Across his nearly 80-year history, the Joker is at the height of his commercial peak and pop culture visibility right now, with a solo character study of the iconic DC Comics supervillain continuing to set new box office records in cinemas around the globe. The Clown Prince of Crime is the subject of DC Black Label's latest three-issue miniseries Joker: Killer Smile, reuniting the award-winning creative team of Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino for a dark, lurid tale that embraces the psychological horror possibilities of the character that puts its protagonist -- and, by extension, the reader -- on a downward descent into madness without being overly unsavory.
Killer Smile follows new character Doctor Ben Arnell, a mental health professional assigned to analyze the Joker while he's imprisoned within Arkham Asylum. As Ben grows closer to his subject, he finds himself questioning his own sanity, as the sneering villain's corrosive influence begins to affect virtually every aspect of his daily life, including his dynamic with his young family, in a story that feels like a psychological thriller blend of Batman meets Silence of the Lambs.
While running at a larger page count than a standard comic issue, Lemire and Sorrentino's story never feels like it's losing momentum or spinning its wheels. Quite the opposite, the story quickly escalates, as Ben finds that he not only appears to be taking his work with him home from the office but it has begun to affect his perception and domestic relationships. Conventional wisdom would have Ben begin to question himself inside of the madhouse, but the walls of sanity actually noticeably begin to crumble more the further he stays away from the Joker.
The idea of the Joker being a deadly, maddening influence to those around him isn't a new one but Lemire has steadily built up an impressive library of horror titles -- both licensed and creator-owned -- that has helped him perfect pacing a tense thriller in the comic book medium to a storytelling science. Killer Smile doesn't feel like a superhero comic and that's very much by intentional design, with Lemire keeping a steady sense of mounting dread pulsating under the opening issue's surface as the Joker's influence bleeds across the story; even the pages that visibly lack the character's appearance are summarily haunted by his sinister presence.
Sorrentino's work here is similarly more grounded than previous work with the Big Two but no less atmospheric. This incarnation of the Joker is the most visually grounded that the character has been in the comics for some time but that only seems to heighten the terror fueled by the crooked clown. Lemire and Sorrentino have been working together for years, including on the team's Eisner Award-winning Image Comics series Gideon Falls, so its clear here they are at the height of their collaborative powers. While Lemire's scripting keeps the taut, tense pacing going, it's Sorrentino's twisted artwork that really brings this narrative descent into madness to horrifying life, boosted by an intentionally muted color palette from Jordie Bellaire. Vibrancy and flash isn't the goal here but rather a more grounded visual approach than Gotham City is normally accustomed to.
Joker: Killer Smile is a Black Label miniseries that more subtly reinvents the iconic DC Universe mythos than some of its predecessors. Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino waste no time in crafting a spellbinding take on Gotham City and its most notorious madman in a tale that will leave readers thinking about its haunting imagery and unfortunate protagonist. By grounding the story in a grittier, more realistic vision of Gotham and Arkham, the miniseries is a more tense, terrifying affair as the creative team keeps the focus to its characters drawn deeper into the Joker's web, with readers on the edge of the their seats ready for him to inevitable strike.