10 Rated Books 8 Rated Books Book Reviews Joint Review

Joint Review: Joker by Brian Azzarello

Title: Joker

Author: Written by Brian Azzarello; Art by Lee Bermejo

Genre: Graphic Novel

Stand alone or series: Stand alone graphic novel (not previously published as individual issues)

Why did we read this book: It’s a rebirth of the Joker. In a graphic novel written by Brian Azzarello of 100 Bullets fame. With freaking Lee Bermejo illustrating. ‘Nuff said.

(Plus, with the dvd release of The Dark Knight today, it’s only fitting that we review this graphic novel!)

Summary: (from DCComics.com)
In the all-new, hardcover original graphic novel JOKER, writer Brian Azzarello (100 BULLETS) and artist Lee Bermejo (HELLBLAZER covers) – the creative team behind the acclaimed miniseries LEX LUTHOR: MAN OF STEEL – show an even darker and more disturbing side to the most dangerous man in Gotham: The Joker.

After yet another stint in Arkham Asylum, The Joker finds “his city” divided among mobsters and costumed villains. Not content to settle for a piece of the pie, The Joker vows to take back the whole damn enchilada by any means necessary. Look for appearances by a slew of Gotham’s most wanted, including gritty takes on Two-Face, Riddler, Killer Croc, Penguin, Harley Quinn and even Batman!

Not since THE KILLING JOKE have you seen such a powerful tale of The Joker – you won’t want to miss this one!


First Impressions:

Thea: In a word: WOW. I was already predisposed to love this book from the writing and artistic team alone, but I was unprepared for this darker, more intense take on the Joker. In the vein of Christopher Nolan’s rebirth of Batman in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Azzarello’s Joker is grainy, gritty, and completely socio-pathologically insane–without the more comic incantations. Indeed, Bermejo’s artistic interpretation of the Joker even mimics Heath Ledger’s portrayal in The Dark Knight–flaking, caked on makeup, rumpled suit, mossy, grimy hair. Azzello’s writing conjures a pill-popping maniac, and I can almost hear the drawl and cackle Mr. Ledger used in the film, on every page of this remarkable book. And the Joker isn’t the only one who’s marvelously portrayed here–there’s this new vision of Killer Croc, a sort of Tokyo Drift vision of Edward Nigma that I adored (I mean I adored the version of The Riddler here, not Tokyo Drift), and–perhaps my favorite–the buxom, deranged Harley Quinn.

Needless to say, I loved this book. To lift a Jerry McGuire line–since Heath Ledger’s Joker did it in the film with “You complete me,”–Joker had me at hello.

Ana: Thea is my Graphic Novel pimp and when she told me about Joker, I wanted to read it immediately. Unfortunately the book wasn’t going to be out in the UK till early December so Thea mailed it to me – that’s how much she wanted me to read it. As with any graphic novels, the first impressions always have to do with the art, it is the reader’s (at least this reader’s) first impulse to go through the book and just LOOK at it, no reading involved. The first thing that comes to mind is how different the art in Joker is from The Killing Joke – that other essential Joker story. As much as the latter has bright colours and clean lines, Joker has dark colours and rough, gritty imagery. I love both.

This one is also much, much darker in content – there is very little of the more comical-funny side of the Joker – which to me, is a contradiction in itself and put me slightly off. Having said that, the pure, unabashed journey into insanity that this book takes you, is unparalleled in all of its violent and gory details. There was one essential thing missing for most of the story though, which prevented me from loving the book as much as Thea did. More on that below.

On the Plot:

The Joker has been locked up in Arkham Asylum, but has been pronounced “cured”. On the eve of his release, those in his employ argue at a bar about who gets stuck with the task of picking him up–no one wants in. An underling named Jonny Frost decides to man-up to the task, not because he is especially brave, but because he wants in on the power and respect that comes with being associated with the baddest badass in Gotham. The entire book is told through Johnny’s perspective, revealing his past as a two-bit fuckup with the law and with his wife, his fears and his plans for the future as he is taken under the Joker’s wing (well, sorta).

In the time that the Joker has been in Arkham, the criminal power in Gotham City has been redistributed among mid-boss mobsters and some familiar faced villains. With Killer Croc and his lady Harley Quinn by his side, and his new driver Jonny Jonny Frost, the Joker takes back the city, meeting some opposition in the form(s) of Harvey Dent and Penguin. Of course, it’s all just foreplay–the Joker wants his power back so that he can play with the Bat.

And along the way, Jonny Jonny Frost realizes that he might be in over his head.

Thea: Joker is a wonderfully written, self-contained graphic novel. Editorial reviews compare the relevance of this book to Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, and I have to wholeheartedly agree. Joker is a graphic novel in which both newbies and veterans of Gotham can easily immerse themselves. The atmosphere created through Bermejo’s art is flat out stunning. There’s a sense of complete and utter hopelessness, of choking oppression–Gotham has never seemed so depraved so desolate (indeed, Batman is missing until the very end of the book). From the very beginning, the Joker begins his extremely violent, extremely graphic spree of murder and mayhem.

Though the plot is fairly straightforward, it is ingenious in the telling–both in the writing and in the art (ohmigosh the ART). Using Jonny Frost as narrator, readers see and feel just how frakking batshit insane Joker is, and just how sick Gotham is. Had Joker been narrating the tale, it would have been incomprehensible (and…well, I don’t think I want to go there), but with the ideal third party observer, the ideal sycophantic grubber Jonny, Joker’s insanity and his driving purpose of chaos is beautifully showcased. So far as the art goes, Bermejo’s grimy colors, the free reign (I’m assuming) he is given, moving from traditional prints and inks to what looks like oil paints…well, it’s beautiful. In a very dark, subtle way.

And I have to agree with Ana below–the last four pages are pure brilliance. I got goosebumps just reading them. It’s the definitive battle that can never end.

Ana: There is a clear story arc in the novel: beginning with the Joker leaving the asylum and appearing almost sane. It is never quite clear how he managed to convince the doctors that he was sane enough to be allowed to leave but it is plain that he managed to play the part for just enough time. In that sense, the book opens and the Joker looks and sounds – sane. With a clear path he wants to follow, so much so that Johnny Frost is prepared to follow wherever he goes. Soon enough though, all signs of normalcy start to be peeled away as the Joker goes around spreading chaos.

But as much as there is this sense that he enjoys the power, enjoys all the manically insane and violent things that he does, one cannot help but to think that every single act, every single step he takes is a tease, a call, a note to the one that well, completes him. The Joker is nothing without the Batman and I can’t help but to think that the more time it takes for Batman to come out to play, the more it makes the Joker insaner.

The last 4 pages are absolutely brilliant because that is when Batman shows up and we finally have the spectacle that we came to watch (or should I say “I” ?) – the last minutes of the reading are as riveting as only Batman-Joker interactions can be with the teasing and the thrashing. The art in these final moments is amazing (and I have to agree with Thea, who is spot on her assessment – the art here DOES look like oil paints), the conversation is brilliant as is the narration by Jonny Frost – when he finally understands the tale of the Joker and the Batman as his own life comes to a standpoint.

On the Characters:

Ana: Cryptically, the story is and is not centered around the Joker – obviously, he is the main character but seen through the lens of small-time crook Jonny Frost. Their paths converge at the start of the book when Jonny takes up on driving Joker and working for him, run parallel for some time until they start to diverge as Jonny realises how increasingly crazy the Joker is: he has not signed up for all of this. Jonny is someone who wants to make it big and thinks the ticket lies with the Joker but unfortunately for him , things turn hectic before he can become someone and unfortunately for me, I never really cared for Jonny….

or for the Joker as portrayed here – a much more violent, humourless Joker that makes the character much less palatable to me as a reader. Of course, the character has always been a violent one, thriving in spreading chaos but always with a funny quip or with a brilliant philosophical tirade either about what is to be crazy or what is to be insane or even, what makes him the counterpoint of Batman. That is what makes The Killing Joke such a brilliant read and Joker less so – that part of Joker was sorely missed by me.

As for the other characters, there is a parade of old villains from Penguin to Two-Face that liven up the story. Two-Face is particularly important here as his showdown with the Joker is exquisitely well, cool and also what kicks off the event that will lead to the climax of the story. And as I said before, the climax is the best part of the book for me because of that one character that did not show up before: Batman.

Thea: This novel in many ways seems like a rebirth, or at least a redefinition of the Joker. The clown prince of crime is no longer the vibrant purple-suited, ruby-lipped chemical vat survivor. He is taken in a new direction–every jeer, every deranged grin and jab screams of Heath Ledger’s darkly subversive portrayal, at least in the visual sense. Just as The Killing Joke serves as an a more comic, colorful and oxymoronically-philosophical version of the Joker, Joker twists and hardens the character into a darker, more terrifying manifestation. Moore’s Joker, the Joker of Tim Burton’s Batman is the one that has been in the public mind for years–but in today’s world, mired in economic uncertainty and war and dark times, Nolan and Azzarello’s Joker is a visceral redefinition.

And I love it.

The other character we get to know intimately is Jonny Jonny Frost himself–beginning as a hired thug, hardly worth the reader’s sympathy. And yet, as his narrative unfolds and we see his tale, hear his thoughts, see his strange allegiance to a man who does not recognize the currency of the concept, Jonny becomes a human anchor in the quagmire and chaos. Even if he is not deserving of the sympathies of the reader, I could not help but feel for him as he finally realizes just where the Joker will lead him–no one deserves to go there.

Then, there are the cameos by many other notable villains (sorry ladies, other than Harley Quinn, they are all of the male variety). Killer Croc, Penguin, Riddler and Two-Face appear and play larger roles, as does the aforementioned Harley Quinn–though she is completely silent. There’s a particular scene where she and Joker reconnect after he’s released from Arkham that is particularly chilling. And yes, of course Batman makes a late, show-stopping appearance.

Final Thoughts, Observations and Rating:

Ana: Putting aside the beautiful art, the book never truly came alive to me until the very end: when Batman shows up. That was what was missing from the book and from Joker’s life as well , as the character itself, seemed to be somewhat suspended in time – waiting. Hoping. It should not come as a surprise that when Batman appears so does the Joker’s sense of humour and his old philosophical self and those strong lines of dialogues in those 4 pages are pure, quintessential Joker-Batman – worth waiting for.

In my opinion, the Joker cannot BE without Batman and this is what makes Joker a lesser read than The Killing Joke which remains my favourite Joker novel.

Thea: I have to disagree with Ana here. Batman’s appearance at the end of the book is beautifully orchestrated, and his absence throughout the tale only serves to build up that dramatic end. Ultimately, this is not a Batman story–it is Gotham’s; it is Joker’s. It is about the disease, the festering underbelly, the rot that cannot be quashed–this city of sin and darkness and corruption. It is this depravity that gives birth and power to its ultimate personification: the Joker. And there is never a cure…just a bat.

I love The Killing Joke. I don’t think anyone can dispute how seminal Moore’s work is–but Joker is what I have been waiting for. My favorite Joker book, beyond a doubt.

Notable Quotes/Parts:

Ana: In the showdown between Batman and Joker, Joker asks Batman about his costume and why the only thing that is at plain sight is Batman’s mouth – that perfect mouth that is so the opposite of Joker’s own, disfigured mouth. Batman’s reply? AWESOME: and I will leave it so you will read it by yourself.

Thea: As I mentioned earlier, the Riddler makes an appearance, stealing the unstealable for the Joker. Bermejo’s visual representation of Edward Nigma is awesome. And, the Riddler has one of the best lines in the entire book. To Joker: “The safest place to hide is insanity”. The frame, the reflection of Joker in the car window as Nigma delivers…it’s perfection.

Additional Thoughts: The Dark Knight is on dvd today!!!! If you haven’t seen it, go forth and buy it. Don’t rent it–BUY IT. You can check out our review of the film HERE.


Thea: 10 Perfection, A Classic – It’s a record for me, two 10 Ratings in as many days! Easily one of my top 10 books of 2008.

Ana: 8 Excellent

Reading Next: The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt

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  • Kris
    December 9, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    Wow, for someone who is getting back into graphic novels and has always preferred the darker portrayal of Joker, this looks completely awesome.

    Ana’s comments re: the relationship between the Joker and Batman were interesting as it struck me whilst reading your review that many of the villains define themselves; their attitudes, actions, etc, against Batman’s so-called perfection. That seems to be why when the final battle/climax occurs they appear to be more ‘alive’ than ever, confronting the mirror image of themselves.

    A question – even though this is a stand alone, would you recommend reading ‘The Killing Joke’ or anything else prior to this one??

  • meljean brook
    December 9, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    I didn’t read the review because I’m waiting until I get this, but … eeek! I can’t wait to read it.

  • little alys
    December 9, 2008 at 10:02 pm

    Harley Quinn shows up? Where? Where? I really had wanted her in the last film, but alas, not going to happen any time soon. As much as I love all these movies and comics, the whole 1 woman (or dead woman to propel the story) really bums me out.

    No role models for me. *sniff sniff*

    Need to get this soon…need to get DVD. *shivers with excitement*

  • Uncle Bingo
    May 20, 2012 at 12:58 am

    “And, the Riddler has one of the best lines in the entire book. To Joker: ‘The safest place to hide is insanity’.”

    —-The Joker riddled the Riddler here. You interpreted that wrong.


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