Last month’s Batman Family titles pointed towards a tragic conclusion to the Death of the Family crossover, as the Joker – apparently a fan of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? -brandished a dome-covered silver platter, some unseen atrocity beneath.
This wrap-up opens with the revelation that there’s no single plate, but one for each of the four Robins and Batgirl. They’re sat around a dinner table in the Batcave, bound, hoods covering their heads.
The Joker summons Bruce Wayne’s kidnapped butler, Alfred. He’s been ‘Joker-fied’ into the Clown Prince of Crime’s own manservant. Alfred removes the cowls, to display bloodstained bandages covering the young heroes. Joker lifts the lid on the plates to show they’ve been ‘face-scalped’.
And so on. I’ve an earlier cut of this review with much more of the back and forth, but it’s all a bit ‘and then … and then’. Short version – the Batman and Joker fight, but the Joker falls to his quotemarks death after Batman rattles him by revealing that he’s deduced his real identity. The Batman Family members look doomed at various points, but fortune favours the brave. Batman wins, but the Joker wins really.
This issue can be divided into a series of ‘oh no’ and ‘phew’ moments. If someone’s face looks to have been cut off, be assured it’s just a spot of Joker fakery. If someone gets ‘Jokerised’, don’t worry, it’s a previously unheard-of temporary transformation.
So if you wish to be teased, this is the book for you. Hints that one member of the family wouldn’t be making it out alive aren’t borne out – marketing hype and DC’s track record had fan expectations going one way, but the story finally goes another. The Death of the Family proves to be a thematic title rather than a literal one. No one dies, but the trust which the Robins and Batgirl had in Batman is shattered – Nightwing, Batgirl, Red Hood, Red Robin and Robin, none of them can face Bruce as he tends to Alfred’s recovery because the villain whispered Bad Things to them.
Um, okay. The young folk did just learn (Batman #15) that years ago, the Joker may have gotten into the Batcave, and so could have worked out their secret identities, and certain that it wasn’t true, Bruce never warned them. Which was stupid of him. But still, when you’ve lived and worked with a man for years, why the heck would you believe the twisted whisperings of his greatest foe, a lunatic with everything to gain by sowing dissent? It makes for a dramatically downbeat ending, but in terms of the characters, it makes no sense.
Then there are the big awful events of Scott Snyder’s script that prove to have no consequence – since when has it been possible for someone to be cured after being Jokerfied, for example? How can a spray burn through Batman’s mask – it’s actually steaming – without leaving a mark on Bruce Wayne?
And in terms of out-of-nowhere story points, since when has the Joker’s real name been such a big deal to him? Even if he has forgotten who he was, why would Batman muttering it to him – of course, the reader doesn’t hear – send him even pottier than usual? And how can it be true that Gotham Police have never gotten their hands on Joker DNA? Batman is forever punching the Joker, how hot a boil wash do those bat-gauntlets get?
The worst moment in this issue is Bruce’s announcing to Alfred that years ago, just after taking in Dick, he confronted the Joker in Arkham Asylum as Bruce Wayne, making it obvious he was Batman. Sure, the Joker didn’t seem to be in a state to notice, or care, but taking the risk rather dents the notion that Batman is the smartest hero out there.
There is one scene this issue I really like, Bruce’s nursing of Alfred; Bruce’s concern for his own father figure, Alfred’s annoyance at being waited on … it’s a tender, wonderfully human scene. I appreciate the true reason Bruce gives for not killing the Joker, beyond ‘it’s my code’. And credit to Snyder for the final two pages, which are pretty darned clever. I don’t know if the science referenced works, but as a clever coda, it’s good. Yet to get to those moments we have to wade through page after page of the Joker wittering on about his special relationship with the Batman, and cast members with Plastic Man-like physiologies, able to shake off any horror perpetrated on them..
The leering, fly-ridden Joker of artists Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion, cuddling a two-headed cat, continues to revolt, while the first shot of the transformed Alfred is truly creepy. They convey the horror of Batman’s partners even through bandages via body language and eyes. And back at Wayne Manor, the aforementioned Bruce/Alfred emotion is nicely conveyed. The reveal that Damian – and therefore, everyone else – has kept his face is underplayed, but it’s one off-panel from Capullo in a generally effective piece of storytelling.
So that’s Death of the Family. The tension levels have been high, but the incredulity factor has been off the scale; the message of this story is that the Joker can do anything he wants, bring down anyone with just a word or two in their ear. Batman can’t beat him, but never mind, because the Joker’s only playing. Sure, Gotham’s citizens, police and prison officers get mutilated and murdered, but the Batman Family, despite the whole point of Joker’s plan being to remove them, are safe. We’ve been given thrills, but they’ve been cheap ones, shocks for the sake of shocks. As for the emotional fallout, it’s implausible.
In 17 issues we’ve had two storylines, one centring on the Court of Owls, the other on the Joker. There’s been a done-in-one featuring new character Harper Row and she’s getting another go-round next month, before Snyder begins a Riddler storyline. I hope it will be short and tight, rather than rambling and packed with cheap fan service. Based on the evidence so far, I’m not putting money on it.
For a splendid meditation on Batman’s attitude towards killing the Joker, pop across to Colin Smith’s always thought-provoking Too Busy Thinking About My Comics.