If “Dark Nights: Metal” had one breakout character, it would be The Batman Who Laughs. Not according to me, however. The idea of a Batman whose mind was infected, literally, by a toxin inside the Joker’s body which only emerged upon his death wasn’t the right kind of dumb for my tastes. Seeing Batman and the Joker team up to kick his ass at the end of the event was my favorite thing about the character. Still, he struck a chord with other comics readers and the character’s popularity is why he’s getting a self-titled miniseries. Make no mistake: This is really just another chance for Scott Snyder to write a “Batman” story, and one marvelously illustrated by his “Detective Comics” collaborator Jock. So while there’s inevitably going to be some good stuff here, there are also some real issues holding it back.
While The Batman Who Laughs was caught and locked up at the end of “Metal,” he escaped by making a deal with Lex Luthor over in the pages of Snyder’s “Justice League.” Why did he need to get out? Because he’s got plans, baby! Chief among them is to infect everyone in Gotham with the same poisonous mindset he brought with him from the Dark Multiverse. To help with that, he’s brought another Nightmare Batman with him. That’d be the Grim Knight, who is basically what Batman would be like if he embraced the Punisher’s ethos. It’s all to show our Batman that a Batman who always laughs is one who always wins.
Our Batman isn’t going to go down without a fight, of course. The problem is that he’s up against someone who has no ethos to espouse -- it’s all about winning by any means necessary for him. Yet our Batman has friends he can rely on like Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, and… Joker? That’s right, the Clown Prince of Crime is also on the loose, and he’s actually here to help since he really doesn’t care much from a Batman who’s copping his style. Is the world ready for a World’s Craziest team-up? I should hope not, because the Joker’s idea of help involves turning his adversary into this universe’s very own Batman Who Laughs.
“The Batman Who Laughs” features a character from a major event, revolves around Batman, and comes from an A-list creative team. About the only thing keeping it from being an event unto itself is that it’s not spawning lots of tie-ins from ongoing series, other miniseries, and one-shots (more on that later). I’m bringing this up because while I loved Snyder’s “Batman” run with Greg Capullo, he’s shown a real weakness in his storytelling when it comes to the event-level stories in “Metal” and “Justice League” that have followed.
That would be how he tends to have the good guys struggle, or just outright lose, against the bad guys until the climax. While the Justice League, and Batman specifically, may have some great plan to wrap up their latest city-or-wold-or-universe-ending struggle, you can be sure it’s going to fail if the story is at parts-one-through-five of a six-part story. It’s been true elsewhere and it’s true here.
Not helping matters is the fact that Snyder seems to be aware of this and tries to reframe the bug into a feature in certain places. There’s one section of the story where Batman actually takes a moment to realize that he and his allies have been lucky in achieving one particular goal and that it’s likely a trick by the Batman Who Laughs. That was clever, but the follow-through left something to be desired. Then there’s the idea raised here behind the Batman Who Laughs’ mindset: That he’s a version of the “Batman Always Wins” school of thinking shorn of any deeper meaning or morality. It’s an interesting notion, to be sure. Too bad it feels more like an attempt by the writer to give himself a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for having the character succeed without struggling here.
Then there’s the character himself, who really just comes off like a smug, grimdark version of Batman. He’s got a… distinctive look to him, that’s for sure and I guess he’s got the ability to make any bad situation worse? It’s just that for all the talk of how he’s Batman with added Joker mindset, or just driven to win at any cost, the Batman Who Laughs never feels like he actually reflects any of this. Sure, he’s got the ability to out-think and out-fight our Batman, but so do a lot of other villains, A-list or two-bit, otherwise before the end of a story. For me, he just comes off like a particularly dark and extreme try-hard and one who didn’t beg for mercy hard or long enough by the end of the story.
So with these strikes against it, is “The Batman Who Laughs” still worth reading? I still think I got my money’s worth because it still features a lot of the things I like about Snyder writing Batman in it. There’s the way he’s able to get inside the character’s head through a particularly penetrating monologue, like when Bruce remembers when his father told him about how everything Gotham stands for can be found in a the city’s subway token. Or how he reveals new, weird layers to the city, such as the “Last Laugh” protocol Batman has designed and its origins in how the city tried to make itself self-sufficient in a crisis.
Or how he keeps finding new and interesting ways for Batman to interact with the Joker. After “Death of the Family,” “Endgame,” and that park bench chat they had in “Superheavy,” you’d think he’d have run out of clever encounters for the Caped Crusader to have with the Clown Prince of Crime. You’d be wrong as not only does the Joker help kick the plot into gear through some extreme measures, there’s a rather insightful chat between the two of them around the volume’s halfway mark. It’s where we find out what the Joker really wants as he explains it to a Batman whose mindset is in just the right place to accept and laugh about it. I wasn’t expecting to read something like that here, which was a definite plus.
There’s also the return of a certain character from Snyder and Jock’s “Detective Comics” run which came as a surprise. A pleasant one, though, as the character’s ongoing struggle to not give into the worst aspects of his personality were decidedly appropriate for a story whose main antagonist is a Batman whose mind was infected by the Joker’s madness. The ongoing difficulty in his relationship with his father also made for some good drama here as well. Never moreso than in the final pages where the final words between them take on sinister meaning when you consider the otherwise awful cliffhanger this volume leaves off on.
Though I may have my problems with the story, one thing I can’t complain about is the art. I don’t think I’ve ever read a story illustrated by Jock that didn’t look effortlessly stylish or kinetic and this is no exception. From the opening action scene to the final reflective pages in Wayne Manor, the artist takes us on a hellbound tour of Gotham City and the effect is suitably nightmarish. He does his damndest to make the title character look like a vision of pure evil, while slowly realizing Batman’s own descent into madness. It’s fantastic stuff -- enough to make me wish Jock were just a little more prolific as an artist.
That’s not all, as this volume features a supplemental issue detailing the origin of the Grim Knight. While he’s basically a thuggish background character in the main story meant to antagonize Gordon, we get to see where his animosity for the cop comes from in this issue. That a Batman who kills every bad guy he comes across would turn out to be a fascist isn’t very surprising. Where this story gets its drive is from seeing Gordon work through every resource at his disposal to bring the character down by the book. It’s a solid enough approach that I wish co-writer James Tynion IV had devoted more time to it as opposed to finding creative ways for the Grim Knight to be awful. Still, these ways are drawn by Eduardo Risso who gives them an intimidating style to go along with the determination he imbues Gordon with on the page.
It’s a great vision of the character, which makes the one we see on the final page all that more depressing. Worse still is that it’s basically a cliffhanger that points us in the direction of the new “Batman/Superman” series if we want to know what happens next. That’s not the way you get me to read an ongoing story: First you put out a volume clearly labeled vol. 1, then follow it up with vol. 2 and so on. Still, this whole “Dark Multiverse/Infected” storyline looks to be the closest DC has to an ongoing narrative at this point. I’ll admit to being curious about seeing where it goes after reading this, but implementing it as a cliffhanger here does it no favors.
After all this, is “The Batman Who Laughs” worth reading? I’d say it’s a qualified yes. While the art is fantastic, the storyline certainly has its issues if you’re not already onboard with the title character. This storyline didn’t really make me any more interested in him, but it has all the strengths and quirks I like from Snyder’s “Batman” stories. It’s just too bad that they’re being employed in the service of a story about a character who isn’t nearly as cool as everyone else seems to think he is.