Sunday, November 23, 2014
The Joker: Death of the Family
Publisher/Year: DC, 2013
Artist: Greg Capullo, Jason Fabok, Andy Clark, Rafa Sandoval, Fernando Dagnino, Ed Benes, Vincente Cifuentes, Eddy Barrows, Patrick Gleason
Writer: John Layman, Ann Nocenti, Adam Glass, Gale Simone, Kyle Higgins, Scott Lobdel, Fabian Nicieza, Peter J. Tomasi, Scott Snyder
Collects: Batman #13-14 & 17, Detective Comics #15-17, Catwoman #13-14, Suicide Squad #14-15, Batgirl #13-16, Red Hood #13-16, Teen Titans #14-16, Nightwing #14-16, Batman and Robin #15-17
One factor in both the creative success and, I think, the reader popularity of writer Scott Snyder’s five-part “Death of the Family” arc in Batman was its context.
After a one-issue appearance in writer/artist Tony Daniel’s 2011 Detective Comics #1, in which the new, New 52 Joker appears just long enough to have his own face removed and nailed to a wall, the character disappeared for one year, both in story time and in real-time.
Thanks to remarkable restraint on the part of Snyder and the other writers of DC’s ever-growing line of Batman comics (and, one imagines, a great deal of editorial enforcement), The Joker was a non-presence in their line for that entire year (save for flashbacks and appearances in out-of-continuity books like the digital-first Legends of the Dark Knight).
That meant that when The Joker finally did return in this storyline, it almost automatically made the storyline special, and the reader could more readily identify with Batman: This wasn’t an everyday night threat like The Court of Owls or The Penguin or Two-Face or the Al Ghul family, this was something more rare, unique and even apocalyptic (It wasn’t all due to the fact that DC rested the character, of course, but that sure helped prime the pump).
The stories collected in Joker: Death in the Family chronicle DC’s 180-degree turn on their policy regarding Joker appearances, the strictly controlled rationing of the first year of The New 52 turning into a deluge.
If you read the storyline monthly, I imagine all these Joker appearances in all of the Batman books got very tedious very fast, and might have even ruined the experience that Snyder, artists Greg Capullo, Jock and others crafted in the Batman title: A 100-page, novel-length, can’t-put-it-down epic, perfect for a graphic novel reading (Also hurting? The climax of Grant Morrison’s years-long run on Batman, which was playing out simultaneously in Batman Inc; the stories don’t compliment one another very well, and somewhat contradict one another, and a thing that DC was promising at the end of “Death of the Family” actually occurred in Batman Inc like a month later. More on that later).
This Joker book, on the other hand, collects every thing labeled as a crossover or a tie-in, making for a 456-page slog that ought to make anyone sick and tired of The Joker. Most of these are somewhere between lesser quality and far lesser quality than that of the Sndyer and company material from Batman…except for the bits of it that are Snyder and company’s material from Batman.
As DC did with their "Night of the Owls" crossover material, this book doesn’t collect everything, but it does collect all of the tie-ins (which will also be collected individually in collections of their home titles), plus repeats important material from the main book, Batman.
So this doesn’t replace Batman Vol. 3: Death of the Family, it’s meant to be a companion to it…although it does include some key material from Batman Vol. 3 as well.
It’s meant for completeists who trade-wait, basically. If you just want to read “Death of the Family,” then you’ll want to read Batman Vol. 3. If you just want to read “Death of the Family” and maybe follow your favorite character Batgirl, well, read Batman Vol. 3 and Batgirl Vol. 3, both sub-titled “Death of the Family.” And so on. But this book? This is really only for someone who wants way too much of what might at first seem like a good thing.
Because the book contains material taken from so many books (in addition to collecting the entirety of many issues), its broken up by character, rather than title or story arc.
Let’s take them on individually, because I am a glutton for punishment and, if you’re still reading, so are you (For a more concise, and less exhaustive exhausting review, I did cover this book in the space of a few paragraphs elsewhere already).
This part is taken from three issues of Detective Comics, by writer John Layman and artists Jason Fabok and Andy Clarke…or, I should say, the lead story in three issues of TEC, as TEC now has back-up stories featuring related side-stories. It seems that what Layman and company did for the “Death” crossover was to use the main story for the tie-in, and retreat into the back-ups to tell their own, ongoing story (In which The Penguin’s right-hand man decides to usurp his boss’ criminal empire, and declare himself “Emperor Penguin”).
The TEC tie-in is sort of counter-productive, and doesn’t seem to sit well next to the Batman portion of the event, unfolding in Batman.
In it, Batman is running around town dealing with various Joker wannabes, clown-themed killers, gang-bangers and idolizers who are celebrating the villain’s return by going on crime sprees of their own.
Among the legions of Joker fans is a small group of the most-accomplished and threatening of the would-be Joker acolytes, calling themselves “The League of Smiles.” They’re lead by someone calling himself “The Merrymaker” who claims to represent The Joker.
On it’s own, and de-coupled from “Death,” this would be an okay Joker story not actually featuring The Joker, but here it basically just raises logistical questions, like why Batman is dealing with this crap all by himself when he has a family of helpers who could be dealing with it while he concentrates on bringing down The Joker (The whole point of the "Death" story being that Batman now has an entire family of helpers, and whether The Joker can kill that family unit or not; in it, Batman expressly forbids them all from going after The Joker themselves), and when he finds time to do this between the panels of the story in Batman, which, frankly, keeps him pretty busy.
The designs for a few of the Leaguers are stronger than others—too many of the background characters look too much like juggalos — although I’m not a fan of Fabok’s art. It’s very detailed, and looks like very good David Finch art (if you can imagine such a thing), or perhaps not-as-good Ethan Van Sciver art.
The origin of The Merrymaker is kind of interesting, especially when taken in relation to the overall theme of Layman’s story here, although I had a hard time accepting his fate after reading The Law of Superheroes regarding whether The Joker and his ilk should be able to avoid prison or the death penalty by being criminally insane.
Also, the whole Joker-as-inspirational figure aspect of the story does feel like something cribbed from the old Batman Beyond cartoon, and was recently explored in the new-ish Batman Beyond comic book storyline “10,000 Clowns.” Not sure if Layman’s story came out before “Clowns” or not, but the cartoon certainly established that aspect of the Joker long ago.
This two-part story by regular Catwoman writer Ann Nocenti, pencil artist Rafa Sandoval and inker Jordi Tarragona is just a mess, although it’s a pretty good-looking mess, thanks to the fine artwork. Or, that is, the fine design and rendering chops on display in the artwork; large sections of the art border on unreadable.
I suspect that was a creative choice on the part of Sandoval and/or Nocenti, meant to reflect the crazy mind of The Joker, or the crazed state he puts Catwoman in, and/or the effects of various drugs she’s exposed to.
There are whole passages though, some of which are action scenes, that don’t make any sense in terms of size, scale and place. The Joker and Catwoman will be fighting in a panel, for example, and both bodies are just drawn on the page, not interacting in any logical way with one another or the setting they’re in; Catwoman will be perched on a ledge high above the city, and a truck will drive by and hit her. Toys change sizes and function in bizarre ways. At least two death-traps she escapes from require careful reading of the text and then re-reading of the art, so a reader can figure out what should have been drawn there in order for the scene to make sense.
It’s so hard to read, and there seems to be some breakdown in communication between the script and the art, that it’s hard to even give the story too much in the way of consideration. Basically, Catwoman falls somewhere between a Batman villain and a Batman ally, and Joker treats her accordingly: Visiting her and trying to press her into some service as he does to Harley Quinn, The Penguin and Riddler in the Jock-drawn Batman back-up stories, yet also attempting to take her out of Batman’s life in order to kill Batman’s “family.”
This could be due in large part to Catwoman’s rather confused status in The New 52, but I suspect Nocenti chooses simply to present The Joker as feeling Catwoman out, emotionally torturing her and physically trying to kill her in an attempt to figure out where she is in terms of Batman, before leaving her as they go their separate ways.
I really liked what bits of the artwork I could read, and I suppose the storyline works well enough as a time-wasting answer to the question of “Hey, how come Catwoman didn’t help Batman out during ‘Death of The Family’…?”
If that is what you’re in to.
I was surprised by three bits, the first two because they seemed needlessly provocative, the third for just being dumb.
The first was the scene in which Catwoman’s black friend shows up clutching a bucket of fried chicken (She’s only on three pages, two of which feature her eating fried chicken). I think the chicken’s only there so Catwoman can make a comment about not liking the skin, metaphorically tying in to one of the themes of this story and “Death” in general, but it feels…off to have your only black character eating a bucket of fried chicken constantly. (Also? Catwoman doesn’t seem like the sort to eat fast food-chain fried chicken; nutrition aside, I can’t imagine that grease is all that great a thing to get on a super-thief’s hands as she’s about to go to work).
The second was the inelegant way in which Catwoman phrases her realization that The Joker is even more in love with Batman than she could ever be: “He’s so blind he can’t see he just wants to be Batman’s be-yotch.”
The third? Just the disguise Catwoman wears to a meet a contact.
Er, maybe a short blonde wig and a pair of dark sunglasses might have disguised the fact that you’re Catwoman a little better than simply wearing a hood over your Catwoman costume…?
This section includes the two Harley Quinn bits from Batman: The Snyder/James Tynion IV/Jock back-up story in which The Joker approaches Harley and presses her into service in his plot to take down Batman, first suggesting he allow her to cut off her face with a straight razor and, when she declines, instead having her dress up as The Red Hood for him, and the Snyder/Capullo portion of Batman in which she does as The Joker asks.
These are book-ended by passages from Suicide Squad, written by Adam Glass and penciled by Fernando Dagnino, which show The Joker pre-approaching Harley for this task, and then attempting to dispose of her afterwards.
It’s unnecessary information to non-readers of Suicide Squad, and evidently only there for the anal retentive who want an explanation for, say, what Suicide Squad leader Amanda Waller might think about Harley running off to be in a Batman comic for a few pages.
It’s also, in keeping with what little of Suicide Squad I’ve read, crass and poorly-drawn.
Dagnino’s main concern seems to be getting Harley’s huge, white boobs just right, as they are in most every panel, barely contained in her tiny, ever descending corset thingy. He also spends a lot of attention on the Joker’s gross new face, but he pays less attention to things like Harley’s cape, which is there in one panel, gone in another, and then back again.
The plot of these book-ends? Harley, Captain Boomerang and Amanda Waller are at Deadshot’s funeral, when The Joker attacks everyone with a paralyzing rain that knocks everyone but Harley, dressed in a black fetish-y widow’s outfit, unconscious.
The Joker punches her in the face, then sticks a straight razor in her open mouth, playing around the inside of it with the blade as he talks to her a half-dozen panels. Then he threatens to cut of Deadshot’s corpse’s dick if Harley doesn’t help him. She agrees.
Then we get the Batman sections.
Harley, back in her tiny Suicide Squad costume is then attacked by The Joker, and the pair have a pretty savage battle.
He strangles her with a chain, attempts to throw her in a vat of chemicals, bites off part of her ear, and sics rabid hyenas on her (These Dagnino draws as if he’s simply going by someone’s description of a hyena, rather than Google Image-d “hyena;” one takes a big, bloody bite out of Harley’s thigh, but the wound disappears in the next panel, and apparently she doesn’t get rabies from the bite).
She attempts to throw him into the same vat of chemicals, bites off part of his tongue and smashes him face-first into a boiler so hard that his face sticks to it, and he has to peel it off and re-fasten it before continuing the fight.
The Joker ultimately wins, and chains her in a room full of skeletons to starve to death, but she manages to escape, by tearing her flesh out of the shackles.
Gail Simone’s Batgirl is one of the books I’ve been most actively avoiding since the New 52-boot. I don’t think the reboot was a good idea in general, particularly since it was a sort of half-assed reboot where rather than starting over, they just changed a bunch of stuff in the characters’ histories, and didn’t tell anyone what had changed (And, of course, certain characters, titles and franchises were rebooted more thoroughly than others).
And, speaking as a fan here, I liked Barbara Gordon. I liked Oracle. I liked that she had a story, a character arc, in which she grew up and changed. I liked that there was such a prominent character in the DC Universe that was in a wheel chair. Reverting her to a teenage crime fighter in a Bat-costume, making her Female Batman Analogue #2 seemed like a supremely bad idea to me (Also, I didn’t like any of the creators involved enough to try to ignore all of that to try the book out).
But! If you were going to so thoroughly reboot Barbara Gordon’s history so that she was never Oracle, so that she was still a very young girl and so that she was still Batgirl (something she gave up being before she lost the use of her legs), then why on earth wouldn’t you also reboot the fact that The Joker once shot and paralyzed her?
The only things they kept in continuity regarding Barbara Gordon were 1). She has red hair 2.) Her dad is Police Commissioner Jim Gordon and 3.) Batman: The Killing Joke totally happened.
This got to brain blowing-up for me when Barbara mentions in the narration that not only did The Joker still shoot and paralyze her, she was paralyzed for three years, and has only been Batgirl for a year after that.
So, and I know I mentioned this on the blog before rather randomly, this means that Batgirl was only Batgirl for about a year or less before being shot, and has only been Batgirl for another year or two since. It also means she was Batgirl sometime around Year Two of Batman’s career, and also got shot by The Joker around that time.
That’s just nuts. In the previous continuity, Dick Grayson wasn’t even Robin until the third year of Batman’s career. Here Batman's got (and lost!) a Batgirl immediately. It also rather boggles the mind as to how Batgirl is, like, any good at all when it comes to like, you know, fighting and superheroing. I had spent as much time training to run 5K races by the end of my sophomore year of high school, and I wasn’t exactly Olympic material or anything, you know?
This also means that while The Killing Joke still happened, it happened very differently (Maybe Simone already wrote it, within the earlier pages of Batgirl?). I’m not sure the story—written as a sort of “last” Joker story—makes sense if it happened, like, during Year Two, as Batman and Commissioner Gordon could have only dealt with The Joker so many times by that point in their careers (Also, where was Robin in The New 52 Killing Joke? There had to be one. With four Robins in five years, Batman couldn’t have gone without one for any significant stretch of time). Batgirl couldn’t have retired from crimefighting at that point; she’d just started. And if that was four years ago and she’s in her early 20s no, did that mean she was a minor at the time? Because that’s a whole new icky aspect to an already dark, dark story.
Anyway: This story. It’s four issues of the Batgirl monthly, all written by Simone. The first issue is drawn by Ed Benes who is, you know, Ed Benes.
The rest of them seem to be drawn by Daniel Sampere, who does one of the better Joker faces (but it’s still not as good as Patrick Gleason; that guy’s the all-around champion Joker face drawer).
Simone is picking up the Commissioner-Gordon’s-son-is-a-brilliant-serial-killer plotline that Scott Snyder started during his Detective Comics run, which The New 52 reboot cut short (and seemingly forced him to abruptly end unsatisfactorily).
In this story arc, The Joker has kidnapped Barbara’s mother as a means to lure her to him for capture, ultimately deciding he wants to marry Batgirl. James Gordon Jr. is heavily involved throughout, ultimately outwitting The Joker and temporarily saving his sister and himself—but Batgirl still ends up as she must, in The Joker’s clutches for the finale.
The story ends with a splash page featuring The Joker changed out of his repairman’s costume and into his more traditional purple suit, about to uncover a silver serving dish dripping blood, and telling Batgirl, “You simply won’t BELIEVE what I’ve got under her for YOU!” (Hey, so, uh, spoiler warning, right? You’ve all read “Death” at this point, and know what is actually under all the serving trays? What did he show to The Penguin and Two-Face in the penultimate issue of the arc? He showed them one of them, I guess, but which one? That bugs me).
In the context of this book, and taken on its own terms rather than in the greater scheme of things (i.e. all my kvetching about continuity and the fucked-up, ridiculous timeline of the Bativerse above), this is probably the average book in the collection. It’s not the best, it’s not one of the better ones, but it’s not the worst, nor one of the worse ones.
It does present a couple of problems, I think.
First, The Joker’s plan for his wife is to Boxing Helena her, although I don’t think Boxing Helena is ever mentioned. Is there another source for a story in which a dude cuts off a woman’s limbs in order to keep her that both Simone and writer/director Jennifer Chambers Lynch were alluding to independently in Batgirl and Boxing Helena, or is this an unattributed homage to the film on Simone’s part? (To be charitable in my phrasing).
And secondly, this story seems to directly contradict the ending of “Death” in Batman in two ways. (Again, spoiler warnings, okay?) So one of the ways in which The Joker metaphorically kills Batman’s family is by sowing doubt and distrust among his sidekicks. He repeatedly claims to know who they all are in their real, civilian lives, and to have all of their secrets written down in a little book he carries with him at all times.
These are, it ends up, “jokes.” He has no idea who they are (nor does he care at all), and the book is blank. Like the gag with the serving dishes, this is just a fiendish joke of his own.
But in the Batgirl arc, he shows his book to an Arkham psychologist in flashback, and it doesn’t seem to be blank.
Also, clown-masked thugs attack Barbara Gordon’s apartment, and The Joker kidnaps Barbara Gordon’s mom to apparently trap her; the script makes it sound like The Joker doesn’t know she’s Batgirl’s mom, but, at the same time, why did he kidnap her in the first place? If it was to draw someone else out, like Commissioner Gordon or Batman, it doesn’t work, and he doesn’t seem to have tried to contact them, or be disappointed to end up with Batgirl instead. He’s just sort of hanging around a skating rink with a kidnapped Mrs. Gordon, having set a bomb and ringed the place with snipers…just in case Batgirl or someone comes for him…?
RED HOOD AND RED ROBIN
And here we get into the absolute nadir of the tie-ins, the Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza written issues of Red Hood and The Outlaws and Teen Titans that crossover with one another, featuring art by six different artists (Of whom Ale Garza is maybe my favorite, and Brett Booth is probably the biggest star).
Now Teen Titans and Red Hood are two more books I’ve avoided since the reboot, for much the same reasons as Batgirl. In addition to featuring creators I wasn’t interested in, they rebooted characters I liked into unrecognizable versions that don’t really make any sense, if you stop and think about them for, like, any seconds.
The characters are—or were—second and third-generation heroes, but there are no longer any generations in the DCU, as everything sort of happened simultaneously, so Robin III Tim Drake and the grown-up sidekick of Green Arrow Roy Harper aren’t really themselves anymore (Also, have you seen what they make poor Tim wear these days? Yikes).
Also, as with Batgirl and The Killing Joke, DC apparently decided not to reboot “A Death In The Family,” the storyline in which The Joker killed Robin II Jason Todd, who DC brought back to life many years later through a Superboy punch (I don’t know the explanation for why he’s alive in The New 52, but he was apparently still killed by The Joker and resurrected).
Reading this felt like reading a “Heroes Reborn” version of The Titans.
Here’s a plot synopsis.
The Teen Titans, in civilian clothes and calling each other by their real names (Kiran, Miguel, Cassie) discover that The Joker must have kidnapped their ally, Red Robin (These Titans are apparently Some All-Black Lady With Glowing Eyes I Didn't Catch The Name Of; Bunker, introduced with some fanfare as a gay teen, who here talks like 1980s Vibe only without the phonetic accent; Wonder Girl and Kid Flash, who is Bart Allen).
Meanwhile, Jason Todd, in his civilian identity, was hooking up with some lady he hooks up with, when The Joker stages an extremely elaborate attack in her apartment (Again, this story seems to indicate that The Joker knows Red Hood’s secret identity), and eventually captures Todd.
He fights him, and after making him run a gauntlet seemingly designed to prove without a shadow of a doubt that he totally knows his secret identity, deposits him in a room alongside an unconscious Red Robin.
The Teen Titans and the, uh, Outlaws arrive in Gotham to look for their teammates, and Batgirl shows up to make a stupid, already outdated pop culture reference…
…and offer some sort of logistical support (So this story must take place after the Batgirl one, which it follows in the collection).
The Joker has, of course, planned for the intervention of Red Hood and Red Robin’s allies, and while Kid Flash runs all over town looking for them, he’s spreading a form of Joker toxin that turns everyone it touches into a Joker, which the superheroes spend the rest of the story fighting.
In this hideout, Joker says he has kidnapped Todd and Drake’s fathers, and he makes the two former Robins fight to the death in order to save their own father (This is a fake-out. He doesn’t actually have their fathers, but reasonable facsimiles. But in order to fake them out, he must have known enough about them to know what their father’s might look like, right? So, again, this seems contrary to the end of “Death”).
The Robins figure out The Joker’s game, and Red Hood tries to shoot him to death, but The Joker anticipated that too, and then The Robins are both gassed unconscious again, and the last page features the serving tray scene we’ve already seen at the end of Batgirl.
Oh, and the weirdest part? At one point, Tim narrates that Jason is "Maybe the person who has come closest to being an actual brother in my entire life."
That's...that's a pretty extraordinary difference than the old DCU.
This three-issue arc of Nightwing, by writers Kyle Higgins and Tom DeFalco and pencil artists Eddy Barrows and Andres Guinaldo (with a pair of inkers and a pair of colorists), seems like a conclusion to what was a major arc in the title, and seems to come so close on the heels of that arc that it seems as if the book must have changed directions rather suddenly.
The last Nightwing comics I read came in the trade Nighwing Vol. 2 and in it, Dick Grayson had decided to invest in Gotham, similar to Bruce Wayne, but without Wayne’s finances backing him, creating “Amusement Mile,” an entertainment area in which his Haly’s Circus would be housed.
The Joker scuttles those plans, killing off one of Haly’s clowns, kidnapping and Joker-izing the rest of the circus and, in the course of his fight with Nightwing, blowing the whole place to kingdom come. That seems pretty significant to the title, but then, I haven’t read anything that’s followed, so I’m not sure to what extent the title really did change direction.
As with several of the stories above, this one features a Joker plan so elaborate that it stretches credibility in and of itself. If all he did during this night or three screwing with Batman was the stuff he pulled off in Batman, that in and of itself would have been a near miraculous bit of planning (tapestries of living victims hanging from the ceiling, recruiting The Penguin, freeing the Arkham inmates, dressing some of them up and pressing them into service, et cetera).
But in addition to that—and his elaborate traps and plans to get Batgirl, Robin, Red Robin and Red Hood—here he breaks someone out of Blackgate, kidnaps and poisons an entire circus, rigs a section of town with explosions and, digs up almost every single person at Haley’s who has died and posed their corpses on pikes just to shock Nightwing. And, unlike in Batgirl, where he had a gang, here he seems to be working alone.
Maybe the real origin of the New 52 Joker was that he was a janitor at the Central City police station, and he was mopping the floor on the other side of the shelf full of Flash chemicals the night lightning through Barry Allen into them…?
On its own, it’s a fine example of The Joker as a master-planner, Batman’s evil opposite in terms of being prepared for any eventuality and able to take down anyone, so long as he has time to plot for a victory. But with the other half-dozen stories that occur simultaneously? It’s kind of hard to process how this event works, unless The Joker is, like, six different people.
Oh, and the fact that Joker targets everyone at Haly’s except Dick Grayson in order to get at Nightwing would seem to indicate, once again, that The Joker totally knows his secret identity, which is contradicted in the conclusion of the arc in Batman.
The art is, as it was in the previous issues of the series I read, the weakest part, and the multiple art teams for just a single arc is a good indication of why (although I’m not generally a fan of Barrows’ style, with its muscular, agonized figure work and strained, over-acting faces…even if it is somewhat appropriate here, given the number of characters wearing chemically-enforced expressions and fighting to the death).
This section contains the tie-in issues of Batman and Robin, by Peter Tomasi, pencil artist Patrick Gleason (only one pencil artist? Weird!) and inkers Mick Gray and Keith Champagne.
Visually, it’s by far the most accomplished work in the book, eclipsing even Greg Capullo’s chapter (Looking at sales charts, I may be in the minority here, but I think Gleason is the best Batman artist at the moment, head and shoulders above Capullo and head, shoulders and torso above the rest).
His is also the best and scariest Joker. Part of that is simply how horrifying some of The Joker’s actions with his face that Tomasi has him take are (When Robin first encounters him, Robin is hanging upside down by his ankles, and The Joker has his own face on upside down, so his eye-holes are full of teeth and his maniacal eyes are staring out of a wide mouth hole).
Much of that though is how Gleason draws the face. First, it’s thoroughly three-dimensional, with a pancake-like thickness, rather than appearing like a mummy-think, paper-like mask, as most of the other artists draw it. There’s a tactile quality to The Joker’s flayed-off face, which makes his playing with it all the scarier.
Gleason also seems to have put more thought into what that might actually look like, so instead of having a nose structure, the face is smooth there (Having never skinned a face, I’m not sure what happens to the nose area, as there’s no bone under there, just cartilege…would the face-flayer have cut around the nose, leaving a nose hole, similar to the eye and mouth holes, or chopped it off completely? Is it possible to skin the nose itself?)
Most of the time, The Joker’s eyes aren’t visible through his eye-holes, but appear in shadow…particularly in medium or long shot.
Tomasi and Gleason include plenty of other horror elements, though. First, the setting here is a zoo, which The Joker has also taken over and filled with various traps (a giant, prop Robin’s egg, an avalanche of insects, hyena’s poisoned with Joker venom, etc). A skating rink, an abandoned church, Amusement Mile, the Gotham City Zoo, and incursions into police headquarters, Wayne Manor and Blackgate Prison…how much of the city did The Joker conquer in this crossover series…?
Gleason draws awesome animals, and fills the pages with the squicky horror of insects crawling all over. The Joker’s rotting face naturally attracts the attention of flies and, here, maggots (as the crossover progresses, flies gradually appear around The Joker, and, at its climax, Capullo and company show the face starting to turn brown rather than chalk white, as if it were rotting).
Remember feeling itchy, wriggly and repulsed during that bug-cave scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Imagine this then: The Joker pulls a cord, and a trapdoor opens above Robin, half-burying him in piles of insects, worms and other creepy-crawlies..
Damian and The Joker have encountered one another a couple of times during Morrison’s apparently still in-continuity issues of pre-New 52-boot Batman reboot, and those are referenced here. The two have a pretty interesting relationship, as Damian is generally written like a kid-version of the angry, violent take of Batman, albeit one who is even more angry, more violent and willing and able to kill, as he was trained to do since birth.
Knowing this, The Joker apparently presents Robin with an enemy he’d hesitate to hurt too badly: A Joker-ized Batman (who ends up not being Batman, but a reasonable enough facsimile to fool the drugged-up Damian).
He first appears emerging from the sea of bugs.
It ends as all of these chapters do, with The Joker seemingly in a life-and-death struggle with the sidekicks, before the whole thing is more-or-less called off, and the sidekick taken captive, only to awaken to The Joker offering up a gory sliver platter that readers would have safely assumed almost certainly contained the head of Alfred Pennyworth.
Oh, hey, check out Gleason’s drawing of the polar bear habitat:
As with the architecture of the parks in Gotham City (as seen in Batman/Superman #1), and its many insane-looking gargoyles, that seem to be more evidence that the reason that there are so many violently insane people in Gotham City is that all of the public space seem to have been specifically designed to drive everyone who lives there crazy.
This is Batman #17, by Snyder, Capullo and inker Jonathan Glapion, the conclusion of the core “Death of the Family” story from Batman.
It also appears in Batman: Death of The Family, and Batgirl: Death of The Family, and Batman and Robin: Death of The Family and, I imagine, every one of the trades that are coming out sub-titled “Death of the Family.” It kind of has to, in order to resolve the stories that will appear in those books, but if you’re only reading, like Batman, Batman and Robin (the two best Batman books at the moment) and pick up this The Joker volume, you’ll be buying that same issue three times. If you read more of the Batman line in trade, you’ll be buying it and reading it in each of them (I sort of talked about this phenomenon the other week).
I’ve already reviewed Batman Vol. 3 elsewhere, of which this is the climax, but I did want to reiterate that what I thought most brilliant about it (other than those cool last two pages, where The Joker leaves a goodbye message only Batman would find), was that The Joker’s ultimate attack was premised on a series of evil jokes on Batman and his family of fellow crimefighters (The contents of the platters, which we find out here actually number five, rather than just the one, and the contents of his little black bat book).
The former is somewhat perplexing in that, if The Joker still has access to his face-flayer*, he really could have done what he only pretended to do, effectively ending the lives of the characters as they know them, permanently building an unclimbable wall between them and Batman and maybe driving some of them and/or Batman crazy in the process.
I also like that Batman ultimately defeated Joker by turning his own strategy—that of the evil joke—back on The Joker. That, and that the Joker is defeated by seemingly dying—not being killed by The Batman, but falling to his apparent but certainly not actual death, his body never being found. I much prefer that sort of “ending” to a Joker story than the whole arrest and incarcerate in Arkham ending, as it forces the uncomfortable question of why doesn’t someone, anyone just kill The Joker at this point to the fore, and Arkham seems pretty silly the longer you read Batman comics, given its revolving door (If Bruce Wayne devoted his entire fortune to securing Arkham and making it impregnable, he would probably save more lives in Gotham City than he does by Batmanning).
What I didn’t like about the issue was a certain professional wrestling aspect to it; Batman seems to have been getting his ass kicked throughout the entire story arc and then, halfway through this issue, he just starts winning, because it’s time for the story to end, and he has to win (or, at least, he can’t be killed or physically lose a member of his family).
As for the metaphorical “death,” it’s a clever, coy play on The Joker’s plans, and ends ambiguously—did Batman really win? Did The Joker win? Will things ever be the same?
It was slightly clumsy in its execution though, as it makes most of the characters seem unconcerned about Alfred, who is shown to still be recovering in bed when the various family members rebuff Batman,when it’s really Batman they’re mad at. And they’re all a little too transparent. Damian’s excuse seemed especially flimsy, since unlike the others he actually lives with Batman and works with him consistently.
The other huge problem with this ending isn’t the fault of the story, but the fault of its timing in relation to the climax of Morrison’s Batman Inc, as I mentioned up top. These two stories could have used a year between them, whichever one came first, but, it ended up there was only a month between them, meaning what seemed like what was likely to happen at the end of “Death” didn’t, and the death was metaphorical; then, the very next month, someone did die. (More on that in a bit).
The final bit of the book, before the gallery of covers, is Batman and Robin #17, by Tomasi, Gleason and Gray. It begins as a nice, night-in-the-life type of story, with Alfred meeting the Dynamic Duo in the locker room corner of the Batcave with an after-crime fighting meal, and then all three of them going off to bed.
The rest of the issue is devoted to the three characters’ dreams, with Damian haunted by a nightmare within a nightmare, and getting to enjoy a happy dream at the end, one that takes a very elegiac turn read at this point, given what happens to him next in the pages of Batman Inc.
I liked the send-off it gives Damian, and the way Tomasi and Gleason are able to touch on the stories they’ve told featuring these three characters up until this point, and to tease future directions, some of which will naturally never come to be (unless Damian is resurrected as his immortal grandfather is always being resurrected).
Additionally, the story Tomasi writes is full of cool shit for Gleason to draw, which is always a treat.
So this book is a little strange in the way it collects so much, and as I said, I think that, collectively, these stories all diminish the core “Death” arc, either by contradicting important elements of it, or simply by stretching a reader’s credulity well past the breaking point.
Financially, all of these tie-ins existing was probably a great idea, but I think I would have preferred it if The Joker had managed to capture the Bat-Family off-panel somehow, and, naturally, some of these tie-ins probably shouldn’t have existed at all (Catwoman and TEC certainly, and the Suicide Squad, Red Hood and The Outlaws and Teen Titans issues probably could have been toned down or trimmed so that The Joker was focused on Harley, Red Hood and Red Robin, rather than involving their extended teams…although, given that Snyder already wrote a story about how The Joker approaches Harley, I’m not sure the Suicide Squad story needed to exist at all, really. In addition to being a super-violent, poorly-made comic, it also thematically lumps her into the Bat-Family, which isn’t quite right).
The extensive targeting of characters only vaguely associated with Batman or people vaguely associated with Batman—Harley Quinn and, through her, Captain Boomerang, for example, or Red Hood and Red Robin’s teammates in the Titans and the, um, Outlaws—sort of begs questions like, “Hey, why did The Joker leave Batwoman out of it? She’s got a “Bat” right there in her name, unlike Catwoman").
Or why wasn’t Batman Inc more extensively targeted, particularly given the fact that, you know, most of them were in Gotham City at this very same time.
And that’s the biggest problem with “Death of the Family” and the conclusion of Batman Inc, the end of Morrison’s years-in-the-writing Batman story.
The events of “Death” are obviously pretty dramatic, with The Joker, as I said, conquering several square miles of Gotham City (on the downlow, apparently), publicly attacking a few big targets and killing God-knows-how-many, while managing to capture a half-dozen vigilantes and the butler of the city’s most prominent citizen).
The events of Batman Inc’s ending are even more dramatic, with Talia al Ghul’s army setting a trap that lured most of Batman Inc into it, killing Britian’s Batman, occupying Wayne Tower and then blowing it up. Batman is outlawed in Gotham City. The skies are filled with warring Man-Bat ninjas and Batman robots (“Ro-Bats,” I think they called ‘em). Damian and Jason Todd have created new identities.
Obviously they weren’t happening simultaneously, and comic book readers are pretty adept at self-editing what they read, arranging into chronologies that makes sense to them.
That would have all been fine, were it not for the fact that a Robin dies at the end.
So immediately after the conclusion of “Death of the Family,” a storyline named for one of the most famous Batman stories of all time, the one in which The Joker kills Robin, a conclusion which seemed to promise the literal death of a character (with Alfred seemingly the most likely, but Jason Todd, Tim Drake and Damian Wayne all seeming kill off-able to a certain degree), but ended up being a metaphorical death.
Readers worried about their favorite characters could breathe a sigh of relief.
And then next month Robin Damian Wayne gets killed.
I imagine that was more frustrating to serial readers of the comics than to trade readers, but the suddenness of it, the way these two huge storylines jut right up against one another, was really driven home for me when I read Batgirl Vol. 3: Death of the Family. Only a single issue (and the short story from Young Romance) separate the reprinting of Batman #17, the conclusion of “Death”, and the issue of Batgirl in which she mourns the death of Robin (mostly on the cover, and by trying to call Nightwing on the phone, as she has her own storyline following up on “Death,” involving her brother, in-progress. We’ll talk about that later).
I don’t know what the solution would have been, really. I’ve wondered before if DC maybe should have waited a few years for a New 52 reboot, at least until Geoff Johns wrapped up his years-long Green Lantern mega-story and Morrison his Batman story. DC did take a few months off with Batman Inc, as it wasn’t one of the original New 52, but a replacement title in a later wave of new series. Perhaps if it weren’t for that, it would have wrapped up prior to “Death,” which wouldn’t have featured Damian in it at all…but I don’t know, maybe a Batman without a Robin wouldn’t have worked, as then Batman would be working more or less solo, just with a large group of ex-sidekicks…?
The timing of the two stories was obviously less than ideal, and I think hurt each of them when read in a larger context of the Batman line. But I don’t know how one fixes that, either, even with the benefit of hindsight.
Perhaps one fix might have been not to make such a big deal out of Damian’s death, and resurrect him immediately? I was really struck by how un-final his death was in Batman Inc. By the end of the story, his grave has been emptied, as has that of his mother, who surely won’t stay dead for long, and his grandfather is shown in a room full of clones of Damian and talking about inventing a new process for bringing the dead back to life.
I imagine Morrison left things as they were so that he could have his ending—he created Damian, he killed him—and let DC go whatever way they wanted to with him after that. But by having the entire line of Batman books mourn Damian, and then relaunching Batman and Robin as Batman and [Someone Helping Him Cope With Damian’s Loss], it seems like DC decided to let Damian stay dead for a while.