Batman: Three Jokers #1
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist/Cover artist: Jason Fabok
Colors: Brad Anderson
Letters: Rob Leigh
Editor: Mark Doyle
Publisher: DC Comics/DC Black Label imprint
Price: $6.99 US
It comes as no surprise that DC is inundating its readership with so many Joker-related comics over the past year. Given the financial and critical success of the Joker film starring Joaquin Phoenix, it stands to reason the publisher wouldn want to capitalize on that boosted profile. While I haven’t delved into the “Joker War” event in the main Batman titles or some of the other Black Label books featuring the Clown Prince of Crime, I was anticipating this limited series. I was thoroughly impressed with Geoff Johns’s work on Doomsday Clock, as it represented a huge leap forward in the complexity of his plotting and maturity of his characters, and as such, I was hoping for more of the same from Three Jokers. Sadly, this book doesn’t boast the same kind of strength. It has its cool moments, but it feels rushed.
Batman and two of his protégés – Batgirl and Red Hood – investigate three bizarre crimes. They’re disparate offences, committed simultaneously in different parts of Gotham, and the Joker is spotted at all three scenes. While each bears distinct but different hallmarks of Joker crimes, the grinning ghoul couldn’t have been directly involved in all three, could he? The Batman and his allies are about to make some stark discoveries about the very nature of the Joker and why he’s been so unpredictable over the years.
DC has been marketing artist Jason Fabok as a star artist pretty much from the debut of his linework in their titles a few years ago, and this project appears to be the big payoff in that regard. Fabok’s style is a pleasing one, perhaps because it feels familiar. He’s a good fit here, as his style is reminiscent of that of Brian Bolland, and he’s clearly trying to emulate the look and atmosphere Bolland brought to Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke years ago. He does a good job of distinguishing the different Jokers from one another while still maintaining looks that are similar enough that one might accept the notion that expert detectives might have missed they were distinct individuals. Still, the over-reliance on closeups of the various characters in conversation makes the story seem a little flat. With a plot featuring such an inventive take on the Joker, one would expect more dynamic visuals, but it’s not to be found here. Then again, the writer is clearly aiming for a grittier, more grounded tone, so Fabok is restricted in the visual offerings he can deliver.
The notion that there’s more than one Joker causing problems for Gotham’s protectors and it could’ve been that way for years should be a game-changing development for the long history of the Dark Knight and his allies, but the speed with which they accept that premise without little to no reaction or even questioning of its plausibility robs this story of credibility. It definitely feels as though there isn’t nearly enough investigation before the heroes arrive at that conclusion, and not enough denying or challenging of the possibility.
The opening scene, in which Alfred tends to Bruce’s fresh wounds while we glimpse what caused the extensive scarring on the protagonist’s form, is an effective one, and it paints a life of horror and pain for the hero. Unfortunately, it feels rather familiar. Readers have been down this road before. The ultimate message – that the Joker has inflicted the worst scars, even if they can’t all be seen – has a certain power, but even a reader with only a passing knowledge of the Batman and the Joker likely knows all of this already. The visuals paint a detailed pictured of the Batcave, though, and it would have been interesting to learn more about the Dark Knight’s obsession with collecting reminders of the horrors he’s fought and seen.
Batman: The Killing Joke was considered a masterpiece in its day and still sells well for DC. In more recent years, people have criticized its use of Barbara Gordon as a cheap, sexual prop in the ongoing war between hero and villain. Crippling her, raping her, sexualizing her in her greatest moment of pain and tragedy… it doesn’t sit well today. The further sexualization of the character in the animated adaptation of that graphic novella didn’t help matters. Now, others took that terrible turn with the character and used it to transform her into an empowered new kind of heroine as Oracle, but she’s been restored to the role of Batgirl. Here, Johns has the character reliving that horrendous assault on her physical form and her dignity, and the choice to have her do that naked in the shower seems rather tone deaf to the legitimate criticisms of the source material that have arisen in the years since. It was a poor storytelling choice, and it took me out of the plot.
After only one issue (and the second due out this week), Three Jokers has proven to be a massive commercial success for DC Comics, and I suspect it’s been a boon to comics retailers as well. But unfortunately, that triumph in her terms of business isn’t matched on the creative side. What could have been an engrossing mystery and novel new take on one of the most iconic villains in all of pop culture feels as though it’s stumbled out of the gate, due in no small part to an accelerated pace. It’s also rooted in two of the most noteworthy yet ugliest moments in the Batman mythos, and I question if one of them merits the revisitation, given how society has changed and views the almost casual mistreatment of female characters to further the narratives of male counterparts. 6/10