A year after DC relaunched its entire continuity, the Joker hadn’t been seen since its first month, when Detective Comics Vol. 2 #1 had stirred discussion by having the Joker’s face cut off. 12 months later, it was time for the Joker to return in grand fashion: in a crossover running through most of the Batman titles.
The main story ran in five issues of Batman Vol. 2 (#13-17). In the first chapter, the Joker made his dramatic return with a raid on Gotham’s police headquarters. In that chapter’s climax, the Joker attacked Alfred in Wayne Manor while Batman was distracted with Harley Quinn.
In the second chapter, Commissioner Gordon was attacked. In that chapter’s climax, Batman met with the Joker, who claimed to know the secret identities of the entire Batman Family and promised to kill them within 72 hours.
In the third chapter, Batman met with the rest of the Batman Family and discussed the Joker’s assertions, during which Batman revealed that the Joker might have penetrated the Batcave years before. Batman didn’t believe it to be possible, but the rest of the Batman Family was understandably upset not to have been told. Later in that chapter, Batman followed up on cellular phone traffic, leading him to confront one of the Joker’s goons, who revealed that that Joker had been running Arkham Asylum for the past year. Batman then entered the Asylum.
In the fourth and penultimate chapter, Batman made his way through the Asylum, confronting various obstacles, including other villains whom the Joker had coerced. In that issue’s climax, Batman discovered that the Joker had beaten and captured the rest of the Batman family, and he effectively surrendered, allowing himself to be electrocuted.
In the fifth and final chapter, Batman found himself seated at a table with the captured members of his vigilante family, whose bloody faces were wrapped in bandages. It seemed that the Joker had cut off their faces, as he had done to himself. But this was a ruse, and Batman escaped, confronting the Joker. In a nice turn, Batman teases the Joker by claiming he has learned the Joker’s identity, the way the Joker claimed to know the Batman Family’s identities. The Joker fell, his removed face falling cinematically — the last we say of him in the story. In the epilogue, Batman reveals that he had visited Arkham Asylum after the Joker’s potential violation of the Batcave. He believed then and still believes that the Joker didn’t know the Batman Family’s identities and wouldn’t have cared, but he didn’t know how to explain this certainty to the others. His claim to know the Joker’s identity, likewise, was a bluff.
It was a good story, filled with melodramatic turns that mostly manage to work. In many ways, “Death of the Family” reads as the ultimate Joker story, in which he orchestrates an organized offensive against the entire Batman Family and their loved ones. The assault on Alfred, mirroring the Joker’s earlier killing of Jason Todd (in “Death in the Family,” after which this storyline was named) is effective. Subsequently, Batman does seem too little affected by the fact that Alfred is being held (and presumably tortured) by a madman, and he fails to notify the others of Alfred’s capture (a failure that is both illogical and unforgivable, since it suggests the Joker might know everyone’s true identities). But Batman’s secrecy and ability to use his own allies has been a part of the character for years (e.g. the “Bruce Wayne: Fugitive” storyline). The way Batman tracks down the Joker (through cellular phone calls) is a bit unconvincing, as is the idea that Batman wouldn’t notice the Joker was running Arkham for so long. But the Batman’s journey through Arkham is atmospheric and effective. And the bizarre meeting of the Batman Family, over a dinner table in which all are made to believe their faces have been removed, is a wonderful turn. The final conflict with the Joker is also well-done, with Batman’s taunting (a lie, we interestingly find out) providing a nice twist.
True, it’s not clear why the Joker wouldn’t have removed the Batman Family’s faces. And while it’s a nice idea that the Joker, who’s sometimes been considered a postmodern individual without a true identity, wouldn’t be concerned with such things, it’s not clear how he could have done everything he did without this information. Nor is it clear how the Joker could be so scheming in the story, yet be said to be a representative of chaos who wouldn’t at least see the efficacy in knowing the Batman Family’s secret identities. (This same contradiction, between the Joker’s scheming and him being considered a representative of chaos, is also present in the film The Dark Knight, although there the chaos talk is all self-serving bluster, whereas we’re apparently supposed to take it a bit too seriously in “Death of the Family.”) Also, Batman’s rather bad behavior to his colleagues, which endangered them and their loved ones, is never fully addressed. Still, the story largely works, has several memorable sequences, and (rather impressively) manages to fulfill its promise as a major Joker story.
The story also pays homage to past Joker stories, acting in some ways as their culmination — although it can’t really be this, since everyone knows the Joker will inevitably return. Many past Joker stories are referenced. But so too is the theme, especially present in The Dark Knight Returns (by Frank Miller) and Arkham Asylum (by Grant Morrrison and Dave McKean), that the Joker loves Batman. Here, that’s presented more as an emotion than a homoerotic tension, but it’s impressive to see this theme addressed so strongly in the monthly Batman titles.
Far less impressive, however, were the various tie-ins across the various Batman titles. For one thing, the Joker seemed to be everywhere at once, attacking everyone and orchestrating everything. This strained logic, but it also ran against the idea of the Joker as a creature of chaos. For another thing, it’s hard to fit many of these stories into continuity.
There are really only two main places during the central story in which other stories may easily take place. The first is during the first chapter (in Batman Vol. 2 #13), after the Joker’s return (and attack on police headquarters) but before he threatens the mayor, which leads directly into the issue’s climax. There is, between these two events, an unspecified span of time during which Gotham is aware that the Joker has returned but before he’s made his next move, and several stories must be inserted into this gap. Afterwards, Alfred is captured, and while we may be used to Batman being somewhat cold, it’s hard to imagine him rather cavalierly battling villains like Clayface without so much as mentioning that the Joker’s holding Alfred. Moreover, the events of the second chapter (in Batman Vol. 2 #14) take place over a single day, during which Commissioner Gordon is also attacked and culminating in the Joker’s claim to know everyone’s identity. If it’s hard to imagine Batman behaving normally while Alfred’s being held prisoner, it’s equally hard to imagine others (including Batgirl, who’s the daughter of Commissioner Gordon) not reacting to news of his attack.
After the Joker’s claim to know everyone’s identity, Batman’s left unconscious. When he revives, some unspecified time later, the rest of the Batman Family is around him. There’s a little bit of room, while Batman’s unconscious, for the Joker to get up to a bit of trouble; indeed, some stories must take place here. But a far greater gap occurs after Batman’s revival and conversation with his colleagues. In the third chapter (in Batman Vol. 2 #15), Batman immediately leaves this conversation to pursue the lead that takes him to Arkham Asylum and the Joker. But between this conversation and Batman’s arrival at Arkham, a slew of tie-ins occur, during which the Joker captures the Batman Family, one by one. Strangely, the Batman Family is apparently so dysfunctional that it doesn’t learn of these disappearances, despite them happening sequentially (since the Joker is involved in each). It’s also astounding that that Joker could accomplish this in such a short span of time. On the positive side, each of these particular stories ended with the Joker offering the captured character a bloody platter, setting up the dinner table scene in the final chapter (in Batman Vol. 2 #17).
Of course, the quality of these tie-ins varied. And with DC publishing so many Batman titles each month, this storyline had more issues connected to it than had been published of most of DC’s relaunched series.
“Death of the Family” didn’t lead to any lasting change. Despite the capture of the entire Batman Family, and the story’s echoes of “Death in the Family,” the Joker didn’t succeed in killing anyone. Even the Joker knowing their secret identities was undone by the ending. The story is a memorable Joker tale — an impressive feat. But it didn’t alter Batman’s status quo.
Yet a single month later, Damien Wayne would be killed off in the pages of Batman, Inc., leading to another, smaller Batman crossover, entitled “Requiem.”