Batman: The Man Who Laughs

Can I just say, I was really excited to see how the Joker would be portrayed post-Crisis.  With Batman taking on a much darker tone and with all the characters being intensely developed, I had very high hopes for the reimagined Joker.

Needless to say, after this short trade I’m more than pleased with the new developments to the character.

I’ve come to expect a prevalence of violence and gruesome images in these recent collections, but this Joker trade took the brutality to a new level.

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These twisted, grotesque smiling corpses are so characteristically Joker that anyone remotely familiar with him would instantly recognize his handiwork.  This panel helped set the scene for the entire trade, bringing crime in Gotham to a new, horrifying level.

As with the last few trades I’ve read, this one drew upon some of the earliest Batman issues for inspiration.  This story references back to the Joker’s first appearance in Batman #1, using many of the same tropes to develop the character.

The most notable allusion to the original story occurs when the Joker first appears, making his trademark threats via a hijacked news crew and singling out an individual victim:

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In this incarnation though, Joker increases the brutality by murdering the news anchor before making his blatant threat.  I was happy to see this trademark method included (and also glad that they left out the somewhat hokey “The Joker has spoken!” line that was his common closing line in the earlier comics).

Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke further develop the entire world of Gotham, but there’s no question that the Joker is the star here.  His character has always been well-developed, with his maniacal, murderous behavior never faltering.  Here we get to see a deeper understanding of just how crazed he can be though.

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I found this panel particularly disturbing, and feel it helps characterize the Joker perfectly.  His complete disregard for human life, the bored way in which he kills innocent people, helps the reader to understand just how twisted this character is. Unlike earlier stories which might rely on narration to spoon feed a psychological diagnosis to the reader, here the Joker’s actions do the talking.  This is a much more effective way to shock the readers and show them that this is certainly a new, vicious kind of criminal.

As expected, the Joker has a much bigger plan in mind than simply murdering a few individual people.  Instead, he plans to poison the entire Gotham water supply to poison the whole population of the city.  In older issues, this would have been the beginning and end of the story.  Batman would discover the Joker’s plot, foil the plan, and throw Joker in jail.

This all certainly happens in this comic.  What sets this story apart from those earlier issues is the depth added.  On his quest to uncover the Joker’s plans, Batman comes to believe that Joker and Red Hood (a criminal from a prior comic whom I unfortunately didn’t get to read about) are one in the same.  Batman believes Red Hood, who fell into a vat of chemicals, has transformed into the Joker.

While I’m not familiar with that entire storyline, this comic gave enough of a summary that I didn’t feel lost.  It was jarring to read any sort of origin story about the Joker; he has always just been this mysterious figure who appeared out of nowhere.  True, there isn’t much of a backstory here; we know nothing about the Joker’s real name or what he did prior to his life of crime.  It still felt odd to read any reference to the Joker before he was Joker.

I was impressed that the Joker seemed to serve as an awakening for Batman, and a symbol for a change in the crime that has plagued Gotham.  Batman starts to believe that he’s responsible for this string of costumed criminals, having inspired them in some way.  Maybe he has; the comic leaves that open.  What is clear is that Gotham is facing an unprecedented type of crime, one it’s not entirely prepared to face.

As a result, Batman’s role as a wanted fugitive is reversed, with the police opening supporting him and even creating an all-too-familiar signal with which to call him:

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I liked that the Joker was the catalyst for this change in views around Gotham.  It’s unfortunate that it took such a massive threat to change the general opinion, but then I suppose that’s just how things go – sometimes it takes a major upheaval to help people realize who the real heroes are.

This Joker story was tauntingly short, but it feels like a seminal moment in his development.  The basic character tropes established in the 40’s comics remain; they’ve just been polished and sharpened a bit to truly hone in on the Joker’s maniacal, unhinged personality.  I can’t wait for future Joker stories to appear on “the shelf”.  Being Mistah J’s favorite character, I know there’s no shortage of those; I’m just excited to see what that crazed Joker will come up with next.

-Jess

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