As a rule, if a comic I like happens to release two volumes within a year I’ll probably only review one unless there are massive differences between them. For example, despite the continued success of Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers, I’ve already covered a volume in 2013. Even though The Last White Event, Volume 2 of Hickman’s run, was awesome, it’d end up being more of me gushing about how great it is since they’re both in pretty similar veins. Since you’re probably reading this for some variety rather than me espousing the virtues of similar books week to week, I’ll hold off on giving you a second verse the same as the first.
That’s why I didn’t cover The City of Owls, Scott Snyder’s follow-up to 2012’s ass-kicking The Court of Owls and a core component of the Night of the Owls crossover hardcover earlier this year. Since the latter wasn’t technically a Snyder book in the same sense that City was, being a book composed entirely of Snyder’s story rather than from various other scribes, I figure that let’s me look at how he did writing the return of everyone’s favourite psychotic children’s entertainer.
To be honest, I was a little hesitant before diving into this one. The recent failure of Severed coupled with the sheer hype surrounding Death of the Family made me wary that it wouldn’t come anywhere close to meeting expectations. After all, to assume something will meet the standards set by rabid comic book consumers and internet trolls who’ve actually decided to try and enjoy something for a change is like believing a crowd of cultists who are telling you that no, really, that bucket of kool-aid is totally ok to drink because it’ll turn you into a dragon!
Sorry, that was a bit tortured. What I’m getting at is that it seemed a little unlikely to be as awesome as all involved said it was – but lo and behold, I of little faith have once again been proven tragically wrong.
Death of the Family picks up not longer after the members of the aforementioned Court of predatory night-birds either scurried off into the night or killed themselves (or both), and sees the Joker return to Gotham a full year after he had his face cut off by a two-dimensional villain. As a man with a plan for the Bat-clan, Joker sets about terrorising the city and making life extremely difficult for our flying-mammal-mascot hero and his fine feathered friends (and Jason Todd).
What sets this story apart from pretty much any other Joker-centric yarn I can remember reading is the brutal underpinning of logic that drives it. When he does finally explain his plan to Batman – or, rather, the reasons for his plan beyond mere psychosis – it’s a reasoning that actually makes a twisted, gut-wrenching sense. I might as well throw up a MILD SPOILER WARNING right now for anyone who doesn’t want to know that the Joker secretly intends to marry Batman.
That’s not it actually (though there is a rather squicky line implying that effect in the book’s middle). In reality, Joker’s gunning for Bats because he believes having allies like Nightwings and Robins and Batgirls around – the eponymous Family seemingly headed for Death – makes Batman weaker. He cares about these people, giving himself weaknesses that villains like Joker can exploit. He and his Family have become too good at their job and put all the big names in Arkham, meaning Batman never actually has to visit there like he once did. By killing off Batman’s allies, Joker believes he’s making him stronger and providing him with a chance to revisit the good old days where it just a man in a suit and a psychotic clown running the show.
While there are plenty of ways Joker’s new drive could be picked apart, I’ve got to say it’s kind of a compelling reason. There’s the usual cleverness brought on by his insanity apparently reaching some kind of singularity – which is the only reason I can think of for him being both at once dangerously intelligent and bats**t crazy (haha pun) – but it’s less random acts of terrorising violence and more targeted, thought-out conflicts that really do a number on the Bat-clan. This is in addition to the usual high quality with which Scott Snyder has written Batman and his internal monologuing, and it’s a nice change of focus to have one major entity of evil rather than the broader gang of hats that was the Court of Owls. It’s what we’ve come to expect from Snyder, but with enough difference to it to keep things fresh both for his run, Batman’s overall narrative and the Joker’s character specifically.
In addition, Greg Capullo keeps knocking it out of the park on artwork. Bats still looks terrifying, the colours are nicely juxtaposed by blacks and greys when needed, and Joker looks hideously deformed enough that it’s genuine nightmare fuel by story’s end. What particularly stood out for me was the opening sequence in the Gotham City Police Department with Joker’s return appearance, which is darkly lit enough in places and uses black panels to give a real slasher-horror-film-villain-entrance feel. It’s hella unnerving, and just one of the many reasons Capullo’s artwork fits the tone of the book beautifully. As well as that we have Jock, one of the sterling artists behind The Black Mirror, providing marvellously macabre illustrations for the back-up stories detailing Joker’s behind-the-scenes recruitment of Batman’s rogues gallery.
My one complaint (tis minor) is that, especially later on, the use of odd-dimensioned panels and copious amounts of black background makes visual elements a little jumbled. Capullo seems to rely really heavily on an almost exclusively-charcoal palette by story’s end, with a couple of coloured elements – such as Batman’s eyes and Joker’s purple coat – being the only things really standing out against the setting of the Batcave. The panels are also crazily-drawn to give the off-kilter holy-crap-what-the-hell’s-going-on feel that one expects in a Joker story (especially after characters inhale nitrous oxide, as they do here) and some of them almost seem out of order and hard to follow for the story progression. It’s a great technique done well, but Capullo kinda misses the mark a little here. Again, really minor complaint but still worth noting.
Dialogue – oh hell, you’ve read my other Snyder reviews. Just rehash the dialogue section from them and stick it here. Snyder is still up to snuff on every character he writes, giving them distinct flavours and remaining true to decades-worth of characterisations for most of them. I love his representation of lesser characters like Harvey Bullock, and the Bat-clan continue to be written with aces. Once again, a minor drawback are the scenes featuring Penguin with dialogue that feels awkward for the character, lacking his trademark bluster and self-assured vanity and makes him look more like a really passive figure. Granted, this is compensated by Joker’s scripting being immensely fantastic and blackly hilarious, so it’s all good.
The dialogue also manages a hell of a thing by really invoking real voices; the way Joker’s written sounds almost like Mark Hamill is speaking his lines in your ear with a Heath Ledger inflection in parts, and Batman’s channelling a mashup of Kevin Conroy and Christian Bale something fierce. I know a lot of books are able to do that already – and certainly do when I read them – but this is a story that really makes the dialogue pop. There’s no other way for me to word it adequately, and even that’s not doing it justice. It’s like a sequel to The Dark Knight, Arkham City and The Killing Joke all at once, and speaks with voices we’ve heard before in a way that we haven’t experienced. Sorry if that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it was kind of a rare experience for me to hear the characters’ voices so damn clearly in a book like this (either that or I’m just going insane – probably both).
I’m also sorry if it seems like too much of an obvious thing with me praising Snyder’s work to high heaven, but keep in mind that Severed has made me remember that even great writers can give you giraffe poo in a book sometimes. Death of the Family is a fresh take on several classic elements, and should no doubt be remembered one day as a seminal Joker story alongside The Killing Joke and The Clown at Midnight. It’ll certainly make the next few months of any Bat-title crossovers interesting, not least of all to see if the characters are able to stay in the same room as one another for periods of time.
If all else fails, and they really can’t, there’s always the ability to take on baddies while Skyping instead.
PUBLISHER: DC COMICS
BEST QUOTE: “[about Batman’s allies] If only you’d kept them close. *sigh* But you never do, do you? No, you send them off. You shut them out. You dangle them like bait. And that’s the point, Bats. The proclamation I made to you. Be as fast and smart as you want. But so long as they live, and you keep up this farce…you’ll always, always lose. Now, that leaves you with only one thing left to do…and that is, to accept your true role. To embrace it. And, in doing so, to take your rightful place…on your throne.” – The Joker