You Never Forget a Face – The Joker Returns

bollandjoker1I’ve worked in a variety of different jobs in my life, from testing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? as my first summer job to talking about Internet security to a group of reporters in Tokyo not so long ago, but no matter what I have done, the work is basically the same: get a bunch of people with different skills, strengths, and temperaments to agree just enough to deliver something by a certain date to a group of people who have paid for that same something.

In a word, it’s all about putting on a show. It’s all about working, reworking, rehearsing and revealing something new, something different, something memorable, to the world. Something born of collaboration and compromise that you hope will make an impact.

DC’s current Bat-crossover, “Death of the Family” event is this kind of effort.

Now, for a variety of reasons, 2012 was a difficult one in terms of my relationship with comics. I would get frustrated with what I perceived to be a lack of creative stories; tales that promised so much, but delivered so little — for more money than I was comfortable with. My solution was to take a break and think about why I was still reading comics in the first place, and really focus on the creators and characters that bring out the very best in the art form. Luckily, Saga and a new Parker book came out, which helped a lot, but it was truly Scott Snyder and Greg Capulo that kept my hope alive, with their excellent work in Batman.

From an editorial standpoint, expanding Snyder’s story into the other Bat-books makes business sense — but in this case, I was pleased that how the incorporating the other characters’ books actually made sense from a story level as well.  To be sure, there were some issues where the “Death of the Family” story lines were more perfunctory than anything else, but, as I went from book to book over the past few days, I could not helped but get wrapped up in this incredible sense of foreboding and impending terror as Joker’s plans started to coalesce, building up to the upcoming Batman #17.

As with any production, there are core principles and themes that need to be adhered to if the show is going to be successful. For the most part, I think other Batbooks have taken their tone from Snyder and Capullo on Batman, and have been mostly successful, Batman and Robin probably the most so, with some truly harrowing imagery that really underscores the Joker’s wild-eyed madness and utter ruthlessness. Issue 15 was particularly disturbing — Patrick Gleason’s renderings of Joker playing with his face as he taunts Robin took my breath away, both in terms of just looking hectic and how it illustrates just how truly twisted Joker truly is, how he is impossible to define, to pin down — to stop.


The Joker, truly, is DC’s most awful creation, and I think the comic book community owes a great deal of gratitude to Scott Snyder for how he has used this harrowing character. He understands how hard it is to restrain this unrestrainable maniac, and wisely waited a year to bring him back into focus, re-presenting him so well that we almost wish he had waited longer. It’s so easy to just characterize the Joker as a particularly sadistic madman who gives creators a chance to think of the most disturbing ploys imaginable under the protection of “well, it’s the Joker, he has to go beyond the pale, that’s what he’s there for,’ but Joker is not only about the violent extremes. He is not only about forcing Batman to understand he is more similar to the Joker than he can admit.

When the Joker is in the hands of a skilled writer (and Scott Snyder is a profoundly skilled writer), he is the careful, controlled orchestrator of deeply personal and intimate anguish, who uses time, lives and the emotional sinew between the two to expose the madness the lies in wait in our souls, a violent lunacy that needs only that one special trigger to be unleashed.

“Death of the Family” is this orchestra.  The books, together, are a disturbing kind of jazz, a bloody madhouse as painted by artists versed in a gruesome cubism. As the Joker works to isolate the members of the Batman Family, we see the characters darkest fears being exposed: a fight, seemingly to the death, between Batman and Robin. Batgirl being forced to marry the Joker.  The harrowing fear that the Joker knows who you are and is going after the ones you love for your association with Batman, an association that, for the Joker, makes Batman weak.

Not unlike the Joker’s many ploys, going from book to book has been jarring and confounding at times. The art from book to book has at times been complimentary (Capullo to Gleason is a nice transition) and other times frustrating (Detective, for example, feels more labored and static by comparison) — which is to be expected. What has been particularly compelling has been watching the different artists play with the Joker’s face (quite literally, in some cases) — which, in this land of plastic surgery, facelifts, and botox makes it all the more disturbing.  The Joker’s madness is all about the face — his victims almost always die with some kind of emotional rictus — but he takes it to different level in this story, twisting his face as a kind of counterpoint to the terror he is causing.

jokerjockOverall, I think this could make for a compelling trade paperback. I have read almost all of the books in one or two sittings, and I am kind of glad I did it this way—there are quite a few books to go through and not all of them move the plot forward all that much (specifically Teen Titans and Red Hood and the Outlaws).  I am glad I bought them, but if the hope was that I would stick with these titles later, I am afraid that is not the case; both of these teams seem a little whiny and self-absorbed, with characterizations and quips that felt like they were trying too hard to be hip and relevant to some demographic that I will never be a part of.  I think it would have been cool if DC had done a package deal, like a season pass, for the arc, providing, say, a 10% discount of the reader subscribed to the entire arc, but perhaps the Comixology app doesn’t support that kind of feature at this time (or, perhaps more likely, DC didn’t feel they need to give up any profits on the event). I read this series completely digitally, which means I have not missed any issues and I have read them in what I assume to be the correct order, which, for lapsed readers like myself, was incredibly helpful, thanks to the “next in arc” feature.

What’s cool is that the related books have all built up to Batman #17 quite effectively; many of the plots in the other books lead right up the unveiling of the Joker’s main course (I can’t help but be reminded of Barton Fink, one of my favorite movies, with the never-answered question, “But what was in the box?”—but this time, fearing the worst, I don’t want to know).  Like the hapless guards at Arkham Asylum, the books have danced round and round, dipping and spinning to the themes and narratives established in the main Batman title. The series has reminded us readers why we value The Joker, this most reviled and revered of characters, giving families of creators a stab at bringing him into life in through the prisms of their particular books, revealing a (blood-) stained glass portrait of fear, violence, and queasily, love.

One might say that by diving back into comics via this event may have been too convenient, been too easy. After all, I know these characters and returning to Gotham is natural to me; indeed, I never stopped reading Batman.  On the other hand, “Death of the Family” represents everything that makes comics compelling and maddening: lots of different voices trying to tell the same story, consistent inconsistiences from book to book, the nagging fear that I didn’t really need to buy each book in the arc…but that’s part of the experience. But I do know that I felt a particular kind of dread when I typed out the words “Death of the Family,” and I realize the genius of the series, apart from re-establishing the Joker’s relevance and power in the world of comics (I kept typing “jOker” throughout this article, the larger “O” popping out like his blinded (?) left eye, reminding me that his madness is always a slip-up away).

Ultimately, these stories remind me how much a part of my life this Bat-family truly is, how I do care about all of these characters, why I do I understand how his love for his friends and family is, ultimately, his weakness. But at the end of it all, it is this weakness that makes our lives special and meaningful and it is necessary and important to acknowledge the ones you love because the moment, like our sanity, is tenuous.

This is why “Death of the Family” is, for me, successful: this comic book series has made me realize, through it’s sometimes hokey, sometimes pandering, other times harrowing pages, all that is good about life. While we may not have a “real” Joker in our lives, there are other things that bring us pain, confusion, and suffering; we must accept those things while clutching onto what brings us joy and make sure our laughter drowns out the Joker’s.


Mike Romo is an actor in LA, who, once, auditioned for the role The Joker in one of the animated series—it was pretty awesome. He’s on twitter and facebook and you can email him, too.




  1. So which of the tie-in books really are working and worth reading? The only Bat-books I am currently reading are “Batman” and “Detective Comics.”


    • I only read Batman. How is Detective?

    • Detective has been very good since the creative team change.

      I haven’t received my copy of Issue#16 yet (I get my books from DCBS and they come monthly), but #15 only had a slight tie-in to the DOTF story. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    • I have to say that I’m not thrilled at all with Detective Comics. The story lines have not really taken shape: The new Penguin is not interesting and what happened with Poison Ivy marrying Clayface? Not much. The Death of the Family tie-in is the only decent aspect to the book. I’m keeping in mind that there’s a war going on between editors and creators at DC and John Layman may not have to much say in what’s going down with Detective.

    • I think Batman & Robin and Batgirl have also been terrific for the past several months. I’ve always liked Tomasi, and once he got the characterizations down, B&R has been awesome. Simone’s Batgirl has had its high and low points, but she really brought her “A” game to this arc and it shows. Nightwing has been decent – I give it about a 4 overall – not as good as the others at their best, but consistently good, and I’m never sorry when I finish an issue.

    • Batman and Batman & Robin seem to be the two most focused on the core, then an issue here n there of Detective and Batgirl is how I read em and loved it so far. I’d say any of the DOTF issues don’t hurt but aren’t necessary from the titles outside Batman , Batman & Robin then the last few of Detective and the only necessary Batgirl I found was #16 as it came out the same day as Batman 16, and Batman & Robin 16, reading all 3 together is cool cause they all lead to the same “to be concluded” point at the end and Batgirl 16 is enough to know what happened in the previous DOTF Batgirl issues. Batman Inc is solid and great for carrying pre New52 Bat-verse happenings into the new 52 and continuing a connection to the DCU before Flashpoint cause it is still there somewhere. Then The Dark Knight I believe is just a stand alone Bat story I find unnecessary although it has a good creative team right now. David Finch’s Golden Dawn is a good The Dark Knight arc and makes a solid HC. Nightwing, Red Hood and The Outlaws, and Teen Titans don’t do it for me but I want Red Robin to go back to his own series or at least dawn the much better pre New52 costume and Nightwing needs the blue in his cause all the Robins have red, the blue would give better contrast on page next to the others. Last, I love Batwoman cause the art is beautiful, it has ties to the bat verse in place but separate all the same. I haven’t read any Catwoman and know what’s going on so I don’t think I’m missing anything.

    • The best tie-in is Batman & Robin, in my opinion; it’s been a stellar book overall. Also, I have been enjoying the new team on Detective. I agree with others who liked the Detective tie-ins becuase they were more indirect, more of an examination of The Joker’s effect on the populace of Gotham.

      Batwoman is tied for me with Batman & Robin as second best Batbook of the moment (behind Batman, naturally). It doesn’t cross into The Joker storyline, but is well worth checking out . . .

  2. Detective had a good tie in that was completely unessential. That it was so tangential, and different, is what made it good.

    The others that I’ve seen have been fairly forgettable. I’m the one person in the world who really enjoyed what Nocenti has been doing with Catwoman, tie in included.

    • Agreed.

      I have not been hearing very many good things about Catwoman, which has prevented me from coming back to the book (dropped it after Winick’s first arc). Maybe I’ll give them a shot the next time DC has a $0.99 digital sale

    • I thought the Catwoman tie-ins were god awful.

      Some of these tie-ins have been kinda weak, some have been pretty good. Overall this crossover has not been nearly as cool as I hoped it would be.

    • The new S O L O hardcover collection of Catwoman is some good stuff in one HC.

    • What would cause Cobblepot to freak out but Dent to almost smile, and not get it? Both know Pennyworth. Just a dead Robin-bird? If it’s a Robin, my money’s on Damien.

  3. He’s gonna kill Alfred, hunh? I mean, how do you kill the bat family? By taking out the only person who keeps the family together. Bruce will alienate all of them. But Alfred keeps him grounded. It also explains why he introduced that mechanic girl in the one shot. He’ll need someone to fill the support role.

    Oh man, I’m gonna tear up if he kills Alfie.

    • I have a feeling that the big reveal might be different for different members of the family, but who knows. Killing Alfred seems a bit too obvious at this point.

    • Not gonna be Alfred, only because it’s exactly what everyone expects and what Snyder obviously wants us to think.

    • @JokersNuts My thoughts exactly, the movie Seven “what’s in the box” line keeps running through my head every time Joker holds that room service/butler serving tray about to take the lid off but that would be too obvious and highly emotional and Alfred’s not the kinda character you can just bring back, he’s not a superhero, he’d have to be permanent like Gwen Stacy. I really hope it’s not Jim Gordon either as I enjoy his sequences, solo adventures and conversations as much as any character, his dynamic irreplaceable. As far as the rest of them, they would all be emotional, level of loss depending on each his own liking of the character and I happen to love them all but really come to like Damian the more I see him, didn’t at 1st but think thats part of why I do so much now, Dick Grayson/Nightwing would be too big a loss as well, Jason Todd/Red Hood’s been there so I don’t expect that and I love Red Robin (particularly the pre New52 outfit,man I wish they’d bring it back),he’s a wild card & then there’s Batgirl, a strong presence as Oracle and as Batgirl a 2nd time, and also a wild card but after the Killing Joke and bringing her back along with other lovable Batgirls to fill the shoes I see her as the most logical choice while still having a huge impact being Jim’s daughter and Batgirl. Now, if your the Joker and you show Batman just whom you have captured, would you be so obvious to even kill any of them so that brings me to the real wild card, Catwoman, a morally ambiguous character and love interest for Bats could hurt more, but she’s not part of the family, neither is Batwoman, Poison Ivy or the Batman Inc fellows around the globe. Any of them would make a great wild card but think its gonna be Barbara Gordon or Selina Kyle/Catwoman….leaning towards Batgirl. Maybe he’ll take out a villain, who knows,but its been fun writing about it.

  4. Great column, Mike. I agree, DotF has been a well-edited, well-structured, well-written, well-drawn “event.” I call “event” because there aren’t any big event books these tie into (like “Blackest Night” 1-5 or something), but all the stories tie together to build to a coherent conclusion. I’m almost sorry it’s not going to go on longer, like “Night of the Owls” did (it could have been shorted IMHO).

    For a poorer execution of such an event, see “Rise of the Third Army” over in the GL titles. The GL titles are event-fatigued and need a rest. Tell some independent space cop stories please. No events allow for a few years.

    There are many strength that make DotF a great event – I’ve already named the obvious. But two deserve special mention. First is the brevity of the event. This only hit three issues of the associated titles. That’s pretty short by today’s event standards. As I said, I wish there were more coming, because the depictions of the Joker and the overall writing have been so damned good I don’t want it to end. As opposed to other events, which I can’t even find out when they end, and they seem to have been going on forever…

    And the other is the coordination of the individual titles to the overall plot. I don’t know if Snyder or the editors or who should be credited, but they’ve done a great job. All these stories present the individual journeys of each of the heroes towards Batman #17, which apparently will tie all these end together in a big green bow. The stories have complemented each other, provided individual and unique “individual anguish” has Mike wrote, but it’s all carefully coordinated in the overall arc. What you get, at least in the titles I’ve been reading, is a well-meshed, coherent story. That’s got to take some effort!

    I don’t know if using this even to re-enter comics is “too convenient” or “too easy,” but I do know this sets the bar VERY high for other comics. Work of this quality definitely spoils the reader. Too bad more of the DCU isn’t up near this level of excellence.

  5. I have not read any of the other tie-one except Detective which is not much of a tie-in, but has been a VERY enjoyable read. I have not been impressed with the DotF arc in Batman. Will reading some of these other books make it better?

  6. really like this article. Well done mike.

    hoping that DC releases an absolute volume on this one

  7. I agree Alfred would be too obvious but still, maybe the serving tray and then there’s a punch line? Like any great joke you play with the idea of the punch line in subtle ways and then BAM! you let loose, so maybe when Bats sees the tray empty or with something not so “obvious” he turns around and sees Alfred death in a horrific way (or someone else, I’m open to suggestions :P).