Axel-In-Charge: Facing the 'Divided' Marvel NOW! Future
As written by Scott Snyder, penciled by Greg Capullo and inked by Jonathan Glapion, the lead story in Batman Vol. 2 #13 is a terrific kickoff to the latest Batman event. “Death of the Family,” the Joker-centric crossover running through the Batman line for the next few months, will eventually involve seven more ongoing series — including Batgirl and Batman and Robin, which we’ll discuss later — but this opening chapter by itself shows me that Snyder, Capullo and company intend to kick out all the stops when it comes to the Clown Prince of Crime.
Naturally, SPOILERS FOLLOW for this week’s Bat-books.
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While I like superhero comics a whole lot, I tend not to buy into the notion that they’re “modern-day mythology.” However, I do think that, when you get right down to it, the Joker is the Bogeyman. He’s the madman who waits in darkness, who strikes without reason, who kills virtually without purpose. Oh, he might try to justify himself occasionally, but as Batman explains in the classic Detective Comics #475 (February 1978), “With ordinary men, you might figure some motive — but the Joker’s mind is clouded in madness! His motives make sense to him alone!”
The portrayal of the Joker as an implacable avatar of undiluted evil goes all the way back to his spring 1940 introduction in Batman (Vol. 1) #1. Although he leers at the reader from the top of Page 1, in that story he’s heard first, as a “toneless voice” announcing his next victim over a hijacked radio broadcast. Judging by his elaborate methods of murder, his main weapon is his intelligence — or so the 12-page story would have us believe, as it doesn’t explain how the Joker planned out his crimes. His “burning, hate-filled eyes,” “ghastly grin,” and signature Joker-venom are chilling visually, but almost incidental to this notion that he could be anywhere, targeting anyone. (To be sure, in this story his motives are clearly greed and revenge.)
As with most things Batman, though, the Joker’s more grisly qualities were toned down during the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. In fact, his last appearance in the 1960s was as the manipulative “John Doe,” tricking Snapper Carr into betraying the Justice League in Justice League of America Vol. 1 #77 (December 1969). That story was written by Denny O’Neil, who — almost four years later — would return the villain to his blood-curdling origins in the classic “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” (Batman #251, September 1973). That story begins with a full-page, nightmare-lit portrait of the cackling crime-clown, and this bit of breathless narration:
From the darkness of a country road somewhere north of Gotham City … and from the greater dark of a past filled with evil … comes a terrifyingly familiar face!
Thunder racks the Earth and lightning scars the sky and wetness streams from the clouds like tears of mourning! It is as though nature itself were weeping!
And well it might, for there is death abroad this night!
Again, as with most things Batman, we have been living with the influence of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams for the better part of 40 years, so it may be hard to imagine how transfixing “Five-Way Revenge” was. 1989’s Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told (from which the scan above comes) reprints it right after a 1966 E. Nelson Bridwell/Carmine Infantino/Murphy Anderson story where Batman and Robin capture the villain by spraying him with giant tubes of paint. However, you don’t need that direct comparison to appreciate that big O’Neil/Adams splash page that kicks off “Five-Way Revenge.” It tells you all you need to know: The Joker is frighteningly insane, he’s coming to town, and you need to get away.
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For me, and I suspect for a lot of folks, there aren’t many more definitive Joker stories than those two. Thankfully, I’d say Snyder and Capullo intend to channel those earlier offerings. The rainswept first page of Batman #13 might have been a more indirect homage to Issue 251, but later on, when the Joker explicitly recreates his first murder, there was no doubt. (There’s even something of a “Laughing Fish”/“Sign of the Joker” callback in the form of a two-headed lion cub, since that story featured some fish and a pet cat all deformed by Joker-venom.)
Historical reverence alone generally doesn’t make a good story, but Batman #13’s lead features three well-paced main sequences, spread pretty evenly over its 24 pages. The first, available online as an extended preview, has the Joker break into police headquarters to steal his face back from the evidence locker, and to kill as many of Commissioner Gordon’s men as he can. The second involves Batman and the police’s attempts to protect the Mayor, who’s been targeted by the villain; and the third finds Batman revisiting the Ace Chemical factory where the Joker took that fateful chemical bath. Each illustrates a different aspect of the Batman/Joker “relationship”: first, the Joker as monstrous killing machine, then the detective versus the master planner, and finally a simple, primal, superhero-style fight in an abandoned factory, complete with deathtrap and victim. In this way Snyder uses the Joker’s larger-than-life status not as an excuse to go over the top, but instead to make this a very black-and-white conflict, almost elemental in its scope. The Joker wreaks havoc because that is what he does (and, yes, arguably he is the best there is at it); and Batman fights him because that’s what he does.
Similarly, Snyder also drives home the extent to which the Joker sets himself up as Batman’s opposite. Because Batman #13 is set a year after the events of Detective Vol. 2 #1 (when the Joker’s face was cut off by a new villain), that means it’s been six years in New 52 time since the two first clashed. In those six years Batman’s built a decent circle of close associates, namely Nightwing (who, depending on fidelity to the original, may or may not have participated in that first Joker adventure), Batgirl, Red Hood, Red Robin and the current Robin. In Batman #13, Batman notes that the Joker often has others do his dirty work — but near the story’s climax, realizes that the Joker is acting alone this time, and in fact targeting everyone around the people he’s come to hate. Thus, he kills Gordon’s men and leaves Gordon (and, later, the Mayor) alive — and as we know from pre-crossover hype, he’ll move on to the members of the Bat-family.
Of course, because this is a crossover, we’ll get to see those individual battles in the pages of Red Hood, Nightwing, Teen Titans, etc. Still, it was very nice to see Robin, Nightwing, Red Robin and Batgirl pop up in this issue. Last week I mentioned how the segmentation of the Batman line cuts down on that sort of group interaction, so I enjoyed Snyder and Capullo’s take on the “interns,” especially because they weren’t really in the main Bat-book for much of “Night of the Owls.”
For that matter, “Death of the Family” doesn’t really cross over into either Batgirl #13 or Batman and Robin #13 either. The Batgirl issue (by Gail Simone and Ed Benes) is a satisfying, cathartic conclusion to the “Knightfall” arc (no, not that “Knightfall”), and B&R (by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason and Tomas Giorello) starts up an unrelated zombies-attack two-parter. B&R mentions that the Joker’s on the loose, which makes its details a little hard to reconcile with the events of Batman #13; and Batgirl #13 features a familiar (albeit repurposed) home-invasion sequence, so it’s not like they don’t acknowledge the crossover.
Anyway, if Batman #13 has flaws, they’re early and minor. An opening scene with Gordon and Harvey Bullock, talking about Gordon’s attempts to quit smoking, isn’t quite as funny as it wants to be, mostly because it comes at the height of their impending-doom discussion, right after a cryptic note about “another one.” However, it has an effective payoff later, as part of the Joker’s initial rampage. The second misstep is Gordon’s frightened utterance to Batman in the wake of said rampage: “He told a joke.” Now, not to be That Guy, correcting the shell-shocked, but the Joker was really throwing out variations on the same setup, and never offering any punchlines. I see what Snyder and Capullo were trying to do in both cases, but I think their timing was off. Also, I could have done without the Mayor being a stereotypically spoiled politician, although that little bit of characterization facilitates a piece of the Joker’s plan.
Still, none of those detract appreciably from a genuinely moody, suspenseful issue which keeps the reader involved right through to the tantalizing cliffhanger. Capullo, Glapion, and colorist Fco Plascencia create eerie environments for every scene. (The flashlight effects in the first big sequence are especially creepy.) Capullo’s layouts are busy and cramped for the action bits, expansive for the character moments, and static and unblinking for a one-page hostage scene. The page introducing the Mayor is a good example: It begins with a small panel outside City Hall, focused on the top floor and showing a police helicopter patrolling the gray, cloudy night. Panel 2 is a large, square panel which dominates the top half of the page and establishes the cordon of cops around the Mayor’s desk. It overlaps Panel 3, a page-wide medium shot of the Mayor and Gordon, with the Mayor crowded out by the overlap as if he resented the cops’ intrusion (which, of course, he does). Finally, running along the bottom of the page are three small panels showing Gordon going down an empty hallway into an empty elevator, and there looking over his shoulder into the car’s emergency hatch, where Batman lurks above. Thus, black-tinged panels take the page from the dark night outside to the Dark Knight (ha!) himself, with washed-out greens, grays, blues and browns not doing anything to lighten the mood.
I mentioned Batman’s observation that this time the Joker is doing his own dirty work, but that’s not exactly true, at least not in this issue. First, he kidnaps an innocent victim to deliver his message about the Mayor; and at the end of the issue, he distracts Batman with Harley Quinn in an old-school Red Hood outfit. (Looking at the sequence again, Capullo gives Harley/Hood a more feminine body language. A chilling six-page backup story, by Snyder, co-writer James Tynion IV and artist Jock, also goes behind that reveal.) After trapping him in a vat, which then starts filling with an unhealthy-looking green liquid, Batman learns that the Joker is going after all his allies, so their “games” can be just between the two of them once again. For her part, Harley laments that “he’s not my Mr. J anymore,” as her black face-paint blurs with tears. This makes me think things don’t look so good for Harley, since she’d apparently be a third wheel even if all the Robins and Batgirl were gone; but we’ll see.
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Again, on the whole I thought Batman #13 was put together very well. It tells an effective story which lives up to the hype, both in terms of the current crossover and as a Batman/Joker duel. Honestly, it’s the kind of story I expect to see in Batman, and especially out of such a talented creative team. It introduces all the players, lays out all the stakes, and creates an appropriately nasty atmosphere. If I wanted to pick up Batman again (perhaps because a certain movie was fresh in my mind), I can’t think of a better current issue with which to start. Snyder, Capullo and their colleagues have set the bar high. Batman #13 honors its past with a fine first impression which might well stand with those classics.