Three issues into its run, The Joker has become one of the more fascinating additions to the terrific Gotham line of comics.
At times a horror story, dark comedy, and action thriller, The Joker is perhaps best seen as a character study. Writer James Tynion IV is interested in Jim Gordon and what it means to live as one of the Joker’s innumerable victims.
That aspect of the book gives it emotional heft and, if I had to guess, I would have predicted this story was headed for the kind of conclusion one might see in a bleak, psychological thriller.
Then I read this issue. Tynion starts with a harrowing flashback to the events of Batman: The Killing Joke, the legendary 1988 story that features the Joker torturing Gordon and paralyzing his daughter, Barbara.
It is a violent, exploitative story, but one that Tynion skillfully mines for emotional depth. As Gordon walks past the same amusement park where he was held as the Joker’s captive, artist Guillem March and colorist Arif Prianto interweave scenes from the present with moments from The Killing Joke.
Prianto bathes these flashback scenes in a hellish orange and yellow light, creating a stark contrast with the gray, muted colors of Gordon in the present.
March is riffing on Brian Bolland’s original Joker design here, but he makes it all his own by amping up the horror elements. A panel showing the Joker on a makeshift throne, lined with dolls, is especially nightmare-inducing.
These scenes would not look out of place in DC’s upcoming Conjuring book or any of Tynion’s darker, creator-owned works. But they only tell part of the story.
For most of the issue, Gordon is on the hunt for the Joker in Belize. These scenes take on a greater urgency as other pursuers like Bane’s daughter and a Texas Chainsaw Massacre-style family join in on the fun.
These moments look straight out of one of the Mission: Impossible movies and are a refreshing change of pace for what could be a downbeat book. To some readers, the tonal swerves might be a bit much.
For me, they come as a welcome relief. There’s enough dreary Joker content in the world. What Tynion is doing with the character is unique without being disrespectful of Joker’s despicable history.
We can enjoy the action-adventure vibe of Gordon’s scenes in Belize without forgetting that, yes, the Joker is an irredeemable monster.
This issue’s backup continues the compelling story Tynion and co-writer Sam Johns have been telling about Punchline. I’ve written before about how much I like the character’s turn into alt-right podcasting.
In a book especially concerned with the futility of analyzing the Joker, it helps to have a counterpoint in Punchline, someone who thinks she can understand his actions.
Obviously, her self-rationalizations are as silly as the most inane extremists online, but Johns and Tynion wisely show her appeal. For as evil as Punchline appears to be, her story of radicalization is a common one and, increasingly, a relatable one.
That’s a cool vein to tap into for a character who has quickly become one of DC’s breakout stars. How interesting it is that Tynion can reckon with her popularity on the page by showing the danger in idolizing characters like the Joker, Punchline, or to get slightly more topical…the Punisher.
The only drawback of this material is it makes the sillier parts of the story, like Punchline’s prison fight with Orca, seem a bit out of place. I can understand why the fight is necessary—and artist Mirka Andolfo and letterer Ariana Maher have it look great.
But its purpose is unclear amid the other action, where Harper Row is tracking down leads on Punchline with help from the villain’s old friend (who may not be what he seems). If anything seems clear right now, it is that Punchline is not staying in this prison for much longer.
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