Joker, the latest graphic novel telling a story completely dedicated to a character recently gaining much more mainstream attention thanks to a certain summer blockbuster film, is nothing short of an incredible accomplishment. To say the graphic novel is the best Joker story ever is absurd given the sheer amount of stories dedicated to the Clown Prince of Crime, but to say the story is amazing in its own right is a fair statement. Writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo combine their talents to craft a story that is both horrifying, challenging, and, most importantly, almost devoid of the Batman. On a side note, this graphic novel is not recommended for our junior comic book readers as this comic book contains a large amount of violence and disturbing imagery even a full grown adult could find seriously offensive and scary. But this amount of grotesque imagery both aids and harms the story.
The story, incredible as it is, leaves the reader wanting more. Not in terms of narration or really anything the primary creators can fully control, but in terms of the censorship forced on this book being blatantly obvious at times and makes me dream of a day when Vertigo, DC Comics more mature-focused sister publisher, will get their hands on a Joker story able to tell things without restraints, like the character of the Joker himself. Most notable of these times is early on when the Joker gives Arkham Asylum the finger, the panel is conveniently cut off just below his fingers. The welcome home party at a strip club is filled with conveniently placed objects to cover nudity. Azzarello does a good job of avoiding the $%#@ replacing the harsher curse words, but even pokes fun at this by having an undercover police officer character be given away because of his choice to use the word scumbag over “other words.” The censorship also reflects the absurdity of what is allowed through, with a man being shown skinned alive (the final product at least) but the inability to show someone giving the middle finger.
A major talent in this story is Azzarello’s ability to have a very diverse cast of some of Batman’s most notorious criminals without the whole story coming off like a bad super hero video game where they try to cram in as many bad guys as possible. There are appearances by Killer Croc, the Penguin, the Riddler, Two-Face, and others but this is done naturally and not forced, aiding the central story over plopping them in for a more diverse cast. Seeing these characters interact with the Joker is aided by the story’s narrator and arguably central character, Jonny Frost. The important thing about Jonny Frost is he is not Batman, and therefore readers are allowed to see these interactions between villains on an entirely different level, both morally and in amount of content. Where a normal Batman or Detective Comics would show smaller scenes of this, the narration never breaks from Jonny and therefore readers can see these things happen in great detail.
Which brings us to the character of Jonny, through whom the story is told. Jonny is a very interesting character to tell the story through, shown first as a tough thug, calloused and amoral, but his major realizations, and subsequent development, through the story are how sensitive and morally aligned he is, creating a tangible juxtaposition. This juxtaposition truly displays the Joker’s twisted mind, where Jonny begins by doing whatever the Joker tells him to, including handing him a gun the first time he meets him, he starts to question the Joker as the story progresses. The Joker knows right and wrong and ignores it, but Jonny sees how far he will have to go and wants to stop. But Jonny gets to see much of the Joker never seen before, his pointless killings and even a breakdown (where the sincerity and motivations behind it are very questionable), so the point of view is fresh and used to its maximum potential.
Lee Bermejo’s pencilling and the combined efforts of him and Mick Gray create a book that both reads well and looks great. While the art may not be the most aesthetically pleasing because of the content, Bermejo works within his constraints to present some of Azzarellos most twisted thoughts into images which make readers stop in their tracks. While the look of the Joker himself, with the Glaswegian Smile scars up his face, is similar to the movie from earlier this year, I do not see this as a negative thing. The image of the scarred face works, whether it was used to draw attention from the film’s fans or not. Bermejo argues he drew the Joker that way before he saw pictures of Heath Leger’s Joker, but I feel this to is inconsequential. If the story is seen as part of the same continuity as Christopher Nolan’s films, then this graphic novel serves to alleviate some of the more ironic lines said in The Dark Knight. Leger’s “Destined to do this forever” speech is a powerful one now, as the Joker is seen back in Gotham, back in his fight against the city and its protectors. The story brings a better conclusion to the general disappointment felt at Leger’s death and the continuation of such a legendary performance.
Two lines on the Joker’s face aside, Bemejo’s interpretation is still powerful. The inking duties have been split between himself and Mick Gray, whose vastly different styles perform wonders in the story. Bermejo limits the pages he does to those with a great impact; the first full-page, full shot of the Joker, a lot of his welcoming party at a strip club, and a lot of the final pages of the novel, most notably an extreme close-up shot of the Batman’s face to juxtapose the cover. These pages carry an extra weight to them and can be seen as visible markers of the narration of the story. But Mick Gray’s inking allows for a rougher feel to the bulk of the story. His inking allows for things the polished look of Bermejo’s couldn’t, like the heavy shading associated with Two-Face or the extreme blood involved in ssome of the Joker’s more extreme bouts of violence.
9.5/10 A contemporary classic that will be recognized as important today and years from now.