The Joker and his flesh-mask are back in two haunting Bat-family titles
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Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic-book issues of significance. This week, they are Batgirl #15 and Batman And Robin #15. Written by Gail Simone (Birds Of Prey, Secret Six) and Peter Tomasi (Green Lantern Corps, Nightwing) and drawn by Daniel Sampere (Justice League Of America, Justice League Dark) and Patrick Gleason (Green Lantern Corps, Aquaman), these two crossover tie-ins present an image of Batman’s archnemesis that is gruesome, terrifying, and very entertaining.
When DC had the Clown Prince of Crime cut his face off at the start of the New 52, the publisher established that the Joker was no laughing matter anymore. Now, two months into the villain’s return, the Bat-family of titles is in full-on event mode, with the Joker targeting Batman and comrades in the “Death Of The Family” crossover. Those who want their Batman stories exceedingly grim have a lot to like with this current storyline, which features a bad guy who wears his old face as a dead, wrinkled flesh mask while psychologically tormenting his opponents.
In the pages of Gail Simone and Daniel Sampere’s Batgirl #15, that means abducting and cutting off the finger of Barbara Gordon’s mother and proposing to the superheroine. In Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s stunning Batman And Robin #15, Joker goes after Batman’s son, luring Robin into the Gotham Zoo for a horrific night inside the aviary. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have been doing solid work on the main Batman title, but Bruce Wayne’s hubris is beginning to overtake his detective mind, preventing him from accepting the idea that the Joker has discovered the secret identities of him and his allies. None of that doubt is present in Batgirl or Batman And Robin, where the Joker is portrayed as an almost supernaturally powerful foe who knows exactly where to cut to guarantee the most pain.
DC made a dramatic cut of its own last week, firing Gail Simone from Batgirl via email; the decision has garnered heated reactions from fans and fellow creators, and rightfully so. Simone has shown admirable loyalty to DC during its recent turbulence, and it’s distressing to see her unceremoniously removed from a book that she’s dedicated so much of herself to (especially considering how much extra PR weight Simone had to carry when Barbara Gordon was taken out of her wheelchair for the New 52). Simone’s Batgirl is a heroine struggling to overcome past trauma but fiercely dedicated to her mission. She’s a vulnerable figure who knows how dangerous the superhero lifestyle can be, but will always jump into action when her city needs her. With the return of the Joker, the man who put Barbara in a wheelchair for three years, Simone gives Batgirl her toughest challenge yet, and she’ll have to be as ruthless as her opponent if she’s going to save herself and her mother.
The new incarnation of the Joker isn’t much of a clown, and his character has firmly moved into the realm of slasher-flick villain. Now that he’s sliced his face off, he’s joined the ranks of Leatherface, Jason, and Michael Myers, except he has a tendency to monologue a lot more than those other serial killers. Simone frames her penultimate Batgirl issue with a flashback to the Joker (with face) tormenting an Arkham doctor with his journal entries, showing how he uses fear as a tactic to get what he wants. The flashback keeps Joker’s threat level high during an issue that is essentially Batgirl kicking his ass around a roller rink, building to a moment that Barbara has been thinking about for a long, long time.
A former librarian, Barbara gets the best of Joker by using her brain. She warns Joker’s armed henchmen that the nail bomb her mother is sitting on has a 40-foot blast radius, convincing them to stand down unless they want the man paying their checks to be eviscerated. That gives her the opportunity to tackle Joker to the ground, grabbing his gun and pushing it against his spine with the intent of making him feel the same pain she endured at his hand. It’s the moment that Simone has building to since her Birds Of Prey days, when Barbara finally faces the Joker on equal footing and gets her opportunity for vengeance. A sniper prevents Barbara from taking the shot, but in that instant, she tastes the darkness and Joker knows it. And maybe that was his goal all along.
Sampere is working in DC’s current house style, with clean, Ivan Reis-lite pencils that capably get the job done, but aren’t very atmospheric. There are some striking images, like an opening splash page of Joker roller-skating around Batgirl and her mother, but it’s standard superhero art where something geared more toward horror would work better. That’s where Batman And Robin #15 is a huge success. Gleason has been doing the best work of his career on this title, and both he and Tomasi have an affinity for the Damien character that results in spectacular stories whenever he’s spotlighted. (See Batman And Robin #0.)
Over the past six years, Damien has become one of the most fascinating heroes in DC’s stable, a 10-year-old boy who suppresses his homicidal urges so that he can please his emotionally distant father. He’d never admit it, but Damien has come to appreciate having a family, and now Joker is trying to tear that apart. The Joker is trying to weaken Batman by eliminating those who are closest him (shades of Geoff Johns’ Reverse Flash there); he’s taken Bruce’s father figure, Alfred, and blinded him, and now he has Bruce’s son, too. Grant Morrison did great work establishing a rivalry between Damien and the Joker, and Tomasi carries that relationship into this issue. The Joker’s insanity has always been a contrast to Batman’s brilliant detective mind, and that dynamic is apparent in the villain’s interactions with Robin, but with the added complication that Damien has a killer inside him that his father doesn’t.
In #15, when Damien is sidelined by his father (again), he teams up with Titus the Bat-hound to find out where Joker has taken the abducted Alfred Pennyworth, walking right into the villain’s trap in the Gotham Zoo. After being drugged by hyena spit and trapped in a giant egg, Robin comes face-to-semi-face with the Joker in one extremely disturbing splash page, which shows the rogue wearing his face-mask upside down so that his eyes are peeking through his lips. Before Batman And Robin #15, no artist had been able to fully capture just how disgusting the Joker’s new face would look in real life, but Gleason’s heavily textured linework shows every wrinkle, plus all the maggots crawling on the decayed flesh. It’s nasty, but the Joker literally turning his frown upside down while staring directly at the reader is a nauseatingly effective visual. The Joker’s new face is basically a harlequin mask made of flesh, and when he puts it on, he’s preparing to put on a show. To make it extra creepy, Gleason rarely draws in the Joker’s eyes, which combined with all the flies on his body makes the villain look like an eternally grinning zombie.
The Bat-family of titles feature some of DC’s strongest artists, but Gleason has risen to the top with his eye for dramatic staging and intensely shadowed, meticulously detailed pencils. Combined with Mick Gray’s intricate inks and John Kalisz’s evocative colors, the art on this book is perfect for Gotham City, creating an urban environment blanketed in darkness that hides danger around every corner. There’s a gorgeous page of Damien arriving at the Gotham Zoo where almost everything is presented in silhouettes, the only light coming from the bloody moon and Damien’s flashlight.
When the Joker’s toxin starts to works its way through Robin’s system, the hero’s fall is captured in a brilliantly laid-out page, beginning with Robin crashing through the aviary ceiling surrounded by a variety of different birds. Each one of the birds is a unique species, and Gleason has clearly put in a lot of work to make sure the zoo environment is as realistic as possible. As Damien falls, he reaches for the red sky, the birds now appearing as a colony of bats flying further from his grasp. Then a panel of complete darkness before four small panels of golden light shining through a small crack as Joker says, “Yes! Peck away the dark—,” revealing his dead clown face through the darkness as the fracture grows. The page is laid out for maximum tension, and Gleason only gets better as the issue continues.
A major issue surrounding Gail Simone’s firing is that it creates an atmosphere where no creator is safe if they don’t agree with editorial. Gleason and Tomasi are doing fantastic work on Batman And Robin, but if Simone could be cut from a book that she turned into a commercial and critical success based on the strength of her writing, then anything can happen. Happy creators make better comics, but the tumultuous relationship between editorial and the talent at DC is worrying. The New 52 is currently being held up by the strength of a few select titles, and if it’s going to compete against Marvel Now!, DC needs to build a healthier relationship between management and the workers.