What Makes for a Great Joker Story:

In Defense of Batman #17

Joker rantRecently, I wrote a review on Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman #17—the much-anticipated finale for the “Death of the Family” story arc, and I gave it a solid “10.” (I’ll spare the details as the review is available here on Newsarama.) This week, I also had the opportunity to engaged my fellow comic-file, Colin Smith (whose opinions I enjoy following on his blog, Too Busy Thinking About Comics and on Sequart) in a conversation about this particular issue of Batman. (For Colin Smith on Batman #17, click here.)

One question that came to mind, after talking with Colin, was “what makes a 10 when it comes to comics?” What does it mean to assign a comic a “10” as opposed to a “9”? Can I confess something? I’m not entirely sure. It feels kind of arbitrary to me in some ways. Is there really a difference between an “A-” and an “A+”? Sure, but at the end of the day, we’re still looking at an “A” level product. Am I not being critical enough? It’s perhaps the one place where I freely admit my review is weakest. That said, I still feel the content of what I wrote has merit, but I think it’s going to take a few more times working through the rating piece to truly get a handle on quantifying quality in this regard. What I hope my review expresses, however, is that within the context of the current series, this book delivers the capstone to a memorable, contemporary Joker story.

This notion of Batman #17 as a capstone to the “Death of the Family” story led me to yet another line of thought: what makes for a truly memorable Joker story? There are essays and books that need to be written about this, and perhaps there are already. For my part, it’s all about how well a comic delves into the psyche of the Clown Prince of Crime and how integral he is to the Batman mythos. Moreover, I’d argue that a comic that contends to be a true contender for any sort of “Joker Hall of Fame” needs to do more than just tip the hat to these themes and issues but add something to the discussion previous creative teams had not considered.

Does my rating Snyder and Capullo’s Batman #17 a “10” somehow earn it a place of equal standing alongside the best Joker stories — such as The Killing Joke (by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland), “The Joker’s 5-Way Revenge” (from Batman #251, by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams), or the two-part “Joker Fish / Sign of the Joker” (by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers)?

I’m not sure it does. I found much of Steve Morris’ critique on The Beat to be quite fair and well said. However, I would contend that it is an issue that is worth looking at within the context of the aforementioned issues most notably for the psycho-sexual tension this creative pairing attempt to draw out of the Batman-Joker relationship—something Snyder and Capullo do add to the collective conversation that few others have so successfully brought to the forefront. It’s hard not to notice the constant reiteration of “love” Joker feels for Batman and his jealous desire to remove the competition for Batman’s attention. There have been constant references to the “dance” these two entities are locked into and the cover to this issue plays upon this convention—one that is explicitly raised in The Killing Joke—and it is consummated in a macabre and hellishly deranged feast “lovingly” prepared with the best intentions (and we all know where those lead). In fact, the final panels with Joker and Batman portray them locked in this dance, drawing one another close, and whispering secrets into the ear of the other—secrets to which only they are privy.

the Joker from "Mad Love"It’s also worth noting there is a nod to the Joker-Harley relationship within the story arc as a whole—and her absence at the end of story arc speaks to the absence she feels in the classic Joker story, Mad Love. In fact, Joker’s use of Harly Quinn in the first issue was perhaps one of the more disturbing elements of the entire “Death of the Family” story arc, and I am continually surprised this is often left unexamined by and large. There is a relationship Joker has devoted himself to but it is not the one with her. That Joker rejects Harley in favor of his pursuit of his latest and “greatest” scheme centered upon elevating Batman to all new “heights” speaks to the psycho-sexual tension Snyder is weaving into this story. She is used, cast aside, and merely a pawn to aid the Funnyman Fatale in consummating his nefarious designs against the Batman. This is certainly an even darker re-imagining of the degradation which she subjects herself to in order to please “Mr. J.” and it is one of many examples that highlight the depravity and inhuman nature of the Joker. And while I am hesitant to say the Joker gets what he deserves and brand myself the “Hannibal of comics criticism,” it is hard to feel bad for the beating the madman finally receives from Batman in light of his demeaning treatment of one whom he ought to have treated with at least some…modicum of decorum if not deranged affection. But then, would he still be the Joker if he did? After all, what does finally happen to Harley? No one knows, and Joker clearly does not care.

While the “death” that takes place is seemingly the trust between Bruce and the Bat-Family, there also seems to be a bit of trust between Batman and the reader that is lost; after all, why aren’t we in on this secret? And when we lose even just a little faith in our heroes, even if only for a short time, don’t we also experience a sense of loss? Maybe I’m guilty of reading too much into this issue. On the other hand, the grotesque tapestry Capullo creates in the banquet hall from issue #16 invites us to read into this series and see the different ways this pairing have tried to pay homage to the past history between the Batman and Joker, but also spin the tale in such a way that get contemporary readers to respond through pushing the discussions initiated in these earlier comics to knew and transgressive levels. Are there flaws? Sure. But there are flaws in even the best Batman and Joker stories; yet, in spite of these flaws, they are still the ones readers remember to this day and present-day creators continue to grapple with in their four-colored funnies.

So with that, I’ll end my defense of this issue and my thoughts following Colin’s kind invitation to join him in discussion.

Reposted from Colin’s blog, TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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