Wednesday, February 09, 2005

BATMAN: THE MAN WHO LAUGHS

Before reading, I was of mixed expectation. On the one hand, it's Ed Brubaker and Brubaker does this sort of thing well. On the other, it's a Joker story and it's getting penciled by Doug Mahnke, whose work I have and will continue to gripe about when he's attached to any superhero book.

After reading... Brubaker overcame the other side. This isn't a classic, certainly no Killing Joke, but it's good. Certainly for a Joker story.

The problem with all Joker stories, at least for me, is thus: The Joker is the worst of Batman's villains, a horrifying, murderous psychopath who needs to be stopped in ways that Two-Face or Penguin don't really. And yet nobody's ever going to kill him and that immunity makes for a terrible storyline. Or crossover, as some of us will remember from the execrable Joker's Last Laugh. We know Batman's not going to kill him and, because the Joker has comic book immortality, neither is anyone else; forget Batman's oath -- why hasn't anyone on the GCPD done the deed? So any Joker story is going to have the same arc: Joker kills lots of people in ugly ways, Batman angsts as he tries to stop him, Batman has the opportunity to kill the Joker and doesn't, Joker goes back to Arkham. Rinse and repeat.

As a result, the biggest challenge in writing a Joker story is to eliminate the reminders that we know how it's going to end. Brubaker does this by setting it the story early in Batman's tenure (cashing in on Batman Begins? Perhaps) and presenting this as a first meeting. Batman and Joker can thus both underestimate each other, Jim Gordon can be present as a man who has neither watched his daughter (niece) maimed nor his wife murdered by the villain, and Gotham itself can be a city that hasn't given up.

To Brubaker's credit, there is no constant sledgehammering of foreshadowing, no "sly and subtle" hints of a future very much scarred by the Joker, and that probably saves the story. Because, ultimately, the only way this premise works -- that this is a Gotham that simply hasn't been worn down by repeated assaults and the heroes can still muster the strength to man the battlements with verve instead of resignation -- is if the readers can buy this 'more innocent age' premise. Contrast this with, say, Batgirl: Year One where the reader pretty much got a concussion from the constant clouting about the head with that Sledgehammer of Foreshadowing.

Not to Brubaker's credit, and this is absolutely picayune because one should always expect more of Brubaker, is his continued demonstration of lack of familiarity with the northeast US. Speaking casually of hurricanes in Gotham is patently ridiculous -- Gotham is somewhere on the New Jersey coast and hurricanes are rare north of the Carolinas -- if not as outrageous as his "city of Manhattan" bloopers over in Captain America.

More seriously, however, is the CSI Effect of the story -- what happens when the protagonist in a police story is someone other than the police and ends up doing all the thinking and acting for the cops, who stand around solely to look helpless and make arrests. This is a common pitfall of Batman stories because Bruce Wayne is simply that much smarter than everyone else and doesn't have to get bogged down either by procedure, due process, or bureaucracy. But the best Batman writers minimize this by reserving for Batman only the mysterious elements that the cops (or whoever is charged with solving the crime) wouldn't be able to get on their own. Realizing that Henry Claridge died of a slow-acting poison? Jim Gordon should have been fired if he couldn't have gotten that one on his own without a memo from Batman.

The 'mystery', such as it is -- let's face it, Joker is no Riddler with the clues and a drug-induced fever dream is just as likely to provide insight into his motives as any other method -- is acceptable, if not jaw-droppingly clever. The Joker is still early in his career and part of his power is that he will not let a lack of symmetry or wittiness get in the way of a good mass murder.

The art... Mahnke is still very wrong for an action book -- his dynamic is static and that makes confrontations look like stop-motion theater. But there's not a lot of motion in this book and his high-cheekbone, over-detailed faces suit a story featuring the Joker and his poisons of choice. It's not pretty, but it's not distracting.

Overall? Prestige Format books are outrageously overpriced and I can't truthfully say this was worth $6.95.

(this is a test to see how backdating entries works in blogspot. Apologies to those who saw this when it was originally posted)

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