Review: The Joker by Brian Azzarello

everytime the Joker bores you, take another shot!

Drinking game: everytime the story gets predictable, take a shot!

The Joker
Written by Brian Azzarello
Illustrated by Lee Bermejo

While its prestige format and labored art attempt to elevate it beyond a simple cash-in on The Dark Knight, Brian Azzarello’s The Joker is a big disappointment. On the coattails of TDK’s box-office success, we get a Joker story that doesn’t really seem to be about the Joker, even if the slashed smile resembles his cinematic stand-in. The main problem with Azzarello’s story is that he makes the Joker and his criminal aspirations seem so… ordinary. Joker gets released from Arkham (with no explanation as to the how/why) and is obsessed with reestablishing his criminal empire and rebuilding his cash flow by strong-arming the various Gotham gangs headed by familiar super-villains.

And really, that’s it. Joker as hard-boiled crime boss is boh-ring, especially through the first person narrative lens of Jonny Frost, whose rise from Joker’s flunky to number 2, is supposed to engage the reader but fails because Jonny is such a cypher and charicature of criminal desires and background.

I generally like Azzarello’s writing okay, and a previous collaboration with 100 Bullets artist Eduardo Risso on Batman: Broken City worked when it attempted to recontextualized Batman’s rogues gallery into more contemporary criminal types. Killer Croc vainly dressed in pimp suits and rocking an iced-out grill?Awesome.

He's got a matching tattoo on the other side.

Riddler's got matching tattoos on his other side...

But in The Joker, similar revisions grate and fall flat. Croc is now just a huge black guy with eczema. Harley Quinn is a voiceless stripper with no agency of her own. And why does the Riddler gangster limp and have shitty tribal-ish tattoos on his exposed navel? No idea, I just know that I don’t like it.

Obviously, artist Lee Bermejo shares in the blame for the poorly executed visual reimaginings– and his art, while often glossily lush, is largely inconsistent. In word and picture, I never felt like the Joker ever got consistently rendered. It’s not like say, Grant Morrison’s Joker, where inconsistency and instability is built into the character and essential to understanding his chaotic nature. With Azzarello, I just got the sense that I was reading a paint-by-numbers crime story with nothing really Joker-y about it. It’s not like every Joker story needs poisonous clown fish or exploding cream pies or anything like that, but aside from a tendancy to pun there’s little to distinguish this character from any other psycho.

Part of what makes his character in The Dark Knight so striking, is that the Joker is less a criminal than a force majeur– an agent of entropy whose actions are inevitable, nearly unstoppable, and lacking reason. As others have pointed out, the Joker is insane, he’s artful at times and corny at others but more than anything he’s more than just a cheap hood or a scary guy with face paint. Overall it’s not a terrible story, but Azzarello’s fundamental mistake is to take what’s alien, provocative, and inventive about the Joker and replace it with something that’s ordinary, edgeless, and all too familiar.


6 responses to “Review: The Joker by Brian Azzarello

  1. Lee Bermejo started work on this book and the Joker design almost 3 yrs ago. He’s kinda annoyed that almost everyone thinks he plagiarized the look from the TDK version of the character. I saw sketches of his designs a even before TDK was in production.

    In any case I still haven’t gotten the chance to read this title you reviewed but from what you’ve stated, I think I might not even bother.

  2. That’s interesting to consider, I don’t think the knifed-out smile is unique to TDK either but can’t recall the first time I saw it in a Batman comic.

    Some of Bermejo’s art is really gorgeous, but mostly it’s overworked to the point of stiffness. It’s a shame because it’s obvious he spent a lot of time and care on it, but sometimes that same focus robs pages of life and movement.

  3. ok so i’ve gone and read Joker. I have to agree with you on most points now. Most of the re-interpretations of the bat-rogues, save for Two Face, aren’t to my liking. Especially how Harley doesn’t say a word and to me her endless babbling in The Animated Series was what made her endearing.

    This is the first I’ve seen Bermejo draw Batman himself and I have to say I like the whole gimp-suit look hehe.

    Story-wise, yes it was quite boring. It wasn’t completely bad though, as some parts reminded me of how unpredictable Joker was in The Dark Knight. The insinuated sex scene with Jonny’s wife was admittedly disturbing and unexpected.

    btw Jonny Frost sounds very similar to Joe Chill doesn’t it?

    oh and since I know you are a batfan and TDK fan Im sure you’ll get a kick out of this schmuck

  4. you r so right about the book. it is a stiff attemt to be hard core. the sex thing was waaaaaaay to much. joker just seemed to be an idiot. riddler was soooo stupid. heath is still my favorite joker ever

  5. There is no explicit nudity in this one, idiots. Nipples are covered up, and it’s done in the context of the story, so quit with the sex shit.

    Second, it’s obvious that someone stole SOMEONES idea about the joker. He looks like Heath Ledger. I don’t care what anyone thinks about what Barmejo or wahtever his name came up with first or last or second or whatever – HE LOOKS LIKE HEATH LEDGER. Accept that, fools.

    Third, the story ends stupid. It starts OK, but ends completely idiotic.

    There is no reason for the Joker to do what he does. In every comic, there is at least a purpose, but not in this one. It’s silly.

    We also don’t know what the hell he had in the briefcase…

  6. Catching this comment late, but I don’t think any of us said that there was any explicit nudity? I’m no prude, but Harley’s de-escalation from a character to a voiceless sex toy is exploitative in the cheapest and dullest way. More so, a lot of the scenes Azzarello attempts to utilize her in are both dissonant and unoriginal– the Joker crying in her lap? Really?

    And I’m not sure that you’re disagreeing with anybody here but you’re still calling everybody fools? We might be fools in our respective personal lives but it just seems silly to call people names when you agree with them.