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I'm always intrigued when a well known person from one genre dips a toe in a different field. Kevin Smith is much better known for his work as a director of Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy, a clever trilogy that exposed him as a wordsmith despite playing the character Silent Bob, possibly a tongue in cheek casting decision. Turning his skills to the comic book, this Batman thread is not his first foray, having previously worked on characters such as Spider-Man, the notoriously chatty Marvel superhero.
Turning his attention to Batman, we inevitably get a much different and sense of fitting in. While Smith and Spider-Man are a chatty match, the silent and deadly Batman is constantly on the verge of spilling over into a different character at the author's hands. The bulk of this takes place at Arkham, where an ageing Joker looks like getting set free by an unnamed new foe for the Batman, duly named Onomatopoeia by dint of his speaking in noises. Cleverly written to start with, this becomes somewhat annoying, and while his virtual silence and Batman's inevitable man of little words routine are somewhat maintained, the Joker is a completely different story.
For me, the reason this worked is because there's an element of intrigue alongside the characterisation. This strange villain has a habit of turning up at the 'right' time throughout the publication, and it keeps you on edge right through it. There's an interesting pattern of frames that zoom in and out as well, and this almost makes you want to peer round the edges of them, along with the occasional reference from Smith to numerous other things he has been involved with. These should be recognisable to his fans, but are no way intrusive on the real story going on here.
It's when the Joker is in frame that Smith's wordsmanship comes into play a lot more. If I'm honest, the more the Joker was involved then the better the comic book was. He's long been a favourite villain of mine across the genre, and Smith does him justice, line after line well delivered. Here, the Joker is after someone who has taken a wonder drug of his and is peddling it and threatening to usurp his villain's throne. Cackling maniacally, he wants this stopped and Onomatopoeia is on hand for a bit of assistance. Batman's inclusion is more to serve as an adversary for these two, truth be told, and the contemplative frames where we get an insight into Batman's thought processes do seem a little out of place to start with. After a while I got used to it and instead I looked at it as if this was a rare chance at getting to know the man behind the bat.
Then I realised Smith wasn't the same writer who first wrote the character, or the same person as the next to write him, or the next or the next; the character is a combination of a number of different authors who have tried to take on the most mysterious hero in the superheroverse. What we get here is Smith's own interpretation of him, and it just didn't fit well with a character who is the strong and silent type. There's a certain awkwardness about a chatty Batman, even if a lot of it is in his head.
The artwork was largely successful, with good use of the frame sizes. It's very dark throughout, and some of the facial expressions seem a bit out of place, but for the most part I didn't really notice it. I usually find that particularly good artwork stands out a lot more than particularly bad artwork, as the latter is hard to define as there are so many differing personal styles. Here, I liked it but there was nothing notable about it. The main focus was really taken away by the actions of the characters, and in all of the difference, it's important to remember that there's a plot here, one that soon enough becomes more about our mysterious villain and less about the regular characters or how they appear on the page. And it's worth the wait. The final splash (as Smith likes to call it) certainly leaves the door open, and I'm in the middle of the sequel to it right now.
A decent publication, perhaps one more for Batman fans than those curious about the character and wanting a place to start. While you don't need much prior knowledge or back story, you need to be aware at least of the combative history between Batman and the Joker, that of psychologically damaged hero and psychologically damaged villain. Other than that, it's all pretty self-contained. Don't expect great things, but I certainly am looking forward to finishing the second one. This may not give you a feeling of having completed a tale, but this one certainly dangles the cherry.
Better known for films like Chasing Amy and Clerks, Kevin Smith has form when it comes to writing comic books, since he penned a couple of Green Arrow stories for DC. This is his first bash at one of DC's really big guns, though, and to be fair to him he doesn't do too bad a job, although there is nothing revolutionary about Cacophony.
The story sees yet another clash with Batman's old nemesis The Joker. Following a failed attempt on his life, the Big J escapes from Arkham Asylum. Once free, he looks to take his revenge on Maxie Zeus who has taken his deadly Joker Venom and used it to manufacturer a new designer drug called Chuckles. Into the midst of this gang war, steps a mysterious new costumed man - a silent killer, nicknamed Onomatopoeia, after his habit of remaining silent except to mimic some of the sounds he hears. Batman believes him to be responsible for the deaths of a number of other costumed vigilantes and attempts to track him down.
This plot doesn't particularly do anything new and is a fairly traditional Batman-Joker story set against the backdrop of yet another Gotham gang wars. It doesn't introduce any significant new elements to Batman's psyche or history, nor to The Joker's. Indeed, it feels like a pretty standard Batman-Joker story with each trying to outwit the other against a background of lesser villains getting involved. Despite this, it's never less than interesting and engaging and I enjoyed reading it.
The one thing that is obvious is that Smith struggles at times to get to grips with the very different discipline required when writing for comics, particularly Batman. Smith's trademark is inconsequential, amusing dialogue between characters discussing totally random and irrelevant things. Unfortunately, he's dealing with a character of few words in the dark, brooding Batman. Smith doesn't appear to appreciate this character trait and gives Batman far too much dialogue, some of which is so cringeworthy, it could have featured in the awful 1960s TV show. Apparently, the final published version cut out a lot of Batman's dialogue, so it's a little worrying to think how badly Smith initially misjudged the character.
It's fair to say that the third part of this book is by far the best. Partly this is because Smith finally seems to get to grips with the main hero, making him less verbose, but also because it is the one which comes closest to revealing something new about The Joker. Whilst the final three way scrap between Batman, The Joker and Onomatopoeia is disappointing and over with too quickly, this is followed by an extended coda, which is really the meat behind Part 3.
Echoing The Killing Joke, it sees Batman and a for-once lucid Joker having a heart to heart about what each means to the other and whether they could ever bring themselves to kill the other. As with so much else in the book, this reveals a lot more about The Joker than it does about Batman, but casts some interesting new insights into his psyche.
This being a Kevin Smith-penned book, you might expect lots of references and in-jokes to films and other pop culture things - and you'd be right. These are all well-integrated and will raise the odd smile. They don't come across as forced and add an extra little element to the story. They aren't essential to the plot, however, so if they pass over your head, you're not going to miss anything of significance.
On the other hand you do need is to be aware of your Batman lore, particularly the past history of The Joker and Batman. Whilst this is a standalone tale and can certainly be read as such, you will get much more out of it if you are familiar with Batman's world. Indeed, without this knowledge certain artwork panels or references might not make a lot of sense. You need to know, for example, that The Joker was responsible for crippling Barbara Gordon (The Killing Joke) or killing Jason Todd, the second Robin (A Death in the Family).
The artwork in this volume is slightly odd. On the one hand, some of it is really effective and perfectly captures the darkness of Gotham and the loneliness of Batman's crusade. I particularly liked the portrayal of The Joker; his wild-eyed stare and manic behaviour perfectly capturing the nasty, petulant and deadly nature of the character. Much of the artwork for The Joker is pretty reminiscent of the classic The Killing Joke (something I suspect is deliberate, given the obvious reference elsewhere). As with the writing, it's The Joker who comes out of this book best and arguably, this is more of a Joker tale than it is a Batman one.
Elsewhere things are not quite so good. Some of the artwork feels curiously flat and workmanlike. Whilst perfectly adequate, it's not particularly exciting or (like the plot) innovative. Panels are laid out in a fairly traditional way (several panels per page) and there is only limited use of the imaginative layouts that are a hallmark of many of the better Batman tales.
Things particularly go off the rails when Batman switches to his Bruce Wayne persona (although thankfully, this only happens on a couple of occasions). The portrayal of Wayne is awful - he looks like a chubby, middle aged man, not someone you'd expect to find swinging from the rooftops of Gotham or battling bad guys.
As an added bonus (and to make up for the fact that the story is rather short), after the final part Kevin Smith has included his original script for Part 3. Some people will simply ignore this, since it is largely similar to what you have just read. I actually found that it offered some interesting insights into the comic writing process and shows how writing for comics differs from that for other media. There are several differences between this draft and the final version (not the least of which is the cutting out of a lot of Batman's internal thought processes) and it's interesting to compare the two.
Overall, Cacophony might not offer much that is new and long-standing Batman readers will be well familiar with the themes and stories that Smith uses. However it does give a very good representation at times of The Joker, Batman's deadliest nemesis and it's worth reading for this reason alone.
A paperback copy of this will cost you about £7.50. At that price, it's probably one for hardcore Batman fans only and casual readers might be better of reading some of the more recent books (such as the Batman RIP series) which try to do something new with well-established characters.
Kevin Smith and Walter Flanagan
(c) Copyright SWSt 2011