Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

Knock! Knock! “Who’s there?” “Joe.” “Joe wh–?”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on May 11, 2011

As far as the majority of Batman fans are concerned, it is a horrible idea to have me review a book about the Joker; I feel that the white-faced lunatic in the 2008 movie The Dark Knight was but a pale imitation of the villain I know of as the Joker.

It should come as no surprise then that I also hate Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s generally well-reviewed Joker. In which, incidentally, the Joker looks almost exactly as he does in the movie.

The idea is to write a book about the Joker set in an ultra-noirish world, where everyone is evil and “only cops call people ‘scumbag’. People refer to people by other words.” And, Harley Quinn turns up naked in a strip club (stark realism that refuses to mollycoddle the reader!), and everyone’s face is pitted beyond belief. Sometimes even at the cost of making the character look laughable. Yes, in this case, the size of the nose is as much at fault, but it’s the lines on it that really make me cringe. And, forget faces, there are far too many lines on everything. Of course, we could always blame the inker, Mick Gray, as the parts inked by Bermejo himself don’t look nearly as bad (if you ignore the bizarre pose good old Harley is in over at the back).

But I’m not going to let Bermejo off so easily. There’s, for starters, the fact that faces don’t look the same from one page to the next. Yes, it is a testament to the shifting and uncertain nature of Joker’s reality. Yes, it is exactly as hackneyed, unsubtle and one-dimensional as it sounds.

And then, there’s the minor problem of the fact that nowhere in this book did the Joker truly send ripples of goosebumps up my back, despite the fact that he actually has some very good lines. The Joker’s face may well be locked in a perpetual smile, but the smile never reaches his eyes. Look at the way he walks out of Arkham Asylum:

Why so serious, man?

Of course, more than with the art, this is a problem with the writing, which is an unlovely colossus of Holvudine psychology whose sole purpose is to describe an interesting villain. Never mind that the psychological portrait – inasmuch as it makes sense; internal contradictions abound – has little, if any, resemblance to the mythological symbol it tries to explicate. Seriously, is there any Joker worth our time who would be angry during his release from Arkham Asylum? Is there any Joker who would … ahem … “salute” the city as this white-faced guy does? The last I checked, the Joker loved Gotham, and didn’t really care about territory and respect as he does in this book.

And, most importantly, the guy should be allowed to choose to smile, not have his lips pulled tight by a scar.

What do I want from a graphic novel about the Joker? I don’t want a definitive explanation of seventy years of villainy; what I want is an interesting perspective. Because, finally, that’s the only thing any one writer can offer, for any mythological figure. I love other Joker-explanatory novels, like Alan Moore, Brian Bolland and John Higgins’ The Killing Joke, Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum and Bob Hall’s I, Joker (the first and third being my two favourite pieces of art featuring Batman), and all of them, if seen as a definitive explanation, look hackneyed and idiotic.

What I don’t want is an uninspired, “starkly realistic!” piece featuring a white-faced man being diagnosed by an emotionless psychiatrist who calls himself a writer; and that, dear reader, is exactly what this Joker is.

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6 Responses to “Knock! Knock! “Who’s there?” “Joe.” “Joe wh–?””

  1. S M Rana said

    Welcome back!!

  2. Thanks (again) for the warm welcome.

  3. I agree about Azzarello going overboard with the writing.. especially the whole gig about the henchmen’s sense of misplaced awe vis-a-vis the Joker.. sloppy stuff, not worthy of the man who gave us “100 Bullets”

    However, c’mon I thought there were several very very good panels artwise… the cover, KIller Croc etc.

  4. Aditya: you found me! I was just wondering whether to call you over in my reply.

    While I agree with you that the art was in fact fairly impressive — and that Azzarello is capable of so much better, now that I’ve read his comic about Lex Luthor (haven’t read the one you mention) –, I felt that all of it was tailored to showcase a vision of the Joker for which I have little sympathy or patience. Even the writing: I didn’t find it sloppy so much as utterly misguided.
    If someone wrote a similarly styled (both visually and in terms of writing) novel centering on batman undergoing a moral crisis, or on Sam Spade, I would be first in line to praise the artwork (assuming also that more empathy, by which I mean evidence of the writer actually feeling out his character rather than fitting him into a fairly generic hard-boiled role, was put into the whole thing).
    I chose to damn the artwork not because I found it bad or unskilled but because I found it idiotic — in my view, a much greater sin.

  5. Greg said

    Let me echo S M in saying, “Welcome back!”

    As you can see, in the interim I’ve dropped the litdreamer moniker. Except on Twitter.

    So, will you be writing posts more regularly now? (And I agree that the Joker looks too serious)

  6. Well, thanks, and probably not. My engagement with the art world has become significantly less, though I do make the occasional mistake of seeing some critically acclaimed movie, or reading a comic, or sometimes even a novel.

    I’ve been following your blogs (just not commenting much), so I’ve known about the transformation since it happened.

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