I hope this isn’t going to be my routine (see my Manhunt review), but I feel like I need to rant a bit before I discuss the latest graphic novel by Brian Azzarello. Without a bit of perspective on my love/hate relationship with DC comics, there is no way that you, the reader, can appreciate my enthusiasm for Batman’s new direction. The problem with Batman is that he has been too popular for too long. This has created a mess of his universe, as thousands of different creative minds have taken turns molding his personality, behaviors, and environment. Couple this will the urge to continually top themselves, and the greatest detective mind in the comic universe has been transformed to a meta-human superhero of cosmic significance.
The trouble that Batman contributors face is this: He is constantly being up-staged by his JLA brethren. How can authors content themselves with Batman’s gliding while every pal at his office can fly to distant worlds? Why should we be compelled by Batman’s forensic genius in his underground laboratory when Green Lantern is restructuring the entire universe in a furious rage following the destruction of Coastal City?
Where DC has really fucked Batman is in taking him out of Gotham. Recently, OUR Batman was on a space station with several other Batman’s from parallel universes where he was to fight different versions of himself to see which victor would be recruited into the army of this month’s villain. One of these versions is a real blood-sucker, a vampire from an alternate Earth! And don’t get me started on all of the retconning Batman has suffered, as his parents’ killer has been captured, killed, freed, etc*.
I don’t want to ignore the fact that Batman has a long history of being silly. The scene from the original movie comes to mind, as Batman is dangling from a rope ladder attached to the Bat Copter and he casually asks Robin for the “Bat Shark Repellent”. And the JLA cartoons I grew up with had Batman jetting around the world doing Superman-type work. Hell, one of the most popular DC titles right now is Trinity, which teams up Superman, Batman, and Wonder-Woman, and the “Batman/Superman” title continues to delight readers.
All of this is meant to spotlight that my desire is not for the “old times”, which only exist in my fantasy, it is a call for the “good times”, which have come and gone to exultant cheers and boos by the fans of our caped detective. Gritty detective-work is what made Batman great for me and this segment of the readers. We are the people that loved The Dark Knight Returns and Year One. The fans that were horrified by the first modern Batman films, and who can’t get enough of the last two. We pass up on the latest Batman comic, where our hero is wearing a purple cowl, or is off on another planet saving the cosmos, while we wait patiently for a simple caper for our beloved vigilante to solve.
Why am I ranting about Batman instead of talking about the Joker? Because I see the solution to these former problems in the recent revival (and re-thinking) of Batman’s arch-nemesis. I don’t think Heath Ledger just re-invented the Joker. I think he has helped to ground the Batman universe in a compelling way. Ledger’s Joker, with makeup designed to augment horrific scars, gives us a character more bizarre and believable than anything we have encountered before. And his monologue in the most recent film, making fun of Batman’s getup, was the ultimate in helping the fan suspend disbelief. Here is a regular fucked-up dude, which anyone who watches the local news can wrap their brain around. And shit is scarier when we can put the comic book down, or leave the theater, and go on believing it. The magic of our childhood resurfaces!
Brian Azzarello has made a name for himself by writing a series for DC’s Vertigo imprint called 100 Bullets. There are no superheroes in the series. Every two or three books tell a short story about various characters that are given a gun with 100 untraceable bullets. There will be no repercussions for what the person does with them. Each short vignette is a harrowing look at the potential depravity in common folk. By writing these stories, about the potential “Joker” in each of us, Brian has been quietly filing away at his teeth for a chance to gnaw on the icon of ethical failure.
Joker is a no-hold-barred tale of evil reborn. The Joker has somehow convinced Arkham doctors that he is cured, and they set him free. Told through the lens of an ambitious street thug that the Joker latches onto, the plot spirals around Gotham as territory is reclaimed and scores are settled. The art is brilliant, with heavy influences from the recent film. The writing is superb most of the time. The only complaint I have is the panel directing. There are several times that a minor detail not noticed in the background of one panel makes future panels confusing. I read a lot of comics, but I found myself re-scanning pages to figure out how one character got here, when he was just over there.
Oddly, as a Batman fan, I do not find myself complaining about how little the winged warrior was featured in the book. Halfway through I expected him to not show at all, and I found myself not caring one way or the other. Heath Ledger has made a legend truly legendary, and this book was designed to ride that wave in popularity. In fact, one of the things that Azzarello has to balance (and he does it well) is to make sure our morbid fascination with the Joker doesn’t turn into admiration or respect. His actions have to be despicable enough that we fear him, even if we can appreciate his evil genius. By telling the Joker’s story through the eyes of a character that undergoes this very transformation, Brian succeeds brilliantly.
As Joker heads into its third round of printing in just several weeks of release, it is obvious that millions of fans are clamoring for a return to normalcy in the Batman universe. Not “normalcy” in what we find in Batman’s past, but stories that we, the reader, can believe in and relate to. I hope DC is getting the message. Batman should be spending more time in his lab, deciphering clues, and less time on the Moon securing peace with the Lizard-People. Do this, and I will put the comic on my “Hold” list again and the Caped Crusader will have a monthly spot on CrimeCritics.com (won’t he have “made” it then?!)
*I am not purposefully singling out DC or Batman here, as Marvel recently disgusted their followers when Spiderman’s continuity was fixed with a goofy “mind-wipe” of everyone Earth, similar to the insane way they tried to invent the “Sentry” and simultaneously grant him the built-up legacy of a Superman via fiat.