigmatic and less cruel than the traumatic flashbacks Gordon experiences. This less cruel Joker is on vacation and trying to take a break, which leads to some jarring images like Joker in broad daylight with a pool floaty.
This sparse use of the Joker is much more effective, as it leans into the idea that the Joker is something that lurks in the shadows and is more nightmare than human. This version of the Joker allows Guillem March to shine. In various panels, March emphasizes close-up shots of the Joker which emphasize his unnaturally long, thin face and massive eyes. When the Joker laughs, his face becomes unsettlingly wrinkled and haunting, mirroring the images of trauma James Gordon experiences. Yet in moments where we are supposed to doubt the Joker’s intentions he appears slightly more human. By using these two versions of the Joker, March mirrors the goals of Tynion’s writing and allow Gordon’s trauma to be clear and haunting.
It’s the relationship between Gordon and the Joker that makes the story compelling. Gordon and Joker have a long history: the Joker shot his daughter, a jokerized Batman took control of him, and he’s been abused, humiliated, and tormented by the Joker more than just about anyone else. That history really enables the story to shine. To Gordon, the Joker is “the devil” who makes him feel “transparent and small,” whose laughter is always stuck in his head (Joker #1 and #3). Joker is the monster who stripped Gordon naked while he was shown exposed photos of his daughter. Joker is central to Gordon’s doubt and emotional state.
This quest is about challenging a fear and trauma head-on and trying to defeat it. But for Gordon this battle isn’t just about his trauma — it’s about how his ethics and morality are at odds with his ability to combat his devil. The Joker is the antithesis of everything the former commissioner believes in. Gordon represents the law and trying to find order in the complete chaos of the world represented by the Joker. Meanwhile, the Joker thrives while Gordon follows “laws that [he knows], on some deep dark level, don’t really mean anything.” Laws that actively punish him and chew him up. In other words, Gordon’s trauma, represented by the Joker, makes him question his morality, and this dynamic interplay between trauma and morality is the core of what makes this book one of the best on the market.
This book, despite its many successes, makes two strange choices that really sink the quality of this otherwise outstanding and ambitious opening volume. Issue #5 tells the story of a young James Gordon trying desperately to make sure the Joker is locked up in a high-security part of Arkham. With a different creative team of Matthew Rosenberg and Francesco Francavilla on art, the issue is a strange, momentum-killing choice that treads over tired water of Year One stories, doesn’t impact the plot at all, and feels more like an annual. There is still something interesting about James Gordon worrying about the Joker in a flashback. Still, the comic ultimately feels like an excuse to retcon some of Batman’s early history. This would have served much better as a final issue in the volume, where most one-shot annuals go. Unfortunately, it’s issue five in the book. (For the record, it is possible that DC has swapped issues in the trade, but I did not have access to the final trade before writing this review.)
The other major mistake is a continuity error that genuinely throws off the story and causes momentum to plummet. At the end of issue #4, there is a twist that requires immediate attention, but that plot point isn’t followed up on in the volume despite the danger to a character. While I guess it is theoretically possible in the story, it feels unlikely, prevents that plot thread from progressing forward, and makes the first volume feel slightly incomplete.
Overall, though, James Tynion’s Joker Vol. 1 is a resounding success that manages to find ways to stay unique and engaging despite the stream of Joker stories coming out. By implementing a bunch of horror elements into the story, and focusing on James Gordon and the forces hunting down the Joker, the book becomes more impactful, compelling, and ambitious. If the story continues at this quality, we are in for a real treat and a wild ride.