Review: Batman #17 – The Joke Within A Joke Within A Joke

Will Romine writes;

Hello Friends,

I’d like to start this review by telling you what’s under the silver serving dishes is…

Are you ready for it?

It’s your last chance. Big spoilers ahead.

Joker’s big surprise, the McGuffin that’s had us scratching our heads since this past summer is… (highlight below to reveal)

The holy grail, the briefcase from Pulp Fiction, letters of transit, unobtainum, a crystal skull, the maltese falcon, a sledge called Rosebud, the contents of the trunk in Repo Man, Snape kills Dumbledore, and your mom.

Wow, did not expect that one, did you? I, for one, was floored.

Now that I’ve had my fun, on with my review and analysis.

I’ve written a review for each issue of Batman since Death of the Family began. I’ve been fortunate to be able to see these issues in advance thanks to your mom.

Last one, I promise.

If the 1990′s have taught us anything, it’s that an edgy name, loads of powers, and shoulder pads do not a great character make. (I’m looking at you Adam X the X-treme.) Instead, a character of any significance must fit into their environment and be a logical consequence of that time and place. For a character to endure, they must influence the narrative to the point where the reader forgets that there was a time when this character never existed. This phenomena is less frequent than you might think. For every Harley Quinn, there are countless Poochies.

Introducing a new element into 75+ years of continuity always runs this risk. Scott Snyder has applied this understanding to his run on the Bat titles. Case and point: the Court of Owls has every reason to feel gimmicky. However, after reading it, I thought (without irony) “of course there’s a secret society that’s been influencing Gotham for hundreds of years and operates under the avatar of Bat-eating animal. Why would there not be?” Snyder’s skill lies introducing new elements into the Bat universe without altering anything that has existed, or could exist. He does this by filling the narrative shadows, these avenues ignored by other writers, in such a way that these new elements can peacefully exist alongside the Dark Knight’s history and future.

What “Court of Owls” did for the history of Gotham, “Death of the Family” does for the Joker, but with a twist. The Joker is one of the most firmly established characters in the Bat-Universe and long considered the consummate foil to Batman. How much narrative shadow, how many spots of indeterminacy, could a writer have to add to a character who has existed for almost all of Batman’s publication run? The answer is a lot, and none at all.

Throughout the entire run of “Death of the Family”, we’ve been made to believe that Snyder was filling these narrative shadows, giving gravitas to the Joker character. However, the Joker has no narrative shadows because he is all narrative shadow. As he said himself “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” Trying to add layers to the Joker is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. Whatever you establish as true, will also establish the opposite as true. The only way to add any significance to the character, to fill in those narrative shadows, is to understand that whether the Joker is genetically altering fish, setting up nonsensical death traps, or committing sidekick-o-cide, he’s always doing it in service of a joke.

The genius of “Death of the Family” is that the entire plot is joke played on the Bat Family using classic misdirection, which in turn is a joke played on the reader using that same misdirection. I won’t get into the details of the Joker’s joke, as that would spoil too much. But the joke that was played on us: that I’ll talk about.

We’ve been lead to believe that the Joker was plotting something big, that he had an all encompassing agenda and a major axe to grind with the Bat-family. The misdirection? Joker doesn’t give two shits about the Bat-family and he doesn’t make any plans that don’t end in a punchline. The joke on us is that we were made to see complex motivations behind the Joker’s actions where there were none. I haven’t had my mind fucked this well since I first saw “The Usual Suspects.” The punchline was right in front of us the whole time. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo literally let us peek under the Joker’s skin. And guess what? Under the skin, there’s just more grin.

I recommend that you pick this issue up at your LCS sooner rather than later. I wouldn’t suggest waiting for the trade though if you’re one of the types who are tempted by the siren song of spoiler alerts. Pick up the back issues, clear your schedule, get caught up, and then prepare yourself for one hell of an “aha” moment.

Well folks, that’s about all I have to say. If you want to keep in touch, follow me @notacomplainer. And if you notice that I began the article with a bit of comedic misdirection, well then double cool points for you!