The hook of a comic like The Joker is that the title is a misnomer. Sure, Joker is on all the covers, but he’s not the main character of this comic. Jim Gordon is — and his story only becomes more alluring in this terrific second issue, which sheds light on Gordon’s mysterious benefactor and the other criminals pursuing Joker overseas, where he is apparently downing martinis and having a generally fun time. (Who knew?!)
The race to track Joker down gives this comic its narrative urgency, but Gordon gives it emotional heft. Writer James Tynion IV tells the story from Gordon’s viewpoint, providing us a window into the former police commissioner’s thoughts as he agonizes over this quest to hunt down — and potentially kill —Joker.
One small detail here that I love: letterer Tom Napolitano uses the same yellow captions for Gordon that Todd Klein used in Batman: Year One. The visual nod to one of Batman’s most famous stories is also a reminder that Year One is as much an origin story for Gordon as it is for Bruce Wayne. Tynion layers this comic with allusions to that classic story, having Gordon reminisce about his money problems and the times he felt tempted to compromise his ethics as a cop.
Before leaving to find Joker, Gordon clues Batman into his mission and asks him to find out more about Cressida, the woman who recruited Gordon. This conversation, which dances around the question of whether Gordon should kill Joker, is complicated by the presence of Oracle in Batman’s ear. Barbara Gordon, herself a survivor of one of Joker’s attacks, obviously has a stake in Gordon’s mission and how Tynion incorporates her perspective is one of the brilliant moments in this issue. I won’t spoil it, save to say there are few writers who could foreground the history, mutual admiration, and complicated emotions that go into this conversation better than Tynion.
Only two issues in, The Joker has revealed itself to be a far more thoughtful and compelling comic than I ever could have expected when it was announced. Even the most diehard Bat-fans probably felt a Joker ongoing series was overkill, given the character’s prominence in the Batman monthly title, several Black Label books, and on the big screen. When David Harper at SKTCHD wrote last month, “If there’s an upper limit to the amount of the Clown Prince we can handle, we might be approaching it,” I could not nod my head fast enough.
But this book is anything but a cynical cash grab. For one thing, the first line of the issue is “Chapter Four,” a sign that—if nothing else—Tynion is telling a long-form story here, more in line with one of his (excellent) creator-owned works than that of a typical Batman book. Outside of a quirky interlude to explore Joker’s swanky hideaway, this is a full-blown horror comic. If you need that point to really hit home, fear not because Tynion later introduces a family of cannibals (!) from Hooper (!) County, Texas. (I did not think Texas Chainsaw Massacre was where this was headed, but I’m not complaining!)
This book would not work without the versatility of artist Guillem March and colorist Arif Prianto, who switch ably between Gothic horror scenes and the sky-blue hi-jinks of Joker and his pool floatie. There’s not much action in this issue, but its momentum never slows to a crawl. Even the extended conversation at the heart of the issue moves with the precision of a fight scene, as Gordon plays verbal gymnastics with Batman before revealing himself more honestly to Barbara.
This issue’s most ambitious panel layout comes in the backup, which centers around Punchline, though she (like Joker in the main story) is mostly sidelined. Tynion, who co-wrote the story with Sam Johns with art by Mirka Andolfo, keeps Punchline present through her apparent domination of social media. In a jam-packed two-page spread, we see phone after phone showing Gotham’s netizens discussing Punchline.
Previous stories explored how her podcast—which whitewashed her crimes during the Joker War event and spun a sympathetic tale of her attraction to Joker—rocketed to popularity and captivated Gotham’s younger generation, including Harper Row’s brother.
Harper, a Scott Snyder creation who moonlights as the hero Bluebird, is tasked with countering Punchline in the same way someone might reckon with a noxious, alt-right commentator on YouTube. You can’t punch an idea into submission, especially at a time when the atomization of modern culture (and the seedy algorithms of Big Tech) have given conspiratorial, bad-faith actors a place to thrive online. Of all the innovations Tynion has brought to his Batman work, Punchline’s evolution into an alt-right symbol has easily been the most fascinating. Only in superhero comics would a character with as much (scary) real-world relevance as Punchline be paired with…a member of the Royal Flush Gang?!
That’s right! The other thread in this backup (which is being serialized at the end of each issue of The Joker) is a prison rivalry between Queen of Spades and Punchline—only this time, the Queen has a bit of (aquatic) muscle on her side.
Any fans of Batman Beyond know how central these card-themed villains are to the future of Gotham’s underworld, so it’s nice to see them show up here. (Tynion, who I interviewed for a piece on the legacy of Batman Beyond in February, has acknowledged the show’s influence on his work and said he is steering the status quo of Gotham closer to the cyberpunk future of the show than it’s ever been before.)
How Joker, Gordon, Punchline, and those extremely frightening cannibals fit into that future is still anyone’s guess. I can’t wait to find out.
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