(Not a review per se, just a few thoughts on a really interesting comic.)
Joker, by Brian Azzarello, Lee Bermejo, and Mick Gray. DC.
The biggest failing of mainstream superhero comics is that they deny the auteur. In the Big Two superhero universes, consistency and continuity are paramount, and no creator's vision is valuable enough to override however many years of character development and previous plots have been collected. Stasis might appear an unfortunate byproduct of "curating the characters' legacies" or whatever they want to call it, but in reality it's the most important thing. For the minds in charge, everything needs to stay the same forever, because it's worked out okay as is for this long. If anything is changed, if any chances are taken with the paymasters' intellectual properties, if any great writers or artists were just given free rein -- well, it's never been done before, so who knows? But the prevailing view says that if the talent were given creative freedom, the house of cards might crumble tomorrow. And no one wants to find out whether or not it actually would on their own watch.
So we've got what we've got.
But once upon a time a movie called Dark Knight made the bosses a billion dollars, and the worker bees in DC editorial cashed in whatever creative capital that bought them on a slick hardcover production called Joker. Joker, period -- as in no Batman. No continuity, no Comics Code, no other titles to coordinate stories with -- none of it, just provided that the barest niceties were observed. So as long as the nipples were covered and nobody said shit or fuck, Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo got to go to town on one of those blazing, individualized visions so rare to superhero comics. And the results, as it happened, were stunning.
Azzarello straddles the gap between company-owned direction and free creation better than almost anyone else who writes superheroes, and probably only Grant Morrison has had more aesthetic success on both sides of that divide. Azzarello is an experienced writer who's had plenty enough time in the industry to know that the freedom to play with some of DC's most iconic, interesting characters outside of any continuity or editorial mandates would probably never present itself again, and certainly not on such a high-profile gig. The freedom to create something like Joker is an uncommon thing indeed, and Azzarello treats this done-in-one hardcover like the chance of a lifetime it is.
These are characters we all know, even those of us who aren't habitual superhero readers -- and by know I mean more than the way the costumes look, I mean we all know who the Joker and Two-Face and the Riddler are, how they act, what it is they do, maybe even a little bit of how they think. Azzarello can't fight that. On the most basic, gut level he too is servicing the characters, because even in a bookstore market-friendly "graphic novel" there's no point in fighting decades of history. There are no nods to past stories in Joker, no shoutouts to the creators' favorite Dick Sprang or Infantino issues, but Azzarello realizes that those old stories have turned these characters into readymades, toys that don't even need to be wound up before they're set loose. By this point Batman's rogues gallery is stocked with forces of nature, elemental embodiments of the different types of evil humanity can twist itself into. So the Joker's still a maniacal sadist, Croc is still a thuggish bruiser, the Penguin's an oily sheister, and Two-Face is as smooth and dangerous as a viper. There are cores to these characters that Azzarello doesn't touch -- instead he picks them up and sets them down in a world of his own creation, far from the goodole DCU, and lets his comic chronicle how that turns out.
Azzarello's Gotham City is like an episode of "The Wire" on hallucinogens, or 100 Bullets with supervillains. By taking Batman out of the equation, he makes space to examine the nasty, almost Jungian nightmare aspects of these most dangerous of superhero characters. Suddenly the motivations aren't killing one caped man, they're what we in our world know -- power, money, adrenaline, the barbaric desire to be feared. What remains of Gotham is the vision of a crime-infested city where the maddest men rule, where malice is the ultimate goal -- and of the utter absurdity inherent to such a place, the sense of unhinged laughter into an insane abyss that only the best Joker stories have.
But instead of the deathly dandy we've seen so many times before, we get Joker in the Heath Ledger vein, with unlimited screen time -- dressed like he walked out of Hugo Boss and into a blender, doing lines of coke with a gothed-out groupie, robbing banks armed only with a bloodstained photo of the bank manager's daughter because he's dead broke. We get a Croc who looks like Stringer Bell with steroids and a congenital skin condition, hanging out in a meat locker or massaging his crotch in a strip joint. We get the Penguin in an ugly gangster's cheap white suit, vomiting his guts up. We get the hideous, steamingly bizarre truths of these characters, delivered in a twisty crime novel that isn't like anything we'd ever see in the Detective Comics or Batman pamphlets, but is still somehow more like the real thing than any of the stale superhero monthlies.
Azzarello sees the hearts of darkness in his cast, and perhaps in the Batman mythos as a whole. He takes the fun out of it, yeah -- but how fun is multiple homicide? He brings a superhero legend down to earth, yeah -- but isn't that worth doing now and again? This book is a one-trick story, yeah -- but it's a trick that no one's been allowed to do before, and it's being done by a great writer with more gusto for the job than could be expected. The script is fast and dirty, screaming off the pages with stylized dialogue, paranoia and a willingness to drag the venerable DC icons to an edge they haven't visited at least since Frank Miller did his thing in '86.
Lee Bermejo is no less impressive -- this is far and away the best work of his career. Inked by Mick Gray, his art loses its usual washed gauziness for a heavy patchwork of scything lines and huge swaths of ink. The spotting of blacks is incredibly impressive, all jagged shapes swimming into recognizable forms while maintaining the sharpness of broken glass. It looks like cubist superhero comics at points -- cubist both for the pixellated vortexes of shadow that define the characters' shapes, but also for its absolutely vicious intent. The layouts straight-up drag you from page to page, never showy or ostentatious, but with all the elegance of maximum efficiency.
It isn't often that an artist goes to town on a script like this; Bermejo works in perfect sympathy with the hard core of Azzarello's story, his art constantly groping in its inky blackness for a better composition, a cleaner panel-to-panel transition, a nastier facial expression, a more extreme moment of impact (Batman's bootsoles hitting the ground actually make a huge "RUNCH" sound effect). For all the art's meticulous detail, the reading experience is never slowed or cluttered -- rarely have pages been so filled up and yet so bleak. Bermejo absolutely raises the bar for anyone who wants to draw these characters after him. In presenting his vastly alternative view of these well-known characters, he ends up doing nothing less than defining them for the modern era.
Joker is exactly the kind of superhero comic we need more of. It is a true example of what today's top-notch creators are capable of when cut loose from the arbitrary controls imposed on them by backwards editorial systems more interested in "product stability" than their ostensible jobs -- that is, the creation of art. We need more like Joker because only comics like these can justify the continued existence of the ridiculous, unwieldy hero "universes"; Azzarello and Bermejo strip-mine 75 years of Batman continuity, throw away mounds of anachronisms, and end up with alchemy, the garbage of the modern hero comic boiled down into gritty gold. Joker is a triumph of art over product, of bold revision over static cling, and of anarchic freedom over pale, scared restraint -- a modern superhero masterpiece.