Sunday, March 9, 2014

"It's So Ugly": Azzarello and Bermejo's Joker

Joker is a 128 page graphic novel that DC Comics released in October 2008.  Written by Brian Azzarello and illustrated by Lee Bermejo, Joker is an out-of-continuity re-imagining of Gotham's most famous villain in a "hyper realistic" setting.  Originally entitled Joker: The Dark Knight to tie in with Azzarello and Bermejo's last collaboration, Lex Luthor: The Man of Steel, the title was shortened to avoid confusion with the film The Dark Knight, which had debuted in July of the same year.  Even so, comparisons to the movie persisted, given that both adaptations featured a Joker sporting a scarred smile and given that each story occurred in a more grounded setting than typical comic book lore.

"It's a brutal book," Azzarello said of the novel.  "...This is the most violent thing I've ever written...It's a book I'm really happy with.  It's ugly.  It's so ugly."

I was aware of Joker shortly after its publication, but I never read it back in 2008 due to the reviews of other fans.  While the book was generally well-received, the readers in my circle of the Batman fandom were less receptive and I had heard about controversial scenes in the novel that made me avoid it like the plague.  But recently, five years after Joker's publication, I began roleplaying with a Tumblr blog for Jonny Frost, the narrator of the book, and decided to take a look at the graphic novel for myself.

"You look nervous about going in a cannibal's meat locker.  What's up?"
Joker begins with Jonny Frost, our narrator and a thug in the Clown Prince of Crime's gang, volunteering to pick the Joker up following his release from Arkham Asylum (it's a running gag within the novel that no one can figure out why the clown was set free).  Frost - nicknamed Jonny Jonny by the Joker - dreams of making it big in the world of organized crime and idolizes his boss, admiring and rationalizing much of the Joker's antics throughout the story.

The Joker sets out to reclaim the territory and money lost during his incarceration, growing more unhinged as the story goes on.  He murders on a whim, abuses prescription medications and cocaine, vacillates from cackling to crying in the blink of an eye, believes the Batman to be stalking his every move, and generally makes George Pullman look like a charming boss in comparison.  Eventually Jonny Jonny realizes that he has been idolizing a monster, and that the Joker is an eternal disease for which there is no cure, just a Batman to throw at the problem.

The Joker places a gun in his mouth minutes after a murder.
It is, as Azzarello said, an ugly book.  Murky, violent, and nihilistic, there are no moments of reprieve to be found in the pages.  It starts off dark and it ends even darker, with all the story's humor being as black as its characters' morals.  While the Joker displays moments of wit, he lacks the charm of other incarnations of the Clown Prince of Crime, which appears to be an intentional choice on the part of the author; the Joker is viewed as something of an anti-hero by some fans of the character, a violent criminal, but a hilarious, endearing one.  Here, Azzarello sought to demonstrate what a frightening monster a creature like the Joker would be in reality, and this Joker commits no shortage of terrible acts displayed on the page:

  1. He skins the owner of a strip club (Just Grin and Bare It!) alive.
  2. He has the Penguin abducted and strangled to intimidate him into accepting his terms.
  3. He shoots at least fourteen people directly.
  4. He has at least seven people shot by his underlings.
  5. He stabs one of his lackeys in the face with a shattered bottle.
  6. He blows up a bar.
  7. He throws Molotov cocktails at random locations.
  8. He shoots one of his lackeys non-fatally in the face.
  9. He sticks shards of glass into his own fingers so he can use them to slash others.
"But that's blood?" you say?  Take a closer look.
And those are just the moments shown on panel.  The Joker's two most horrific actions are only implied.  While neither is directly shown or stated, the Joker rapes Jonny Jonny's wife and masturbates onto a picture of a bank president's young daughter during a robbery.

Over the space of 128 pages, that's a lot of violence and depravity from a single character.  So much ultraviolence, in fact, that I found myself desensitized to it.  Given that I avoided this novel for five years due to being infuriated just hearing about the rape plot point, the last thing I expected to feel in regards to Joker was apathy.

Yet apathy was exactly what I felt.  The novel spent so much time on the violence and atmospheric scenes that went nowhere that the story itself felt underdeveloped and derivative.  The conclusion drawn about the Batman and Joker relationship is nothing that The Killing Joke and other comics haven't already addressed.  The story of Jonny Jonny, the lackey who becomes disillusioned when he realizes that the world of organized crime is full of terrible people, is nothing I haven't seen before.  Azzarello stated that the physical plot came second to Jonny Jonny's psychological journey, but that trek is told in minimalist and not especially gripping terms.

But what of the novel's other message, that the Joker is a monster who shouldn't be admired?  Do his horrific and not very entertaining or amusing antics drive that point home?

The aftermath of the rape.

Not for me.  First of all, I didn't like this point when Funny Games made it and I don't like it any better in Joker.  I was already aware that if the Joker were real, I would be frightened and repulsed by his crimes.  I enjoy him as a character specifically because he is not a real person.  I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of comic fans can tell the difference between fiction and reality, and we don't need stories that thumb their noses at us as if we haven't figured it out.  Jonny Jonny is meant to be an audience surrogate, growing disillusioned along with us, but he's slow in reaching a point I'd grasped in childhood.

The moral also falls flat because the titular character simply doesn't feel like the Joker.  The Joker is horribly violent, sure, but he is also superficially charming.  He is dapper and occasionally goofy and views certain crimes - or methods of carrying them out - as pedestrian and beneath him.  I can't picture the Joker masturbating on a child's photograph or raping a woman not because he's too good for those things, but because he would consider himself above such base and obvious jokes, above acting like a common thug.  I recall a comic in which the Joker told a worried bystander "I only kill people when it's funny.  What could be conceivably funny about killing you?"  I think that approach can be taken to every thing he does.  What's funny about a man raping someone to assert power?  What's unexpected about invading an elderly couple's home and shooting them as they cower in bed?  Nothing.  So why would the Joker do it?

Granted, this is an out-of-continuity story, a re-imagining of the characters.  While I can't reconcile the Joker I know and enjoy with the actions in this story, I can easily imagine this strange pimp-turned-drug-abusing-mobster being the sort of man who does these things.  But even then, the moral doesn't work, because I'm not learning that the character I love is horrible, but rather that this other character who vaguely resembles him is horrible.  He has flashes that remind me of the Joker I know - mocking Harvey Dent's visage and split personality, offering his hand only to pick something up instead of shaking an associate's hand, and so on - but for the most part, he could be an entirely new villain.

With all that said, I didn't hate this book.  It was too divorced from the Gotham I know and love for me to despise it.  And there were things that I liked.  Despite Jonny Jonny being a cliched and flat narrator, I did enjoy him.  Whether that was because of Jonny himself or simply the archetype of the naive lackey, I'm not sure, but his presence was a plus.  Lee Bermejo's artwork is always beautiful, even when illustrating the grotesque (and this story is all grotesque).

Take notes, New 52.
But most of all, I liked Azzarello and Bermejo's take on the Joker/Harley relationship.  I came in expecting to hate it, as I'd heard Harley had no speaking lines in the book and amounted to little more than a prop.  While it's true that she's silent, she is anything but static.  Harley is more than the Joker's gun moll and bodyguard in this book: she is his rock and his shelter.  She is always beside him, never speaking or offering insight, but closer to the clown than Jonny Jonny could ever hope to be.  She understands his humor, aides his every endeavor, and anticipates and fulfills his needs before he can even ask.  When the novel shows Joker cry - which is something I loved, seeing a rare portrayal of Joker as a human with weaknesses - he is collapsed, clinging to Harley, who remains upright and still like a pillar to support him.  And Bermejo's art on her is brilliant: she is full of personality, humor, and movement, all without speaking.

So even though Joker is an ugly, underwhelming story with a lesson that falls flat, I can't hate it.  To be honest, save for a couple of elements that I find needless and gross, I don't even dislike it.  I feel mostly apathy, but even then, there are parts that kept me entertained.  Is that an endorsement?  Not specifically, but I won't tell you to avoid this novel at all costs either.  In the end, see for yourself, and maybe you'll have a warmer reception than I did.

Monday, July 15, 2013

In the Beginning

I feel I would be remiss if I did not introduce you to one of Jack Chick's most infamous creations, Bob Williams.  Generally, Chick tracts do not have recurring characters save for Scary Faceless God and Satan.  However, there are two series within his overall tract catalog that break this pattern: the Li'l Suzy tracts, aimed at children and headed by the titular Suzy (who is supposed to be sweet and cute but comes off as a homophobic, xenophobic, bullying little monster) and the Bible Stories series of tracts, headed by Bob Williams.

Who is Bob Williams?  A smug, fanatical computer repairman who has the (possibly demonic) power to convert most anyone he meets.  He is so prolific that he proselytizes in twenty-five tracts.  What compelling arguments must he make to warrant being such a major presence in Chick's oeuvre?  Let's find out in his debut story!

In the beginning, giraffes and apatosauruses had a contest to see whose neck was the longest, and the apatosaurus won.  Then the giraffes were such sore losers that they stood on each other's shoulders until they reached the asteroid belt by Mars and knocked one such asteroid into the Earth, driving the dinosaurs into extinction.  Giraffes are hardcore.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Why is Mary Crying?

If you are anything like my mother, when you read the dissection for the 2013 rewrite of The Last Generation, in between laughing at the ridiculousness of everything in the tract, you may have asked why Chick kept Mary around as the Mother Goddess when that future decried Jesus.

Well, this tract answers that.  And regardless of whether you're an atheist, a non-Christian, a Catholic, or even a Christian who rejects the immaculate conception and veneration of Mary, it will still be an incredibly stupid answer.

For bonus points, we'll also get a glimpse of Chick's massive issues with women!

It's okay, Mary.  I'd cry too if I were in a Chick tract.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Last Generation, 2013

In the 1972 edition of Jack Chick's asinine attempt to be George Orwell, the plot more or less stayed consistent.  In the future, America will be overrun by a pseudo-Christian theocracy that will torture and kill those who believe in the divinity of Jesus.

In the 2013 reprint?  Far less consistency and far more "let's take potshots at everything Jack Chick dislikes!" Those things being Catholicism, homosexuality, Catholicism, divorce, the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, people who call using religion to justify bigotry "intolerant," Catholicism, Wiccans, and Catholicism.

So sit back and hold on tight, because it's a Last Generation for, uh, the new generation.

The New World Order isn't messing around anymore!  Gone is the ocean and in is the saturated green.  But forty-one years later and they still can't finish his hat.  On the plus side, the curve of that snake and the green color make him look sort of like a KKK Riddler if you squint, and everyone loves the Riddler.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Last Generation, 1972

 In my dissection of Somebody Goofed, I mentioned that certain Chick tracts are occasionally updated and reprinted.  In Somebody Goofed, the tract was virtually unchanged, right down to the 1960s pop culture references.  But this isn't always the case.  Sometimes fonts are changed to be more legible, current issues are added in - in the 1980s, the tract That Crazy Guy! was changed from being about immoral sex leading to herpes to cover immoral sex leading to AIDS - and the art is revised.

And sometimes, as in the case of The Last Generation, the entire plot is altered based on what Jack Chick's pet issues are at the time.  While the publication from 1972 is as ludicrous as the version of Chick's site today, the deterioration of his writing and plot are clear to see between the two versions.

I am going by scans of an older tract, so these images will not be as clear as in other posts.

Big Brother's nightmarish world order is just around the corner.  Christ is coming soon for believers.  Will you be left behind?
Somehow, I don't think George Orwell had the imaginary persecution of Christian fundamentalists in mind when he wrote 1984.

This is one of the tracts drawn by Fred Carter, the other artist for the company.  He's far more talented than Chick himself.

It's like he threw every EVIL cliche he could into one cover.  KKK, United Nations, drugs, a peace symbol (which is really the sign of the Antichrist!  Booga booga!) and a doctor's symbol.  Wait, what's evil about doctor's staffs?  Is it that psychiatry generally doesn't advocate taking a rod to your child?  And why is the top of his pointy hat cut off when there's plenty more cover above him?  And why does he appear to be standing in the ocean?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Flight 144

Gunslinger was published in 1997.  Flight 144 was published in 1998.  In just one year, Chick managed to produce a tract that completely contradicted everything about Gunslinger.  Flight 144 is meant to be another argument for sola fide, or faith alone, the theological position that good works do not bring you into Heaven.  Instead, it ends up being an argument for running like hell away from Jack Chick's idea of God.

A couple spends 50 years on the mission field, trusting in their good works. But when they die and stand before God, they learn that good works can’t save… only Jesus can.


Originally I was going to make my next dissection about a tract attacking Islam or Catholicism or something, just to display Chick's blatant lies and total hypocrisy.  But I feel I would be remiss if I did not first introduce you to Jack's completely ludicrous take on the concept of "for by grace you have been saved" and how it makes the theme of salvation from tract to tract entirely contradictory.  So today's dissection will be Gunslinger, followed by a dissection of Flight 144, to demonstrate Chick's inability to keep his views consistent and display how horrific his vision of God is.

A hired killer trusts Christ and, at death, goes to heaven.  But the law-abiding marshal who hunted him rejects Christ and goes to hell.  Clearly shows that salvation is through grace, not works. 

No Chick, you fool!  The gunslinger isn't the man in black!  It's "The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed," not, "the man in black who was also the gunslinger followed himself."  This is a very disappointing fan fic of Stephen King's Dark Tower series so far.

Is that steam shooting out of his ears?  I'd be pretty angry too if I had no neck, a hole through one ear, and a face that could curdle milk.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Fairy Tales

Since my first dissection covered one of Chick's oldest tracts, here's one of his newer works from 2007.  This is the description of Fairy Tales from Jack Chick's website:

They were just fantasy games … all in fun. But they influenced Harry to make the biggest mistake of his life.

What dastardly games are these?  No, not Dungeons & Dragons or Harry Potter, as you may be thinking.  That would be too logical.  Also, he's already made tracts denouncing those.

Before we begin, I would like to mention in the mid-nineties, Chick suffered a stroke.  The effect on his art and writing afterward is, in my opinion, pretty noticeable.

In other news, Chick likes to take swipes at gay people regardless of whether or not they're relevant to the content of the tract.  Here, they're not, but get it?  "Fairy" can mean gay!  Isn't that clever?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Somebody Goofed

Somebody Goofed was initially published in either 1966 or 1969 (I've found contrasting sources, and it's possibly even older than that).  Despite most of Chick's more moderate comics coming out during this time, it still bears all the classic signs of a Chick tract: making the villains repulsive so we will presumably find their beliefs equally repulsive, dialogue no one would ever say, rabid anti-Christianity, and a sudden turn into madness.

The description from Chick Publications:

A young man goofs when he is talked out of receiving Jesus as Saviour.

"We ordered Tickle-Me Elmos, not Tickle-Me demons!"

Jack Chick: An Introduction to Insanity

It was 2007.  I was behind the counter at the movie theater, watching the minutes tick by until people would come in for the next showing and there’d be something to do.  The counters were wiped down, drinks and candy restocked, new batches of popcorn whirring in the machines, the lobby vacuumed – everything was taken care of.  There was nothing to do and nothing to talk about.

That is, until Amy came back from cleaning up trash in the parking lot.  She’d found two little comic books, three inches high and five inches wide, twenty pages each.  One bore a yellow cover and the title The Little Bride, the other, a purple cover reading Kidnapped!.  She’d glanced at them briefly outside and decided they had to be brought in.  And boy, was she right.  We spent so much time staring at them that our boss had to give us a lecture on focusing on our jobs.

Here are some of the many lessons I learned just from those two comics:

If the police catch you beating your husband with household items, you won’t be charged or even have an official warning so long as you promise to go back to church.  However, the same police officer will pull you over for driving over the double yellow line on the road just once.  Children walking home alone will be immediately kidnapped, but children walking to a stranger’s house without their parents in the morning to talk about religion will be just fine.   

The prophet Muhammad was a pedophile, and living in a different time period is no excuse.  There are “magic words” that will make you a Muslim forever if you say them even once.  When you pray, God speaks directly to you through a ray of light and provides advice that you should have had the common sense to figure out already.  Metaphors do not exist.  And most importantly, shouting “GOD’S GOING TO GET YOU FOR THIS!” at your kidnapper will drive him into a panic.

 I wouldn’t learn until a few days later, when we had free time in English class and I did some Googling, that I’d been introduced to Chick tracts:  little comics containing evangelical messages put out by fundamentalist writer/artist Jack T. Chick.  They are anti-evolution, anti-rock and roll, anti-ecumenical movement, anti-homosexuality, anti-Santa, anti-everything. 
Chick, who is reclusive and mostly a figure of mystery, published his first tract, Why No Revival?, in 1961.  Since that time, Chick Publications – classified as an active hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center – has produced over 230 comic tracts in addition to other books and films, and printed over 800 million tracts.  Jack Chick is the most published comic author in the world.

He’s also completely batshit.

Chick tracts have developed a cult following among non-fundamentalists for their ludicrous plotlines, terrible art, stilted dialogue, contradictions, and their poorly researched, often offensive themes.  The tracts are meant to be passed on indefinitely, with a person reading one, accepting Christ as their savior, and handing it off to another.  However, many people collect them for their entertainment value, and it’s easy to see why.

There are a number of hilarious websites dedicated to dissecting Chick tracts panel by panel, such as Enter the Jabberwock, Holeee Cow, and Boolean Union.  I’ve enjoyed both their dissections and the ridiculous tracts themselves for years, and want to throw my hat in the ring of mockery, beginning with one of the oldest, most well-known tracts, Somebody Goofed.

As a disclaimer, I don’t care what anyone’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are, so long as they’re not trying to force those beliefs (or lack thereof) on others, trying to make their views on theology into law, or using their views as an excuse for discrimination and hatred.  The point of these dissections will not be to mock or attempt to disprove Christianity.  The point of these dissections is to laugh at the absurdity and point out the flawed logic.

So sit back, grab the popcorn, and enter the nightmare world of Jack T. Chick.