The Joker Vol. 1 contains the first five issues of James Tynion IV’s Joker series, illustrated by Guillem March, plus a few additional short story tie-ins from recent Batman comics. It’s a gritty Joker tale, of which there is certainly no shortage, but this one’s a little different.
Tynion’s Joker is compelling and tense. However, its focus is not on the rivalry between the Clown Prince and Batman, but the Joker and Gotham’s former police commissioner, James Gordon. Gordon has myriad reasons to hate Joker, and unlike Batman, has finally reached a point where permanently ending him is a viable solution.
While TV’s Gordon-centric Gotham gave us a young Jim, The Joker gives us an older, more jaded Jim. He’s retired as police commissioner and rejected Harvey Bullock’s offer to join him in the private eye biz, but he’s not quite ready to relax.
Yet, we do see a younger Jim as the book opens. He’s sitting on a bar stool in Chicago, familiar as ever with his fiery red hair and glasses. He’s at his own going-away party, leaving Chicago for Gotham with no idea what’s to come. As he nurses his drink, an older cop, Danny Ryan, asks him if he has a “boogeyman” yet.
Danny explains that years ago, he encountered a grisly scene: a gleeful murderer hunched over the bloodied body of a teenage girl he was cannibalizing. Before Danny could act, the killer fled via the fire escape and was never caught. Now, a much older Danny sees the killer every time he closes his eyes. In the face of pure evil, Danny advises Jim, it’s best to aim for the head.
Of course, that Jim, Chicago Jim, was still one of those stalwart good guys who mopped up corrupt cops and played it by the book. Even years later, after Joker shot and paralyzed his daughter, Barbara, and tried to drive him insane, Jim still stood on the side of locking Joker up in Arkham Asylum versus putting him in the ground.
But now, Jim is where Danny was. He’s the old man who’s come to realize that for him, the Joker is his boogeyman and his laugh is what he hears every time he’s alone.
Meanwhile, in present-day Gotham, a brazen attack at Arkham has taken out employees and inmates alike. It’s riled up the GDPD as well as the family and cohorts of those who perished inside. Given that the Joker’s the top suspect, the GDPD tries to reel Jim back in, but he’s not about to be the city’s “Joker Czar.” What about Batman? That’s his thing.
And yet, when a mysterious woman offers him a fat paycheck to hunt down the Joker, it’s an offer Jim can’t outright refuse.
It’s an interesting turn for Jim Gordon. He’s spent decades being the friend of a vigilante, but now he’s the vigilante. He has his practical reason in that he’s retired without enough money to die comfortably (honestly, you’d think Bruce could set him up for life). But even if he had the financial ability to while away his days on a beach, the toll of Gotham has left him a broken man.
The reader is left to ponder what exactly Jim’s responsibility is regarding Joker. When it comes to Gotham’s big bads, none of them are quite the same. A lot of them are about money and at least one of them is really serious about reversing climate change, which could actually be good for everyone. But the Joker is just about causing chaos as long as he’s allowed to do so. Could Jim even allow himself to retire knowing this guy is still out there? Would he have to go completely off the grid to avoid hearing about Gotham in the news? If he leaves now, will he forever hear the Joker’s laughter when he tries to rest?
Of course, the full story is about more than one man’s struggle with his personal clown-demon. As Jim pursues the Joker (with the help of Oracle and, to a lesser extent, Batman), other forces none too happy with the Arkham attack are doing the same. They include the Sampson family, a group of miscreants with some serious Texas Chainsaw meets “The Beverly Hillbillies” vibes, and a woman who looks a lot like Bane. There’s also the mystery of who exactly Jim’s benefactor is.
There’s also the title character, who has many tricks up his proverbial sleeves, but perhaps not the ones any of his enemies are expecting.
Though the narrative can occasionally meander through Jim’s past and conflicting thoughts, the convergence of mysteries makes it a real page-turner with each flashback providing further insight into what’s really been going on in our trusty lawman’s head. Jim’s narration is both moody and introspective. It’s a wordy comic, and those who love a film noir will feel right at home. The art is detailed and realistic, often visceral in its depictions of carnage.
What’s especially interesting is that finally, for the Joker, the stakes have never been higher. Batman’s got his moral code, which could be why the Joker often treats it like a game. This time, Joker’s enemies are all shades of good and bad, but most of all, they’re out for blood.
The Joker Vol. 1 by James Tynion IV, Guillem March and Arif Prianto with Matthew Rosenberg, Francesco Francavilla and Tomeu Morey is now available in bookstores, comic shops, libraries and as a digital graphic novel.
Juliet Bennett Rylah writes about horror comics and the dark side of superheroes for DCComics.com. Check out more of her writing on The Hustle, WeLikeLA and No Proscenium, and be sure to follow her on Twitter at @JBRylah.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are solely those of Juliet Bennett Rylah and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.