Bad luck comes in threes. Certainly, that seems to be the case when three atrocities are committed at the same time, with the Clown Prince of Crime witnessed at the scene of each.
A popular comedian known for his loud Hawaiian shirts is murdered. The Moxon crime family is slaughtered en masse. And three John Does are found Jokerised at the Ace Chemical Plant.
Batman, Batgirl, Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Bullock all know the significance of the location – it’s where an unknown man plunged into a vat of chemicals and came out a pallid, murderous maniac.
When one of the apparently dead victims shows signs of life, an ambulance is called. Caped Crusader and Dominoed Daredoll ride alongside, and soon realise there’s an extra body in the ‘bus’.
Jason Todd, the second Robin and now the Red Hood. Like Batgirl, his life was ripped apart by the Joker, and he’s determined to end his would-be killer’s threat once and for all. Batgirl – aka Barbara Gordon – also wants to take the Joker out, but unlike Jason, she won’t use lethal force.
Hopefully, that’s enough detail to persuade you to buy this issue were you on the fence about it. I’m not actually a PR person for DC, I just know a classic in the making. I can’t imagine any fan of the Batman Family not enjoying this. It has everything new and old readers alike could wish for – a Batman who is intense without seeming insane; a determined Batgirl who’s understandably rattled by the re-emergence of the freak who put her in a wheelchair; and a Jason Todd willing to do what, frankly, someone in Gotham should have done years ago. There’s Alfred, the sanest man among us; Commissioner Gordon, who’s seen it all but can still be surprised; Harvey Bullock, hard-boiled detective and fan of all things Film Noir.
The central mystery – are there three Jokers, and if so, which deserves to be called The Joker? – is a fascinating one, but I don’t care if it’s all waved away at the end of this DC Black Label three-part mini-series. Maybe they’re from parallel Earths. Perhaps two of them have escaped discarded continuities – we seem to have the original Forties version, the Englehart-Rogers guy and the current horror show. Could be it’s particularly vicious cosplayers… The mystery is merely the maguffin to bring Bruce, Babs and Jason together to confront a few of their shared demons, to raise questions about what justice means, to give us some terrific bits of interaction.
Like Jason psychoanalysing Batman via the medium of superhero car seats.
Or Babs in denial about her father not actually being an idiot.
The action is visceral and thrilling, from a graveyard punch-up to Babs’ death-defying way with ambulance-chasing. There’s an origin recap, a physical reminder of Batman’s relentless war on crime, the return of a little-seen villain and the scariest Joker fish yet.
And so much more. Announced years ago, this is a passion project for writer Geoff Johns and the love is there on every page. The Three Jokers Book One grips throughout, Johns’ experience in writing superhero comics paying off big time. As well as the big ideas, he casually drops in such logically brilliant bits as the chaotic Joker warring on organised crime, and the Batman’s latest bit of crime scene kit. A Joker victim killed in his escape from Arkham is an obscure Swamp Thing supporting cast member. There’s a nice gag in the form of a TV self-help ad, complete with super-speedy terms and conditions. The confident feel to Johns’ script means we’re perfectly positioned for when he pulls the rug out from under us – and he will.
And every page is gorgeously illustrated by Jason Fabok, his renderings sharp but never soulless, his storytelling perfectly complementing a script Johns has crafted with military precision. The emotions aren’t writ large, there’s no hysterically over-the-top reactions from our heroes, everything is wonderfully precise, grounding the madness all around. Babs’ battle to be the voice of reason in the face of anarchy. Jason on the precipice of going too far in the eye of his friends. Alfred’s gentle resignation that his ‘son’ Bruce won’t ever put down the batarang, so the best he can do is patch him up.
And if Babs could see her father as we see him, in a sequence brilliantly staged by Fabok, she’d have to admit he knows that she’s Batgirl.
Fabok uses the nine-panel grid associated with – not invented by – Watchmen, but not throughout the issue, the pages are varied according to the needs of the script. When he does use the familiar framework, it’s selling the beats Johns needs nailing down.
The colour art of Brad Anderson is another big plus – he gives us a grimy Gotham, but not an unforgivingly grim one. This isn’t a pitch-black world, there may be hope even in Crime Alley. I especially like the Heimat-style flashes of colour in Bruce’s monochrome memories of his parents’ murders, and the subsequent subtle transition back to full colour. Anderson also works with Fabok on the, no pun intended, striking cover.
Rob Leigh, a letterer most often found on the Superman books, does his usual excellent job; I’m delighted to see him on such a prestigious project as this.
Praise, too, should go to Darran Robinson for a typically thoughtful, excellently executed production design; I hope he gets to extend his vision to the eventual collected edition.
The only sad note about this project is that Mark Doyle, who edited this comic with talented associate Amadeo Turturro, is among the casualties of the recent DC Bloodbath; what a stupid, stupid decision.
I can safely say, after this first issue, that if Batman: The Three Jokers, is Doyle’s editorial swansong, his place in Bat-history is assured. The collected edition is going to be a perennial best-seller, alongside the likes of The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One and, of course, The Killing Joke. And no, I’m not having a laugh.