Written by Scott Snyder
Pencills by Greg Capullo
Inks by Jonthan Glapion
Colors by FCO Plascencia
Letters by Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt, Katie Kubert
Backup Story by Scott Snyder & James Tynion IV
Backup Art by Jock, Sal Cipriano, Katie Kubert
Cover by Capullo & Plascencia
40 pages / Color / $3.99 US
Published by DC Comics
Coulrophobia. A fear of clowns. There’s any number of reasons to be skeeved out by a clown, especially for the introverted. But there’s a primal reason so many of us distrust their appearance and behavior. People in long white coats say it has to do with the juxtaposition of a familiar human form with an unfamiliar, inhuman face. As many children respond gleefully to that kind of thing as are repulsed by it. Liken it to the canted or Dutch angle in film (also known, coincidentally, as the “Batman angle”). It’s that moment when you peer down a hallway as framed by a tilted camera. While frequently abused, the technique is designed to trigger a subconscious anxiety, a level of unease or even dread. When our world shifts, even slightly, it upsets our balance and calls into question even the most reliable constants. Like any phobia, Coulrophobia, deconstructed, often stems to a fear of comprehension–of control–relinquished.
The Joker is scarier than most clowns. Coulrophobia is but one of several phobias swirling through his unique, potent cocktail. The fears he instills often don’t have scientific names as they’re so ubiquitous and rational that you could hardly label them disorders. He is a murderer after all. He is a terrorist. Unlike a bundle of snakes or a black cat perpendicular to our path or a somersaulting clown, his menace is certain rather than hypothetical. Maybe it’s that mixture that makes him so consistently frightening. As a threat, the Joker is predictably lethal, but the nature of his mania makes him equally unpredictable. By behaving so badly in a skin just slightly Dutch to our own, he reminds us what we might be capable of if we take that wrong turn at Albuquerque, if we give in to the monster in the mirror.
Few comic writers have so capably tapped into psychological horror in recent years as Scott Snyder. That knack and obsession has served him well in his tenure on Detective Comics and Batman. In a relatively short time, he’s introduced some delightfully creepy new elements to the Gotham mythos, much of it playing into the “Black Mirror” motif. While Batman has faced an endless mob of psychotic rogues over the decades, Snyder’s villains register as especially intimate challenges for the Dark Knight, often exposing our heroes deepest insecurities and psychoses. It’s a recurring theme that’s hardly overstayed its welcome, and its added great definition to both Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. It all started with Dick’s own paths-not-taken, both with James Gordon Jr. and more recently with the revelation that he was nearly groomed to serve the Court of Owls as a Talon. Bruce, of course, confronted his own reflection earlier this year when Lincoln March claimed to be his brother Thomas Wayne Jr., long assumed dead or imaginary.
But now we return to one of fiction’s most compelling tangos. The Batman has dueled with the Joker countless times, and for as many victories our hero has secured, the Joker is the lasting reminder of Bruce’s failings. The Joker killed Jason under Batman’s watch. The Joker paralyzed Barbara Gordon and forever tainted Jim Gordon’s resolve. The question remains. To what extent is the Joker a product of the Batman? Just how incestuous or perversely symbiotic is their bond?
Last year, the Joker lost his face. Or perhaps he relinquished his face to make some twisted point in another of his long cons. This week he returned to Gotham to reclaim that face, an act of war with repercussions yet to be fully discerned. Snyder wisely zeroes in on Jim Gordon at the outset of this new chapter in the Joker’s reign of terror, beginning with a haunting rooftop rundown of its grim portents. Gordon and Bullock tally the strange happenings about Gotham, from the near Biblical deluge to the birth of a two-headed lion cub in the city’s zoo. Snyder has shown a real affinity for Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, but his Jim Gordon is just as nuanced. Gordon is valiant, his spirit bruising with each calamity suffered by his city. When the Joker returns under a cloak of darkness, its Gordon he strikes first. And the commissioner is appropriately frightened. This might be the New 52, but this interaction carries all the weight of the characters’ entire history. The Joker comes just short of breaking the fourth wall in his allusions to The Killing Joke and other iconic moments. Snyder’s Joker commands that eery prescience, a comprehension of his place in the mythology of the Batman. It’s a story he’s telling himself, a self-fullfilling prophecy he’s desperate to enact upon the real world. It just so happens, it’s a mythology to which we as readers already subscribe. Again, it’s not quite metafiction, but it lends the character something of an astuteness that other characters can’t claim because they’re not eager to share in his fantasy.
The Joker lost his face and then put it back on again. But this turn started before that. Something happened to make him welcome that injury. That’s unsettling even for this character. Even for a Snyder story. Luckily, it’s rendered to horrific perfection by Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion and FCO. This team had a dominant stride from the word go, so by now it’s simply a question of what new experiments they might employ next. Here, it’s restraint. The Joker attacks in complete darkness. By the end, he’s revealed with his own shorn face messily buckled to his head with a belt strap. It’s only as disgusting as it needs to be, which wouldn’t be true with many, many other artists working right now. Even more striking, though, is the evolving expression of panic on Jim Gordon’s face throughout this ordeal. This team’s handling of human emotion is sublime.
As of that wasn’t enough, Snyder teams with James Tynion IV and Jock for an inspired epilogue. It’s maybe not the best employment of Jock’s aesthetic, but it makes for a wonderfully ethereal vignette between Harley and the Joker. It’s a smart use of the backup venue and a change of pace from the serial that ran in the previous story line. Functioning like a character-centric deleted scene, it adds welcome context to the climactic scene of the main story. And that tentative, outstretched arm in the final panel speaks volumes. One of the most haunting images from a consistently spooky issue.
It’s evident that this is the start of something special. That the entree has been well worth the wait. It’s not just another Joker tale with a clever twist on the clown motif. This goes deeper. A character study. A series of them in fact. A long game. The writing is beautiful and sinister with allusions to past classics and a chilling invocation of Peter Pan and his shadow and his Darlings. That we only see the Joker revealed in the final page teases at the level of suspense and horror to be had throughout the rest of the tale. Brash young Damian is unimpressed at the prospect of the villain’s return, but this is the kid at the campfire laughing off the urban legends of escaped mental patients with hooks for hands waiting in the wings. There’s already a substantial body count. The Joker has reclaimed his face and gathered up his portents. And he’s just started one mother of a knock knock joke.
Story: 5 / Art: 5 / Overall: 5
(Out of 5 Stars)