Pick of the Week
What did the
Art by Greg Capullo & Jonathan Glapion
Colors by FCO Plascencia
Letters by Richard Starkings & Jimmy Betancourt
Cover by Greg Capullo, FCO Plascencia, Toney Daniel, Matt Banning, & Tomeu Morey
Size: 40 pages
Old joke: Clown pulls a trigger. Gun goes bang. Not a sound. Robin lays an egg.
Over the past month Scott Snyder and company played a game of Schrödinger’s butler. So long as that platter rested under starling silver and Alfred Pennyworth’s whereabouts remained in doubt, the heart of the Bat Family pulsated between life and death in a pristine state of enigmatic flux. Nearly as much a wild card as his cackling antagonist the Joker, Snyder is one of the few writers who could conceivably pull off such a gambit, leaving readers with palpable dread and genuine uncertainty. If anyone has the stuff and the pull and the gall to off Bruce Wayne’s surrogate father, a fixture of DC Comics for longer than most of us have cycled air, it’s Scott Snyder.
Here’s the important bit. Just because he could’ve doesn’t mean he should’ve. Which he didn’t, as you by now know. But it would’ve taken a degree of Thoreauvian discipline I simply don’t possess to ignore the divisive outcry from readers who deemed “Death of the Family”‘s ending a whimper as opposed to a bang. They forget, I argue, that the Joker isn’t likely to draw much of a distinction between those sounds. Or if he does, he’d probably take the whimper. Bangs are gone in an instant
as any barber will tell you. Whimpers endure. They persist. Isn’t that the old argument for the power and fury of a life’s sentence versus the chair? Time conducts misery far more potent than any electricity.
These are the jokes our Joker so adores. Sure, he revels in the instant gratification of the pratfall, but it’s the jokes that stick, the jokes that register only later. The sad jokes that fester. He gets the last laugh even though he’s already out the door. Or down the drain as the case may be. A trace element’s abbreviation flashing on the screen in a Batcave lonelier than it’s ever been. Save for the last of the flies.
In my own sacred, personal continuity, I like to think of that little bastard as a not-so-distant cousin of the fly from the bottle episode of Breaking Bad, a series I know Snyder enjoys with a similar fervor. It’s no surprise. Vince Gilligan and this writer share a preternatural knack for the composition of tension and outright dread. From the horrific Texas Chainsaw Massacre dinner party to the exploding, two-headed lion club, to the pervasive horse flies and near-acrobatic reversals and reveals, this final chapter in “Death of the Family” is festooned in the macabre. The Batman has likely never felt true fear so acutely in his career. Not since the alley and the pearls has death been such a greedy, swollen presence. To sit passively in the company of his imperiled loved ones in the hall of his greatest enemy? I found myself fidgeting throughout, the sickly drone of those flies and the smell of gasoline mingled with the metallic tang of plasma took on an impossible reality.
I believed in those moments that the Joker was capable of anything. Anything. More importantly that our hero was just as willing to do anything. Anything. That Alfred’s head or heart or face didn’t rest under that dome was a relief. That the faces of the Robins and of Batgirl did, as incredible a suggestion as it was, jolted me. When I learned the truth of the situation? That it was all a parlor trick? I was far too busy with the appalling vision of the Bat Family, Alfred included, degraded by Joker toxin, rictus grins transfiguring their familiar faces. Sit and think about the effect that kind of thing would have on Bruce and on the wards and family helpless under its sway. That’s not nothing. That’s a walking nightmare.
As for Snyder’s vision of the Batman and Joker’s climactic encounter, I was taken with the allusion to Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls, of the fantastic metaphor of masks and faces and identities. Of what it means to win. For these two it’s never been about life and death. It’s always been life. Grueling, unrelenting life. The Joker doesn’t want to kill the Batman. Despite his flirtation, he doesn’t want to have puppies with him either. He simply wants the dance to last longer than either of them. To live forever in Bruce Wayne’s mind. Call it vanity. Call it a lust for immortality. All that matters is that it’s his everything.
While Greg Capullo and Glapion’s pencils and inks may have faltered earlier in this arc — particularly in the rush to commit those many faces to the page — this is, visually speaking, the strongest issue since the start of the tale back in October. The mounting destruction and shift of the Joker’s face serves as a masterclass in both cartoon expression and body horror. It’s more than gross anatomy though. There are few images more haunting than the broken Joker looking over his shoulder in the cell at Arkham in the cool blue flashback.
“He looked right at the card, Alfred, and right at me. But…but he didn’t see me. He didn’t see me at all.”
Would Snyder have been permitted to kill Alfred or the Joker if he really wanted to? I don’t pretend to know. Does the story feel somehow anemic because that’s even in question? I don’t think so. Truly. I don’t consider it a cop-out, even in the face of the Joker’s opportunity to murder. You might argue that a psychopath like the Joker wouldn’t or even couldn’t have resisted taking those lives. It doesn’t come down to the Joker’s faculties though. It’s his love of theater that makes this poetry. The Joker finds far more satisfaction, far more salacious pleasure in a prank than in, well, anything. Besides. Killing the Family would signal the endgame. He’s far too invested in playing to do something so banal as to win.
It’s the punch line that matters. Gun goes off and nobody dies. But that little flag with the punchy onomatopoeia that poots forth from the barrel isn’t so much a reprieve. It’s just welcoming you to the rest of your life since all that came before flashed through your eyes in an instant of anguish and regret. Batman knew fear and his life and relationships will never be the same because of it. The Joker’s laugh (for now anyway) is not an act of execution or even of punishment. As with any agent of chaos, he’s a catalyst. A wild card.
All hail the Lord of the Flies. He endures in what remains.
Will always use the definite article before invoking “The Batman.”