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:
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.