Joker review by Armeka Jackson
Written by Brian Azzarello
Art by Lee Bermejo
I once was asked what comic book universe I would prefer to live in, Marvel or DC. I immediately answered Marvel. Not because I prefer Marvel over DC, but because there is no way I could ever live in a universe with the Joker in it. Brian Azzarello's new graphic novel, simply titled Joker, reinforces my answer in a way that only the best Joker stories are able to do so. Joker is a deep-layered introspective tale that doesn't just give you a glimpse of Clown Prince of Crime's Gotham City. It takes you deep in her darkest, vilest corners, dragging you by the neck and making you witness every inch of her. It leaves you feeling dirty after every page, as if you've just witnessed something that you will pay dearly for later on.
A low level hood named Jonny Frost takes the job as the Joker's wheelman, eager to make a name for himself. For unknown reasons, the Joker has been released from Arkham, with intent to take back Gotham City. It's a straightforward story elevated to greatness by great dialogue, and violence that will make you wince; not just at the gore aspect of it, but at revelation that the Joker truly loves what he does in life, and savors every kill like a full-course meal. Some acts of violence are completely calculated, some completely senseless and random. Some are both, some are neither. When his boss gruesomely slaughters an elderly couple just to lie in bed with their corpses, Jonny realizes that he has no way out. In some ways it reminded me of the movie Training Day, where a Ethan Hawke's character gets involved in the life he dreams of following Denzel Washington around town, and soon finds himself way over his head.
Every aspect of the Joker is presented in some way; the silent psychopath, the murderous funnyman, the twisted philosopher, the bipolar drug addict (though I think that last one is new.) Brian Azzarello does the right thing by not following the same formula he did with Lex Luthor: Man of Steel. That story, another villain-centered landmark book in its own right, gave us a deep understanding of why Lex saw himself as the hero in his feud with Superman, making him a sympathetic character in the process. What a mistake it would've been to try an approach like that with the Joker! Instead, Azzarello brilliantly puts us as an onlooker to his chaos. Through Jonny Frost's narration, the book immerses you as the third man in the Joker's quest to wreak havoc in Gotham. Speaking of Gotham City, its most resident crimefighter has less than five words in the whole book, but even they open a whole new dimension to the dynamic between him and the Joker. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.
Lee Bermejo's art is as important as Azzarello's writing to the story. His character design of Batman's rogue gallery is almost a blueprint for future movies. Killer Croc is no longer a giant green lizard, he's a very large, badly-skinned street thug with a taste for raw flesh. The Riddler is a Hunter S. Thompson look-alike with a limp and question marks tattooed on his stomach. Harley Quinn is a silent, murderous stripper armed to the teeth. The clown star of the book himself, Bermejo claims, was drawn before the first photos of Heath Ledger with his now iconic Glasgow smile were taken, making the book almost seem as a direct sequel to The Dark Knight. Certain shots and scenes are painted in the detailed style of Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, but most of the book takes a more traditional look which can at times feel awkward when it suddenly changes styles. This was likely done to save time and hit the stands while The Dark Knight is still fresh in our minds.
The best thing Brian Azzarello did was release this book as a complete graphic novel. The impact of this story could not have been the same if we would've taken it in monthly doses. As it is, Joker is a sinister, exhilarating read and possibly the best book of 2008. Like The Killing Joke, it creates a new level of depth that deserves multiple revisits, to further reanalyze and study what, if anything, makes the Joker tick.