“You’re a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds, Manipulator of crowds, you’re a dream twist.”
—Bob Dylan, Jokerman
There is an episode of HBO’s lauded television series Six Feet Under that features protagonist David Fisher getting abducted by a sociopathic hitchhiker. He spends the duration of the episode being psychologically and emotionally tortured before inexplicably being released from his captor. Not only is this similar to the odyssey of reader surrogate Jonny Frost in Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s new Joker graphic novel, but is strikingly akin to the reading experience of anyone who dares to crack open this impressively grim graphic novel.
One cannot help but feel that Azzarello’s Joker is not any Joker that comic fans have come to know. In fact, it seems as if Azzarello’s goal with Joker is to refute every previous incarnation of the arch-villain and replace it with a cipher, a sieve for modern depravity. In stern contrast to Denny O’Neil’s view of the character, Azzarello’s Joker is depicted as a misogynistic rapist; as opposed to Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s animated incarnation, he is foul-mouthed and vulgar at every possible opportunity; and as if to laugh at those who repeatedly spent their ten dollars on The Dark Knightthis past summer, the Clown Prince of Crime is now a criminal iconoclast of Machiavellian proportions, not “a dog chasing cars” who “just do[es] things”.
Instead of being reminded of The Killing Jokeor even Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, Azzarello’s dark title character behaves in such a manner so as to perhaps remind the reader of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Like those involved in Abu Ghraib, he uses intimidation, mockery, embarrassment, torture, sexual debauchery, murder, fear – and, above all, shock and awe – in order to debase, defame and ultimately destroy his carefully-selected targets with a near-surgical precision.
In Joker, Azzarello’s dark protagonist rapes, curses, murders and plots to protect and re-fortify his once-strong criminal empire. He is not Heath Ledger’s charmingly psychotic anarchist, but a man obsessed with regaining control of “his city”. He makes back-room deals with fiends like Killer Croc, Two-Face, The Riddler and The Penguin (here, drawn in a way that resembles a mutated Dick Cheney and, inexplicably, referred to only as “Abner”) as he stages his coup to rig the Gotham underworld’s proverbial pendulum swing with nary a hanging chad in sight.
It would be remiss not to mention Jonny Frost, the criminal Everyman who the Joker takes under his wing at the start of the graphic novel. He is Lemuel Gulliver or Walter Raleigh, a man who, after a horrible series of events brought about by his “boss”, becomes forced to reconsider everything he knows about his life, much as the American public has been forced to in recent years. By the end of the book, he considers the Joker a “disease”, symptomatic of the world that Jonny concludes is not just falling apart at the seams, but is actively tearing itself asunder. Depressed, he admits to himself that there are no “cures” to tyrants and torturers like the Joker, but only mere treatment in the form of the vigilante Batman. Azzarello, in clear contempt of America’s current lame-duck administration, has the black-clad hero swing in to dispense unseen justice on the maniacal Joker right as the book ends.
If any of this seems contrived or muddled in description, this is only because of Azzarello’s clear desperation to see his characterization of the Joker as far removed from the recent cinematic incarnation as possible. It is easy to tell that Azzarello’s work here is well-intentioned (and Bermejo’s work is exceptionally gorgeous and just as well-suited to Batman’s rogues gallery as it was to Lex Luthor), but his insistence on separating his Joker from Ledger’s, or, indeed, any other iconic take on the character, is more than likely the book’s largest flaw. While it does give nods to past Bat-creators (I can’t help but feel that Joker’s middle-finger “salute” is a tip of the hat to Frank Miller), the book is as desperate to find its own identity as the Joker is to regain his criminal empire within its very pages. While the political metaphor is certainly welcome, its importance is lost under the weight of the writer’s good intention to, in the wake of perhaps the characters’ ultimate depiction, leave a mark on a character who, sadly, may now be forever unchangeable.
Or maybe not. Maybe there’s something else to it, to this Joker, and the punch line just isn’t obvious enough.