Just a heads up everyone. This week I’m going to be a bit more critical than I normally am. I usually try to stay very upbeat and positive about the books I review, and I swear I’m not about to take a turn as a nasty reviewer, but a book came out last week from DC that I felt very strongly about, and so I wanted to take a bit of a detour from my normal indie comic review and instead look critically at The Three Jokers.
Let’s start with a little backstory.
DC comics has historically been pretty open to embracing the independent comic market, or at least willing to adopt some of their approaches to it for themselves. The most obvious example of this was their Vertigo line. These books were dark, gritty, mature and frequently disconnected from the main continuity (or if they were connected, those connections were tenuous at best). Books like Preacher, Hellblazer, Doom Patrol and Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece, The Sandman all garnered critical acclaim and serious indie cred, even if they were being put out by one of the biggest publishers in the market. For a lot of people, myself included, books in the Vertigo line were a gateway into a lot of other, smaller indie publishers.
Vertigo pushed the proverbial envelope in just about every way and encouraged readers to really look at comics as a mature and sophisticated medium, not just entertainment for children. It was a great line, with many successes, and when it officially shut down a short while ago, many old school fans like me mourned its passing.
This takes us to DC Black Label, a line that has ostensibly been an attempt by DC to try to mix the best of everything Vertigo and mainstream DC into a single line, and pray that it works. The idea was to bring in the very best writers and artists in the business and give them free reign to tell whatever stories they want, using any characters from DC’s expansive pantheon. It was supposed to give total creative freedom to these writers to produce new and exciting stories, freed from the confines of continuity and the regular self-censorship that DC books face.
The results have been…mixed. Black Label got off to a rough start with the insanely controversial Batman: Damned. I’m not going to go through all the problems that series had, but it was a very shaky place to start a new line, and I was surprised to see Black Label survive.
Since Damned, Black Label has put out some books that I feel are among the best in recent years, including the phenomenal Harleen series (that should, if there is any justice in the world, be made the default origin for the character of Harley Quinn), and some books that have been less than stellar (Superman Year One for example). However, while so far the good stories have outweighed the bad, nothing in the line has really sparked to buzz that I think DC wanted when they first introduced it.
And that takes us to Geoff John’s Three Jokers, the first Black Label series since the line started that has really seemed to set the world on fire. The set-up for this story was originally introduced five years ago in the pre-Rebirth New 52 Universe. Batman, who had just claimed the powers of Metron by sitting in the Mobius chair (comics are weird and wonderful), asked two questions: First, who killed his parents (Joe Chill)? And second, who was the Joker?
Now, I want to pause here to ask you to remember this point. It’ll be important later.
The chair, unhelpfully, didn’t give a name, but instead told Batman that there were actually three Jokers. Now, you might think Batman’s natural response to that answer would be “Who are they?” but instead he went on a brooding vision quest, and once Rebirth hit and a button showed up in the Batcave, it seemed like we would never know just what that whole three Jokers thing was about.
That didn’t stop DC from hyping it though. For years Geoff Johns promised an answer, and finally, after half a decade of waiting and half a decade of promises and half a decade of fan speculation, all three issues (and their 743 million variant covers) hit the stands.
Meh, it’s ok. I guess.
Alright, let me be more specific. The failings of this book really fall into two categories, the first being the overall narrative structure, and the second being its significance to the Batman mythos. I plan on going through both in order to really make clear why I feel this book is ultimately more of a disappointment than a success.
First up: the structural issues
This book was supposed to be outside of continuity, which means that whatever happens does not necessarily have to be considered canon. That being said, it is the answer to a question that was raised in canon, so it’s hard to understand just how it fits. If we ignore this, then we never get a true, canonical answer, and if we don’t, well, while it is attempting to answer a question raised in the New 52 era, it also completely ignores almost everything that Scott Snyder’s New 52 Batman run established. Either way it causes a huge continuity headache for readers trying to fit all this stuff together in a way that makes sense (because, you know, apparently it’s the reader’s job to do that work).
I kid, but honestly I’m usually ok with that. With 80 years of stories to dig through, expecting DC to make a definitive statement about where every story goes and how everything connects together is a bit absurd. Truth be told, I’m usually all for tossing continuity if it gets in the way of a good story, and some of my favorite works have gleefully ignored what came before in order to tell a better tale. But…
With Three Jokers this causes an actual issue. In order for this story to work, it has to be connected to what happened in the New 52 run. Batman had to have sat in the chair and had to have gotten that answer of there being three Jokers, which means the New 52 timeline, for the sake of this story’s premise, must be canon. But, as I mentioned before, that just doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work in an important and serious way that really messes with the overall story. And speaking of things not fitting right.
In Three Jokers we learn that one of the three is the Joker from The Killing Joke. But The Killing Joke story was pre-New 52. Post-New 52 Scott Snyder completely rewrote the Red Hood Joker origin. The Killing Joke isn’t connected to the timeline that spawned the Darkseid War, so how does it work within Johns’ story?
Again, am I being pedantic with this? Absolutely I am, but this highlights the issue I have with this series, and Johns’ writing in general. He has his own head canon, and he is perfectly happy to ignore growth and development that other writers have put into characters in order to tell his own version of the truth. Wally West has been a successful Flash for years? Too bad, Geoff likes Barry. Hal Jordan became a mass murdering villain and was replaced with a more nuanced and interesting replacement? Sorry, space bug. Hal’s back!
Now let me be clear: Geoff Johns is an amazing writer, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of his work. His Aquaman run was exceptional, and while I’m mocking them a bit, I really did enjoy Green Lantern Rebirth, but you get what I’m saying, right? As I said before, I’m usually fine with retcons when the result is an interesting and compelling story, but this isn’t the case here. Three Jokers isn’t an interesting and compelling story. It doesn’t reveal a deeper truth about the characters. It doesn’t shake our understanding of the Batman/ Joker relationship to the core. Bringing back Barry Allen was totally unnecessary, but at least it told a compelling story. Introducing Parallax as a yellow space bug was kind of a cheap fix, but it led to a lot of much better and more interesting stories down the line, and both of those things mattered because they were in canon.
But Three Jokers? What does it even mean? It’s a solution to a problem of its own making, and even at that it fails. Even if we were to ignore all of the New 52 Batman stories, and claim this story is simply a direct sequel of sorts to The Killing Joke, this story still fails. Let me explain.
Issue 2: The matter of significance.
According to our story, at one time there was one Joker. That Joker made a second Joker, and the two in turn made a third. They did this by throwing people into vats of the same chemical (which I guess Ace Chemicals just keeps making and losing track of for…reasons?) Their master plan seems to be to create the perfect Joker, because…Batman? Eventually they decide to toss an elderly Joe Chill into the vat because he’ll, um, be the perfect Joker, I guess. Even Batman points out how dumb that idea is but it’s ok because the Joker is a crazy kook who thinks the toxin will make him young and healthy?
Only, surprise, that’s not the plan! One of the Jokers is secretly plotting against the other two to become the most Joker-y Joker that ever Jokered. And also he may have been the first Joker, or maybe not? Oh, and he is definitely the Joker from The Killing Joke. Oh yeah, Batman also knows his real name, who he was, and has helped keep his wife and child hidden from the world for years.
Yep, this was the big shocking twist at the end of the entire series. Batman knows the Joker’s real name! And the Joker’s wife and child are actually alive! And…so what?
No, seriously, so what? What does this actually do for us as a reader? Why does this matter? Does it make us fear the Joker more? Does it make us think Batman is way more awesome? No, in fact, if anything this diminishes who Batman is, and makes him a lesser character.
Batman refuses to share the name with anyone because he believes if people know who the Joker really is, they’ll go after his former family seeking revenge. Ok, understandable to a degree, but let’s take a step back and really think about what this means.
First off, think of the death and destruction that Joker has caused. Think about how many psychologists have attempted to get to the core of Joker’s trauma. Think of how many psychologists have had their minds destroyed in the twisting labyrinth of trying to understand what makes Joker tick, and the whole time Batman could have shown up and told them his entire life story, allowing them to actually develop a real treatment plan that could have actually helped heal him.
And it’s not like Batman just learned Joker’s true identity. He said he learned it a week after the Joker first appeared. That means it was before Jason Todd was “killed.” It was before Barbara was crippled. It was before the Joker had truly became the monster he is today. They could have been helping him for years and Batman didn’t do anything because he was protecting Joker’s wife from retaliation? That just makes no sense.
And speaking of Joker’s wife, apparently she didn’t die, which was one of the main sources of trauma that pushed Joker over the edge and gave him a modicum of sympathy. Nope, now he was an abusive husband, and his wife went into protective custody to avoid him, because apparently the GCPD was aware enough of her worries about her husband that they helped a woman change her identity and leave town forever? But they didn’t have enough evidence to actually charge him with a crime? And they were ok with her taking their child, thereby denying his rights as a father, because his wife felt a “darkness” inside of him?
Forget blowing GCPD up with a bomb. Any halfway decent lawyer could have that entire police department shut down because of insanely gross incompetence, abuse of power, and sheer criminality!
Remember what I said about people wanting to just see this as a sequel to The Killing Joke. Well here’s where that fails. See, the central tenant of that work was that Joker was once a good man who had one bad day that pushed him over the edge. In Johns’ mind though, Joker was instead a terrible person who had a bad day that turned him into…even more of a monster? So, we’re going to reference The Killing Joke as our origin point for this character and at the same time completely dismiss the central conceit of the story? Why?
Oh, one more thing. Remember back a few pages ago when we talked about Batman asking the Joker’s true name? (I’m asking you all to remember so much). Well, here’s the thing…why did he do that? He already knew the Joker’s name, so, um, why ask it? If the whole set up for your story is Batman trying to understand who the Joker is, and he already has that answered, why do it? Was he just “testing the chair?” as many have written into their own, personal retcon? Show me that in the text. If we have to retcon Johns’ work for him, then how can we call this a solid story? It just raises too many questions.
Speaking of questions, who were the other two jokers? Both the “clown” and the “criminal” were killed off in this story, but not before they raised a ton of unanswered questions for the reader. We were led to believe that the Criminal Joker was the first, since he was the oldest, and because Batman said his M.O. was most in line with his earliest confrontations with the Joker. The Clown was the Joker in the middle time between, and the Comedian was set up to be most recent incarnation (most recent meaning pre-New 52 I guess). But we never get their stories, or why they both were just as obsessed with Batman as the Comedian, who seems to be the only one of the three with a legitimate issue with Batman that could justify his obsession. Anything that they claimed to have been connected to the Comedian Joker also claimed to be a part of so, what’s that all about? Why even have two other Jokers in the first place?
And at its core, that is the biggest problem with this book. I’d say it’s the answer to a question nobody asked, but it doesn’t even provide answers to justify it as that. It slaps together a hodge-podge of continuity to string together it’s micro-thin premise, and once again reinforces the “Batman doesn’t trust his own family,” theme that felt right at home in the bleakness of New 52, but just doesn’t seem to have a place in the post-Rebirth era.
And I’m not even going to touch on the wild insanity of the completely out of nowhere attempt at a romance subplot between Jason and Barbara. Or the fact that she just up and revealed her secret identity to her father even though keeping that secret has been a central element of her recently cancelled series (although in fairness I doubt Johns has ever read an issue of that).
DC has a problem with Batman. That problem is they refuse to let him actually develop as a character. Now, this is a problem for most characters from the big two, but Batman suffers from it the most. How many issues have we read where Batman doesn’t trust his family, learns to trust he family, and then goes right on into the next story not trusting his family? How many times have wee seen Batman have to become the most Batman-y Batman that ever Batmaned, only for his to completely reset by the next issue?
And his villians are even worse. Riddler got an entire Year of the Villain issue about how he needs to evolve and change, and then in Joker War what do we get? Basically Jim Carrey as the Riddler, right down to the pajama suit. And Joker? Other than desperately wiping away as much of Tom King’s run as possible, and introducing a bunch of new action figures, what did Joker War do for our understanding of the character? What did Year of the Villain do? What did Three Jokers do?
They just don’t change. They just don’t evolve. And as a result, more now than ever, the stories are turning so inward and stagnant there’s really no point in even reading them.
I guess what I’m asking here is, if you enjoyed this story, and I know there are people who do, what do you actually feel you have taken away from it? It adds nothing new to the Batman/ Joker dynamic, and ends simply reinforcing the same relationship that they have had for decades. None of the characters grow or change in any way, and all of the events of the story are quickly ignored by the cast even before the end of the last issue, meaning if even they are going to ignore what happened, why should we even care?
Literally the only solid takeaway you can have from this book is that Batman and the GCPD have actually been wildly complicit in both the origin of the Joker and in his continued crime spree.
Should you read this book? Well I’m guessing you probably already have. It’s not a terrible book on its own, and the art is spectacular, but in the end the real question is this: what have you actually learned from this experiment? Has it really changed your mind about anything? Do you really plan on looking at these characters moving forward with a new lens? Even the reveal that Joker knew Batman’s real name was disappointing, since Joker War just finished exploring the same idea.
No, to me this is just a relic of the pre-Rebirth era, the last, dying gasp of the New 52, and just like the characters in the book, I’m going to ignore it. And that’s a shame, because Geoff Johns is an amazing author, who has written amazing books. He recently launched his own line of comics that I am really looking forward to reading. He can do better. DC can do better. Let’s not make excuses for them anymore. Let’s demand they tell new stories and let there be consequences.
Until next time my friends, stay safe!