* Prices may differ from that shown
There are many classic comic book tales over the years telling of the battle of wills between Batman and his arch-nemesis, The Joker. This isn't one of them.
Which is a shame, because the basis for the story is promising. A hospitalized Joker discovers he has a brain tumour and is dying. Never one to go quietly, he decides to leave his mark of chaos on the world before he goes, organising a mass prison break of dangerous and powerful prisoners.
I was attracted to The Joker's Last Laugh by the promise of artwork by former Bat artist Brian Bolland who, amongst others, was responsible for the artwork in the classic Joker story The Killing Joke. Could this be Bolland's long-awaited return a character he drew so perfectly? Sadly, on closer inspection, it turns out that Bolland only provided the covers, with the rest of the artwork done by a variety of authors. This is only the first let-down of many you will suffer if you read this title.
The standard of the artwork within the comic itself varies considerably. At best it's OK; at worst plain awful. It never really captures the characters of the DC Universe, or gives you any real insights into their personalities, which is what good comic artwork should do - convey without words what the characters is thinking or feeling. Certainly the superbly drawn Bolland covers throw into relief just how overly simplistic the rest of the artwork is, by comparison.
The illustrators occasionally successfully capture some aspects of The Joker, although his comic side is played up more than his dangerous side. The rest of the artwork, though, I felt was rather plain and unappealing. At times it looks like it was done by a journeyman artist or even a young child. It is too day-glo, clean and colourful. Batman's world works best in the dark and the shadows. There, he seems very real. Taking him (and his enemies) out of this environment leaves them looking a little silly and never quite seems to work.
There's also a problem with the sheer amount of characters involved, meaning the plot lacks any real focus. Obviously, The Joker is the main protagonist, but at times you do begin to wonder. At times, virtually every villain in the Batman (or even DC) universe seems to be involved. Similarly, the heroes are numerous. The whole of Batman's regular team (Nightwing, Robin, Huntress, Oracle, Spoiler...) all get involved, as do various members of the Justice League of America. In fact, the one person who hardly gets involved at all is Batman himself. Out of all the heroes in the book, he probably has the least amount of panel space - a strange and crippling decision, when the Batman/Joker battles over the years have always proved the most enduring.
The off-shoot to having so many characters is that none of them are properly fleshed out. One of the strengths of the better Batman/Joker stories is that the characters have complex thoughts and motivations, giving stories some depth. Here, the sheer number of people involved leaves no time for anything approaching proper character development. All that happens is the good guys rush around trying to stop the bad guys, and the bad guys rush around trying to avoid them and cause as much havoc as possible. The plot and characters are insultingly simple and dull to read.
Another off-shoot to having so many characters is one of sheer confusion. If you've not read much Batman before or are only aware the films, you'll be left scratching your head in bemusement at who they are and why they have the powers they do. Often, they are never even named. There are no introductions, no explanations: the characters are just there and you are expected to recognise them and know how they fit into the DC Universe. Even semi-regular readers may struggle to keep up with the multitude of heroes and villains.
But then, struggling sums up this book. The plot itself has the germ of a great idea - exactly how would The Joker react if he found out he was dying? In the hands of Alan Moore or some of the other classic Batman writers, this would have been a fascinating, psychological tale exploring the darker reaches of the mind. In the hands of Dixon and Beatty, it becomes a mess that makes no sense whatsoever.
This isn't helped by the fact that the collection printed here is incomplete. This volume only contains the segments of story which appeared in the Batman titles. DC originally printed this as a cross-over title, with some parts appearing in spin-off titles and these episodes are missing. The only reference is a little asterisk saying things like "See Robin #162 for these events". Whilst not crucial to the overall plot, it is confusing to miss them out. There are times when we leave one character in peril, then, when we return to them, they are out of danger, with no explanation as to how they escaped.
Batman/Joker stories always work best when they are set in something akin to our own world and grounded in reality. The Joker's Last Laugh flies off the other end of the scale, making the plot as unlikely and preposterous as possible. It smacks of the worst kind of science fiction - those awful B movies of the 50s where every possible cliché was crammed in to give the viewer value for money. The plot is so overblown and ridiculous that it becomes almost impossible to care about its outcome. Lacking any kind of edge or emotional hook to engage attention, it becomes a mechanical slog to get through to the end. A late attempt to take the story down a darker path, is a case of too little, too late; but, frustratingly, provides another glimpse of what the story might have offered in better hands.
This has to be one of the poorest Joker stories of recent years. It could have been a very powerful tale of death, obsession and revenge; instead, it's a cheap lurid cash-in. Definitely one to avoid unless you can pick it up dirt cheap and even then, there are far better Batman graphic novels to spend your hard earned cash on. Get yourself a copy of The Killing Joke or A Death in the Family instead, and see what the struggle between Batman and The Joker should really be like.
The Joker's Last Laugh
Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty
Available new from Amazon for £7.79 or second hand from £6
© Copyright SWSt 2008