The Joker #1
Many years back, James Gordon worked in Chicago. That was a lifetime ago… but things weren’t much different for him back then. Even there he was the too-incorruptible cop, the idealist. That idealism earned him a transfer – hard to say whether that was a reward or a punishment. On one hand, it came with a promotion. On the other hand, the transfer was to Gotham City. Before he left, an old detective asked him if he’d ever met his boogeyman. At the time, Jim didn’t take the question very seriously. Now, years later, he realizes that the devil exists... and he is always smiling.
Meanwhile, in Blackgate, Punchline adjusts to the behind bars culture… or perhaps it's more that she makes the culture adjust to her.
When DC announced the debut of an ongoing Joker title a few months back, I distinctly remember reacting with an immediate “Wait, what?”
Aside from my having personally been beyond burned out on the Joker, it’s just a weird idea isn’t it? Sure, villains can sometimes hold down their own titles, and the Joker did have one decades back, but the modern Joker isn’t really the protagonist type. Unless you’re just into following a maniac around as he burns the world down and laughs.
The good news is, James Tynion IV had the same reaction, and the result is a Joker book that is actually a Jim Gordon solo… which it turns out that I want, even though I’d previously never thought about it before.
Enter the Joker #1.
Gordon, now back to his classic white-haired iteration, is newly recovered from Batman who Laughed brainwashing and staring down retirement, circling it slowly, trying to decide what to do with himself if he isn’t an officer. He’s never managed to save much, which is worrying for his future. But Gordon is Gordon and even when newly appointed Mayor Nakano offers him a specially created position as the city’s Joker Czar, he can’t help but be honest and tell Nakano he should reconsider his condemnation of Batman. At that, the wall comes down around Nakano’s eyes, and that’s that – Gordon is now retired.
That’s the kind of moment that inspires reverie, and Jim is no different. At the end of his career, he thinks of the beginning – which was also the end of a different phase in his life. Then, he was simultaneously promoted and transferred to Gotham after breaking the blue code and turning in some dirty cops. It was shortly before he left that Danny Ryan, a mostly useless detective, asked him if he’s ever met the devil, and whether he believes in hell. “There’s the law and there’s evil,” Ryan says, “And when you see evil, you aim for the head.”
Decades later, standing in a city still reeling from the Joker War, looking down at his son’s grave, memories of Joker torturing his daughter still fresh even after all these years, he knows what Ryan meant.
Just like that, the stage is set for the play: enabled by a mysterious benefactor, Jim must choose whether to fade into a quiet retirement… or spend his final career days hunting down the most dangerous madman in the world. Time to see what he’ll do.
The Joker #1 reads more like crime fiction than a superhero (…supervillain?) book, and that is to its advantage. Trying to focus on the Joker himself would have been a near impossible task, not to mention far too grotesque an experience to read for most people. It’s like looking into the sun – just too intense. Except in this case the sun is a maniacal mass murdering clown. Better to filter the experience of Joker’s existence through the eyes of a man who, aside from Batman, has born witness to more of Joker’s destruction than anyone in the world.
Because really let’s think about this: The Joker shot Gordon’s daughter through the spine, then stripped her and took photos of her bleeding out basically just so he could show the photos to Jim and see what happens. He murdered Jim’s wife, Sarah, for no real reason. And now he has had a hand in enabling the death of James Jr. Gordon has lost his entire family to the Joker, not to mention what his family members thsmselves have lost. And so, like sunlight reflected off glass, that we can see the true monstrosity that is the Joker reflected in our protagonist’s eyes. It’s a classic premise, and it works; not to mention that, if Gordon’s benefactor is who I suspect he is, the premise is about to get even more classic.
Also, as a sidenote, if you’ve been wondering how the young redheaded Gordon that has been present for the past several years managed to melt into the classic, white haired gentleman, the why is provided as well as the how. And, as small as it is, I did think that was a nice touch.
Joining Tynion we have Guillem March on artwork and this is the biggest surprise for me. I’ve always had a difficult relationship with March’s art – not that it’s bad, but rather that it’s stylized in a way that never quite clicked with my taste. All those angular faces, all those realistic wrinkles in cloth on things.
I’ve always felt a little mixed about him, but here on this horror and crime-flavored not-a-superhero title, March is really in his element. It makes sense – March’s style has always skewed a little horror, which is one reason I’ve had a hard time with his work in traditional titles. But here, he can show off his talent for detail and atmosphere and it works.
Arif Prianto joins March as color artist, with a heavy, moody palette that visually emphasizes not only Gotham’s nightmare city status, but the difference between Gotham and a more subdued city like Chicago, where the colors are more neutral, less intense. Due to the nature of the issue – essentially narrated by Gordon’s real or metaphorical journal, Napolitano’s letters are on special display this issue, but the last page of the main feature here takes the cake with some visually trippy laughing graphics.
The Joker is joined by a 10-page backup dedicated to 2020 breakout character Punchline, also known as Alexis Kaye. This short feature is by the team behind the recent Punchline one shot, continuing from where the special left off. Alexis has made use of her considerable talent with weaponizing social media and as a result Punchline is viewed as an innocent – a victim of the Joker’s manipulations. But, after years working with the Batfamily, Leslie Thompkins knows a rat when she sees one, and she has drawn Harper Row out of retirement to investigate Kaye. The complication? Harper’s brother has become a Punchline fan. Awkward. Meanwhile, Punchline herself is just learning the pecking order in prison, and… well, as a bit of an anarchist, she is unimpressed.
Tynion and Johns join forces here to create a short but sweet slice of nightmare pie, with Punchline as the poisonous filling. Mirka Andolfo and Romulo Fajardo Jr.’s visuals are striking – a little manga-influenced, and appropriately edgy. It’s too early to say what the scope of the backup is, but so far so good.
Altogether, I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Joker book but I really enjoyed the Joker #1. It helps that the book is more focused on Gordon, a frequently underrated character. I’m looking forward to seeing where the narrative goes… and how it inevitably collides with the main Batman title.
The excellent The Joker #1 draws on the crime and suspense genres in its examination of Gordon as a character, and the impact the Joker has had on both Gordon himself and the people around him… not to mention Gotham as a whole. Highly recommended for fans of the crime genre especially.
The Joker #1: The Devil is Always Smiling
- Writing - 9/109/10
- Storyline - 9.2/109.2/10
- Art - 9/109/10
- Color - 9/109/10
- Cover Art - 9/109/10
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