What I’m Reading – ‘Joker’ by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo

“There will always be a Joker. Because there’s no cure for him. No cure at all. Just a Batman.”

Like White Knight, Joker turns the spotlight on Gotham’s clown prince of crime. Like that story, Joker aims to explain why Batman’s greatest foe is how he is. But unlike White Knight, this story seems more like a criticism of the culture that’s been built up around him, especially since the release of The Dark Knight. (In fact, a lot of people have drawn comparisons between the Joker here, and Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayal). The man we see here is nasty, insane, without any redeeming features, and is not a person people will be quick to quote or put on a t-shirt.

When the Joker is released from Arkham Asylum, much to everyone’s confusion, no one can decide who should go and pick him up. Enter Jonny Frost. Jonny is a typical lowlife, fighting his wife over divorce papers and the kids, trying to make ends meet through petty crime. He is a career criminal trying to work his way up the ladder and he sees getting close to Joker as the perfect opportunity to become number one, or at least number two, which is better than nothing. Joker’s story of crime bosses and gangsters feels like the Batman universe through the lens of Martin Scorsese. That makes Jonny Frost this story’s Henry Hill – or at least that’s what he sees himself as. Narrated by Jonny, the story begins with him as a fiercely loyal member of the crew. His narration doesn’t answer a lot of questions and leaves much open to interpretation – like the subject of the book himself. Towards the end, Jonny begins seeing the Joker for who he really is. But of course, by that point, it’s much too late. He makes for a tragic protagonist, but the world that spins around the Joker is a tragic one. From the outset, we have a pretty good idea how things will go, but that doesn’t make Jonny’s realisation on the last few pages any less heartbreaking.

As mentioned in the intro, the Joker of this comic is an extreme version of the character. Different vile traits have been taken from other versions of the character to make the Joker we have here; a truly evil criminal mastermind, but one plagued by a plethora of mental health problems. But there is no attempt to generate sympathy for him. After the release of The Dark Knight, Joker-mania was everywhere. You couldn’t leave the house without seeing “Why so serious?” written on a poster or t-shirt (you still can’t). This comic came out soon after the film and gives us a much more villainous Joker, a Joker less concerned with trying to make a philosophical point and primarily concerned with getting his territory back. It feels like a direct comment on the impact of the film, not least because of the startling similarity (appearance-wise) of the Joker. Like White Knight did with the Joker/Harley relationship, Joker goes out of its way to prove that this is not a man to worship.

The comic is devoid of a lot of the usual comic book touches. It’s a lot more grounded, preferring to explore the gritty, noir-esque streets of Gotham City through Jonny’s eyes. Other characters do make appearances, but they’re a lot more realistic. The Riddler is just another criminal, Penguin launders money, Croc is just a big guy who’s a little scaly, and Two-Face is the reigning criminal in Gotham when Joker gets out. Harley Quinn is in it and might be the most dangerous of them all (though I wish they’d given her a couple of lines and maybe not made her a stripper. Women actually get a bad time of it in this comic. I get that the crime-ridden streets of Gotham are male-dominated (and the indeterminate time period and Frost’s Crockett-inspired attire suggest this is not set today either) but the only women in this story are either raped, murdered or, in Harley’s case, play mute second fiddle. But not one character comes out of this story looking good, not even Batman, so maybe it’s more of an intentional critique of masculinity than I’m giving it credit for.

Conflict in this world comes down to knives, hands, and guns, with no superpowers in sight. And it’s violent, disturbingly so. But it’s not gratuitous, it’s not done for the audience to enjoy. Like the murder of Billy Batts in Goodfellas and Nicky in Casino, it’s shocking but it serves a purpose. In this case, it establishes Joker as a man not to messed with after his long stint in Arkham. And the random, unexpected nature of the violence means reaffirms what you already expect; this man is truly insane and will kill anyone on sight, for often no reason at all. A grisly scene towards the end of the book sees Joker kill an unknown elderly couple in their bed as they sleep, as Jonny looks on horrified, unable to escape the hole he’s dug himself into.

It feels as if Azzarello has written a quintessential Joker story here, with some magnificently grimy artwork from Bermejo, all told from a unique viewpoint we’ve not seen before. It achieves the often difficult task of feeling literary and profound, without sacrificing what makes an entertaining comic story. Just don’t expect it to be Batman-heavy. The caped crusader makes an appearance in the story’s fantastic final pages, but it’s all Jonny’s show. And through him, we get an eye-opening and original look at one of the most well-known comic characters.

Like White Knight, this story exists in it’s own world, an amalgamation of other Gotham’s and characters. So there is very little prior knowledge of the characters to enjoy it. I highly recommend it.

Reviewed by Jack


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