In recent history, DC Comics has relaunched and reimagined their flagship characters with changes to their entire publishing line through a number of special event series.
Stretching all the way back to the original Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC has made a habit of scrapping continuity and retelling origins all along the way. While this certainly “refreshes” the line for a new group of potential readers every five to ten years or so, it does leave some classic material behind (that is often reinterpreted for new readers in the relaunches of specific titles).
Geoff Johns set up the most recent transition from the New 52 to DC Rebirth with his last run on Justice League’s Darkseid War, but he also planted a seed for a future story that has been gestating for the last five years. In Johns’ Justice League, Batman sits in the Mobius Chair and gets to ask a question that has been haunting him for, oh, about 80 years or so. The question is, of course, what is the Joker’s name? And the answer: Three Jokers.
The answer perplexed and intrigued fans, but was forgotten during Tom King’s excellent run on the Rebirth version of Batman. Johns however is back to answer the big question, along with artist Jason Fabok, in the three issue DC Black Label series, Batman Three Jokers.
Batman Three Jokers #1 sets up the narrative in a creative and cinematic fashion, beginning with a nine panel, Watchmen-esque opener (in fact, the interior credits page acts as the first panel ala the Watchmen covers). The start contains very little dialogue and lets Fabok’s artwork tell the story, displaying all of the rippling muscles and scars that Batman has accrued over the years, primarily from his greatest nemesis, The Joker.
After Alfred patches up Bruce, the story begins to recount a number of The Joker’s “greatest hits”, primarily The Killing Joke and The Death in the Family stories. These “flashbacks” are seen through the eyes of not only Bruce, but also Barbara Gordon and Jason Todd, the “victims” of The Joker’s criminal sadism. In this way, the comic brings readers who remember these classics immediately into the story with no regard for current continuity (or references to John’s initial Justice League set-up). The fact that a fan who hasn’t read a Batman comic since the late 80’s can jump into the story is a positive feature of the book, and it at least initially appears that Johns and Fabok are setting up another multiverse approach to the various eras of the Joker (defined in the comic as “The Criminal”, “The Comedian”, and “The Clown”) without drawing attention to it at this early stage.
The mystery at the heart of the story is of course how did three Jokers continue to operate without Batman and friends knowledge all these years. Hopefully, Three Jokers isn’t meant to satisfy the more, let’s be kind and say “detail-oriented” fans, and instead allow for these classic stories to exist in the same world, regardless of reboots and retcons (and it has been almost five years since Rebirth, so DC is due to start the process again).
Speaking of classics, many of the best Batman stories take on a more serious tone, and are certainly not intended for children, which may be why this series was tagged with the 17 and up Black Label brand. The Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum, were clearly intended for older readers when they were initially releases (and when kids still read comic books) and today would most likely carry this distinction. Three Jokers could easily be a standard comic for all readers without some of the excessive blood drawn in the issue, until the end, when Fabok illustrates a rather surprising image featuring Jason Todd’s hasty revenge, setting up moral dilemmas and questions for the next issue.
Overall, Johns captures the essence of The Batman and attempts to reconcile the different iterations of The Joker over his 80 year history and Fabok’s art is classic super hero depictions of perfect physical forms and violence. As a long-time fan with an inconsistent reading pattern with DC Comics, I was pleased with where the story is headed and I hope that by the end, the solution allows for the benchmark Batman stories to somehow fit in with whatever DC decides to do in the future with their super hero universe.
Batman Three Jokers #1 is currently available at finer comic book shops everywhere.