Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Lee Bermejo
Publisher: DC Comics
Review by: Joe Anderson
If Frank Miller is responsible for the grittier, darker reimagining of Gotham with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns back in 1986, then it’s safe to say Brian Azzarello’s Joker continues to carry that same torch. Filled with eye-catching grit and violence, and equally eye-catching artwork, Joker is a dark reimagination of the villain of the same name that Batman fans shouldn’t hesitate to look into, even if it is only to see what direction Azzarello spins the character.
The story revolves around narrator Jonny Frost, who is essentially the thug equivalent of a rising young star on a high school basketball team with hoop dreams. On his boss’s orders, he picks up the recently-released Joker from Arkham Asylum. Realizing that working for the Joker could net him some serious criminal respect and make him somebody (a phrase Frost uses throughout the entire novel), Frost becomes the Joker’s right-hand man and then, after a few bouts of murderous psychosis by the Joker, realizes he is in over his head.
The artistic rendering of the Joker looks like it was pulled right off the screen of The Dark Knight and thrown on a page – same facial scars, similar clothing…the entire package. However, aesthetics notwithstanding, this is still a new take on the Joker. Azzarello’s Joker is no stranger to substances, so by the time readers hit the back cover they will have seen more than a few instances of liquor swilling and pill popping. And this reincarnation of the Joker has blatant sexual interests, which left a resonating sense of uniqueness. After all, the relationship between Joker and Harley Quinn has always walked this fine maybe-they’re-having-sex-but-they-could-just-be-boss-and-henchmen line (in the animated series especially). In Joker, it’s just out in the open. It doesn’t feel forced, but whether sex and substances take the Joker to a new place or it is just needless adult content for the sake of adult content is arguable.
Whether long-time Batman fans will enjoy Azzarello’s take on the Joker is also debatable, but there are many interesting choices in Joker that make it worth reading. Make no mistake, the novel revolves around the character of the Joker, but other recognizable Batman villains make appearances, each of them just as reworked as the Joker. Killer Croc is less of a crocodile/human hybrid than he is just a huge, disfigured henchmen, while half of Harvey Dent still remains married to his wife. Two-Face’s loving tie to his wife despite his life of crime is one of the most artful choices in the book. This subtle, but somehow humanizing, element to Two-Face’s character effectively relays Joker’s complete detachment from humanity.
In the wake of Nolan’s two film adaptations, I was pleasantly surprised to see Joker push the envelope in ways only a comic book can. Between Joker skinning a man alive and cutting wrists with razor blades he jammed into his own fingertips, I felt like I was reading something that could only effectively exist on a page. Not to mention the ridiculous non-human range of facial expressions the Joker has throughout the story. And, perhaps most of all, Batman’s near nonexistence was very refreshing, especially when considering Gotham as a comic universe is really centered on The Dark Knight.
Joker is not without it’s flaws and it is unfortunate they rest on narrator Jonny Frost. For a man that has willingly chosen to place himself in terrifying company, Frost’s narration comes off as stiff. This is a man who is way over his head and when emotionally charged events occur (his wife being threatened and later raped, for example) I couldn’t help feel like there should be a little more something happening in the narration. With Frost operating as a narrator, we have a direct window into his thoughts and emotions and as a reader I was dressed to scuba dive only to find the character was ankle deep.
Simply put, Joker moves fast. It’s not like comic one-shots have a lot of time to meander while establishing a narrative, but Joker is composed of scene after compelling scene that’s absolutely worth exploring for Batman and comic fans alike.
For Bill’s take on Joker, which was written for GraphicNovelReporter, click HERE