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Comicscape: Return of the Joker

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Comicscape: Return of the Joker

The badge, the bat and the clown

By Joel Rickenbach     September 26, 2012

After over a year’s worth of continuity, the Joker is finally making his debut in the New 52. Batman writer, Scott Snyder, and artist, Greg Caupullo, have been playing their cards close to the vest. Even if the info has been at a slow trickle, they’ve made it no secret that they have something special brewing, something they feel will have an impact on what we perceive to be the greatest villain in the comic book world. Both have said this new Joker story arc has been a dream job- Snyder gets to build the foundation of who the Joker will be going forward, and Capullo gets to create his own interpretation of the iconic clown prince’s look- but in some ways this also has to be an unenviable task. The pieces have to fit- a sub-par Joker equals a sub-par Batman. No hero/villain pairing has ever defined each other so well; this is big time, baby. 
Scott Snyder recently polled his Twitter followers on what they thought were the best Joker stories. Maybe he was just curious, or maybe he wanted to see if his story was thematically akin to some of his follower’s favorites, either way it really got me thinking. Not so much about what I believe to be the best Joker story (is there a list out there that doesn’t have The Killing Joke at the top spot?), but more about which Joker story would I recommend and want people to read. There’s plenty of obvious ones- Death In The Family, Arkham Asylum, The Man Who Laughs- and they’re obvious for a reason- because they’re bloody good! I remember diving into Arkham Asylum as a young teen, I read it in one sitting, afterwards I literally felt like I was on drugs; it messed up my mind for the rest of the day. That’s powerful stuff. Sometimes, when you have a soapbox such as this column, you feel the need to go classic in your recommendation- The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge (Batman #251), The Laughing Fish (Detective Comics #475-476) or Wildcard (Batman #450-451). I remember unearthing Batman #451 from the back issue bins, and thinking the Norm Breyfogle cover was the greatest thing I had ever seen. It got me to read Marv Wolfman’s unrelenting tale of the Joker taking on an impostor, and became one of my absolute favorites. Of course, when recommending a book, it’s tempting to try and go a little more obscure- Chuck Dixon’s The Devil's Advocate, Paul Dini’s Slayride (Detective Comics #826), or Grant Morrison’s divisive The Clown at Midnight (Batman #663). Stories that found new and disturbing ways to use the Joker in modern comics. In the end, I decided I should pick a story that brought the Joker to a place he hadn’t truly been- Reality. A story that appeared in the criminally short lived Gotham Central

Soft Targets (Gotham Central #12-15) is the type of story that will make you reassess what you believe the Joker to be. Nothing about him has changed, there’s no new secret to his origin revealed, nor does this story take place in some alternate earth. What this story does do, however, is remind you that the Joker can be a chilling, frightening character. There’s no giant bombs with clown faces, no amusement parks, or even an attempt to take the Joker to new heights of insanity. No, what this story does is bring the madness down to earth, and show us just how real and calculating insanity can actually be. You see, that was the entire point of Gotham Central. I may sound like a broken record, but the greatest character in the Batman books is Gotham City. Ed Brubaker and Greg Ruka knew this, and had the chance, fleeting as it was, to flesh out that dark, wonderful, fictional city. In the early 2000’s, Brubaker and Ruka were crafting a memorable era for the Bat, both Detective Comics and Batman were must reads, and both particularly paid attention to what made Gotham tick. Once their respective runs concluded, DC gave them the opportunity to continue their brand of Batman with Gotham Central. Of course, the whole point of Gotham Central was less Batman, and more Gotham. It wasn’t supposed to be a day in the life of a GCPD officer, or DC’s version of Law and Order, it was born from the hardboiled crime and noir fiction Brubaker and Ruka love so much. It was a perfect time to explore the themes of what it’s like to work in a city full of crime with the threat of super villains piled on top. Jim Gordon was no longer commissioner, so the GCPD’s link to Batman was threadbare, not to mention most of the police force didn’t trust the caped crusader anyway. Batman and his brood were firmly kept to the shadows, opening up the street level POV of the havoc and consequence the world of Gotham creates. How do the men and women of the GCPD handle the situation when one of the heavies comes calling?
It's a cold December morning, snow has been constantly falling since the night before, and Christmas is only a few days away. Commissioner Atkins is meeting the mayor to discuss budget cuts, specifically over time pay for the GCPD. Cutting OT will cripple the already struggling department, less cops on the clock means more crime on the street, and more opportunity for the villains. The heated discussion is a sadly familiar one, that is until a bullet rips through the window, and leaves the mayor dead. The GCPD now has a sniper on their hands, one that may have an axe to grind with the mayor's office. The detectives are just starting to get a handle on the situation when a call comes in saying the school Superintendent has been gunned down in the schoolyard of P.S. 48. Two dead city officials, and it's not even lunchtime. The GCPD waits in cover for hours as officers try to search the area for the sniper. The snow continues to fall, slowly obscuring the body of the superintendent.  Finally, they break cover and form their crime scene, trying to gather any piece of evidence that will lead them to the killer. It's getting dark and the temperature is dropping, it's time to pack it in, the coroner, Nora, is pointing out just how little they have to go on when another bullet cuts through the night air, destroying Nora's hand, and killing one of her fellow coroners. Through all the panic and commotion, detective Josie Mac saw where the shot came from, and rushes to the sniper's nest. Inside the top floor apartment the detectives find a laptop displaying an odd and twisted political ad. Back at Gotham Central, Lieutenant Probson gets the call from Josie Mac, and after hearing the news, decides to take matters into his own hands. He forces office assistant Stacy up onto the roof with him, and makes her turn on the bat signal. She's uncomfortable doing it, as she has been instructed only to turn it on when the Commissioner asks. They wait, in the cold, until suddenly Batman appears, and tackles Stacy, saving her from a bullet that strikes the steps where she just stood. Batman blocks the incoming gunfire, yelling for them to take cover, and confirming Probson's fear- The sniper is the Joker. What follows is a city paralyzed by fear, people either flee the city, or stay indoors, making the streets of Gotham a ghost town. But the Joker's plan is not over- He puts the city on a countdown clock to the next shooting, has the GCPD on a wild goose chase to find the location of the next target, and eventually turns himself in, which is when the fun really begins.



It's not a stretch to link how Brubaker and Ruka handled the Joker, with Nolan and Ledger's take on the character in The Dark Knight. Sure, it's not exact, but both stories focus on realism, and don't chalk everything up to insanity. Yes, he's called the Joker, but he always has a plan, and it's born from chaos. Here's hoping there are shades of this Joker in Snyder and Capullo's interpretation.  I would much rather see calculated restraint than over the top madness. I bet the man who laughs makes a grand addition to the New 52.

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joelr 9/26/2012 8:53:33 AM

A few things I forgot to mention in the column:

Michael Lark's art is absolutely stunning. His style fits the realism of the story. It's a match made in heaven.

"Soft Targets" is available in the trade paperback "Unresolved Targets" and the deluxe hardcover "Jokers and Madmen". The issues (#12-15) are also available through the digital DC store for $1.99 a pop.

shac2846 9/26/2012 8:53:58 AM

 I have all four HC volumes of gotham central. They're excellent, I would say IMO it is some of brubakers best work some would argue capt. america but I think burbaker really went all out for these. Rucka always brings his A game when writing so to have them both working on this book you knew it was going to kick ass. And yeah their interpretation of the joker is one of my favourites as well. I guess I'm okay in certain stories with the joker bombs and stuff like that but I think the character works best as a calculated madman that is driven as you said by chaos. 

I am behind since I'm a trade guy but after court of owls I can't wait to see what snyder and capullo have up their sleeves for the introduction of the joker. 

It's funny as much as we batman fans love killing joke I read an interview with Moore recently where he said if he had it to do all over again he would have gone more campy with it like the adam west show. Thank God he didn't have then inclination when he was writing it. Truly a classic. 

jedibanner 9/26/2012 8:55:03 AM

Great article Joel, might check out that story from Gotham Central.

Any chance of covering some of the Marvel stuff also, seems like there's been only DC reviews and DC books and DC this and that.

Might be interesting to get different views for different comics.

RobertTrate 9/26/2012 5:53:24 PM

 jedibanner, one reason for that is DC Comics has been supplying us with a lot material. Marvel hasn't been so inclined. Kudos to Tim Janson for getting Mania the DC Comics hook up. As for the Watchmen coverage, we decided as a wrting staff to review as many of those as possible. 

RobertTrate 9/26/2012 5:54:11 PM

 Oh and Gotham Central is AWESOME! That's a show the CW should make, Law and Order in Gotham. 

jedibanner 9/26/2012 6:49:20 PM

Hi Robert,

I have to admit ignorance on this once because I just though you guys were buying the comics yourself and then review them, didn't know you were mostly covering the stuff you were getting from different companies.

I understand the Watchmen coverage (don't agree with the idea but, everyone knows this already) because the event itself is large and does have an impact so, great coverage on that one.

I just though it would be nice also to get variaty but I can understand your reviews can be limited if they depend on the stuff suplied to you.

The reviews are always fun and a good read, and since I love comic, always nice to see different things.

Thanks for listening.

joelr 9/27/2012 8:12:38 AM

Let me clarify a little further, I don't want any misconceptions. Nothing I have reviewed or written about on Comicscape was sent to me from any publisher. From Gotham Central to Underwater Welder- all came from my own wallet/collection. Since I've been writing this column some publishers have started to send me review copies of their books, but they are wildly inconsistent (except Valiant, they are on the ball, but I'd be covering them anyway. I'm sure you've deduced I am a Valiant-head), and they never dictate what I write about. The current situation with all the DC books is really just a coincidence. Our intrepid reporter, Tim Janson, sweet-talked DC in to sending him books, so that's why there's been so many DC reviews (Annuals, Zero issues etc.), but again- Tim would be buying most of these anyway, and in the case of the Zero issues, it's a boon for us because buying 52 comics at $2.99-$3.99 a pop is, well, wallet killing.

My plan for Comicscape will always be the same- find interesting or important things that will get people to read comics. I try to give a variety (the last few weeks have been- Valiant, Michael Oeming, Spider-Man, Underwater Welder, Batman/Joker), and to be honest, I have sacrificed some hits and traffic to make sure I get some smaller books the attention they deserve (Bob, you didn't just rea that), I could easily just follow Marvel and DC every week, but that would defeat the purpose of this column in my eyes. Believe me- there is a huge back log of publishers, creators, and characters I want to get to, but I do try and strike when the iron is hot (look for my AvX wrap up in two weeks).

Jedi, you are our most consistent and loyal commenter, please keep it up!

shac2846 9/27/2012 10:34:04 AM

 Hey I have been on here since comicscape came back and I'm glad you've brought it back Joelr. Hell I'm trying to get other people on the other boards to come over here since it seems me, Jedi, and you are the only people who really hit this article up each week. Except for the marve/dc stuff which you seem to get a few extra hits. Was wondering to myself just the other day why we have some many passionate fans about the effing avengers movie but when it comes to the actual comics on a genre site nobody seems interested, but I digress. 

And for the record I really appreciate the fact that you hit up the independent stuff. Comics aren't just about two publishers and superheroes 24/7. I like the fact that you keep it pretty evenly spread with the indies and major publishers. Keep it up. 

jedibanner 9/27/2012 12:14:07 PM

Dang...somehow my response didn't get saved.

I really like your column Joel and I appreciate your details mentionned above, it gives a better perspective on the work you do for Mania.

I'm sure there must be a lot of choices to do when preparing a column, like Shac mentionned your independent stuff is always appreciated. I wouldn't like just a Marvel or DC articles but also, some suggestion on the Image or Radical books and yes, even Valiant is always a good refresher.

Maybe I'm just being greedy by wanting more from you guys cause I like what you do a lot so...keep up the good work and anything is appreciated, will wait for the A Vs X rap-up because I think the series was fun (especially now that Hulk is involved somehow)...and if you ever need help on different books, let me know.


Lex0807 9/27/2012 2:37:01 PM

 Gotham Central was my guilty pleasure for its entire run. Rather than an Arrow series, I would jump with joy if this one would grace the small screen, or an anthology series with different short stories of different 'real' people in the DCU.

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