I’ve done a little research since my last installment. As the name might suggest, tonic water was originally used as a medicine – it was (and many tonics, including the Schweppes which I am mixing with my gin, still are) derived from quinine, which itself is extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree. The indigenous peoples of Peru used the bark to treat and prevent “fevers,” which are now better identified as malaria. They helpfully shared the treatment with the Spanish conquistadors, who exported it back to Europe. It became common practice among British colonists to drink a daily preventative dose of Schweppes’ “Indian Quinine Tonic.” I don’t know that it is documented as to who first started spiking their medicinal tonic with gin, but it was a practice that continued through both World Wars, leading Winston Churchill to proclaim, “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”
This is not the reason that Wisconsin’s Death’s Door Distillery has named themselves as such – it takes its name from Death’s Door Passage, the Lake Michigan strait separating Washington Island from mainland Wisconsin. Nevertheless, it’s a neat coincidence which ties nicely into Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty’s Joker: Last Laugh. In this 2001-2002 story, a prison physician diagnoses a fatal tumor in the Joker’s brain, and the Joker takes the news of his impending death . . . rather poorly. Instead of drinking a gin and tonic or looking for some other a cure, the Joker accepts that he will die, but only if he gets to deliver one last punchline. He orchestrates a massive breakout and sets loose a horde of Joker-ized supervillains to cause chaos across the world.
It’s a great premise for a Joker story, but it could stand to learn a couple things from Death’s Door gin. Namely, simplicity: Death’s Door crafts their gin with only three botanicals, one of which is the usual juniper. The other two are coriander and fennel seeds. It lends Death’s Door a clean and clear quality, not demanding any attention with any floral or spicy aromatics. There are no pronounced flavors to pull focus or to hide behind. Like Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon’s Batgirl/Robin: Year One, Death’s Door attests to the fact that it is sometimes best to not have too much, so long as what is there is really damn good. Last Laugh was coming out in between, if not amidst, Beatty & Dixon’s Robin and Batgirl books, but evidently it was a lesson the pair had not wholly committed to heart and Last Laugh gets really cluttered before the first issue is even done.
Admittedly, this is not completely Beatty & Dixon’s fault, because, as was the fashion of the early ‘00s, every damn comic crossed over with several others. Ostensibly, this is to bolster sales and is a strategy still used from time to time (such as the recent Robin War across most of DC’s Batman-adjacent titles). This means, in the instance of Last Laugh, that what could otherwise be a short, punchy, and anarchic Joker-centric story is turned into a big event, touching upon aspects of DC continuity so dated they were probably reversed or retconned before the ink was even dry on the last issue. Why is Joker incarcerated in a supermax penitentiary called “The Slab” instead of his usual cell in Arkham, or even the otherwise established Blackgate Penitentiary? Fine, I’ll accept that, but should head of security Shilo Norman and marshal Dina Bell be characters as meaningful to me as the narrative insists? Oh, and Lux Luthor is the president of the United States? Sure!
It’s easy enough to find one’s bearings, but nevertheless, I get the sense that this book is assuming a whole lotta context which is never established textually. Furthering this sense of being stranded in a baffling moment of continuity, there is a conspicuous lack of A-list (or even B- or C-list) supporting cast, recalling the quip from the Deadpool movie about how it seemed like the studio couldn’t afford more than two X-Men. Thus, instead of seeing the likes of Two-Face or Bane among the Joker-ized antagonists, Last Laugh gives us, uh, Rancor and Stormfront. Inadvertently, this lowers the stakes, giving the impression that the more famous characters must be at a better party than this one.
Not, of course, that it’s an outright bad party. It has a delightful all-in quality that is entirely appropriate for the Joker’s finale, tossing dozens of characters and plots around with reckless abandon, seemingly figuring out as it goes what’s working and what isn’t. Precisely what the Joker hopes to achieve is a little unclear throughout, and some plots, such as the particularly icky one in which the Joker tries to abduct Harley Quinn for the purpose of siring an heir, thankfully don’t go anywhere. When his endgame is revealed (he hopes to goad Batman into killing him before the tumor does), it is unsupported by any of the events leading up to it. Batman gets surprisingly little screen time, as Beatty & Dixon try their damnedest to make this a story about Barbara Gordon and Dick Grayson. Beatty & Dixon are good at writing those two characters, but their involvement in this plot is a little forced, and Nightwing, in particular, makes some very out-of-character decisions to justify his involvement.
This scattershot approach is reflected in the art, with each issue handled by a different artist. Now, I don’t mind art changes from issue to issue, if the change in visual style is reflected in the content. Consider Max Landis’s current Superman: American Alien series – each issue tells a different type of story, and the artist matched with each issue is perfectly suited to tell that type of story. Sure, Francis Manapul is a tremendous artist no matter what he’s drawing, but there’s no way he could draw a dialogue-heavy romantic issue as effectively as Joelle Jones. In Last Laugh, though, there’s no narrative difference between each issue, and the results just seem uneven and disjointed. Most of the art is solid and the storytelling clear (though nearly all the artists seem to struggle to make the Joker-ized villains recognizable, drawing each of them as looking like the Joker with different clothes and different hair). The real distracting difference, though, is actually a positive: Dixon & Beatty’s Batgirl/Robin: Year One collaborator Marcos Martin handles the art on the second issue, and the book just never looks quite that good in any subsequent issue.
Of course, The Joker doesn’t die – the tumor diagnosis, delightfully and appropriately, turns out to be a practical joke. Thus, the Joker doesn’t really find himself at Death’s Door at all, but I’m nevertheless happy to have the excuse to enjoy Death’s Door gin. Not, of course, that an excuse is necessary.