It’s exceptionally hard to write about Batman: The Smile Killer without just making one long pan to Andrea Sorrentino. Sorrentino is one of the most exceptional comic book artists in the business at the moment, operating in a visual style that is instantaneously recognizable and moving against many of the artistic trends that have dominated the post-Authority era of the medium. Sorrentino eschews both ‘widescreen’ comics and photorealism in general, instead using close-in reaction shots and a washed-out, dark, coloring for an artistic style that pops out, impressing upon the reader the moments of action on each page.
I’ve never spoken to Andrea Sorrentino, of course, but I would be astonished if he wasn’t somewhat conversant with the work of pop collagists such as Richard Hamilton or Barbara Kruger. Kruger, especially, relied upon those harsh contrasts of whiteness and color that Sorrentino uses to such effect not only in The Smile Killer, but also in his other work – Green Arrow, especially, comes to mind. Hamilton’s influence – or at least the similarities between the two artists – is found in the sharp divides between two disparate elements; for Hamilton, separate collaged images, while Sorrentino gets the same effect by overlaying panels upon a different image in the background. In The Smile Killer, we find the effect most prominently near the end, as Bruce remembers the ‘real’ story of his father’s death.
But what’s remarkable about The Smile Killer is how much of it is done by Sorrentino operating in a totally different frame of reference than his usual style. Bringing to mind almost a Frank Quitely style, a la Jupiter’s Legacy, Sorrentino turns up the brightness and abandons his usual signature heavy inking, creating an almost-childlike milieu that is then a severe contrast with the darkness of the actual story it’s illustrating. Which, of course, is on purpose: Sorrentino and Lemire are attempting, and succeeding, in creating a creeping horror, where the unsettling content is contrasted with the innocent surroundings.
The story, while good, doesn’t quite live up to the art that it accompanies. That’s not the fault of Jeff Lemire, of course – the writing is good at all the technical levels, and there’s nothing that one can quite find at fault with it. But it has to be compared to the other story that came out recently that has a large section where Batman finds himself in an asylum, being told that ‘Batman’ was just an illusion: Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Last Knight on Earth. The two books are tonally incomparable – The Smile Killer is a serious psychological drama, while Last Knight on Earth is a bonkers adventure – but retain that key point of similarity.
After all, let’s face it, “Batman was in a mental hospital all along” is not exactly a new plot. But Last Knight on Earth treats its readers like adults and realizes that we will see through all of that almost immediately. Does Jeff Lemire think that we all really believe that his treatment of Batman will end with the discovery that Batman wasn’t real, that Bruce Wayne killed his own father, and was locked up all these years? Frankly, had Lemire focused on the original operating premise of Killer Smile – that Joker’s madness was contagious, that his ‘Mister Smiles’ puppet was a symbol of an insidious presence warping the minds of those around him – the story would have been stronger for it.
But, that said, you ought to buy this book anyway. The art, like Killer Smile before it, is fantastic, and worth pouring over for hours on end.