Like many other Batman fans, I have eagerly awaited the beginning of the Death of the Family story arc from Scott Snyder. The Joker has always been a writers favourite character – who could resist trying to get under the skin of the most unpredictable villain in Batman’s gallery? The Joker veers between being humorously threatening and genuinely disturbing in his history, and it’s clear that Snyder is leading him down the darker path – the Joker’s confession that he has hidden beneath Gordon’s bed at night is disturbing on a level rarely seen before, even if it isn’t true (and it’s hard to tell when it comes to the Joker).
The Joker’s current attitude is built on Shakespeare’s concept of the relationship between the jester and his king – the jester is the only one who can reveal the truth to his king who is blinded by emotions and the accolades of his subjects (or family, in Batman’s case). The Joker feels that the Bat-family have made his king weak and it looks like his mission is to tear them apart. The Batman and Joker’s relationship has always been an intense one but this seems different – the Joker isn’t after the Family to hurt Batman this time, but after them to “save” him. He’s killed and crippled Batman’s sidekicks before but never has he had so many at one time, and never before has the Joker had this much time to prepare.
The Joker has often managed to toe the line between evil genius and magician and the idea that he is responsible for the bad omens in Gotham is an interesting one. Rains, floods and a two-headed lion cub are stirring up the tabloids and Commissioner Gordon is struggling to find a place to sneak a cigarette without his detective-in-training daughter finding out. Downstairs, a flower van pulls up outside the GCPD labelled “Forget Me Not” and a familiar too-short trouser leg steps out. He’s come back to reclaim his severed face and takes the lives of most of the GCPD, with the express purpose of terrorising Gordon. This is when he mentions hiding beneath his bed, where his last cigarette hiding place lies, the one that even Babs couldn’t find; he has been watching her too which is a terrifying thought for the father whose daughter he put in a wheelchair.
As Batman tries to form a plan for handling the Joker, various members of his Family pitch in – Damian, being the usual brat he is, isn’t concerned, still believing his dad to be unbeatable. Nightwing and Red Robin both want to know what’s going on, but it’s Batgirl’s call he’s most worried about after Gordon’s plea that he not tell her. But instead of being scared for herself, she’s more concerned for her father’s well-being. Just at that moment, a Joker broadcast comes through on the television and it becomes clear that he’s following the patterns of his old crimes. Like a child’s puppet trick, Joker is using a man to talk through – all you can see of him are his eyes and teeth hidden in the shadows and his arms through the man’s jacket, gesticulating wildly. The prop-man is identified by Batman as John Claridge, the son of Joker’s very first victim in Gotham, and he uses Claridge to announce the death of Mayor Hady at midnight that night. The GCPD and Batman are on the case, all protecting the Mayor as the time counts down, but Joker’s plans have a twist to them; instead of killing the Mayor his true target turns out to be the entire police force. In another twist, the traditional Joker toxin has been modified, causing rigor mortis frowns instead of his usual trademark smiles.
Batman tracks the Joker down to the ACE Chemical Plant, the scene of his original transformation. Finding the figure of the Red Hood dressed theatrically and playing word games, Batman begins to approach but, like old lovers reunited, he can see straight away that it isn’t the Joker but another one of his tricks. A recorded voice tells Batman that the Joker plans to take his allies, the ones who have made him weak. Batman becomes trapped diving from a giant swinging mallet and the Red Hood mask comes off to reveal a tear-stained Harley underneath. “He’s not the same, Bats. He’s not Mr J anymore” she sobs, another truly terrifying moment – Harley has never questioned Joker before now and the idea that he’s gone too far for her is a very bad sign. Meanwhile at home, Alfred walks into the hallway to find the previously mentioned two-headed lion cub in his house; he whips around to see the Joker stood in front of him, the mask of his face stretched across his skull as he wields a hammer over his head.
Although this seems like the end of the issue, there is still a flashback to Joker’s earlier conversation with Harley Quinn. She misses him of course, and is still entirely devoted to him, even willing to strip down to nothing at his command. Capullo’s artwork makes Harley look like a vulnerable young girl, trying to cover herself as he advances with a blade. Her bids her dress up like him in his padded tuxedo, with platforms to make her his height and tells her that he owns her – “I pulled the pieces of you from my ribcage and stitched you back together with beautiful lies”. She looks with abject fear, not sure she that she loves him enough to have her face mutilated; she asks if he would still think she was attractive but he insists he never said that he did. It’s such a tender moment for Harley – while her Mr J has always strung her along and used her affections, he usually stays away from hurting her so directly. He definitely seems to have had a break – it reminds me of Grant Morrison’s discussion about the Joker having a kind of super-sanity as opposed to pure insanity. He seems smarter, more cunning and more ruthless than ever. He’s often allowed Batman to catch him, preferring to play the game than to win, but this time he isn’t giving Bats the choice.
It’s going to be interesting to see how this story pans out. Going after the Bat-Family isn’t original but it seems different this time – he’s had much more time to plan and it seems he knows something that Batman has kept from the others. It seems possible that instead of death he just has destruction planned, a way to turn them all against each other, even against Batman. The fact that this story arc is appearing in all the characters’ own comics suggests that his attacks will be much more personal than before, perhaps attacking the families of Gordon, Drake, Todd and Grayson if his hint that he knows their true identities is to be believed. It’s scary to see where this is going to go, and how Batman is going to deal with it. The crusader has always had a self-destructive streak, has always seemed willing to die in battle but he isn’t prepared to lose the people who depend on him. How far will he go to stop the Joker this time? I can’t wait to find out.
Originally posted at https://travellingman.wordpress.com/2012/11/20/batman-death-of-the-family/