There’s a line in the middle of Batman #14 that is entirely telling about the state of Batman, this “Death of the Family” storyline and nearly the entirety of DC Entertainment. It’s not the line you think. “He’s picking and choosing from our early encounters,” Batman says to Nightwing about the Joker. “Redoing them, but in new ways. Inverting them.”
That dialogue has a meta quality, transcending its purpose in the story, transcending the story itself, even transcending the revised origins of many of DC characters. Everything is inverted, supposedly reflecting a more modern understanding. But what we are left with is references to the past, to prior favorite moments hoping to build a new future. While it’s often true that we must learn from the past to move forward, sometimes you have to just move forward.
What is moving forward is the new understanding of the Joker. The original clown prince of crime became a deranged antagonist during his evolution in the 20th century. In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight he became an urban terrorist. Here under writer Scott Snyder he is a horror-movie inspired psycho, having more in common with Michael Myers than previous comicbook interpretations. The Joker has always been scary, but now his level of terror derives from a place other than his terroristic activities.
Those activities include being several steps ahead of Batman and confessing he knows the true identities of the entire Bat-Family. He’s coming for each of them because they’ve ruined his King, Batman, made him soft. The title “Death of the Family,” while certainly derived from “Death in the Family,” (which saw the murder of Robin at the hands of the Joker) would seem to indicate the unraveling of the unity of the Bat-Family as opposed to the actual death of one of the characters. DC hasn’t announced cancellation of the one of the associated Bat titles, has it?
The reveals in this issue are hardly shocking, memorable to a certain extent, but rather fundamental from a narrative perspective. What is shocking is the level of emotion Batman shows or rather reveals to Nightwing. You probably would too if the Joker kidnapped one of your father figures, but that’s not how we’ve understood Batman during his most recent adventures.
“Bruce is so guarded and almost an unreliable narrator where he doesn’t tell you what he’s thinking or feeling,” Snyder said to me when we spoke in November 2011 as his “Court of Owls” storyline was just taking shape. “He tells you the facts of the case and you have to use other characters to give readers the hint that Bruce is playing his cards close to the vest.” Is this a change in character direction? Did the Court of Owls affect him more than we could imagine? Or, rather, is Snyder emphasizing the impact of an action through dialogue?
The latter would seem to be the case, as it is way too early for that type of character development. And it is an odd exchange in some regards. You would expect that type of movement to be shown in character actions rather than clunky, arguably out of character, dialogue exchanges.
But everything is being inverted, as the dialogue mentioned in the beginning of this review is also evidence of the type of narrative ahead in this storyline.
Dialogue is central to this issue and in all instances has the effect of making things uneasy. The chilling lines offered by the Joker are fine in the overall scheme, though they seem forced, lacking a cadence (or off-cadence) that would propel this effort further. The ideas are there, but the execution is hindered by an active desire to get to the end—metaphors, similes, characterization be damned.
The real earnest and strongest effort comes from the work of penciler Greg Capullo and inker Jonathan Glapion. To create the sense of terror necessary for this issue, Snyder relies heavily on Capullo’s work. He delivers, quite frankly delivering the work of his career. The panels go from large and surprisingly detailed shots to small intimate moments. Snyder’s verbose dialogue tries to emphasize solitude as Batman, through his own actions and through the Joker’s actions, is pushed solo. Capullo’s panels and pages rightly make this connection using subtle visual tricks. It’s an interesting situation when the normally bombastic penciler is the subtle force.
Sometimes you just have to move forward, and that is what Batman #14 does, but not in the way we would hope…or in the ways Snyder is capable of writing. The allure and mystique of the Joker can have that effect. Saving the Joker for after the New 52 reached its first birthday was a wise move. Probably could have waited even longer, but there are only so many memorable Batman stories to invert to create something new.