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.


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