Editor’s Note: Due to the anthology nature of this collection, we will feature a synopsis and analysis for each short story, rather than breaking up the synopsis and analysis. Spoilers are sure to be revealed.
Story #1: “Scars” by writer Scott Snyder and artist Jock
Synopsis: A boy lies in bed and watches a rose on his nightstand. It’s a gift from his grandparents, one made of different animal hides. The boy sits up and cradles the rose. From the narration, we know that he’s thinking about the animal hides and the thought of human flesh being among the assortment of “hides.” The boy flushes the flower, telling us he took a beating for it, but it was the most pleasurable beating.
Years later, this boy has grown into an old doctor, and he’s relaying this story to a client. The client is a GCPD officer whose mouth has been carved into a wider, grotesque smile by the Joker. The doctor asks the officer to put his mask on. The officer complies. The mask will heal the officer if he wears it.
The doctor points out that the officer is afraid of healing. The fear within the officer is that if he heals, the Joker will come back. The officer relays that the Joker somehow knew that his vanity was his smile.
The doctor disagrees and affirms that the Joker is just a man, that this wasn’t targeted or personal. He then goes on to speak to the Joker’s big trick, one that involves tricking many of his victims into believing that he’s more than just a man. One last time, the doctor asks the officer to keep the mask on.
The officer drops the mask to the floor and promises to repay the doctor for the equipment. He then exits.
The doctor calls Bruce Wayne, his benefactor, and lets Mr. Wayne know that they lost another victim to the Joker’s tricks. At home, the doc gets ready for bed and notices a rose, much like the one at the beginning of the story, sitting on a nightstand by his bed. He’s bewildered by it. Suddenly, the rose fires acid into the doctor’s face.
Our last panel is of the Joker’s hand reaching out from beneath the doctor’s bed.
Analysis: This is a haunting Joker story, which is no surprise, as it was written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Jock. Jock’s designs are gruesome and memorable, particularly with the face of the police officer. His penciling and David Baron’s moody coloring easily create an effective and macabre atmosphere throughout this story.
The story is where this first short falters a bit. Snyder puts us inside the doctor’s head, and we’re given page after page of an essay-length sermon on why the Joker’s just a man. There’s so much proselytizing that it’s tiring to read through, which kills the atmosphere by the time we reach that jump scare at the end with the Joker beneath the bed. It’s a shame, too, as there are some absolutely gorgeous full-page spreads of the Joker’s victims and different incarnations of Mr. J, including the Joe’s Garage design.
Story #2: “What Comes at the End of a Joke?” by writer James Tynion IV and artist Mikel Janin
Synopsis: In a dorm room at Snyder College, Dean Bob is having a heart-to-heart with Alexis, a student, about her distasteful choice of clothing for “Dress Like Your Hero Day.” He tells her it’s provocative, to which she replies, “No $#*&!”
Dean Bob pleads with her to be reasonable, as he’s trying to approach this as if he were her friend. Alexis rejects this notion, citing that he’s only doing this because the school is scared that she would celebrate the Joker. She knows that they want to approach it from the angle that she’s maladjusted and in distress, that it’s too frightening to consider that she might have a dangerous perspective of her own volition, which would force the school into a position of punishing a student for free speech. After her rant, Alexis blows cigarette smoke into the dean’s face.
The dean is about to reprimand Alexis for smoking indoors when an involuntary laughing fit overcomes him. He asks her what she’s done, and Alexis informs him that she found a very complicated recipe on the Internet.
As Dean Bob’s body goes into a garish state of paralysis, Alexis takes a picture with her phone and then goes over to her makeup stand. As she puts on her Punchline makeup, she tells the dean that she’s going to dress him up and hide him in her roommate Sarah’s bed. Sarah’s brother knew people involved in a laughing gas attack, so it’s a touchy subject with her. It’s revealed that Sarah was the one who reported Alexis. Hiding Dean Bob’s jokerized body in Sarah’s bed will be the perfect revenge.
Punchline asks Dean Bob if he ever lets himself feel anything or have his own opinions beyond what the board tells him. Dean Bob asks Alexis why she’s the way she is. She says that all her life, people and the media around her have been telling her that she can be anything she wanted without considering that someone wouldn’t want to be a good person.
“This whole world you built is the joke,” Alexis says, “And I’m the punchline!”
As Dean Bob falls to the floor, Punchline tells a hidden figure that she’s proven that she’s serious. Joker then reveals himself.
Analysis: Finally, we get an origin for Punchline from creator James Tynion IV and artist Mikel Janin, and it’s worth the wait. What makes this story interesting is that Punchline is like an amalgamation of Internet culture, trolling, Robespierre-esque democracy, and the darker undercurrents of humanity come to life. It’s this shrugging off of the inherent good in humanity we see echoed time and again in Batman (most recently in Batman: Secret Files #3). It’s a very Old Testament way of thinking, and though this story is completely focused on Punchline, it’s absolutely in tune with many incarnations of the Joker.
Free of torment and a “maladjusted past,” this makes Punchline a stronger and more threatening villain, and she comes across like the villain she fashioned herself after — completely evil. Though a simple origin story, it leaves much left to tell, opening up a wide world for Tynion to play with.
This story also has some of the best art in this issue in my opinion. Janin has a rare gift for accentuating the eyes of his characters, which allows for a whole range of expressiveness to come through to readers that adds an extra layer of depth and emotion. Paired with Jordie Bellaire’s coloring, his style knows no equal.
Story #3: “Kill the Batman” by writers Gary Whitta and Greg Miller and artist Dan Mora
Synopsis: Following the death of Batman, Lois Lane gives us an exclusive look at the Batcave. She interviews Alfred, who is the one who revealed Batman’s secret identity to the world after his passing. He did it because he wanted the world to know of Bruce Wayne’s sacrifice, to know of his deeds beyond billionaire playboy.
Lois Lane interviews other people in Batman’s life, including Jim Gordon and Superman. At Batman’s memorial service, a fully healed Judge Harvey Dent speaks to his many good deeds both as Bruce Wayne and Batman.
In the crowd at the memorial service, a dismayed Joker lurks. He’s wearing a trenchcoat and a hat, and he has a bomb strapped to his belt. Mr. Freeze speaks to Batman’s works, noting that while he fought Batman, behind the scenes Bruce Wayne worked to help Nora. Freeze says that would he have known that Batman and Wayne were one and the same, he wouldn’t have given Batman the “cold shoulder.”
The crowd laughs, which bewilders and angers Joker. They should be mourning their dearly departed Dark Knight. Wonder Woman speaks next, and Joker begins to ponder what this all means to him. He looks at the smiling faces of the crowd, upset that no one’s sad. Then he realizes that this means there’s no place for him anymore.
“But what else is a fiendish, merciless, psychotic, cold-blooded maniac who only gets off on tormenting others supposed to do?” he asks himself. We cut to Joker working at the Gotham DMV, where he tells a client that the client has the wrong form, damning said client to the back of the line.
Analysis: The joke at the end is cute, but this story doesn’t really do much. The first half is almost exclusively about Bruce Wayne’s good deeds as Batman. We don’t get introduced to the Joker until the second half when Joker goes through his stages of grief in narration boxes. Like I said, the joke’s cute, but this story leading up to said joke could have been told in far fewer pages. The art was fun though.
Story #4: “Introducing the Dove Corps” by writer Denny O’Neil and artist Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez
Synopsis: The Joker is reading a newspaper article about the United Nations forming a “Dove Corps” for non-lethal military missions. In need of a challenge and a change of scenery, he decides to take a trip to Guatemala and join them.
Down in Guatemala, Joker tags along with the Dove Corps as they trek to free hostages from a nest of guerrillas. While resting for the evening, they mention that they’re serious about nonlethal methods in taking out the guerrillas. Joker balks at first, as he thought it was a joke in order to get funding from the UN. Now that he realizes that they’re serious, he pulls out his own nonlethal weapon, an itch cannon.
The next day, the Dove Corps and Joker assault the guerilla base. Joker single-handedly wins the day with his super effective itch cannon. The members of the corps are so thrilled by their mission’s success, they award Joker with an official membership to join (and a button).
Joker then shoots all of them to death. “I’m flattered, but… killing is so much fun,” he says.
Analysis: This is very much a classic Joker story, written by renowned Batman scribe Denny O’Neil with art by DC icon Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. It’s no surprise that both the art and storytelling feel very seventies, which is what helps this story stand out from the rest in this collection. We’re given no internal monologues, as well as a respite from the “deep dives” into psychosis earlier stories featured.
The lack of exploration of the Joker’s psychosis is refreshing, and the brighter tone of the art here is also welcome. I love that Joker is seen parading around in a Hawaiian shirt, explorer shorts, and knee-high socks. This look is reminiscent of The Killing Joke, of course, and there’s even mention of a camera, which Joker gleefully fixates on. The abrupt about-faces that Joker takes in this story, from his decision to go to Guatemala to deciding he doesn’t actually want to join the Dove Corps, is so much fun, and for me, it’s one of the main reasons why I’m drawn to this character. He’s wild, unpredictable, and amusing, and I’m happy to see that side so well represented in this collection.
On a personal note, I’ve always been more fond of the “Crazy Uncle Joker” characterization over the broodier, more horrific “Joker-as-an-unhinged-monster” depictions. I want to have fun, not get bogged down in pseudoscientific eschewery.
Story #5: “The War Within” by writer Peter J. Tomasi and artist Simone Bianchi
Synopsis: Batman fights his way through a funhouse of horrors. When he finally fights his way to the Joker, Joker shoots him, then dons his Batsuit.
Analysis: This story is gorgeously drawn and colored by Simone Bianchi. Each page is a swirl of colors and shapes, and it’s absolutely breathtaking. The panels are of unique sizes with jagged edges, which is a nice touch that keeps us off the edge and off-kilter as Batman makes his trek through this funhouse.
Peter J. Tomasi guides us through this display with a cute poem. It matches Bianchi’s art well while letting the art take center stage, honing into the metaphor of duality and identity that this story seems to be going for. This was one of my favorite experiences in this book, and I use the word “experience” because that’s exactly what it is.
Story #6: “The Last Smile” by writer Paul Dini and artist Riley Rossmo
Synopsis: Joker wakes up screaming in bed next to Harley Quinn. He’s just had a nightmare, and it’s a recurring one he’s had for a while now.
In this dream, Joker is sent to Blackgate because his insanity plea didn’t work. He’s on Death Row, preparing for his end. He’s dismayed that his audience is the “common rabble” and not the A-listers of Arkham. When he gets to the chair, the helmet is slapped onto his head without a sponge to lessen the pain. Right before the jail guards throw the switch, Batman appears and starts cackling madly. More Batmen appear, and they’re all laughing wildly, tormenting Joker.
At a bar, Harley Quinn relays this nightmare to Poison Ivy. She tells Ivy that she loved Joker then, to which Ivy responds by talking about dreams being the window to the soul.
“That dream is why you stayed for so long,” Ivy said.
“No. It’s why I finally left,” Harley responds. “I was never in it.”
Analysis: The art in this story is by Riley Rossmo, and it’s cute and fun. Designs for Joker are wildly expressive and feel very much in line with the Bruce Timm animation style seen in shows like Justice League and the Batman: The Animated Series redesigns for Warner Bros. This is a perfect fit, as the writer of this story is Paul Dini, one of the more famous scribes from Batman: The Animated Series, as well as the creator of Harley Quinn.
Though fun, the story, unfortunately, falls flat. Much like the “Kill The Batman” story earlier in this collection, it comes across as way too much setup for what ultimately ends up being a silly joke. In this case, it’s Harley’s reasoning for leaving Joker. We get way too much setup for what could have been expressed in a single line of dialogue. This is aside from the fact that this idea that Harley leaves Joker because she’s clearly not important to him isn’t anything new. It’s been rehashed to death in many other stories.
Story #7: “Birthday Bugs” by writer Tom Taylor and artist Eduardo Risso
Synopsis: Joker is walking down a residential street and comes upon a boy outside of an apartment complex pulling the legs off of a bug. Joker asks the boy what he’s doing, and the boy shouts, “You came! Dad got you for my party, yeah?”
In truth, Joker has come here looking for the father of the boy. Joker then asks Sergio, the boy, if he always removes bits of animals on his birthday. Sergio tells Joker that he removes the legs and then keeps the bugs in a box. If they try to escape, he kills the bugs. Sergio avoids killing them if he has to, as you can’t play with them when they’re dead.
“You are wise beyond your years, Sergio,” Joker says. Upon finding out that no one is coming to Sergio’s birthday, Joker sets off across the neighborhood, threatening local parents to bring their kids to Sergio’s birthday party or else (and bring presents).
Later on, Sergio’s dad comes home amidst a birthday bash that Joker threw. Joker and Sergio’s dad go into the kitchen, where Joker cuts off the father’s fingers on his non-dominant hand for missing a job the other night.
Joker then serves the party guests dinner and leaves. Before he can make his exit, Sergio thanks Joker by giving him his box of torture bugs.
“Sergio, I’m touched. I will treasure them. And I promise I’ll only kill them if they try to get out of the box,” Joker says.
Analysis: I was not a fan of the art, particularly the design of Joker. I did like the idea behind this story though, especially the layered connection between Joker and this disturbed child. It’s the sort of heartfelt touch that’s become writer Tom Taylor’s trademark in his work across both DC and Marvel. In this case, since the focal point of this collection is in celebration of the Joker, it’s appropriately sickly and demented.
Story #8: “No Heroes” by writers Eduardo Medeiros and Rafael Albuquerque and artist Rafael Albuquerque
Synopsis: Joker’s goons rob a bank. Most of the employees are tied up, but one, Ronald Fergunson, manages to sneak away. He debates whether or not to flee through the exit door, but upon seeing a fire extinguisher, Ronald musters the gumption to fight back. He charges out to face the bank robbers, whacking a couple of them before having a gun pulled on him.
Tied up, Ronald listens as one of the goons talks about how most people wouldn’t bother playing the hero. This goon goes into how he doesn’t quite understand why someone would sacrifice himself to protect a bank, especially when the bank wouldn’t care about that insignificant employee.
Ronald tells the goon that he did it for the people.
“Oh gosh. Right in my soft spot,” The goon says. He pulls off the mask to reveal that he’s actually the Joker and tells Ronald that he has a crush on heroes.
Joker shoots all of the hostages except for Ronald. “C’mon Ronald. Smile. Not everyone gets a second chance at life. Really make the most of it.”
Analysis: This story was fascinating and easily one of the highlights of this issue. Though preachy, I loved the idea of Joker sparing one of the few people unafraid to take a risk instead of settling into mediocrity. It fits most characterizations of Joker, and paired with art by Rafael Albuquerque, it’s eerie and unsettling.
True, this isn’t something we’ve never seen before. Joker’s spared all sorts of people for a variety of reasons. There’s just a tension in the way this story is told, alternating between before Ronald’s capture and after, that makes this one feel unique and different from other riffs on this idea.
The creative team behind this piece also seem to be big fans of The Dark Knight, as the motifs of this piece, from the masked henchmen to the setting in a robbery, very much echo that opening scene from the film.
Story #9: “Penance” by writer and artist Tony S. Daniel
Synopsis: A mobster walks into a confession booth at St. Michael’s Church. He asks for the priest to forgive his sins, then goes into a story of how he and his men, a smaller criminal organization, killed one of Joker’s henchmen. The henchman was carrying a unique medallion. They hid the body, but the Joker knew what they did.
The mobster relays how his men were killed and strung up, of how he turned his home into a fortified bunker. He then tells the priest he’s been having dreams of being Batman, and in those dreams, Joker kills him again and again. Yet, it’s oddly empowering.
The mobster resolves to deliver the medallion back to Joker in person, so he can kill Mr. J once and for all. Before he finishes his confession, the priest kills the mobster. It turns out that the priest was Joker in disguise.
Analysis: I normally love Tony Daniel’s art, and his writing/storytelling in works like Battle For The Cowl are among my favorite Batman stories. This story, however, didn’t do it for me. Neither the art nor the plotting captured my attention. It comes across as cliche, and there’s nothing really unique or different in Daniel’s approach to making this story feel necessary or stand out from the other ten stories in this collection.
It’s not bad. The approach is just straightforward and uninteresting, especially since there’s nothing really to walk away with here. Other stories in this collection aim at an idea or a theme for readers to process. Here, we get none of that, and it’s a shame.
Story #10: “Two Fell into the Hornet’s Nest” by writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo
Synopsis: Joker returns to Arkham and settles in with his fellow rogues. They play cards, and Batman stops by to torment them. Joker asks to watch the TV, and Nurse Ratchett, the head nurse of Arkham Asylum, refuses his request.
Joker complains about how he feels stuck in a loop with Batman. He’s forcibly given a lobotomy, and upon returning to his bed in Arkham, Joker picks up a golden statue of Superman, tosses it out the window, and escapes.
Analysis: If you’ve ever read the book or seen the movie of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, this story is almost exactly that. It’s a “retelling” that reworks direct lines of dialogue from the Ken Kesey classic to fit this Batman reskin. It’s also an air of grievance from Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo regarding the scandal that broke out over the nudity in their Black Label series, Batman: Damned. There are coded lines of dialogue referencing the treatment of the book as well as referencing how Azzarello and Bermejo felt as creators, and there is imagery, sometimes phallic in nature, meant to taunt and emphasize this feeling.
It’s not a fun story, nor does it make any sense outside of the framework of this air of grievances. The plot beats stick to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, most likely because the creators feel like they are working in an asylum. Nurse Ratched is drawn to match Louise Fletcher, the actress who played her in the movie. Instead of a water fountain, Joker throws a golden statue of Superman out of the window at the end. This statue is also holding itself, which may be yet another outlet in reference to Azzarello and Bermejo’s anger.
Regardless of where one stands on the issue of Batman: Damned’s censorship, this piece is an assault on DC editorial, and readers are the collateral damage regarding a matter that was probably better dealt with internally. Instead of delivering something meaningful or thematic to the audience, we’re given a hackneyed, lazy retelling of a famous story. It’s offensive, whiny, and the inclusion of this story in this celebratory issue almost taints the entire work as a whole. It’s a wonder why DC even included it.
Final Thoughts: If you can ignore that final story, this collection of Joker tales is a mixed bag at best, a weak celebration at worst. There are a handful of moments that deliver, but most of this celebration is tedious and exhausting. It doesn’t seem to be clear of what this anniversary wants to be, and it shows. If you’re here for the Punchline origin story, you won’t be disappointed though.
Editor’s Note: DC Comics provided TBU with a copy of this comic for review purposes. You can find this comic digitally and help support TBU in the process by purchasing this issue through Comixology.