The last time I talked about Scott Snyder’s “Batman,” I said that I was expecting nothing but the best from this latest Joker-centric storyline. Did I get that? No. For all of its hype and the flash of its storytelling, this is still a story that covers a lot of familiar ground with Batman and his arch-nemesis. Was I still entertained? Very much so. That’s because in spite of this familiarity, Snyder makes the little details of the story quite memorable, and Greg Capullo again turns in some fantastic art that’s very easy to appreciate on the page. If you’re like me and always have a spot in your library for a well-told “Batman” story, then you’ll find this to be a worthy addition. For those of you who want something a little different in the adventures of the World’s Greatest Detective, read on to see if the details offered up here can make the difference.
At the start of the story, we’re told that the Joker has been away from Gotham for over a year. This is technically true as the character got his face sliced off in the first issue of “Detective Comics” at the launch of the “New 52.” No one was expecting him to stay gone for long, as confirmed by an ominous monologue from Commissioner Gordon. That turns out to be a nice bit of misdirection before the chaos really gets going as the Joker breaks into the Gotham City Police Department, kills several cops and steals his face back. He then sets about re-creating some of his earliest crimes, all with new twists that Batman is helpless against. This is all to prove a point, that the Joker thinks Batman’s “family” of fellow crimefighters is making him soft and weak. To prove his point, the Clown Prince of Crime is going to kill them all to get his beloved Batsy back in fighting form.
“Death of the Family” follows a fairly conventional narrative structure for most of its run. You’ve got the Joker running rings around everyone with Batman appearing to gain ground on him only to play right into the madman’s hands. At least until he turns the tables at the end. Batman also shuts out his “family” to a certain extent while also keeping a key detail from them that threatens to divide the group in their moment of crisis. We even get that unsettling moment at the end to let us know that even though the Joker has been beaten this time, everything is still not all right.
Yet it’s the little things that make this an entertaining read. Having Alfred be kidnapped at the beginning adds plausibility to the fact that the Joker may actually know their identities, and is also something I don’t think I’ve ever seen him do before. Then you have Batman talk to Nightwing about the incident about how “Afred Pennyworth” who is “Bruce Wayne’s butler” being kidnapped. It’s standard issue code for how they talk about these things in public, but it was great to see Nightwing call Batman on how he does it now to avoid dealing with the situation. You’ve also got creepy moments like the Joker’s initial assault on the police department in the dark, the dancing Batmen and Jokers at Arkham, Joker trying to play for time when Batman blazes through his gauntlet at Arkham, and the two-headed lion that keeps popping up throughout the story that help add distinction to it. There’s plenty more where those came from -- including Joker’s version of Excalibur -- but best of all is the final confrontation between Batman and Joker where the former finally gets the upper hand on the latter in a way I did not see coming and was completely believable at the same time. If there’s one thing that would really get under the Joker’s skin, it’s what Batman threatens to do to him there.
Also, Batman punches a horse. I’m betting that’s something else he can cross off his bucket list.
Snyder also writes great Joker dialogue, which is a good thing because he has the character monologuing a whole lot throughout this story. Yet he invests a real sinister glee in these words with the character starting off with sinister humor and then steadily raising the stakes the more he speaks in a given scene. Some of it even manages to be genuinely unsettling, as is the case of his final words to Gordon in the police department. I realize that this may also be true for a lot of people, but I hear Mark Hamill’s voice perfectly when I read the dialogue in this collection.
That being said, Snyder also brings the character up against a wall here. Think about it: the Joker has come back from having his face cut off, returns to Gotham and murders a couple dozen policemen, takes over Arkham, has the entire Bat-family at his mercy… Where do you take the character from here? All of the events of “Death of the Family” make for great “event” storytelling, but the Joker is going to have to be dialed back a good deal before he can work as a recurring villain again. Also, as great as the “skin mask” look to the character is (and it looks just as good with the die-cut dust jacket on the hardcover) it seems too extreme to be workable on a regular basis.
I guess that’s why DC had the “Joker’s Daughter” find it and put it on herself. You can probably expect the Joker to have grown the skin back on his face by the next time we see him along with an appropriately ridiculous explanation for it. As for what he’ll be doing then, a smart writer will find a way to have the character do something smaller in scale yet still threatening. Going “bigger” from here seems like it would only break the Joker as a character at this point. I mean, are they going to have him gas an orphanage next time? Because that’s the kind of event it would take. Also, “Batman: The Time Joker Gassed an Orphanage” is a very unwieldy crossover title.
Speaking of the whole “skin mask,” Capullo does a great job of making it work with its strapped-on look and slow rotting -- complete with flies -- throughout the narrative. The effect is appropriately unsettling, as are the moments when Batman grabs him and the skin twists unnaturally on his face. That’s not the only thing Capullo brings to the title as he does a great job with the big superhero action moments and in realizing the more macabre moments in Snyder’s script. Seeing Batman tear through a fight with the inmates at Arkham, only to stumble upon a “stitched mural” of his most notable encounters with the Joker, and then onto fights with Mr. Freeze and the Scarecrow only to stumble upon a truly bizarre two-page spread of the Joker’s idea of Batman’s “kingdom” is just as exciting as it sounds. It’s great work from beginning to end and I continue to look forward to seeing what else the artist brings to this title.
Pitching in as well are James Tynion IV and Jock, who co-write and illustrate the back-up stories in the first four issues which flesh out background details regarding the involvement of other members of Batman’s rogues gallery in this story. Though Snyder/Tynion IV’s reboot of Mr. Freeze didn’t endear me to the idea of seeing them collaborate again, all of the shorts here are pretty effective. Particularly the first one with Harley Quinn as her relationship with the Joker is illustrated in a skin-crawling way as she accedes to his every demand, even to allow Mr. J to cut off her own face as well. Though these aren’t very action-centric stories, Jock invests his layouts and panels with an off-kilter look while still rendering them with the same intensity he has always brought to his projects.
Even though the issues collected here were the spine of a major line-wide crossover, it was the little things that stood out most about “Death of the Family.” For all of the hoopla, it still wound up being a fairly conventional Batman vs. Joker story, but not an unmemorable one. That’s a testament to the skills of Snyder and Capullo as they continue to show that even if they’re not bringing us a whole lot of new things to the character, they can still refashion the old stuff in a compelling fashion.