[Review] John Carpenter and Friends Tell One of the More Twisted Joker Tales in 'The Joker' One-Shot Comic

Amongst all the noise about a certain popular villain sits some non-film news about the Clown Prince of Crime. DC’s “Year of the Villain” series is in full swing and its newest drop has landed, one of the new Joker one shots, John Carpenter’s “The Joker.” Written by Carpenter and Anthony Birch, with art by Marc Deering and Phillip Tan, coloured by Jay David Ramos, “The Joker” is a 34 page one shot (meaning a one off story not in any other continuity) that tells one of the more twisted tales of the Clown Prince of Crime.  

Told from the perspective of a nicknamed henchman, “The Joker” is a story of Joker escaping Arkham Asylum and attempting to wreak havoc on the streets of Gotham. Joker, in his signature manner, is cracking wise and doing crimes while his new henchman, one he refers to as “Six of Hearts” (or “Of” for short), comes to terms with his own trauma and mental illness and how it relates to Joker. Joker strings along Of through cold blooded killings, dressing him and his sidekick in store bought (or stolen) Batman and Robin suits on a twisted crusade of vigilante justice. Though the backdrop is the perverse Joker we know and love bringing pain to the masses, the story follows Of’s reconciliation of his own illness, and his perspective on his new leader.  

It’s impossible not to make the comparison to the film, Joker, when discussing how this story tackles mental illness. Joker is both praised and skewered for its portrayal of mental illness, it being described as presenting a realistic view of it and the dangers associated with the loss of proper healthcare. “The Joker,” seemingly laughing in the face of a film it couldn’t have possibly yet seen, presents a different thesis; that the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators and that Joker isn’t mentally ill – Joker preys on those who are. While Of reflects on his own trauma, he recalls being told he was more likely to be a victim, and presents tragic memories of being victimized by his own father and blaming himself for affecting his mother. “Of” battles his own cloudy view of the world and without absolving himself of blame, comes to terms with the fact that Joker isn’t like him.

Joker is sane. Joker is evil.  

John Carpenter dipping his toes into a Joker story seems like an inevitability as the horror icon dances more and more with comics. He’s written “Tales for a Halloween Night” and “Asylum” and being that Joker is the most horror adjacent of comic book icons, this felt like a natural pairing. I am refreshed, though not surprised, to see him nail it, giving a Joker story as scary as we can expect from The Horror Master that is still dipped thoroughly into the chemicals of Joker lore. Joker is his truest self here, evil and mad, obsessed with the bat, and behaving with limitless unconscionability. Batman history is on display with references to previous works and easter eggs like Jonathan Crane’s name slapped on bins of fear toxin.

Tan and Deering’s art is beautiful. The cover is a striking image, evocative of Hamlet and the panels throughout capture Joker’s madness in shocking stills such as him dressed in Batman’s signature cowl. Ramos’ colours do a flawless job of balancing darkness and brightness in a way we have always associated with Joker. His signature purples and greens are always positioned as bright hues juxtaposed to his dark deeds, and Ramos finds that balance between the stunning tones, even mixing in Batman’s blue and yellow without letting us come up for air from darkness. The way he uses the suggestion of a red filter to colour the otherwise blue bat suit purple is a brilliant way to alter the bat suit to fit the Mr. J. aesthetic.

The most striking panel, which could have been the brainchild of either the writers or the artists, is that which is a direct rehash of one from “A Death in the Family.” For those familiar, that comic is a story that culminates in Joker beating Jason Todd as Robin with a crowbar. Penciled by Jim Aparo, the snippet is a quick succession of panels of Joker whaling with a crowbar while smiling. “The Joker’s” version, having the henchman dressed as Robin, has Joker beat his sidekick in the same way he beat Batman’s in the former story, noting “you get to fulfill the ultimate sidekick fantasy.”

This isn’t the only reference to the death of Jason Todd present in this story. In the Grant Morrison “Batman R.I.P.” run of the caped crusader, when Joker, again, beats down Jason Todd with a crowbar, he tells a horrifying “joke,” (which might have originated from Blue Valentine) one I thought to be the scariest words uttered by the Clown Prince. Here, he says, “…and then he looks at the kid, raises the crowbar and says ‘you’re scared? I have to go back through these creepy woods on my own.’” Revisiting that style, early pages of this comic have joker uttering, “A boy says to his father, ‘help, I’m spinning in circles!’ The father says ‘Shut up, or I’ll nail your other foot to the ground too.’” *shudder*

DC’s “Year of the Villain” series has promised fun one shots highlighting some of our favourites, giving license to new writers to take on familiar characters and tell new stories not bound by canon. “The Joker” is a stunning example of what happens when a horror master pairs with a team of veteran comic book makers, creating a compelling and moving story that still feels familiar for Joker fans.  

“The Joker” is available now, just in time for Halloween.

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