The Joker has been at its core a series about Jim Gordon, so it makes sense that after the most clown-centric issue thus far, writer James Tynion IV returns the spotlight to Gordon for a full-issue blast to the past.
SPOILERS AHEAD for The Joker #5!
Throughout the series, Tynion has used earlier Batman stories like The Killing Joke and Year One as flashpoints in Gordon’s career, moments when he became convinced of the nature of evil or the horror of the Joker.
In this issue, Tynion, working with co-writer Matthew Rosenberg, returns to a familiar period for longtime Batman readers, when Harvey Dent was still district attorney and the most threatening name in Gotham was “Falcone.”
But these are also the early days of the Joker in Gotham and Gordon is acutely aware that Arkham Asylum may not be able to hold him. (Great thinking, Jim.)
Instead of jumping back to the storyline with Gordon and the Joker in the present, Tynion treats the full-issue flashback as a de facto annual, complete with a guest artist and co-writer.
Filling in for Guillem March is the always-delightful Francesco Francavilla, who does his best to channel the quintessential artist of that period: David Mazzucchelli. (As if to drive the point home, Tynion and Rosenberg place a shooting in this issue at “Mazzucchelli Towers”.)
Francavilla, a brilliant cover artist whose sequential art can evoke the grimy horror of Gotham City or the suburban terrors of Zombie Riverdale, is more subdued here. His heavy inks and thick lines evoke Mazzucchelli’s best Batman work, but the focus remains on Gordon.
In an exhilarating scene at Arkham Asylum, Francavilla (who colors his work here too) all but drowns out the page with blues and gray — Gordon’s orange hair and mustache being the only counterpoint. The effect disorients Gordon, making him seem like the only sane person in a madhouse.
In an issue largely free of action, Tynion, Rosenberg, and Francavilla do well to make tension out of smaller moments. A phone call between Gordon and a donor to Arkham Asylum — aimed at getting the man to allow the Joker to be moved to a different wing — is the kind of scene that wouldn’t work well in a comic if not for Francavilla’s sly coloring choices and creative use of shadow. (The use of an old-fashioned phone cord as a panel border is a great touch, too.)
The actual moments with the Joker in this issue are less compelling, mostly because he just acts threatening and monologues to Gordon about “something bad” coming to Gotham. The villain speeches ring hollow not just because we’ve all read them before, but because Tynion’s treatment of the character does not demand it. His Joker is not some mastermind plotter or chaos agent, but a more primal source of fear and anxiety, not unlike Pennywise in Stephen King’s It.
This Joker isn’t expressly supernatural or immortal, as Scott Snyder’s run suggested, but he does have an uncanny ability to lodge himself into people’s brains and stay there. Gordon is haunted by the Joker in a way that deeply upends other parts of his life—particularly, his marriage.
This comic has shown several sides of the Joker and, at times, it can be difficult to square the cartoonish mob boss lounging on a pool float with the creeping monster of Gordon’s nightmares. But Tynion’s skill is drawing a through-line from those ideas to Gordon’s lifelong obsession with the Joker.
The earlier issues’ focus on Gordon’s quest to find the Joker is mirrored here by Gordon’s realization that he will always be chasing this person. The Joker already won when he made himself into an emblem of fear that Gordon (and Batman) cannot escape. If this were all a meta concept about the inability of our popular culture to escape the Joker, I’d think it was brilliant. As a straightforward comic, it’s pretty darn good too.
Some other, scattered thoughts on the issue:
- The Punchline backup (co-written by Tynion and Sam Johns) heats up with new art from Sweeney Boo, who is a great match for the material. After the 1980s feel of the main story, a more modern setting for backup — complete with neon pinks and purples — is a welcome change of pace.
- Like the Joker, Punchline is most threatening here not as a typical supervillain, but as the genesis of a rotting belief system that embeds itself through podcasts and shady websites.
- Rosenberg has bounced around the Bat-Office since Future State and his co-writer credit here portends a longer working relationship with Tynion. In October, they’ll be collaborating on DC vs. Vampires, a “twelve-issue maxiseries where the Justice League discovers vampires have been hiding on earth.” Fun!
- Was Sawyer Sampson, the wealthy donor Gordon calls in this story, somehow connected to the Sampson of Dollmaker’s family?
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