Monday, 7 October 2013

Batman, Volume 3: Death of the Family by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo Review

Wow, Snyder was really swinging for the fences on this one wasn’t he?
(Harp plays, dream sequence graphics)
“Scott, the Joker’s coming back and you’re writing his return!”
“Fantastic! I’m gonna write the hell out of this!”
“Right, so it’s gotta be big, got that? He’s a Big Deal, he’s our best villain, he’s partly why Batman’s so damn popular, and the fans adore him even though he’s a stone cold psycho”
“OK, OK, so we’re talking epic, big entrance, big story, big scenes”
“The whole shebang, Scott, throw the whole damn kitchen sink into this one”
(Scribbling furiously in his notebook) “I think I’ve got it. How about a Joker story…”
“... that features EVERY great Joker story. The title will even reference the book where he killed Robin”
“I love it! Get going, you and Greg are gonna make a classic, I can feel it!”
“Will do, Chief! (Scott puts on his best Columbo impression) Just one last thing though: why did Joker remove his face in the first place?”
(Dream sequence fades out as the DC Editors stare dead eyed as Snyder backs away to the door)
In the first issue of New 52 Detective Comics Joker breaks out of Arkham and has his face removed by Dollmaker who hangs it in Joker’s cell. That was the last we saw of Joker for over a year. In Death of the Family, Joker returns with a pretty big bombshell - he knows the secret identities of everyone in the Bat family. Not only that but he resents the Bat family and preferred the days when Batman was a solo act, so he’s going to kill them all so it can be like the old days, just him and Bats, together at last. Lock the gates on the kingdom of madness and let the massacre of the innocents begin!
Scott Snyder by now has shown just how deeply he understands Batman. This guy has done absolute wonders with the character since he got put on writing the backups of Detective Comics and then got bumped up to the main title. His New 52 stuff with Greg Capullo is damn near flawless, introducing a whole new gang of villains, the Court of Owls, and if, like me, you’re reading the current monthlies, you’ll be eating up the Zero Year storyline like Deadpool gobbles up chimichangas. This dude can write, he has some big stories to tell and he is chocabloc with original new ideas on old characters.
This is decidedly a Joker book - and if my proselytizing thus far hasn’t hipped you otherwise, I think Death of the Family is one of the best Joker books ever written - and Snyder comes to the table with all kinds of strange, brilliant ideas about the Joker. He frames Batman and Joker’s relationship, through Joker’s eyes, as a sick bromance, the Joker believing he is doing all that he does out of a shared closeness with Batman, and Death of the Family comes off at times like a hideous love story, or like a Dark King and his most trusted advisor, the Fool.
If you’ve ever wondered why Batman doesn’t simply kill Joker, because he’s irredeemable and will surely continue killing ad infinitum, Snyder answers this both from Batman and Joker’s perspectives, with both arriving at the same startling conclusion (in separate scenes). There’s also a simply amazing scene at the end that answers the other question you might have with this book which is why Joker doesn’t attempt to find out who Batman is, rather than just the Bat family, that is something I don’t think I’ve seen in a Joker story before and adds another degree of insanity to Joker’s psyche. And bravo to Greg Capullo for the whole book really but that one panel where Joker looks to the side in that scene and we glimpse the look in his eyes? Wow. Utterly chilling, and does complete justice to Snyder’s idea.
Thematically, this is a story of identity, not just the identities of the Bat family which are at stake, but also Joker’s identity, Batman’s identity, and Gotham’s identity. Despite my snide (yuk yuk) imaginary conversation at the start of the review, I can hazard an interpretation for why Joker’s face was removed, namely as a heavy handed metaphor for change and Joker’s new look in the New 52 (a reboot itself). That factors into the Joker of this book who, in his time away, has undergone radical changes to his personality to the point where even his devoted sycophant groupie, Harley Quinn, is terrified of what Joker’s become. Joker has changed and become even more monstrous and cunning in his time away.
We learn just how intricate his plans have been as the story goes on, but first: his entrance. It’s pretty damn amazing. In overalls, he shows up at GCPD headquarters in the doorway, his head cloaked in shadow, his figure recognisable just long enough for Gordon to see him - and then the lights go out. Chaos ensues as necks start breaking and laughter echoes in the darkness before the lights turn back on, Batman arrives, and he and Gordon are surrounded by dead policemen with Joker’s face missing.
From there, Snyder takes us on a whirlwind tour of Batman and Joker’s greatest hits - the ACE Chemicals Factory from Killing Joke (and the 1989 Batman movie), to Gotham Reservoir from The Man Who Laughs, to Arkham Asylum and culminating in the caves beneath Wayne Manor. Each scene is amazing for different reasons as he utilises his classic Joker toxin, to henchmen with rocket launchers, to some straight up Hannibal Lector insanity in Arkham, and a kind of Sophie’s Choice ending. These are the features of Batman and Joker’s relationship.
One last note about identity and, though it concerns the ending it’s not a spoiler, but Batman defeats Joker with the threat of identity and a bluff trumps a bluff. I won’t say anymore, I just wanted to acknowledge the genius of the ending.
Which brings me to some critiques of the book. Now don’t get me wrong, I loved this book, I’ve read it several times now and it’s amazing every time, and though there are some things about the book I didn’t like per se, they’re not nearly problematic enough to make me dislike it. It’s like Nolan’s The Dark Knight; it has some issues but the whole is so damn impressive that you can’t help but love it.
Joker’s face - now, even if you take the origin of Joker as that in The Killing Joke where an ordinary man falls into a vat of acid and has his hair turned green and his skin turned white, it’s still human skin. Acidically changed, yes, but still human skin. It’s been lifted off of his face for over a year - and yet still its malleable enough to retain the shape of Joker’s face and hasn’t dried out!? How Joker’s survived so long without skin covering his face is bizarre enough, but I guess that’s the character. But when he gets it back, he puts a strap on it and wears it like a party mask! He doesn’t even try getting Dollmaker to stitch it back on, which presumably Dollmaker could do given his skill shown in this book, instead opting for a weird mask look. Anyway, that’s the last I’m going to mention Joker’s face, it just annoys me is all.
Joker is far too powerful in this book - Joker manages to do everything right in this book to an uncanny degree. He’s going up against Batman, a man who once prepared for his own mind to be wiped by creating a backup Batman identity in his own brain (granted this was pre-New 52, but still) - Batman is no idiot, he is insanely prepared for every eventuality, but can’t seem to catch Joker and stay with him, or ahead of him, in this book. In every scene I mentioned earlier, Batman’s at a disadvantage, even right at the end at the dinner scene - Joker is incredibly prepared to an insane degree that it’s too uncanny, he’s too good.
I do know why Snyder chose to do this, because his ideas about the character and his relationship with Batman won’t play out and won’t work unless Joker is superhumanly prepared in every instance, and has managed to concoct ridiculously elaborate setups. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but in no other book, ever, is Joker quite so infallible than he is in Death of the Family, and that bugged me a bit.
The unpleasantness of it all - Snyder’s background is horror. He created American Vampire, his big break in comics, he wrote an amazing and underrated book with Scott Tuft called Severed about a serial killing cannibal who targets kids, and he’s currently writing The Wake, an underwater horror story starring murderous mermaids. His entire work with Batman could also be called horror and it’s arguably why he’s been so successful with the character - Batman is a figure rooted in horror, whose entire appearance is aimed toward instilling fear.
But did we need to see that scene in Arkham? The tapestry scene. It’s very unpleasant and involves Dollmaker. Does Joker’s face need to be peeling off and held on by straps so we get peeks at his raw flesh beneath? Or that church scene? Over-the-top gruesomeness isn’t something that’s going to bother everyone but I feel Snyder, in his effort to go really, really big on his Joker story, went a bit overboard with the gore and unpleasantness that surrounds the character. Parents thinking of buying this for your kids: warning, this is definitely not a kids’ book. I’d say the audience would be 15 and over at least. Also, there’s this weird panel where Joker yells at Batman to “sit his ass down” and “ass” is censored - so they can show that tapestry scene in a comic but not the word “ass”? What a strange rule!
Those are my complaints and really they’re negligible at best when considering the scope of this story. The title of the book is both in keeping with Snyder’s referencing of Batman/Joker stories but is also about the story itself and the resolution. There’s even a reference to Joker’s first victim from way back in 1940 - it’s such a layered, incredibly detailed book, from soup to nuts, that you can’t help but give it to Snyder. He really went for it in this one and he really pulled it off.
So before we close up, let’s talk about Greg Capullo. Who honestly would’ve thought a Spawn artist would be the perfect guy to draw Batman? Snyder apparently, and it was an inspired choice because Capullo is the man. The way he frames the scenes is perfect, from the GCPD HQ scene, to the Gotham Reservoir scene to the finale that riffs on the detective angle and feels like Holmes/Moriarty’s last bow over the Reichenbach Falls - he knows how to frame a scene, he knows how best to present it, and he can draw like a god. Individual pages that stuck out for me was the one where Batman is sat atop a horse (that he just punched!) looking like a chess piece that was so beautiful, and the faux-Sword in the Stone scene in Arkham was mesmerising.
Batman: Death of the Family is a fantastic Joker story and easily ranks among the character’s best books, not to mention that it’s yet another triumphant feather in the cap for the finest creative team at DC right now, Snyder/Capullo, whose run on this series will surely go down as one of the greatest runs on any comic book character ever.
The book ends the only way it can with Batman defeating Joker – but, brilliantly, Joker still has the last laugh. Look at Batman’s expression on the last page as he realises that after everything, Joker actually won right at the end.

Batman Volume 3: Death of the Family

1 comment:

  1. Wait; why doesn't Batman kill the joker?
    I've just finished reading this book this morning, and I didn't really get that bit.