Lee Bermejo: Not Joking Around

Released in comics stores last week just in time for Halloween, “Joker” arrives in finer bookstores across North America this Wednesday from DC Comics. The original graphic novel is the latest co-creation of writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo, who collaborated in 2005 on “Lex Luthor: Man of Steel” and 2003’s “Batman/Deathblow: After The Fire.”

Bermejo, the regular cover artist on Vertigo’s “Hellblazer” and Marvel’s “The Stand,” told CBR News that despite DC hailing “Joker” as “the most powerful tale of The Joker since ‘The Killing Joke,’” he and Azzarello were really just trying to tell a great story focused on the medium’s most recognizable villain.

In this interview, Bermejo discusses his and Azzarello’s goals for the ambitious graphic novel and their approach to the iconic characters, and address questions of whether Heath Ledger’s performance in “The Dark Knight” influenced their work on “Joker.”

CBR: The solicitations for “Joker” say readers can expect “an even darker and more disturbing side to the most dangerous man in Gotham.” What have you done with the character to give that edge?

Lee Bermejo: I wanted [“Joker”] to stand on its own as a great story since it seemed so different to me than other incarnations of the character. Obviously, though, with a character like The Joker you have a great deal of powerful work to be held up against if people choose to do so. I just tried to focus on what my vision of the character is. I specifically made a point to not look at any other Joker material while working on this project.

Both Brian and my tendencies tend to push more in the direction of “dark and disturbing” to begin with. I certainly wanted the artwork to reflect the world we were trying to depict. Everything needed to have a certain amount of grit and wear. I mean, we’re telling a story about a group of very bad people. In terms of Joker himself, I just went with what I always wanted to see done with the character which is to depict him as he is — a brutal, psychopathic villain whose actions are reprehensible and not to be glorified.

What’s was your goal with the project? To re-imagine The Joker? To give him a new look and feel for others to explore further? A unique take on a unique character for a very specific story?

My goal from day one was to just try and do very personal and individual work. Even as far back as “Batman/Deathblow,” Brian and I have been putting our own individual stamp on major characters. This book was more of the same. I think we try and do projects that still feel a bit creator owned even if they involve huge, corporate icons. Whether or not people follow suit is pretty much irrelevant for me because I love different interpretations of these guys. It’s more fun to see something drastically different from what we’ve done than have things start becoming too incestuous. I’m as much a fan of Darwyn Cooke's Batman as I am of Simon Bisley’s.

Is there extra pressure for this book, coming off “The Dark Knight” and Heath Ledger’s critically acclaimed performance as The Joker?

People are going to say there are [similarities to the film], but the reality of this book is that we started it over two years ago. I just read the review on your site that mentioned that we somehow must have been influenced by early trailers or images from “The Dark Knight,” but it honestly couldn’t be farther from the truth. People like to use the example of the splash page of Joker walking out of Arkham as a good example of this because the posture seems to be similar to Ledger’s. This would have been difficult considering that page was done in September of 2006. It cracks me up even more because Brian’s wife, Jill Thompson, told me once that she thought my Joker walked and moved like I do, so there you go.

When it comes right down to it, if people want to think of the book as some kind of “unofficial sequel” to “The Dark Knight,” so be it. The similarities people are picking up on are more similarities in taste than anything else. Both stories try to handle these characters in a fairly realistic way. When I saw the movie, it was certainly a strange experience because Heath’s Joker was so divergent from how I had imagined the guy. In my head, Joker talks like Christopher Walken, moves like Bill the Butcher, and is really, eerily still. Don't get me wrong, I felt like Ledger’s performance was brilliant, but just not what I had tried to do.

And what about Batman? What's your take on him?

Batman is like a force of nature in this story. I tried to play him even darker and more mysterious than I usually do, simply because Brian’s story required that he be more a part of the city itself. He’s less of a complete presence, I guess you could say. He’s the one guy everybody was really waiting to see, and when he finally shows up, I was wary of showing too much of him or making him become too “relatable.” Hopefully, this way he appears to the reader more like he would appear to Gotham’s underworld.

What is your relationship with Azzarello in terms of feedback and moving a project from concept to completion?

Brian and I talk fairly often, probably more because we’ve developed a kind of working relationship over the years where sometimes the best way to get a feel for a particular scene is to chat for a bit. This book was no exception, as there were quite a few scenes that needed to be handled carefully. He puts a lot of trust in all the artists that work with him.

His scripts are extremely open. Azz’s dialogue drives everything. As an artist, it’s a great chance to really make these characters act in the way you see fit. The only time we run into problems is when I do something that he or Will Dennis, our fearless editor, feel is too divergent to the overall story.

Two-Face, Riddler, Killer Croc, Penguin, Harley Quinn are all in the book too. Any favorites to illustrate from that motley crew?

Man, I really loved drawing Two-Face. He was a blast. It took a lot of control because he is such an easy character to do over the top. I think he requires a lot of subtlety, especially the way he’s portrayed here. I also got a kick out of drawing Harley just because visually it was fun to play around with her outfits. As a character, she has such a playful nature, but in this book she’s portrayed as deadly and silent. I had to play up her personality more in her acting and wardrobe. In the end, even Riddler was fun. Man, I really disliked that character until Brian told me his idea for the guy. All in all, it was a real pleasure to draw everyone in this book. I love the Batman universe so much and to get to play in it like we did is just a fantastic experience. Major props to the folks at DC for giving us the freedom to do the things we did here.

What else are you working on these days?

I’m going to be staying in Gotham for a while longer. I’m just beginning to work on another graphic novel which I’ll write and draw featuring Batman, Superman, and a few other major DC characters. It is a fairly radical departure from “Joker,” content-wise. Other than that, I’ll continue to do monthly covers for both Hellblazer and the Stand. Busy, busy, busy in the best way.

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