DC has been producing a glut of Joker-related content over the past couple of months between Todd Phillips’ film, John Carpenter’s Year of the Villain one-shot, and Stjepan Šejić’s Harleen. Joker: Killer Smile by Jeff Lemire, Andrea Sorrentino, and Jordie Bellaire is the newest addition to this growing list of Joker media, bringing a new lens through which to view the character – neither creator has worked on the Joker prior to this book. While the film looked at Joker through the lens of the society that created him, Killer Smile takes a cue from the other Joker comics released around this time, focusing on the effect the Joker has on individual people around him.
The Joker has had various interpretations throughout the years, from a gangster to a clown to the monster under your bed. Some iterations aim to make him almost relatable, others don’t even try, depicting him as a creature of chaos. Lemire and Sorrentino, though, take inspiration from one of the Joker’s most iconic and distinctive actions – the corruption of Harley Quinn. Killer Smile explores the way the Joker affects the lives of people who get close to him, although rather than taking it in a more darkly romantic angle like Harleen, the book dives into a tone of psychological horror. The Joker has been many things, but this book makes it clear that he is the greatest threat Gotham has ever had – not because of the people he kills, but because of the people he corrupts.
Lemire’s writing for the Joker and his effect on people is chilling throughout the issue, but what really makes the book come together is Sorrentino’s linework coupled with Jordie Bellaire’s colors. There’s a distinct atmosphere to each scene built by the art team’s style – the Joker’s world, with his memories and fantasies, is bright and colorful, covered in tones of green and purple. By contrast, Dr. Ben Arnell’s home life is more quietly and calmly colored. It’s not dull, but it isn’t a source of excitement – at least in the beginning. Sorrentino’s experimental style with page layouts and paneling adds an extra level of flair to this issue, and the colors complement the style so well, telling the story just as effectively as the words.
Sorrentino also tries out a new art style for a double-page spread in the middle of the issue, which is split into two pages of a storybook – the first half is colored orange and shows a happy world, while the second half is colored purple with a far darker world depicted. This spread bisects the issue, separating its halves into discrete segments indicated by the spread itself. The first half of the issue has Dr. Arnell in control, aware of his own self as well as the Joker’s presence in his life, but as the storybook colors itself in the Joker’s tones, so does Ben’s life. The lines between Arnell’s mind and the Joker’s influence become blurrier and blurrier, and by the end the book evokes a sense of dread and anxiety as Ben’s life and worldview become more and more distorted and affected by the chaos that is the Joker.
In a landscape where the Joker has become oversaturated in the public consciousness, another comic focusing on the character could feel superfluous. Yet Lemire, Sorrentino, and Bellaire bring something fresh to the book, exploring the Joker’s effect on individual people through a unique lens. The book is a visual masterpiece, with Sorrentino and Bellaire’s skillsets combining to create a magnificent product. This book is proof DC’s Black Label works, showing that it can showcase creators’ unique voices and tell excellent stories about their iconic characters at the same time. Killer Smile is a triumphant return to DC Comics for both Lemire and Sorrentino, and has the potential to be Black Label’s strongest showing.
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