“The Clown at Midnight”
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: John Van Fleet
Letters: Todd Klein
Cover artist: Andy Kubert
Editor: Peter Tomasi
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.65 CAN
This issue of the Dark Knight’s adventures is not a comic book. I know… it looks like a comic and feels like a comic, but it ain’t a comic. Writer Grant Morrison offers up a prose short story, accompanied by illustrations by John Van Fleet, which appear to be digital paintings. It makes for a much denser read, and it forces Morrison to flex a different set of writing muscles. The manager at my local comic shop told me he wished DC had released this as a separate, special one-shot. After reading the story, it’s clear why it wasn’t, though. Morrison specifically follows up a plot point from his first issue on this series from a few months ago — the near-fatal shooting of the Joker. The script here manages to make the Joker’s latest resurrection a real event, and the writer reconciles the various, divergent versions of the antagonist we’ve see over the course of six decades. Unfortunately, the novel take on the character is marred by stiff, confusing artwork and unnecessarily verbose descriptions of peripheral details.
A series of gruesome murders attracts the attention of Gotham City’s caped protector. Someone is using poisoned, genetically engineered flowers to kill criminals, but it’s a specific kind of criminal who’s been targeted. The Joker’s clown-faced henchmen are dropping like flies, sending the Batman to Arkham Asylum to confront the prime suspect. But the Clown Prince of Crime is a shadow of his former self as he recovers from a gunshot wound to the face. He is mute, bandaged and confined to a wheelchair. It seems there’s no way for the old Joker to have committed these crimes, but the new Joker… ah, that’s a different matter altogether.
Van Fleet’s artwork for this unusual issue appears to be an amalgam of painted work, line art, collage and photoreference, all brought together by digital enhancement. In some respects, it suits the creepy tone of the script. His dark, disturbing visions of horrific clowns are apt, but it’s next to impossible to discern what’s actually happening in those scenes. We also never get a clear sense of Solomon and Sheba. There is action unfolding — that much is clear — but the artist obfuscates it. His depiction of the title character falls flat as well. The Batman is not the powerful, dominating figure we’ve come to expect. Instead, he appears unusually thin and awkward. The characters, on the odd occasion when the art conveys movement, lumber awkwardly and stiffly across the page.
There are times when Morrison’s prose really brings a creepy but poetic quality to the Joker’s insanity that drives home what a monster he is. When Morrison imagines what’s going through that surreal cerebral landscape, the script is at its strongest. That being said, there are other scenes in the book that are painful to get through. His overwrought description of Gotham City, for example, makes for an arduous read.
Morrison also introduces a new character here — the genetically misshapen and odd Sheba — but for the life of me, I can’t imagine what her role is meant to be. Her male counterpart falls like so many other faceless Joker henchmen in this story, but she survives. I’m at a loss as to why she was incorporated into the plot. We never get to know what makes the character tick, and we’re denied any hint of her relationship with Solomon. Sheba’s pointless role in the story nags at me, because the script builds her up as some kind of key character, something that is never realized.
The most interesting aspect of Morrison’s plot is the notion that the Joker is a creature that’s repeatedly undergoing a process of rebirth. Whereas once he was little more than a colorful thief, the Joker, the writer suggests, is an entity who has transformed time and time again into something far more violent and depraved with each new incarnation. Morrison’s story suggests it’s more than just a mind becoming more and more fractured and deranged, but rather portrays the villain as a supernatural entity that undergoes a physical metamorphosis. The Joker is depicted as being literally inhuman at this point, as a living toxin in society’s circulatory system. It’s a novel and compelling take on the character, though I honestly don’t expect the notion to be explored beyond this self-contained story. 5/10