After disappearing for a year and leaving his tattered face on the wall of Arkham Asylum as a goodbye present, the Joker finally returned to Gotham in 2012. Since he’s not just the greatest villain of that franchise but of comic books as a whole, DC decided to make a whole event out of it. For a huge junk of last year, The Joker went after the entire Bat Family in a massive crossover event masterminded by current Bat-guru Scott Snyder. While Snyder’s story was a new masterpiece (see my review of the upcoming Batman: Death Of The Family trade next week for more), the crossover event was a bit of a mixed bag. It’s always nice to see the Joker step up to the forefront, but Snyder’s tale was fairly self-contained and the Joker’s attacks on Batman’s gallery of sidekicks felt incidental to the central narrative. The house writers of each bat book essentially got a chance to weave their own Joker story that loosely tied into Snyder’s. As you’d expect, the results were hit and miss. None of the spin offs lived up to the main story, and as a result the event was considered a minor letdown overall. However, looking at all the Death Of The Family tales again in DC’s gorgeous new trade paperback, it’s clear this event was far from a failure. There were a number of wonderful stories as well as the clunkers. The best approach is probably to look at them all separately since that’s how they were written.
Detective Comics 15-16 Rating: 73
Writer: John Layman
Artists: Jason Fabok and Andy Clark
With Snyder weaving a new classic Joker tale in the issues of Batman, it seemed pointless for John Layman and his Detective Comics team to do the same. So instead they came up with a clever side-story. Detective Comics 15 and 16 instead focused on the effects Joker’s return had on the criminals and citizens of Gotham. Taking a brief break from their ongoing storyline, these issues see gangs painting their faces like clowns to celebrate the Joker’s return as well as a look at how treating the Joker turned an Arkham doctor insane. It’s a clever little story and boasts some nice artwork. Ultimately, though, it adds nothing to the Death Of The Family narrative as a whole. You kind of have to take this story on its own terms, and it is certainly an interesting examination of the Joker’s relationship to Gotham. It just feels like a concept forced into the Detective issues to fill out the event, and it’s not particularly essential to the overall event.
Catwoman 13-14 Rating: 55
Writer: Ann Nocenti
Artist: Rafa Sandoval
From there, the trade moves on to easily the worst arc in the entire event. In a move that feels more like Silver Age Joker silliness than the psychopath at the center of Death Of The Family, the Joker challenges Catwoman to a citywide game of chess. The story is just as silly as it sounds and was clearly created simply so that all Batman-connected titles featured the Joker. The weird thing is that in Snyder’s tale other Batman rogue villains were central and Catwoman easily could have been a part of it. Instead, Ann Nocenti eventually meanders to a finale in which Catwoman declares she has no real loyalty to Batman and is not part of his family. So… probably no need to even write this story in the first place then, right? You may as well skip over this chapter in the trade. There’s little of interest here.
Suicide Squad 14-15 Rating: 77
Writer: Adam Glass
Artist: Fernando Dagnino
Finally, three stories into this trade we get to a tale that actually connects to the Death Of The Family arc. Harley Quinn played a small role in Scott Snyder’s narrative and even got her own back-of-issue B-story (which is included as well). Adam Glass expands on that here with a vengeful Joker coming after Harley for her decision to fight for good as part of the Suicide Squad and to take up a new lover without a speckle of clown make-up on his face. The Harley/Joker relationship is of course one of the great twisted love stories in comics, so it’s always nice to see a new chapter. Glass even adds a few intriguing twists their relationship like the Joker’s claims that she is but one of a series of Harleys that he’s had throughout his life. Harley gets some wonderful moments here that continues her redefining arc as part of the Suicide Squad. It’s an interesting tale with some wonderful art from Fernando Danino. Sadly, the whole thing is dragged down by useless side-plots involving the rest of The Suicide Squad and an irritating twist ending, neither of which have much to do with the central Harley tale and seem to be there purely to try and coax new readers into continuing the series after picking up these issues as part of the Death Of The Family arc (a good decision for business, but a bad one for storytelling).
Batgirl 13-16 Rating: 92
Writer: Gale Simone
Artist: Ed Benes, Vincente Cifuentes
Gale Simone’s Batgirl Joker arc is so good, it justifies the entire crossover event as a whole. It makes sense too. After all, Simone helped transform Batgirl into one of the finest DC books currently on stands and the character has a bit of a history with the Joker thanks to that whole Killing Joke fiasco. The Joker’s return obviously shakes Barbara deeply, and that only worsens when the clown prince of crime makes kidnaps her mother. Why you ask? Well, the Joker is hoping that Barbara will marry him to set the mother free. It’s a sick and twisted little plot that could only come out of this iconic villain’s brain and Simone nails his psychotic voice perfectly. The way Barbara finds the courage to fight back is oddly moving, and the Joker’s plan is suitably sick, even bringing in a fan favorite Gordon family member who Snyder famously reworked in his first Batman arc. Simone’s Joker tale is so strong that it would have been a wonderful run on its own divorced of this series and features some of the more disgusting art of the Joker’s new skin mask in the entire trade paperback. The collection is worth picking up for this story alone (which is probably why it also got its own solo release)
Nightwing 15-16 Rating: 87
Writer: Kyle Higgins
Artist: Eddy Barrows
Kyle Higgins’ Death Of The Family story is just downright harsh. This is by far the most vicious of the tie-in tales and the one with the highest body count. Without getting into spoiler territory, major characters in Higgins’ Nightwing mythology die in the midst of a Joker plot so elaborate, it’s remarkable that even a master criminal like him could have pulled it off in addition to all the other crazy tales in this event. Higgins has a strong grasp of what makes the Joker so frightening, and his unapologetically nasty tale feels very much in line with Snyder’s version of the character. If all the Death Of The Family side stories had been this strong, the whole event would have been a major success. That didn’t happen, but at least there are a couple of great Joker stories in this trade. A deliciously dark tale well worth a read.
Red Hood and The Outlaws 15-16 and Teen Titans 15-16 Rating: 66
Writers: Scott Lobdel and Fabian Nicieza
Here’s a weird one: a crossover within a crossover. For whatever reason, the Teen Titans and Red Hood and The Outlaws teams decided to combine their Death Of The Family narratives together. The central premise isn’t bad: The Joker kidnaps the two former Robins together and forces them to fight each other. The execution, on the other hand, is muddled. With the Joker also having to deal with each former Robin’s new crimefighting team, there are just too many characters that the writers struggle to spin at once and in the end this mini-arc feels overstuffed and confusing. Combining the two former Robins and current team leaders was a clever idea, but it also sadly robs the Red Hood writers the chance to write a story drawing deeply on the Death In The Family series in the same way that Gale Simone echoed The Killing Joke in Batgirl. Still, the story has its moments and at least it’s not a complete waste of time like the Catwoman storyline. So that’s something.
Batman And Robin 15-16 Rating: 85
Writer: Peter J. Tomasi
Artist: Patrick Gleason
One of the most underrated runs in the New 52 Batman line has been Peter J. Tomasi’s excellent Batman And Robin series. So it should come as no surprise that he does his Death Of The Family tie-in justice. The story is fairly simple. Robin sets out to find Alfred and ends up kidnapped by the Joker in a zoo where the clown prince of crime enjoys doling out some physical torture and psychological torment. It’s a creepy little tale that feels like part of Snyder’s overall arc rather than a separate Joker story that the writer wanted to tell that got folded into the event like so many other stories in this collection. Patrick Gleason’s art also deserves special mention, it’s a nightmarishly dark vision that features some of the most terrifying images of the Joker in the entire event (particularly when he taunts Robin with his face on upside down and his tongue poking through the eye holes…. eck!). This is what the entire event should have felt like.
In addition to compiling all of the above storylines, DC included the final issue of Snyder’s Death Of The Family storyline and Batman And Robin 17 as an epilogue. It’s a bit weird that the entire Snyder storyline wasn’t included to make this a definitive collection, but I suppose less books would be sold that way. The final issue is the most appropriate to include since it pays off the cliffhanger at the end of all other Death Of The Family stories and ties together Joker’s ultimate plot involving the Bat Family. It’s weird that early scenes in Snyder’s run that brought the family together and set the story in motion weren’t included, but maybe the collection was getting too large already. Regardless, including this issue highlights the major problem of the event, which is that with few exceptions none of the Death Of The Family side stories had much to do with Snyder’s arc and made his final issue feel a bit anticlimactic because it was so specific to one story rather than the event as a whole. Regardless, Batman 17 was a great issue filled with disturbing revelations and eye-meltingly good art. The inclusion of Tomasi’ Batman And Robin 17 was a nice touch as well. It’s only very loosely connected to the event, but it’s a wonderful standalone issue showing what Batman, Robin, and Alfred dream about at night that should tickle fans and send readers of the collection out with a smile on their face (which is no easy task given all the Joker-flavored horror witnessed in the proceeding pages).
Overall, this is a big, pretty book that deserved to be released to honor DC’s big ol’ Joker event. The entire collection might have been brought down by some stinker storylines, but Joker fanatics will want to pick it up for the Batgirl, Nightwing, and Batman And Robin arcs alone. All of them were excellent Joker stories that probably would have been considered the best representations the character received in years, were it not for the fact that Scott Snyder was crafting one of the greatest Joker stories ever told at the same time (more on that next week). Joker: Death Of The Family is definitely worth picking up for fans of the character, but don’t judge the entire series on this collection alone. This is more of a companion piece to Snyder’s masterpiece and a nice collection of Joker tales for fans. It’s a shame the whole event couldn’t live up to the twistedly brilliant work being done at the center, but I suppose that was inevitable. Getting this many great Joker yarns at once and complaining that they aren’t all masterpieces may sound a bit greedy. But with the incredibly high standards that Snyder has set for Batman lately, that seems to be a problem that Bat fans are facing as they thumb through the new release rack every week.