Post-Christmas letdown and a rather dull January gives me the need to discuss something in that vein.
Yet another of my catches in trawling the seas of comics, especially Batman ones, I came upon one graphic novel that is entirely focused around none other than his most feared nemesis.Joker, by Brian Azzarello, takes the form of a noir crime story centred on one Johnny Frost, a small time gangster in Gotham City. Determined to be somebody in the city’s criminal circles, he boldly volunteers for the job everyone else dreads: he goes to pick up the Joker, who has somehow contrived his release from Arkham Asylum.
The Joker takes the ambitious Johnny on board as his wheel man, and from that position he gets to watch as Joker reclaims his slice of the Gotham underworld, culminating in a bloody and characteristically chaotic showdown with his rival, Two-Face, and finally the inevitable confrontation with the Dark Knight himself.
I like the noir storytelling style, with Frost narrating as if you ended up chatting with him in a dreary bar. It sets a good atmosphere of anxiety as he watches the Joker wreak bloody havoc on the city.
The Joker has always been the best-known Batman villain, and he became more iconic than ever since Heath Ledger’s absolutely staggering performance in the Dark Knight. This version of the Joker both looks like Ledger and is clearly cut from the same blood-soaked purple cloth.
Artist Lee Bermejo’s style is absolutely perfect. The Joker’s weather-beaten, deformed face is really disturbing, and the whole colour palette gives it the bleak noir/horror film mystique.
The story is an intimate look into the life and behaviour of this iconic lunatic. Different people have different ideas of exactly what makes the Joker tick. When I was a kid watching Batman: the Animated Series, it was making the whole city the punch line of a very lethal joke. In the Dark Knight he’s trying to make a grand point about what a joke civilized behaviour really is.
The thing is, this graphic novel doesn’t really give me any sense of what makes him tick, or if it does, it’s not terribly fascinating. The Joker kills lots of people, but his desire to do so is driven mainly by his reasserting control of the mob. Swap out the Joker for any old psychopathic mob boss and there’s really no big difference. The only particularly grotesque, above-and-beyond thing he does is flay a lackey alive, and that scene’s done and gone quickly enough.
I was expecting to get an in-depth examination into the monstrosity of the Joker. I wanted to see him play hideous mind games with jittery mobsters. I wanted to see him come up with deviously brilliant plots that you’re horrified to realize are funny when seen from that twisted point of view. I wanted to see him abuse Harley Quinn…
Wait, what? Okay, before anybody gets the wrong idea from that, I shall explain. I don’t want to see Harley Quinn abused. I want to see the Joker being abusive, if you see what I mean.
There is a brief scene where Harley (the Joker’s long time sidekick/girlfriend/punching bag) does a kind of reverse-striptease, very seductively putting on her signature costume. At first glance it creeped the heck out of me. I took it for a symbol of the Joker’s power to control and twist the people around him. I thought it would be the first step on watching their cycle of zanily murderous antics and gut-wrenching exploitation. While a definite case of Women in Refrigerators, it would have been a great demonstration of the horror in the Joker’s character. But Harley never even talks, or does anything else. She’s just window-dressing.
The point is that the effect the Joker has on the people around him is a key way to characterize him, but not much of that happens. There’s nothing about this guy that says ‘I’m the Joker’ except his appearance. He doesn’t even laugh much. He’s just some guy. A mob boss with an itchy trigger finger and a really bad complexion.
Joker, therefore, is like someone built a beautiful Halloween Haunted House and then forgot to put in any decorations, special effects or scary props. The visuals are superb, but the story they’re used to build is unremarkable, the dialogue is boring, and the characterization, which seemed like the main point of the story, is dreadfully shallow for the central character and virtually nonexistent for everybody else.
I have to ask, Joker: why so serious?