Joker: Killer Smile, the three-issue miniseries from Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino, gets its second chapter today and in it, we learn what it might feel like to lose your mind. Or, maybe more specifically, to lose your sense of what is real. The first issue began to peel back the onion that is therapist Ben Arnell as he was starting to lose his grip on reality after interviewing the Joker. With only three weeks to understand, this man Ben is in a rush, but his work is starting to affect him at home. In this second issue, things go off the rails for him with an opening scene involving Ben partaking in a meal at the Arkham’s diner with a staff composed of Batman villains. This can’t be good…
Early on, in Ben’s dream, Joker says, “What I mean is…when you go mad, will you even realize it?” That’s the main thesis of this issue and it’s an idea explored thoroughly visually and narratively. The art does so much to capture the madness Ben is going through — from a disassembled cube of Ben’s head with a pile of brains on top, to double-page splashes that convey chaos and madness all rolled into one, there is so much here to dissect and attempt to understand. You feel for Ben, who is a relatable father and husband. He’s obsessed with his work but still loves his family. We can only imagine he’s a victim of some kind of mind game of the Joker, but deep down we know something else is going on. It makes this book incredibly rewarding if you’re a fan of psychological thrillers.
The way Sorrentino draws Joker is a standout element in the book that might go unnoticed. He’s a very casual and normal looking guy save for the pale skin. His facial expressions are thoughtful and sometimes empathetic for Ben in their conversations. Joker’s humanization makes him all the more compelling and interesting. He could very much be a sane man stuck in a cell and it is juxtaposed well with Ben’s slow fall into madness as the book carries forward. Now that the story has revealed what it’s doing with its characters, it’s only a matter of time that we learn how we got here. Props to Jordie Bellaire, who harnesses the sickly green of the opening nightmare so well and the oddly antiseptic nature of Ben’s home life. There is something haunting going on in every panel, even if it’s Ben’s innocent child, and that’s thanks to the colors.
Steve Wands’ letters are also something to marvel at. There’s unease to some of the dialogue that you feel through the lettering. They maintain an even keel so well when they bump up to bold or get larger it is felt in the characters’ speech.
The pacing of this book is exceptional. There’s a slow probing nature to the story — not a single panel is out of place or unnecessary. At the same time, this slow pace allows the reader to think about what they’re seeing and in some small way share in Ben’s experience. This book knows how to hook you, and then drop a hammer to awaken your senses to what is really going on. It does this visually, but also through dialogue and its approach to the story on each page.
By the end of the book, you may question your own sanity and maybe even how anyone in their right mind could fall prey to losing their ability to know what is real. It’s amazing how our society is so drawn to this character and this series makes a good case why. Joker is the embodiment of rejecting societal norms and reality so as to become an incarnation of something primal and selfish. This series seems to be suggesting this is something we may all be capable of becoming, and hauntingly, we may not even be aware the change is already happening.