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