Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight rekindled interest in one of Batman’s most recognizable villains. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in that film was met with such acclaim that DC decided to release a one-off graphic novel, simply titled Joker. Written by Brian Azzarello, Joker tells the story of a low-level thug named Jonny Frost and his encounters with the titular character. Frost is tasked with picking up the Joker after he is released from the insane asylum and then proceeds to work for him as the Joker tries to take back his criminal empire.
Azzarello succeeds in producing a grittier, more realistic version of the character. Those familiar with Frank Miller’s Sin City series will be right at home with this neo-noir interpretation of the character. It’s not a Batman story, who’s only in the book for about five pages. Joker is also completely lacking in any of campy humor older versions of the character often displayed; there’s nothing funny about the Joker here, and his crimes are repulsive and disturbing, not to mention gory.
There’s a couple flaws to The Joker. Comic purists may take issue with changes to some of the characters in Azzarello’s Gotham; Harley Quinn is a gun-toting stripper with one line of dialogue, the Riddler is now a gun-runner who walks with a cane, and Killer Croc is a stereotypical hulking thug. Not all of these changes work, but a bigger problem lies in the storytelling and the nature of the character. Part of what makes the Joker such an interesting villain is that it’s impossible to know or understand him. The Joker’s actions are irrational and don’t really have a point, which makes for difficult storytelling. Nor are we really given much of a reason to care about Jonny Frost, who’s mostly just along for the ride.
But somehow Joker still works for the most part. It’s one of the few Batman stories to successfully probe the mind of one of comics’ most depraved and complex characters. It may not quite be up the standard of The Killing Joke (which is probably still the best Joker story) but it’s still definitely worth a read for comic enthusiasts.