A Clown Walks Into A Bar: Batman #13 Review

Scott Snyder spent a lot of his time at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con hyping his Death of The Family storyline as one of the definitive Joker storylines of all time… and at the time, it sounded like an awful lot of hype. Here’s what I wrote about his comments at the time:

“It really is our Killing Joke… this is an explanation of what makes The Joker special as a villain.”

“He will rape and kill… and do everything to break you,” Snyder said. “[We wrote The Joker] the most fucking twisted we possibly could.”

All of which sounded promising, but let’s face reality: there ain’t a comic writer alive lucky enough to get to write the main Batman title, with The Joker as the villain no less, who ever said, “The Joker? Fuck that guy. He’s no K.G. Beast, I’ll tell you what. So yeah; I fucking phoned it in… what’s that? Yeah, it’s spelled L-O-B-D-E-L-L…”

So the hype kinda slid off my back at the time, but now it’s three months later, and Batman #13, the first issue of the Death of The Family crossover, is out in comic stores. And sure, there’s been a lot of excitement over the story, and yeah, the owner of my local comic store, where they know me by name and ask me not to ask the paying clientele if they want a dose of my “Joker Venom and / or Happy Juice,” told me, “That’s the way The Joker should be written,” when he handed my my copy… but it’s all just hype still right? That’s the question I asked myself when I opened the book an hour ago, and…

Son of a bitch. Now that’s The Joker.

Batman #13 opens in the quiet aftermath of the Court of The Owls event. There are evil omens about: a two-headed tiger cub was born at Gotham Zoo, the Gotham River has run backwards… and Commissioner Gordon is out of his hidden stash of cigarettes (and as a former smoker: NOOOOOO!). And as the Gotham Police go about non-supercrime business for the first time since the New 52 reboot, a nice man in a delivery uniform walks into the precinct looking for something he left there with a joke he’s dying to tell…

Look, as the first part of a long crossover event, the plot almost doesn’t matter here; considering it involves a long-term plan from The Joker, we probably won’t get the full scope of it until Batman stops it at the very end. But what is here is very, very intriguing, particularly for the long-time Batman fan. The plot touches on all the classic origin elements of The Joker, from the Red Hood at Ace Chemicals, to a reenactment of The Joker’s first killing back in Batman #1 (The real Batman #1, from 1940, where he killed a guy 24 hours before he dropped dead), to taking over a television broadcast to kill a guy (well, that’s more from Tim Burton’s first Batman movie, but considering that was 23 years ago, I’m willing to call that classic). Throw in a reference to the Barbara Gordon shooting in The Killing Joke and you have a story that calls strongly to the beginning of The Joker… which gives the whole thing a sense of beginning. Which is an interesting and ingenious way to add weight to the character; if you keep riffing that this is something that is starting, that means it can go anywhere. Which is exciting, and not a feeling I’ve gotten from The Joker since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

And when it comes to The Joker himself, Snyder (and James Tynion IV in the backup story Tease) switches things up from that character’s status quo enough, and in the right way, to make him genuinely creepy. The Joker, normally the equal opportunity employer of moronic henchmen in clown makeup, does his own dirty work killing cops here. He implies – with good evidence to back it up – that he’s been sleeping under Commissioner Gordon’s bed. His first instruction to Harley Quinn in Tynion’s backup story? “Take off your clothes.” Add in a real, solid inkling that Joker knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne, and we have a depiction of The Joker that is familiar, but more brutal and obviously dangerous, and the effect is Goddamned creepy. This Joker carries whimsy, yet is far more personally violent, which gives the character a feeling of unpredictability… hammered home most effectively by seeing Harley in tears, telling Batman, “He’s not the same, Bats. He’s not my Mr. J. anymore…”

Additionally to Harley’s obvious terror at Joker’s new… shall we say, determination, Snyder drives home the stakes by showing the effect that Joker has on the main characters. Snyder shows us Gordon and Batman both implying just how frightened they are of Joker. A short sequence where Gordon asks Batman if his fear shows, and Batman not exactly denying that he feels it himself, help drive home the stakes. Even in Killing Joke, Gordon was able to withstand a direct attack from Joker, and Batman only showed anger. To imply that they are baldfaced scared this time around makes everything feel real.

Greg Capullo’s work is much as it has been in prior issues, with a look that mixes a look of both McFarlane and Norm Breyfogle: good use of shadows, highly detailed linework, and good cape effects. The trouble is that Batman isn’t the draw here; this is the first time we’ve seen The Joker resplendent since the New 52 reboot, and the story requires Joker to be kept hidden until the last page, which means we only get the full, grotesque glory of the new, faceless Joker once… but it is one hell of an image. It’s an image that, frankly, pushes the apparent concept of the new Joker home: he wears the face of the same old clown, but there is obviously something  worse underneath the surface. Combine that with easy-to-follow panel layout, and some damn good flashlight effects that heighten the tension while Joker stalks through the police station, killing indiscriminately, and you have a damn good looking main story here.

Look: in my longboxes upstairs, I have some Marshall Rogers Detective Comics issues from the 70s, the first print of The Killing Joke, and the first print issue of Jim Starlin’s Death In The Family where Robin was killed by The Joker that I paid some poor dupe who didn’t know what he had three bucks for in high school gym class. I know Joker stories. And this one, at least based on this opening volley, looks to be one of the greats. It is loaded with Joker Venom – sorry, Happy Juice. It lives up to the hype. Highly, highly recommended.