Today sees the release of the Joker original graphic novel by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo (with extremely important work by Mick Gray on inks and Patricia Mulvihill on colors). The project is an interesting one - a movie tie-in without actually being a movie tie-in (besides the visual look of the Joker, that is, and even that, Bermejo had come up with on his own) and a story that has a similar narrative to the beloved Batman masterpiece, "Hush," only with actually less of a plot than that venerable storyline.
So if the narrative is not there, does Brian Azzarello's always striking character work, matched with absolutely stunning artwork by Lee Bermejo, amount to a good book?
First off, what an awesome cover by Bermejo! Really captures the off-kilter, dark feel that the book is going for.
Bermejo's work is always strong, but often, his photo-realistic style can be almost Land-like in its stiffness, so it is quite a treat to see the great Mick Gray inking Bermejo here, which helps give the book a much looser, humanistic feel to it (and we miss that on the pages where Bermejo inks himself). Of course, the amazing colors by Patricia Mulvihill certainly help, as well, as she can set a mood with the best of them with her shades.
Here's the first four pages, to give you a glimpse of just how striking the book is, visually...
You don't get much more dynamic artwork from a comic book than that shot of the Joker walking away from Arkham - which, to his credit, Bermejo inked himself. Don't expect, by the way, any explanation for the premise of the book, which is that Joker is somehow released from Arkham - the release is merely a macguffin, but a macguffin I will gladly give to Azzarello - it doesn't really matter, what matters is what happens next.
There, of course, lies the problem.
Besides a general plot of "the Joker is out of Arkham so he wants to take back control of Gotham, which requires him to meet up with various classic members of Batman's Rogues Gallery, Hush-style," the book's only plot is following our narrator, the naive Joker henchman, Jonny Frost, as he goes from being a nobody to being a trusted member of Joker's gang to realizing that there IS no such thing as a trusted member of a gang led by a madman.
We see Jonny's reactions to seeing a tornado in the form of a man - at first it is amazing to see such a force of nature in person, but in time, the sheer violent unpredictability of the storm usually frightens people away. The eye of a tornado is undoubtedly a beautiful sight to see, but no one wants to actually see it, because you're right in front of a tornado! That's the problem Jonny has, and that's a problem the book has, because that's really not much of a plot.
More importantly, it's not structured particularly well, either - it reads almost as if the book meanders along with various Joker set pieces until the book runs out of pages, and that's when Batman shows up and Joker does what we all know he'll eventually do since we began reading the book. There really is no connective theme to all of the scenes we see the Joker have with the various other Rogues. This is not happenstance, either, Azzarello seems to flaunt the fact that so many of the interactions never have resolutions - that's fine by me - heck, I think that's clever even, but I'd like more of a connection between the individual scenes besides their general connection to Jonny's straightforward evolution as a crook.
Still, each individual set piece is fair enough - the re-designs for the various Rogues that Azzarello and Bermejo come up with are good (Croc seems inspired by the clever way Azzarello used him in Azzarello's last Batman storyline, Broken City, which had the great character work and great art of this project, but also had a strong narrative, as well).
It's interesting to note that while this Joker looks like Heath Ledger, he is definitively NOT the Joker from the movie - he acts very different from the Ledger Joker, but he also acts differently from almost every previous Joker appearance, too - this Joker is all Azzarello, and boy is he violent! However, because the Joker is totally nuts, Azzarello really can't do what he does best, which is a study upon how characters think - so we're stuck with seeing what Jonny Frost thinks of the Joker. It's probably the best result Azzarello can hope for, but it is not exactly a thrilling look, either, as Frost does not really add any insights, as he's caught up in the tornado himself.
All in all, this project has amazing artwork by Bermejo, Gray and Mulvihill and a lot of good set piece work by Azzarello. It is not a bad comic book by any stretch of the imagination, but I don't think that I would term it good, either. It's basically right there in that nebulous middle spot.
And a book being in that middle spot is not enough for me to recommend it, so I will go with a
for Joker the original graphic novel.