To start of this review I’m going to be perfectly honest with you; I’ve been waiting for this original graphic novel for about three years. The combination of Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets) and Lee Bermejo (Lex Luthor: Man of Steel) taking on a character such as the Joker had my interests piqued immediately, and I never expected it to be anything less than stellar. Well, in another bout of aforementioned honesty I have to tell you that I was almost right. I also have to tell you that I’ve heard people tell me to read this as a prequel to The Dark Knight, and that it’s more fun to read if you pretend it’s Heath Ledger’s voice. I couldn’t disagree more. Just to be clear to any of you unfamiliar with the history of this project, the concepts and designs for the look of Joker were created before and without knowledge of what was happening with Christopher Nolan’s small, independent film. If you want to read it differently, be my guests, but I think that takes away from the credit you should give Azzarello and Bermejo when you treat this like a film tie-in. Now to hop off the soapbox and into a review!

It became apparent very early in reading Joker that it was structurally similar to a recent film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The way Johnny Frost parallels Bob Ford is quite eerie at points, and not because I think either project influenced the other, but because that type of psychotic devotion and false idolatry is nothing less than creepy. Maybe even horrifying, but definitely creepy. I was always fond of the line about how when super villains tell scary stories, they tell Joker stories because it gave you a bit of insight into how the rest of the criminal underworld felt about the Joker himself, and this book extrapolates that simple idea ten fold. Not only do we get to see the Joker from Johnny Johnny’s perspective, but we also get a glimpse of the fear he instills in rogues like Croc, Penguin, and most disturbingly subtle, the Riddler. Something this made me think about was how do we choose our heroes? It took his entire ordeal with the Joker to realize he made the wrong choices, but why would he have settled on the most deranged man in all of Gotham City to be his shepherd in the first place? It would have been nice to see a little bit of Johnny’s life before the Joker was released from Arkham, but that wasn’t really the story Azzarello was intent on telling.

Instead we have a story about a low level thug named Johnny Frost who garners an intense fascination and admiration for the Joker upon him being cut loose under mysterious circumstances from Arkham Asylum. Oh, and Batman’s not on more than eight pages of the entire graphic novel which weighs in at about 125 pages. Instead of an entire graphic novel of Bats and the Joker facing off against each other, Azzarello focuses on Johnny’s view of the Joker’s relationship with the city, and a running theme of insanity. I suppose my interpretation of the Joker convincing doctors to release him from Arkham is as simple as he figured out that to stop seeming crazy you just had to stop seeming crazy. I think most of the hints from the story point to that, so you can see what you think because I wouldn’t be surprised if there was something I missed. The most interesting relationships the Joker have in the book are Harvey Dent/Two-Face and with the Batman. He has a more direct and morally confusing relationship with Harvey, but it’s clear from the beginning that everything he’s doing from robbing banks and murdering mob bosses is to gain Batman’s attention and wrath. It’s all he lives for and that’s all that matters to him. He’s Batman’s Johnny.

When Batman does show up we see his battle with the Joker through Johnny’s eyes, and conceding that the only cure for the criminal scourge of Gotham City is Batman. It’s a fairly powerful scene that benefits from Bermejo having the time to have traditionally painted the panels instead of modern coloring.  At this point I’m not quite sure why DC didn’t just wait a little longer to have the book released as intended. It could have something to do with being released in the year of The Dark Knight, but it doesn’t really matter anymore now that it’s out. Either way, the art is fantastic and the grim and gritty – almost noirish — world Bermejo creates compliments Azzarello’s complex and colloquial* dialogue. I can’t recommend this book enough and I suggest you pick it up sooner rather than later if you’re one of those first printing geeks like me.

*Alliteration is your friend.

4.5 out of 5 Vikings

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