Written by Brian Azzarello
Art by Lee Bermejo with Mick Gray
Colours by Patricia Mulvihill
Like all good noir tales, this story starts with a desperate setting. Gotham, rainy Gotham. A bleak landscape that’s about to be darkened even further by the release of the Joker from Arkham Asylum. It’s never specified why or how Joker effected his release, and that’s not important. It’s a dead lump of clay that needs to stay in the shadows to have any true effect. What matters, to all and sundry, is that he is free and he’s back to his favourite town.
A man we soon come to know as Jonny Jonny Frost decides to man up and be the one to pick the grinning fool up upon his freedom. Jonny soon finds himself firmly ensconced under Joker’s wing and it’s a rollercoaster ride, dizzying and exciting but something that’s eventually going to make you vomit, no doubt. Jonny has nothing better to do so he becomes the top lackey to the Joker.
But what is it he truly wants?
That’s the kick in this tale, the Joker is almost a false lead in that you can’t second guess his motives and you can’t even really know where he’ll end up because he’s got no idea. He acts on impulse and his base impulses are worse than you could ever imagine. He’s a grotesque human and Jonny loves this, for a time.
The book is different because it doesn’t have anyone to cheer for as its lead. There are no heroes here and had Joker not mentioned Batman I would have read on happily without expecting anything true or pure to ever come into panel. This isn’t a superhero comic, this is crime, this is noir at its purest definition. Black. There is a black heart within this book and you’ll neither understand it nor find its redemption. This isn’t a hardboiled PI kind of crime fiction, this is the kind where the lead is a terrible person, as are the people around him, and the city itself becomes a washed out landscape that no one will ever escape. When the good guy does come into the tale it is late and he’s only there for violence. He doesn’t hint at rehabilitation or hope. He just does what works which is exactly what Joker wants. The entire set up of violence, death, sex, and utter personal desolation is all but foreplay to his encounter with Batman.
The world is a spiral and we’re all heading down the drain. Eventually. That’s the lesson and our POV man, Jonny Jonny Frost learns it all far too late. You almost feel for him in the end were it not for the fact that he welcomed this destructive force into his life and world. Let him be a cautionary tale.
Azzarello writes this tale like an old pulp paperback. He lets the words paint pictures as often as his artist does the job for him. He wants you to get lost in the motions of this world, he wants you to feel behind the feelings of these men without feelings. He wants to somehow get you to connect to a world where connections are merely signs of weakness to be exploited. He is successful, somewhat, but everything is like you are viewing it through the smeared glass of a dime peepshow booth.
Bermejo is a fine partner in this endeavour. His designs are brutal and yet real – though his reimagining of the Riddler still hits a ludicrous mark. He hits the same stylistic choices and vibes as most of the modern masters of crime comics do and that’s to be commended. It can be mildly jarring when one of his painted panels slip into the mix but not to the extent that it takes you out of the tale. If anything, it just slows you down and makes you appreciate these players and their stage.
Verdict – Buy It. This is a comic whose style slightly outmatches its substance but it’s still a pleasure to become immersed in, if you can handle the bleak noir outlook of the world. Don’t buy this one because you’re a Batman fan, he’s barely in it, buy it if you like good hard hitting crime comics that offer you a skewed view of the world and make you thankful that your life is actually what it is. But most of all, buy this for the Joker. He’s a nasty piece of work, both without and within, and this is clearly one of his definitive tales. You’ll understand the man just that bit better, and doesn’t every Joker story try to offer a little slice of that?