Scott Snyder’s Batman: Death of the Family is one of the most ambitious Batman stories I’ve ever read. It is one that seeks to make a definitive statement about Batman’s relationship with his arch-foe and it succeeds in doing so in a way that was never done before. The attention to detail and the obvious reverence Snyder has for the source material is palpable. The Joker is simultaneously at his most loving and deranged in this horror story as he takes Batman down memory lane and makes a serious effort in emphasizing why their relationship is so important, and why the one he has with his supposed family is the part of Bruce’s life that truly needs to be destroyed. The characterization of the Joker in particular is what proves to be both this story’s greatest strength and weakness.
Greg Capullo’s art is absolutely beautiful in its sheer detail. Mysteriously, the Joker had his face removed by a fellow psychopath known as the Dollmaker, after retrieving it from the police in a terrifying scene that sets the tone for this story, the Joker straps his face onto his head and wears it as if it were a mask. Capullo has a ton of fun with this, and as a result we get to see some unforgettable and beautifully drawn yet disturbing panels. While this grotesque vision of the Joker is a unique and interesting design that creates a sense of eeriness throughout this tale, the justification he gives Batman as to why he underwent the procedure to remove his own face in the first place fits the theme of the story but comes off as a bit of a stretch; as a result, you can’t shake the feeling that it was ultimately a gratuitous endeavour, even if it was seriously cool to see (although I’m sure there are readers out there who were more sickened by the imagery than impressed).
Moving past his design, the Joker’s characterization in this story is where it lives and dies. Recently, how writers chose to portray the Clown Prince has become something of a talking point. There are two schools of thought here; is the Joker best when he is a dangerous prankster that goes too far, or is he supposed to be an unrepentant psychopath that maims and kills at a whim most of the time. Or perhaps, the best interpretation of him is as someone in between? What about his capabilities? Is he really this competent and this deadly? Does someone so insane have any right to be this much of a criminal mastermind? These are some of the rubs when it comes to writing Joker, the question of which version of him is the “right” version is always one that needs to be addressed.
On the question of his competence, I think any complaints about how intelligent he is are ludicrous. This is Batman’s arch-rival, a character that has been portrayed as a homicidal criminal mastermind since his very first appearance in Batman #1. People who seriously complain about the level of threat the Joker presents, citing that he’s “just some clown”, either aren’t paying attention to any of the stories he’s in or are having some difficulty reconciling reality with some ill-conceived notion about the character they picked up somewhere. The Joker didn’t just stumble into the position of being Batman’s greatest enemy through happenstance, he’s the real deal and this graphic novel shows that splendidly.
Joker’s disposition is also something that is important to the fans. “Where is the humour to his actions?” they’d ask, and with the disfigured state of Joker’s face, it is easy to mistake the horror elements of the story with humourlessness. Not to fear though, this is still the same Joker many of us know and love. He’s still cracking jokes during tragic moments and applying his unique brand of inappropriately traditional humour to his schemes. Chattering teeth, a family dinner, and hi-jacking airways to deliver jokes that are only funny to him are just some of the things Snyder’s Joker does to remind us why we love him in the first place. While The Joker’s humour remains firmly intact, it’s the narcissism to his character that I don’t think fully comes through here.
The exploration of Batman’s relationship with the Joker is at the heart of this graphic novel and what the clown’s scheme is building to, but it is also the area where the story falls short in portraying its villain. There is definitely a sense of respect the Joker has for the Dark Knight, but overwhelming all of that is his love for himself and his honest belief that he is superior to Batman. While he is obsessively fixated on Batman and values the “fun” they have together, the Joker is also of the belief that he is Gotham’s greatest creation; that he is the being that deserves the attention of the world. The Joker in Death of the Family immediately puts himself in a subservient position to the Batman, hailing him as Gotham’s king, and creates this elaborate mythology based around Medieval myth. While this is an interesting angle, it takes away from the arch-rivalry dynamic comic book’s most popular hero and villain share, and moves it closer to a creepy stalker and unfortunate victim type deal. Thankfully though, things right themselves when all the cards are put on the table by the Joker towards this graphic novel’s conclusion.
Building throughout the story was an eerie sense of dread and despair; that Batman’s greatest foe was back with a vengeance and with a serious bone to pick with his vigilante family. Believing that they are mere annoyances that bring out the humanity in Batman, a humanity that the Joker desperately wants to extinguish completely, he sets out to destroy them forever. How he goes about doing this includes poisoning their sense of trust with his words and creating panic with his actions. It’s a perfect storm that is excellently paced and includes all the elements of the best Batman series; including a mystery that threatens the existence of Batman’s very way of life, and a secret he kept from everyone he knew he was supposed to trust. When the story ends in a brilliant climax that both subverts reader expectations and delivers exactly what is promised, Snyder cuts right to the core of Batman and Joker’s relationship. He brings out their animosity and philosophical differences that make their feud so fun to watch, and finds a way to have the two hurt each other in the worst way either of them can imagine (Batman certainly gives as good as he gets).
Obviously, I loved Death of the Family overall, and while there were issues in the way it dealt with Joker’s narcissistic nature, I was very satisfied with how the story played out. It was filled with amazing treats for fans of both Batman and Joker (Batman’s monologue about the obsessive way he analyzed the chemicals that created the Joker springs to mind) and it ended on a note that was both subtle and devastating; you could almost say the story plays out like a sick joke told by the Clown Prince himself. From the story’s beginning that pays homage to Alan Moore’s seminal story, The Killing Joke, to its final two pages that end things on both a charming and haunting note, this is certainly a Batman story to be remembered.
Quote of the Day:
“You think it all breaks down into symbolism and structures and hints and clues. No, Batman, that’s just Wikipedia. You actually believed all it would take is a few chemicals, a couple of days of drug-induced isolation and a cheap little nervous breakdown and you’d have me all figured out? Like there was some rabbit hole you could follow me down to understanding?”
-The Joker, Batman RIP