I’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.
Overall, 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.