You may have noticed that I haven’t reviewed Batman in a while.  To be honest, there’s only so much hyperbole you can heap on a title that is so consistently excellent, and it’s pretty difficult to find new ways of saying how incredible the work Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo and the rest of the creative team are doing has been.  But just when we may have felt that this title may have hit a plateau of dependable quality each passing month, this “Death of the Family” arc started with Batman #13 and blasted the roof off our already high expectations.  With that issue, Snyder brought The Joker back in style and restored him as a genuinely terrifying presence.  That chapter caused something of a sensation, selling out everywhere very quickly and perhaps leaving some wondering if subsequent installments could possibly maintain that dizzying level of tension and mastery of storytelling.

Now we have Batman #14, and not onlydoes it live up to the horrific promise of Batman #13, it’s actually better, challenging even the mighty Batman #5 as perhaps the best chapter of this already-classic run.

Here’s the thing about The Joker.  Yes, undoubtedly, he’s a beloved, revered villain, and it’s not like he hasn’t been treated with respect in recent years: Grant Morrison and Paul Dini have given us some cracking Joker tales in the past decade.  But it seems that, more often than not, for quite a while now when The Joker has shown up in a major storyline, it’s been to act as a spoiler, a spanner in the works that complicates things between Batman and the primary antagonist of the story.  It seems like it’s been ages since The Joker has taken centre-stage in an epic arc of his own.  Well, The Joker’s time is now, and one of the best things Snyder does this issue is hammer home just how serious a threat The Joker is, what sets him apart from your typical street-level psycho supervillain, and the frightening scale on which he can operate.  Some might have been dubious about all the Bat-family “Death of the Family” tie-ins, but based on the strength of his portrayal here, you can totally understand how The Joker could be a threat big enough for all these characters to have their hands full with him, and indeed it would feel like something was deeply wrong if the ripples of the shocking revelations in Batman weren’t felt in the rest of the Bat-line.

As far as the actual characterisation of The Joker goes, Scott Snyder clearly has a ball writing the master villain.  While he doesn’t by any means show his whole hand at this early stage of what is sure to be a labyrinthine plot, Snyder does give us a substantial taste of The Joker’s modus operandi, how he views his place in the universe and why he’s doing what he’s doing.  It’s stuff we’ve heard before, as Snyder has enthralled us with his insights into The Joker in various interviews and panel appearances, but seeing those fascinatingly acute observations worked into the script and spoken back out to us in The Joker’s voice makes it still feel fresh and exciting.  The Joker has been given a rythmn of speaking unlike anyone else in the cast: with all his talk of being the court jester to Batman’s “god-king”, his manner of speaking almost feels like that of a Shakespearean fool, all tantalising double meanings, coy foreshadowings and escalating repetitions.  In the silent medium of comics, Snyder has crafted a cadence for his villain’s voice, which is no mean feat.  Letterers Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt also deserve credit here, with The Joker even getting his own lettering font to heighten this sense of him having his own unique voice.

The unconventional, unsettling nature of The Joker’s presence is compounded by Greg Capullo’s art.  His body language is all uncomfortable backwards arches and unnatural contortions, Capullo’s Joker cutting a shifting, fidgity figure.  Even in how he stands, The Joker is set apart from everyone else on the page.  Though Capullo’s most obvious contribution is surely The Joker’s new face.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t a fan of the idea of The Joker wearing his severed face like a mask.  It seemed a bit too torture-porn gorefest, a bit too grubby and heavy-handed for a villain as classy as The Clown Prince of Crime.  But Capullo makes it work, with The Joker’s loose, flaccid face-skin wrinkling and folding into slightly different positions in each passing panel.  Much like the nature of The Joker’s masterplan, it allows The Joker to be simultaneously familiar, and yet inherently, chillingly different.  And while I’m talking about Capullo’s art, how can I not mention that stunning splash page with The Joker and Batman facing each other on the bridge.  If there was a comic page I immediately wanted to have on my wall…

But as great as all this juicy material with my favourite comic book villain was, it wasn’t what made Batman #14 possibly the best of the series thus far.  When he shows up, he’s utterly compelling, but The Joker doesn’t show up until 15 pages into the story.  I was expecting great characterisation of The Joker here.  What took me by surprise is how great a character study of Batman this is.  Seeing Batman starting to come apart at the seams with the abduction of Alfred is quite harrowing to watch.  And, as has become something of a recurring trend in Snyder’s run, Batman is able to reveal most of his inner turmoil while in conversation with Nightwing.  Batman struggling to compartmentalise, referring to Bruce Wayne in the first person and Alfred as “Pennyworth” – as if he was someone else’s butler, and didn’t know him personally – and Nightwing’s exasperation with Batman’s enforced detachment, was just some great character dynamics.

And when Batman finally lets the mask slip, I found it really powerful when he talked about Alfred being a father to him.  I’m glad Snyder went there, and hope he makes more of that in future.  To me, that’s been one of the great, unspoken tragedies of the Batman mythos.  Bruce Wayne has been driven his whole life by this need to avenge the death of his parents, and goes through such prolonged anguish over how he’s an orphan, over how he has no father.  And all this time, while living in this almost self-indulgent misery, he’s been quietly cared for by a man who is arguably more of a father to Bruce than his actual biological father ever was, who certainly at the very least has been caring for Bruce longer than his real father did.  Poor Alfred.

The back-up, with art by Jock, is also a treat.  We see The Joker interacting with The Penguin, two very different villains who, according to The Joker, at least, each have their own crucial role in the Gotham tapestry.  With the ominous note this short interlude ends on, combined with the bombshells dropped at the conclusion of the main story, that brings us to one of the most exciting aspects of this bar-raising issue: that it’s still mostly set up for things to get even crazier in future chapters!

Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, inker Jonathan Glapion, colorist FCO Plascencia and letterers Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt are arguably the best creative team working in comics today (off the top of my head, only the Brian K Vaughan/Fiona Staples/Fonografiks dream team on Saga jumps to mind as a possible challenger for that crown), and so you’d think it could be easy to just take their combined excellence for granted.  But just like Batman has had the rug pulled out from under him just when he thinks he knows what to expect from The Joker, with “Death of the Family”, these guys just refuse to let us get comfortable with our expectations.  Sometimes, with big stories like this, it’s like going from point A to point B, with point B already solicited well in advance, and so it’s just a case of sitting back and watching how it happens.  Not the case here.  This story has driven off a cliff.  We have a monthly Big Two superhero comic that feels genuinely dangerous, a Batman story with a sense of bona fide “anything could happen and I don’t know how things can ever be normal again!” drama not felt since Batman RIP.

Batman #14 is out now in comic stores everywhere.

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