THE JOKER #1/ Stories by JAMES TYNION IV & SAM JOHNS/ Art by GUILLEM MARCH & MIRKA ANDOLFO/ Color by ARIF PRIANTO & ROMULO FAJARDO JR. / Letters by TOM NAPOLITANO & ARIANA MAHER/ Cover by GUILLEM MARCH & TOMEU MOREY/ Published by DC COMICS
There are only two things that made me give The Joker #1 a chance: James Tynion IV’s writing and Guillem March’s artwork. After Joker War, I’m a little burned out on the Clown Prince of Crime. And the less said about Punchline (who has her own back-up feature in this book) the better.
Thankfully, the main story of The Joker #1 is not really about The Joker. Heck, he barely shows up in it apart from a few flashbacks and nightmares. Instead, the story is firmly focused on a supporting character long absent from the Batman books who I was glad to see return: former police commissioner James Gordon.
Tynion’s script catches us up on Jim and how he’s been steadfastly avoiding getting dragged back into the insanity of his old job, turning down a chance to be the new “Joker Czar” of the incoming mayor and a chance to go into the private investigator business with Harvey Bullock. Unfortunately, Jim’s savings are not extensive and the police pension for an honest cop in Gotham City isn’t exactly a living wage. Enter a mysterious woman with a lead on The Joker’s whereabouts and the offer of a massive payday if Jim Gordon does what he always dreamed of in his darker moments; kill The Joker.
Tynion manages to get a surprising amount of drama out of this setup, despite our knowing there’s no way that the ever-honest Jim Gordon will go through with it in the end. His torment in seeing his city suffer and thinking of how much more hellish it could become with its chief devil on the loose is harrowing, however, and the issue is a fantastic character study of Jim Gordon. The artwork by March matches the tone well, with no distinction being made from the hallucinatory Joker who torments Gordon and the reality around him. Colorist Arif Prianto does nothing to differentiate the real and the surreal elements of the story, subtly indicating how far gone Gordon is.
I wish I could praise the back-up story as highly. The artwork by Mirka Andolfo is good, but I found the neon colors used by Romulo Fajardo Jr. completely at odds with the dark tone of the story and artwork. The story, by contrast, is adequate for what it is. That’s high praise given my antipathy for Punchline as a concept, but I can complement Tynion and co-writer Sam Johns for having helped me to figure out just what it is about Punchline I personally find so distasteful.
The short summation of the Punchline story is that the criminal case against her for her actions during Joker War is endangered, as a cult of clowns who became fans of Punchline on social media start killing the witnesses to her crimes. This leaves Harper “Bluebird” Row needing to come out of retirement, when her younger brother falls in with a group of Punchline groupies and Leslie Thompkins is threatened by Punchline’s cult of personality.
My problem with this is that I have no desire to read about an insane criminal getting other people to debase themselves merely because they are famous or troll the establishment. I’ve seen enough of that in the past few years as an American. I’ve seen quite a bit of it in the past week from politicians who claimed that the COVID pandemic isn’t as bad as some people say, and, even if it is that bad, it’s all the fault of illegal immigrants. It’s a touch of reality I have no desire to see in my superhero comics, but I won’t hold that against this book.
The Joker #1 is more focused on Jim Gordon and Punchline than the title character. That may be a good thing if you believe, as I do, that The Joker should always be a force of nature or a supporting player, but never the focus of a story. The best thing I can say about this book is that it was full of surprises and unpredictable, just as The Joker should be.