Jeff Lemire’s new miniseries, Joker: Killer Smile, is about Dr. Ben Arnell, the Joker’s new therapist, and how his family life becomes a horror story of suspicion and doubt when he attempts to get inside the head of the Clown Prince of Crime.
Despite that, Lemire told me that he and artist Andrea Sorrentino’s ultimate goal is to make a Joker story with hope in it.
I sat down with the writer behind Sweet Tooth and Animal Man (2011) at San Diego Comic-Con this year, not too long after the series was announced, to talk about the Joker, darkness, and how to put your mark on a character that so many creators have flocked to.
Polygon: What makes the Joker’s such a compelling villain?
Jeff Lemire: Certain characters like Batman, and the Joker specifically, have become so iconic now, and there’s been so many interpretations of them, that I think they become really interesting vehicles for different voices to take the character and do a different take on them. You see it all the time, not just with writers but also artists, interpreting Batman in different ways. And now we’re starting to see that Joker has become so iconic. Every film version of Joker are so different from the last.
These characters have become so big and so almost mythological that they have this gravitational pull for a writer. What would I do with something like that? What could I use that as a vehicle for?
I thought it would be really interesting to take something that’s traditionally so dark and scary and to try to tell a story that still has some hope. That’s a challenge. Hopefully that’s what we’ll succeed in doing. How can I do the stuff that I do well, but do it with a character that’s so dark? And some people take that character and use it as a symbol for a lot of things that aren’t great, too.
What do you mean by that?
Well, I don’t want to get too — but you know, we’ve seen the Joker’s image kind of appropriated by pretty scary people. So it does have this darkness to it.
What if you could take this idea of someone who’s so dark, that the madness of the Joker is almost as a virus that spreads to everyone around him. And then in our story, we take one family in Gotham City, [that of] the doctor treating him. And if that madness and the darkness starts to affect this man’s family, that’s truly terrifying.
And can there still be help? The things that hold us together as a family or human beings, can that overcome this? You know, it’s not just Batman that has to fight the Joker. It’s a metaphor for the world we live in where there’s a lot of scary things happening, but we still have each other and at the end of the day that’s how we’ll survive. By uniting. These are all things that are interesting to me.
The most iconic stories about the Joker say that we’re all an inch from being the Joker.
That’s always the most fascinating thing; we’re all so close to — you take one step in certain direction and you can easily slide into that mindset. That’s terrifying and also thrilling for a lot of people, I guess. So to see that not just with one person but with a family; I thought that was terrifying. And I think Joker stories should be kind of scary, to me.
There’s a lot of Joker in the air right now. Do worry that he’s getting played out? Do you feel the pressure to distinguish your take on him?
I don’t worry about it because I’ve worked with Andrea Sorrentino — this’ll be our fifth project together — we have such a distinct voice when we come together that I know our take on it will be very distinct, and stand apart from other things, and be something just really different. You can’t really control all the other projects that are coming out. You just gotta make the best Joker story you can and hope that people find it and that it endures as something kinda special.
So I just try to do something that’s really us, really distinct, and not pander to what people think a Joker story should be or something. That’s all you can control, and you put out your book and then what happens happens, right?
Can you speak more about the therapist’s family, or is that spoiler territory?
It’s hard because, there’s so much — when I talk about plot with this one I’ll just spoil the story if I get too deep. Beyond what I’ve said of the initial setup of this guy, this doctor, has a wife and young son, the things he’s experiencing at Arkham with Joker start seeping into his own life in scary ways, and that escalates. Beyond that, it starts just get spoilery.
There’s a definite parallel to Rorschach in this book — with the therapist whose work with a famous subject starts affect his home life — who is also a character I think fans sometimes become attached to an unhealthy ways.
We were very aware of the easy Watchmen comparison with the set up of the story before we even started, so we tried to make sure it was something completely different from that. On the surface it sounds very similar, but what we do is not.
And also with Harley Quinn’s origin, as well, you could see parallels. There were things that we had to be careful not to just retread what’s been done. If you’re going to use that set up, fine, but you better do something new with it.
And Harley isn’t even the only psychiatrist character we’ve ever seen treat the Joker. In Jack Kirby’s Super Powers series, there’s an issue where Superman forces the Joker to sit down and listen to his therapist, and she drives him sane. The whole thing ends with him jumping into a boom tube, yelling about how he needs a job so he can become a functioning member of society.
[jokingly] I mean, that’s the ending of our book, too, you just spoiled it!