I packed my bags and left Gotham City, a place I had inhabited for well over three decades, with the conclusion of Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated and the arrival of The New 52. It was a tough decision. The crime rate I could deal with but the unrelenting horror sweeping through my town’s back alleys and the sudden, pervasive 1990's aesthetic I could not. My old spot got filled very quickly, however, and the city seemed to be booming. More and more people flooded in and although I didn’t quite understand it, I was happy that they were happy with their move into town even if the place just wasn’t for me anymore, despite the fact that a really good academy opened up filled with smart cool, mystery-solving kids.
I may come back in a few weeks when something called Batman v Superman opens. I might not. I haven’t made my mind up yet. But what I might do in the next few weeks leading up to that is take you on an odd little sightseeing tour as a reminder that there is a part of Gotham for everybody, you just have to go looking for it.
COMIC OF THE WEEK : JOKER
By Brian Azzarello & Lee Bermejo
Published By DC Comics
If I remember correctly, this stand-alone hardcover graphic novel was released to coincide with the arrival of The Dark Knight in 2008, an artful money grab by DC not unlike Morrison and McKean’s 1989 Arkham Asylum that Tim Burton inspired-Batmania made fly off the shelves and Morrison a very wealthy man. Joker obviously looked to capitalise on Heath Ledger’s onscreen magnetic insanity and the film’s pretty nihilistic tone by being as sleazily, rotgut whisky fuelled noir as possible. Gotham’s underbelly is exposed in as stark and unrepentantly gruesome a light as possibly ever before, to the point where, as a reader, you may well just be begging for Batman to show up by the story’s end.
Brian Azzarello, currently doing the heavy lifting on scripts for Dark Knight III: The Master Race, has long been DCs go-to guy for noir and hardboiled. He’s the perfect fit for a project like Joker, a comic that vibes like a grim, long-lost psycho pulp novel, unapologetic in its need to wallow in Gotham’s muck. Lines like, “We made Gotham a toilet an’ Joker sat in it,” give you a fair indication of what you’re in store for – a Joker seeking not just revenge but self-annihilation, a pill-popping ghoul who flickers from committing acts of random and intense violence, to, in calmer moments, being plagued by the void, near-crippled with depression as he feels everything “slipping away” as the shadow of the Bat falls over him. He is, of course, crazy. A man with a metaphorical box of matches in one hand and a fire extinguisher in the other, in his own way as plagued by dualism as his main rival here, Two Face.
After being mysteriously released from Arkham Asylum for reasons not made entirely clear, Joker is picked up at the institution’s gothic gates by new henchman Jonny Frost, a kind of everyman lowlife, who becomes our narrator, drawing us down and down and down further and further into both the city’s underworld and Joker’s fractured mind. Joker, immediately, wants his criminal enterprises back – they’ve been carved up in his absence – by any means necessary and Two-Face has the bulk of it.
This right here is what makes Joker a book of interest to Gotham fans as it’s rare to see such criminal squabbles and turf warfare unfold without Batman either telling us about it, or interfering in it. Recruiting a bunch of thugs including Killer Croc, Joker sets about reclaiming what’s his and as the futility of it all begins to dawn on him and Batman’s presence draws ever nearer, he embraces his inner chaos (very much in keeping with the Nolan/Ledger Dark Knight take), deciding instead to burn it all down. “This belongs to me!” he screams, as flames rise up around him. He refers not to the city, to the rackets he’s lost, but to the sheer, pure anarchic force of uncontrollable chaos. This is a final reminder that although he’s being sandwiched into a narrative that’s similar to that of Richard Stark’s iconic heist man Parker, there is no honour with the Joker. There is nothing cool about the Joker. Unlike Parker, Joker wants not what’s owed, he wants *everything* -- up to and including the end of everything.
Artist Lee Bermejo (most recently of his own Suiciders), with ink assists from the ever-wonderful Mick Gray and colours by Patricia Mulvihill, ekes every last depraved drop from his characters and his scenery. His Joker, grin carved Ledger-like across his mouth and cheeks, snarls, pouts and grins his way, yellow-toothed, through the pages. His Gotham is a total cesspool, all filthy streets, squalid motel rooms, strip clubs and rusting dockland. His realistic art lends extra impact to images of men shot dead on public toilet stalls or stuffed into garbage cans and his image of a pilled-up Joker, eyes glazed, sitting spread-eagled on a chair with a bear skin beneath him covered with scattered capsules is almost iconic.
There are some oddities here, despite all of this. Why The Penguin is constantly referred to as “Abner” I have no idea and Azzarello’s cute little dialogue word games sometimes don’t land. The Riddler costumed as a kind of crippled, low-rent pimp doesn’t work for me visually and die-hard fans of Harley Quinn may not enjoy how she’s presented by the creators, even though I’d argue that the New 52 did more harm than this particular project, at least visually.
As a stand-alone project, however, Azzarello and Bermejo’s Joker is a fascinating book, a comic that’s undeniably nasty, yet cleverly constructed and open to any (mature age) reader – there’s no continuity knowledge required, no backstory, no secret origins. There is just the Joker, a Batman-sized space in his mind, gruesome, bloody criminal vengeance and ever-spiralling madness that proves more than at least one character can take. It’s exactly the sort of showcase darkest Batman material needs, in my opinion. See this week’s video for a tribute to the book.
WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : OUTRAGE
By Darrin Bell
You’ve probably stumbled across this one as it was everywhere. Still, it’s nice to be topical for once, and this excellent little comic from Darrin Bell is certainly that, covering the manufactured outrage of #Oscarssowhite and revealing a much larger and greater problem within the entertainment machine.
COUNTDOWN TO MOZ METAL: HEAVY METAL JULY 1979
The editorial for this issue actively encourages readers to “light up and enjoy” its contents, but given that the work of Michael Hinge is in this issue, I would issue a word of caution as the potency of your given substance may well treble upon the psychedelic might of one of his pages. But we’ll get to that…
Sindbad’s adventures in “New Tales of the Arabian Nights” by Richard Corben and Jan Strnad wind down, with our grizzled hero learning, finally, about love through his friendship with a dog…which he all but abandons (either that or it dies off panel) to be with his human love. Not a good result for animal lovers anywhere. Bad jokes aside, I’m conflicted about the conclusion of this strip. On the one hand, it’s tough to find anything new to say about it week in, week out, as I don’t what to Corb-load you too much, but on the other hand, it’s presence will be missed.
Gray Morrow’s “Eight Belles,” his tales of “empowered” women, returns with “Stingaree” the story of a female cop who takes on the mantle of masked vigilante The Stingaree and fights crime for several years until, one night, “in a dark alley, The Stingaree…met a fateful end” by being gunned down by two male mobster types. Wow. So much empowerment there, Gray. Still, it’s a curious thing to see something so comparatively “real world” in Heavy Metal and Stingaree, in her sort of lucha mask and leather jacket, does cut a pretty bad ass figure.
Reader Rich Kaplan and I are on the same page, as he writes in asking for Chantal Montellier’s “1996” to be collected in its entirety. His request is met with a reply of: “We have no plans to run it as a book (good idea though).”
And so ended discussion of a collected hardcover…probably forever.
But it’s okay, at least for now, as Montellier returns this very issue with part one of “Shelter,” a wonderfully dystopian piece about a well-to-do couple who race to a shopping mall to beat curfew and find themselves trapped in there as nuclear war breaks out. There’s something incredibly Ballardian about this piece, opening with a television broadcasting news of mass death and warfare while a tuxedo wearing man (who looks not unlike a young Oscar Wilde) chats inanely on the phone. His partner, an equally well dressed young woman, complains of harassment from unseen authority figures targeting “women and foreigners” as they head off to the mall, a structure which promises “anti-atomic protection” at “100%.” Barely anything happens in this first chapter, but “Shelter” with its Ballardian motifs and still-scorching relevance already feels like the most vital and required strip HM has published in some time up to this point. Montellier’s cartooning has gone a bit Jacques Tardi here, a good thing, with her round, simple characters inhabiting the sterile consumer-filled mall, and it’s a pretty sad state of affairs that she’s a barely recognised figure in comics these days. Seek out her work, she’s brilliant.
Alias does it again with “Only Connect: Multiple Choice” this time presenting an existential bureaucratic hell as an artificial lifeform, built for war, is asked to complete a soul-punching multiple choice test to determine suitability for menial space-tasks. The poor lifeform must answer multiple choice questions like:
-To Be Recycled
The testers discover that they have a special lifeform on their hands, too special of course for the task at hand and so he is “recycled,” chewed up by a machine and spat out once more, ready to take the test all over again. This one hurt my heart.
Michael Hinge and Neal Adams, yes, crazy Neal Adams, present the aforementioned psychedelic masterpiece “Rears Its Ugly Head,” the story of a lonely deep space engineer, who finds his robot companion to be less than suitable company. “Ordering” a human female, the twist comes in the form of the robot’s jealousy, as he sabotages the woman’s arrival which is tragic on many levels, not the least of which is that she’s as equal in engineering skill as the man. Hinge’s art is gorgeous, with every page suitable for framing. His modern equivalent may well be Christian Ward, but by way of pop artist and Adventures of Jodelle creator, Guy Peellaert. Acid-soaked colours and an impeccable sense of page design highlight the art, about which I could drop superlatives all day, but let’s just instead stare agog at it together, shall we?
COMICS VIDEO OF THE WEEK : JOKER, AZZARELLO & BERMEJO TRIBUTE
Unless you understand Spanish, you won’t get much reading out of this week’s video, but as it’s essentially a showcase for the artwork of Lee Bermejo, that doesn’t really matter too much. Wisely including the Tommy gun-toting gorilla from the zoo scene, this tribute to Azzarello and Bermejo’s Joker does a far better job than I did above highlighting the comic’s excellent visuals.
See you next week. Love your comics.
Cameron Ashley spends a lot of time writing comics and other things you’ll likely never read. He’s the chief editor and co-publisher of Crime Factory (www.thecrimefactory.com). You can reach him @cjamesashley on Twitter.