If you’re a regular reader of Gotham Gazette, you know that I’m not the usual writer here. Don’t worry, we don’t need to light the Bat-Signal for Joshua Lapin-Bertone. He hasn’t gone missing. (Though, considering this is Gotham, we can’t blame you for assuming.) Josh is just taking a little break and will be back soon. In the meantime, consider me your Acting Commissioner Bullock to his Commissioner Gordon. I’m just filling in for a little while and will do my best to keep the peace around here, but we all know that no one knows Batman as well as Jim—er, Josh.
In light of that, it’s probably a good thing that I’m not planning on talking much about Batman this month. Don’t get me wrong, while the return of the Dark Knight’s two flagship comics is definitely worth discussing, it really does feel like all of the momentum right now is with the Joker and his charismatic new partner, Punchline. And why shouldn’t it be? The Clown Prince of Crime is making quite a return this year, just in time for his 80th Anniversary.
While the Joker never really goes away and has shown up for the occasional one-shot or supporting role, the last time we really saw him at the center of an in-universe Batman story was in 2017’s “The War of Jokes and Riddles.” It may sound strange and inappropriate to say we’ve missed him, but…well, he does seem to bring out the best in Batman. It even seems like the Joker may realize this. Perhaps that’s why he’s on the very brink of stealing the Wayne family fortune.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. While this summer’s “Joker War” doesn’t officially kick off until Batman #95, the seeds are already being sown. This past week was a particularly ominous one, as the Joker and Punchline seemed to show up pretty much everywhere. For example, the mastermind behind Batman’s current “Their Dark Designs” storyline is ostensibly the Designer, but it sure feels like the powerful new villain is getting played like an out-of-tune fiddle. Take, for example, a comic that you might not have noticed on the stands last week, Batman Secret Files #3.
In the James Tynion IV-written “Fool’s Gold,” the final story in the book, we discover just how it is Deathstroke managed to get involved in the Designer’s scheme, and we find it wasn’t the Designer who recruited him, but the Joker. The Clown Prince of Crime also confirms to us that he knows the secret identities of Batman and the entire Bat-Family. The thing is, Batman doesn’t seem to know any of this yet, which means he has no idea how big the threat that’s currently brewing truly is. We’ve seen Batman in this position before—think back to “The Court of Owls” and pretty much everything Bane did to him during Tom King’s run on Batman. It NEVER goes well for the Dark Knight when he underestimates what he’s facing. Being unprepared is Batman’s one true weakness—his kryptonite. And it looks painfully clear that the Joker realizes this and is exploiting it.
So far, any luck Batman’s had in foiling the Joker’s machinations has been just that—luck. Look at what went down with the Underbroker this month in Batman #92. Catwoman and Harley Quinn stopped Punchline and the Joker’s goons from robbing his underground bank, but it was only because they happened to walk in on them while they were doing it. (The fact that they were there to rob the place as well is entirely besides the point.)
I suspect the Joker doesn’t really need that money too badly. Gotham has plenty of other banks to rob, so this is a small victory at best, but it did make Selina (and perhaps even more significantly, Harley) aware of Punchline’s existence, which isn’t nothing. We still don’t know that much about who Punchline is and what her relationship is with the Joker, exactly. (She’s obviously on his side. But is their relationship platonic? Romantic? Abusive? That’s still unclear.)
We got a glimpse of how it began, however, in this month’s The Joker 80th Anniversary 100-page Super Spectacular, the special anthology comic released to mark the Clown Prince of Crime’s significant new milestone. While most of that book seems to be out-of-continuity—or at least, out of our current continuity—Tynion and Mikel Janín’s contribution, “What Comes at the End of a Joke,” is very much a precursor to “Joker War.”
We learn a few key things about Punchline in this chilling origin tale. First, we discover that Punchline’s real name is Alexis, and that until recently she was a student at Snyder College (*wink wink*). We learn that she has an interest in chemistry and is able to reconstruct the Joker’s laughing gas. And we learn that she’s a frightening blend of anger at the reality of the world and its lack of opportunities combined with a psychopathic desire to burn the whole thing down. It’s a goal that aligns almost perfectly with the Joker’s equally nihilistic motivations, and the fact that she’s young and impressionable makes her a nearly ideal weapon.
It’s worth noting that while Punchline presents herself as a Joker fangirl in “What Comes at the End of a Joke,” and she clearly admires the notorious villain, I’m not sure I’d say she’s being used or manipulated by him. She’s different from Harley in that way. Rather, I think they both see each other as a means to an end. Perhaps the key to defeating them will be to somehow accentuate the slight differences in their desires to the extent that it sets them at odds. But only time will tell.
Until then, we’re left to watch as the Joker and Punchline dismantle everything Bruce Wayne holds dear, bit by bit. Heck, I didn’t even touch on the Joker’s horrifying attack earlier this month on Ric Grayson, who is completely and utterly unprepared to deal with a villain of his magnitude. (Make sure you’re reading Nightwing, friends, stuff is getting real over in Blüdhaven.) With each new week, more pieces of the Joker’s plan are falling into place, and none of it looks good for our heroes…or really anyone in the proximity of Gotham.
I wouldn’t exactly call this shocking. After all, the Joker is Batman’s most destructive villain for a reason. What is surprising is all the meticulous planning it’s taken. The Joker is a genius when it comes to causing chaos. He’s not known for playing the long game and moving quietly in the background. He even admits he’s working against his nature in Batman Secret Files #3, which means we’re very much in uncharted territory with him.
The Joker is never predictable. He’s colorful, explosive and he keeps you on your toes. His whole thing is showing how any sense of order in life is an absolute joke. So, when he quietly schemes and covertly acts, I start to feel VERY uneasy. I can’t help it. With the Joker, it’s scariest when he doesn’t laugh.
Tim Beedle covers movies, TV and comics for DCComics.com, writes our monthly Superman column, "Super Here For...", and is a regular contributor to the Couch Club, our weekly television column.