Everybody loves an origin story, right? I just wrote a whole piece about how, after the success of Batman: Year One, DC spent the next twenty or so years trying to recapture that magic. It was only a matter of time before Joker had his turn. Of course, Chip Zdarsky has emphatically stated that “this is NOT an origin story”. So what is it? Well, it’s complicated. There have been plenty of retellings of the first time Joker and Batman fought; in fact Tom King just finished up his last month. However, if you asked people what Joker’s origin actually was, nine out of ten people would point you to The Killing Joke. The immense success and popularity of that story is probably why we don’t have more Joker origin comics. Alan Moore’s story would stand like a colossus over any attempts to replace it.
At least at first, it seems that Joker Year One’s goal is to insert itself in between those two stories. In fact, it opens with the iconic dip in the acid bath from the end of The Killing Joke. To be clear, when I say it opens with that scene, I mean that Giuseppe Camuncoli lifts the panel wholesale and clearly traces over Brian Bolland’s old work with inferior colors and inks.
On some level this would be acceptable if it was being used as an explicit creative choice to draw attention to some sort of metacommentary. However, all this serves is to somehow retroactively make The Killing Joke worse. Instead of minimalist narration meant to bring on a sense of dread leading up to the big reveal in Moore’s version, we get a drawn out internal monologue about his coming to terms with his transformation.
I won’t get into how this version of the scene involves the multiple Jokers from Zdarsky’s previous issues, as this story at least mercifully keeps that relegated to a brief appearance before moving on. However, the scene is still made so much lesser by the added narration. It overexplains Joker’s internal thoughts and motivations, which is among the worst sins you can commit with the character. It seems almost obvious to point out, but the incomprehensibility is what makes Joker interesting. More important is the fact that it means this seminal moment is no longer Joker’s breaking point. It’s just one in a long series of slow steps towards the Joker we know.
A story about how a physically, but not quite mentally, transformed man learns how to become the Joker is largely redundant and unnecessary. Initially, it even seems to retread a subplot from Batman: Year One, where a corrupt head of police sends his underling to “take care of” the noble Lt. Gordon (though he’s erroneously referred to as detective). The way this issue tries to squeeze a full narrative out of the concept is probably its most surprising aspect. That is, it acts as a follow up to Batman: Zero Year. The period where DC tried to insist anything other than Batman: Year One was canon was relatively brief, but it seems to have made a comeback. They even throw in a reference to Batman: Three Jokers for good measure.
What this means is that Zdarsky’s assertion that Joker Year One isn’t really an origin story is technically true. That’s because Zero Year already gave him a pretty detailed origin. He was the leader of the Red Hood Gang who fought Batman repeatedly before eventually falling in the vat of acid. I think this is a lot less interesting than the more ambiguous and shocking origin from The Killing Joke, but that’s a complaint for Scott Snyder, not here. Where it becomes a problem is that this version of the character doesn’t match the characterization from Zero Year. He seems scared and confused to the world around him, not the ruthless and calculating leader of a major gang. No matter what version this is supposed to be, something doesn’t quite line up.
Most of the drama of this issue revolves around Joker reuniting with his old crew, and the ramifications of his reappearance. He mutters to himself, wanders the streets, and commits random crimes until he stumbles into an old friend that lets him know what’s been going on. There is apparently a new “Black Hood Gang” who has taken over in the less-than-a-month time period between the catastrophic events of Zero Year and when Gordon is made commissioner in its epilogue, which hasn’t happened yet. Such a small window gives the impression that we’re getting day by day updates as to what everyone did immediately following the city’s destruction (except the cleanup, which I guess took about a week). Once again it all feels too overexplained.
It’s a problem a lot of prequels have (including the last Zdarsky/Camuncoli joint project, Batman: The Knight), where every single detail of a character’s past must be justified and traced. Instead of simply accepting the Joker as a chaotic new force in Gotham who makes a name for himself, we need an in depth look at how he came into contact with his old gang and rose up to retake control. Nothing kills a joke better than explaining it, and the same is true here. There’s no better example of this problem than the revelation that Joker takes on a teacher to train him to not feel fear. For bonus points that teacher just so happens to be Batman’s old mentor. It makes the world feel small and overly convenient.
Aside from the previously mentioned tracing, Giuseppe Camuncoli’s art mostly does a fine job. The style is reminiscent of his work with Zdarsky on Batman: The Knight, though without Ivan Plascencia on colors, it’s far less dramatic. In fact, I’d say that’s the biggest criticism of the art in general: it’s never really striking or impactful. I’d still call it good, just somewhat bland. For example, Batman is still wearing his purple gloved, Greg Capullo-designed suit, but it lacks the same impact as when Capullo drew it and almost fades into the background despite its very loud aesthetic.
The same complaint about blandness cannot be said about the alternate story. It’s not quite a backup because it’s interspersed between the main story, similar to what Detective Comics did last month (and something I haven’t really seen before). There are only a few pages, but it’s arguably the most memorable part of the whole comic, and a lot of that is due to Andrea Sorrentino and Dave Stewart’s art. It’s haunting and effectively frames Joker as an almost supernatural force. In some ways it reminds me of Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.
Set in Gotham’s future, we get brief glimpses of their struggle to deal with the ever present problem of the Joker. There’s even mention of a worldwide virus transforming everyone into Jokers. It’s somewhat fitting that this ties back to Scott Snyder’s Zero Year, because framing the conflict between Batman and Joker as a sort of eternal, mythic struggle is a theme that he often liked to return to. I’m at least interested to see where this storyline goes, which is more than I can say for the rest of the comic.
- You want to know every detail about the Joker’s past
- Zero Year is your preferred Batman origin
- A couple pages of cool art is enough to buy a comic
What’s clear from the opening of “Joker Year One” is that this is a story that has no reason to exist. Learning the details about how Joker met up with his old gang isn’t interesting, and hearing his thoughts as he slowly becomes the Joker we know only takes away from the mystique of the man who went mad after one bad day. The adage about humor being like a frog rings true for Joker’s past as well – dissecting it might give you more information, but it dies in the process.
DISCLAIMER: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.