No two creators influenced the tone of comics from the ‘80s onward as much as Frank Miller and Alan Moore, and many comics fans continue to regard their works as the high watermark of superhero storytelling. See, fans are usually quite serious about their fandom, and as such, both Miller and Moore’s comics were enormously validating for many dyed-in-the-wool fans, because they, too, took superheroes very, very seriously, telling very adult stories which considered more realistic ramifications of all those super-heroics. In their hands, costumed villains weren’t larger-than-life mischief-makers, but were instead dangerous, violent, and sadistic criminals. I really don’t have a problem with that, per se, and while both auteurs have some severely problematic tendencies in their storytelling, I do actually think that The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are really quite good and would never refute their status as classics of the genre (and the medium as a whole.) But boy, do I ever hate a great portion of what their work inspired.
Which takes us to Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Joker. This graphic novel was published in 2008, concurrent with the release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which featured Heath Ledger’s jaw-dropping turn as the iconic Clown Prince of Crime. Surprisingly, the graphic novel was evidently not influenced by Ledger’s performance, as it was written and drawn prior to either of its creators ever seeing the film, though it is remarkable how closely Bermejo’s rendering of the Joker resembles the film’s. Both the graphic novel and the film, I think, reached similar conclusions in terms of how to visualize the character in a realistic context, a treatment which Bermejo also extends to other characters such as Killer Croc and the Riddler. I have little nice to say about Joker, but before I go much further, I should make it clear: Bermejo’s work on Joker is, as always, fantastic. Inked by Mick Gray, the art is not as painterly and beautiful as Bermejo’s later graphic novel Noël, but Gray’s harder edges and heavier shadows lend Joker an appropriate grit and ugliness. Finished by Patricia Mulvihill’s bleak and washed-out color palette, the art as a whole is stunning and perfectly suited to the book’s overall tone.
Merely paging through the book, then, I would have no reason to think I wouldn’t like it. This is the first comparison I will make to Dillon’s Unfiltered Gin 22 – the aroma of this gin (a little floral, a little fruity, and a little sweet) is entirely different from actual taste. But Dillon’s is less like Joker, and is instead more like the works of Alan Moore and Frank Miller which Azzarello tries fruitlessly to invoke: Moore and Miller created books which looked like simple superhero comics, but delivered a surprising complexity, same as how Dillon’s Unfiltered Gin 22 smells floral, fruity, and sweet, but tastes surprisingly spicy, with notes of coriander and lemon. Really, Joker is almost the exact opposite – it looks like something extraordinary, but is actually much, much less.
I don’t think Brian Azzarello is a bad writer – he actually makes some smart choices throughout Joker, the first of which is to eschew even attempting to capture the Joker’s viewpoint. Our narrator is instead an ambitious thug named Jonny Frost, who serves as the Joker’s personal chauffeur/getaway driver, leaving the Joker’s deranged mind hidden and inscrutable. The Joker, unpredictable and violent, is magnetic to Jonny, a man who has confused fear for respect and craves the same for himself. I don’t even mind that there is little plot throughout – the book aims to be something of a character study of the Joker, and Azzarello has chosen a good format for such an undertaking. I won’t fault him, either, for his ambition, choosing to examine the Joker as a character completely divorced from any co-dependency upon Batman. Unfortunately, Azzarello fails to actually observe anything interesting or different about the Joker, seemingly compensating by laying that Miller/Moore grit down thick, mistaking his influence’s window dressing for architecture.
People do repugnant and unforgivable things in nearly all Frank Miller and Alan Moore books, and people do repugnant and unforgivable things in Joker as well. While books like Watchmen, The Killing Joke, and The Dark Knight Returns use these ugly moments as essential plot points (however crass or inelegant), Joker seems only to use the shocking violence and rampant immorality as a means of telling us that this is a very serious book, though damned if I know what it’s so serious about. I’m not frequently one to use the term “gratuitous” freely, but just about everything about Joker is gratuitous. The book follows the Joker, newly released from Arkham Asylum, visiting the various players within Gotham’s criminal underbelly, reasserting his dominance and control over the various rackets and criminal holdings. He does this through explosive acts of violence, mostly by shooting a whole lot of people, but at other points by skinning a man alive and maiming a man’s face with a broken bottle. The violence is woefully uninspired, but all the murder isn’t really what bothers me. What does, though, is the resulting portrait of the Joker who is inordinately concerned with being respected and influential – really, he’s nothing scarier than a crime boss. Sure, he’s an unpredictable and deranged crime boss, but a crime boss nevertheless, an occupation which demands a degree of organization entirely at odds with the Joker’s more compelling iterations.
Which leads us to the cardinal sin of Joker: it reduces one of the greatest and scariest fictional antagonists to being nothing more compelling than a bully, and, most gratuitous of all, a rapist. Yes, Azzarello has the Joker rape Jonny Frost’s ex-wife simply because Jonny withheld some information from his boss. It is such a disgusting, upsetting, and wholly unnecessary moment, taking what was otherwise an un-compelling interpretation of the character and steering it instead toward a horrific mishandling of him. Worse, if this rape can be said to have any significance to the story at all (and that is wholly debatable), it is only to serve as a motivator for our male protagonist to realize that his loyalty to his boss might be misplaced, thus perpetuating one of fiction’s most harmful tropes of using violence against women as a prop in a man’s story. It certainly isn’t helped by the fact that the book’s only other female character, a peculiarly wordless Harley Quinn, is mostly just a sexualized set piece as well.
Same as in the last installment, I found myself thinking of a Neil Gaiman comic as I read this one – in this case, his wonderful two-part eulogy to Batman, Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader? In a single panel, Gaiman demonstrates a greater understanding of the Joker than Brian Azzarello can muster in 128 pages. “I don’t just randomly kill people,” Gaiman writes the Joker as saying, “I kill people when it’s funny. What could conceivably be funny about killing you?” This is the exact reason I reject any version of the Joker which depicts him as a sexual predator (and this isn’t the only such depiction) – because rape is never funny. Really, Joker is so painfully unfunny that the character scarcely warrants the name in this book.
Most gin, after the botanical flavors are infused, is filtered, leaving it clear. As I’m sure one might guess by the name, Dillon’s Unfiltered Gin 22 is not, leaving it slightly cloudy. This proves to be a good thing: like Bombay Sapphire, this gin is vapor infused, but unlike that ethanol-flavored spirit, this one is full of flavor, making the most of the twenty-two undisclosed botanicals. By not filtering it, Dillon’s gin is left layered and complex. In gin, it seems, leaving some impurities is a good thing. I might describe Joker as unfiltered as well, but its impurities don’t cohere into anything nuanced or complex, simply forming a random assortment of ugly pockmarks, which don’t form a meaningful pattern at all.