Batman: Three Jokers #1 (of 3)
Who is the Joker?
Back in the far-ago time of 2016, Batman was briefly imbued with the power of the Mobius Chair during writer Geoff Johns’ “Darkseid War” storyline in Justice League. With the power of all knowledge there has ever been, Batman asked one simple question:
“What is the Joker’s real name?”
The Chair’s response left even Batman at a loss for words: “That’s impossible.”
Later, when asked by Green Lantern what he had been told, Batman solemnly replied, “It said there were three.”
“Three what? What does that mean?” Hal Jordan asked, equally puzzled.
“Three Jokers. I don’t know what it means… but I’m going to find out.”
That was four years ago, give or take a pandemic and the general crumbling of society and more than a few earthquakes throughout the comics industry.
A lot has changed since then, in every sense of the word. What was supposed to be a key part to DC’s myriad “Rebirth” mysteries fell by the wayside, as Johns became more entangled with the Hollywood end of DC’s various enterprises, and writing monthly comics became an something of an afterthought for him. His other baby wrought from “Rebirth,” Doomsday Clock, took two years to complete instead of one, and in the interim, DC editorial opted to move continuity away from the grand scheme of entwining Watchmen‘s Doctor Manhattan into the DC Universe proper and onto other things, like Scott Snyder’s then-percolating Dark Nights: Metal, Justice League, and now Death Metal. Doomsday Clock has been somewhat graciously if awkwardly grafted onto that particular opus, leaving fans more than a little let down but also wondering: what on Earth would ever come of these “three Jokers?” If such a fate could befall the weighty and seminal Doomsday Clock, what chance would this so-called “three Jokers” mystery have of making an impact? Would the long-promised miniseries ever come out? If it did, would it even matter, given how much had changed since the time of its initial whisperings? Was Geoff Johns’ day as supreme DC architect past?
But now, four years later, Batman: Three Jokers #1 has at last been unleashed upon fans. Skepticism surely abounds: after so long a wait, would it even matter? Would fandom even care? After such a long wait, could any product possibly live up to expectations, heightened by the interminable and crushing and inexorable passage of time?
Let’s not mince words: Three Jokers #1 is a masterpiece, through and through. It does everything a comic with its gravitas should do: it sets the mood and tone. It crafts a mystery that has no easy answer. It delivers multiple moments that will leave readers picking their jaws up off the floor. If this isn’t a perfect comic, both in terms of delivery and execution, I don’t know what is.
From Johns’ mostly-silent opening pages to the closing shocker, no panel is wasted. Artists Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson are on a completely different level here, perfectly pacing each sequence, drenching the pages in the appropriate levels of light and dark, and capturing dynamic heroes who at once appear fully human and somehow more than – think peak-era Jim Lee, but with fewer hatch marks and heavier inks.
The pacing of the scenes – the silent ones in particular – deliberately craft a mood that sets in immediately, grabbing the reader by the throat and pulling them down into the abyss. Geoff Johns understands the symbolic weight of the Joker, particularly in his relationship not just to Batman, but to Gotham, Batgirl, and Red Hood, too. He’s not just some random bank robber, or another of Batman’s rogues gallery. He’s the apex predator, forever unknowable, unpredictable, and frightening in his ability to constantly surprise. Part of the Joker’s enduring allure is that we don’t know anything about him – who he is, where he comes from. Alan Moore came darn close to a definitive origin in The Killing Joke, but in the end, even he understood the power of the Joker’s mythology by having him declare that sometimes he remembers his story one way, other times another. Film has been an altogether different story; Tim Burton sought to craft a more cinematically and symmetrically appealing version of the character by making him responsible for Thomas and Martha Wayne’s murders; more recently, Joaquin Phoenix sought to portray him as a man rejected by society and slowly decaying on the inside until nothing was left except the madman. Christopher Nolan famously – and perhaps most appropriately – left Heath Ledger’s Joker exactly as he should be: a cipher, a mystery, a man who exists only to destroy, with no origin necessary. Nolan and Ledger understood the Jaws principle: less is more. As Michael Caine’s Alfred Pennyworth famously described him, “Some men only want to watch the world burn.” With respect to the Joker, truer words have never been spoken.
Geoff Johns, then, is treading on extremely delicate eggshells here, by (at least maybe) offering an alternative solution to all the different iterations of the Joker that have existed on comics’ page for eight decades now: that there’s never been just one. There was the original, murderous Conrad Veidt-inspired “Man Who Laughs” (based on the 1928 film of the same name); the toned-down, playful bank robber iteration of the Comics Code era, the reinvigorated and deadly O’Neal and Adams version circa Batman #251’s “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge!,” Grant Morrison’s psycho-serial killer version from Arkham Asylum; Snyder and Capullo’s demented arch-mastermind who wore his own severed face with a belt strapped around his head. All of these versions of the Joker are equally valid; yet none are definitive. There has never been a one, true definitive origin of Batman’s greatest foe. Speaking metatextually, I’ve always posited that he exists because nature abhors a vacuum. If Batman exists to eliminate common criminals, then something new and evil and terrible must rise to replace them, to not only challenge Batman, but to provide a counterbalance to his own extreme version of justice in the face of injustice. Chaos versus order on a grand level. Batman exists; therefore, so too must the Joker.
That sort of totemistic, elemental power the Joker holds – both on page and in the minds of fans – is on full display in Three Jokers. Johns knows this, and knows exactly how to play to those expectations – and subvert them. No easy answers are coming yet in this, the first of three installments. And that’s exactly the way it should be, especially where the Joker is concerned. He’s too important, both symbolically and historically, to have a casual, linear origin tossed at him. To do so would be a disservice to the character. And who’s to say that Three Jokers is even an origin story? It might just be a damn fine mystery. Part of what makes Three Jokers #1 so thrilling is that the reader really isn’t given any clues as to what might or might not be happening with this mystery. It’s the kind that not even Batman can easily solve. And in that regard, this is not just a top-notch Joker story, it’s a top-shelf Batman, story, too. Adding Red Hood and Batgirl into the mix, with their own twisted histories with the Clown Prince of Crime, just adds even more gravitas to the proceedings (Joker was really on a tear in the late ’80s). With that in mind, then, regardless of delay, this is a must-own, must-read comic of the highest caliber. A very possible contender for comic of the year, and yes – utterly worth the wait.
Here’s to crime.
After four years' wait, Batman: Three Jokers #1 is at last upon us. Despite any owed skepticism due to its extreme tardiness, this is a perfect, masterpiece of a comic. DO NOT MISS IT.
Batman: Three Jokers #1: Scars
Writing - 10/1010/10
Storyline - 10/1010/10
Art - 10/1010/10
Color - 10/1010/10
Cover Art - 10/1010/10
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