In case you thought, like I did, that this story arc would be a big battle royale between the Justice League and Batman — well, you and I were wrong.
So awesomely wrong.
Let’s not forget that the title on the issue’s cover is Batman, and when it comes to the star of the show, the only thing that can really compete with him isn’t the Justice League — it’s the guy who cut off his own face.
Yes, the Joker is back with a score to settle, and that alone should be exciting enough. That it’s written and illustrated by the team that brought him back in the first place before dumping him in the ocean makes it even better.
After taking on Superman and beating him, Batman tries to make sense of it all. With the Joker back in play, anything could happen, and Bruce Wayne knows he can’t take a day off even if he doesn’t have any real leads. He heads to the Arkham Asylum where Eric Border tries to lend a helping hand only to be shot down repeatedly. Border begins to bristle and cages the Dark Knight as he puts an exclamation on his point by revealing his true identity.
The Joker’s back, but he’s not the same as he was. Sure, his face has healed, but there’s an extra bit of malice present along with a twist in the dynamic between tortured hero and hero torturer. No longer is he content being the Dark Knight’s tried and true foil. Instead, the Joker confesses to becoming bored with Batman, and he’s ready to end the game by destroying Gotham City.
While the first half of the issue felt a little too narrated, Scott Snyder still knows how to get the atmosphere right when it comes time to pull back the curtain. He’s proven he has the chops to write excellent horror stories, and Snyder loads Batman #36 with a heavy dose of suspense by naming the stakes, bringing in the danger, and laying down the ground work by changing the rules. The Joker had become predictable in a sense, having become invested in his ol’ buddy, ol’ pal Batman. For this story to leave the ground, it was time to cut those strings by giving the Joker a new set of motivations.
Or by breaking the old ones.
We can still expect Batman to come out of it on top, but we don’t know if he’ll come out of it safe. Alfred, still traumatized, would love to see the Joker put away forever. And on the flip side, it doesn’t seem like the Joker would be averse this time around to actually cutting off the faces of every member of the Bat Family.
Greg Capullo has his work cut out for him this issue because there are three very separate and distinct set pieces that demand their own motifs. Batman’s battle with Superman is an action-packed skirmish out in the open that requires a few subtle touches because of the chess play between the two heroes. Snyder’s written sequentials have to make tonal sense in the visual space, and when Superman tears away at the Justice Buster, piece by piece, there’s a good amount of tension increased by Capullo’s lens zooming in and out and in again that has an ebb and flow to it. Danny Miki’s inks are incredibly strong, and the negative spacing and emphasis on the cracks and debris work thematically with the story.
In Batman’s control room, there’s plenty of emphasis on expressions and relationships. We need to know how much this means to not only Alfred but his daughter Julia before the story takes us to one of the most important locations in comicdom: Arkham Asylum.
The last scene is one of the most powerful set of pages I’ve read in a while, and Capullo has a major hand in its success along with Miki and colorist FCO Plascencia whose choice of hues thickens the air within the Asylum’s walls..
Until Mr. Border begins to peel back his layers, Batman appears only as a shadow — a big glob of darkness amidst the detailed creepiness that is Arkham Asylum. Border himself turns out to be a supervillain hiding in plain sight, and the dialogue along with the visuals prove to be a twisted romance gone terribly, terribly wrong.
To really get what’s going on in Batman #36, you have to think about the relationship between Batman and the Joker. And it helps to see it from Harley Quinn’s eyes.
I once read an intense essay about Harley that detailed what we love about her and how the New 52 changed much of it. Originally, she wasn’t malicious so much as misguided, and it was all for the man of her dreams. We love her because we can relate to her story of unrequited love — even if it’s a love triangle involving one of the most evil men in comics.
And that love triangle’s third point — Batman.
Like Heath Ledger’s Joker says in The Dark Knight, “You complete me.”
In Batman #36, the Joker is finally over Batman, and he’s a clown scorned. That twisted love, like the dead rat being feasted on by flies, has festered long enough, and it’s time for Batman to feel the pain. The old rotting flesh that was Joker’s old face no longer has a place to hang.
So after all is revealed, Batman becomes less of a shadow and more of a man — and the takeaway I get is that the Joker doesn’t make Batman a better superhero. I would argue that the Joker makes Batman a better man in the sense that he lives on the edge of all of Bruce Wayne’s flaws.
Look at Batman’s rules, and you’ll see a list of things Batman’s tempted to break whenever the Joker comes to town. The ideas and symbolism of the Bat according to Bruce Wayne don’t have that same effect on the Clown Prince of Crime because the Joker doesn’t play Batman’s game — he is the game.
And until Endgame, the game was in love with Batman.
So what happens now that the game wants to win?
Presumably, it shoots Batman in the face.
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