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The Joker sits at a table, fingers steepled. Two figures stand in front of him, in Batman: Three Jokers #1, DC Comics (2020). Image: Geoff Johns, Jason Fabok/DC Comics

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DC’s long-awaited Three Jokers is a risky reimagining of Batman mythology

A-one, a-two, a-one-two-three Jokers

More than four years after DC announced Batman: Three Jokers, its first installment is finally hitting shelves. The long-gestating three-(of course)-part miniseries is the co-brainchild of writer Geoff Johns, perennial architect of the DC Universe in comics and out.

Innumerable writers have tried to put their stamp on the Joker, the most infamous comic book villain out there, and Johns’ has finally stepped up to the proverbial bat. The only question remaining is the obvious: Three Jokers? In this economy?

Is Three Jokers a cataclysmic shakeup of the Clown Prince of Crime? Does it even make a splash in a Joker-saturated world? Here’s what to know about Johns’ highly anticipated deep dive into the Joker’s history.

Who is making Three Jokers?

For Three Jokers, Johns partnered up with artist Jason Fabok, who has also worked almost exclusively for DC Comics in his career. The two have previously worked together on Justice League.

Johns is the rare comic book writer who came to the industry through Hollywood, beginning his career as an assistant to Superman director Richard Donner and forging connections to DC editorial from there. Of course, he’s also wound up back in Hollywood in the past decade, as DC’s chief creative officer in charge of expanding into films. Warner Bros.’ DC films slate, from Aquaman, and Shazam! to Justice League (and likely the upcoming Black Adam) frequently borrow from Johns’ work on those characters.

His most successful projects at DC Comics tend towards the “classical” in nature, revitalizing an older character by modernizing core concepts rather than shaking up the formula entirely, as in his long, career-defining runs on The Flash and Green Lantern. Ask him about his favorites and he’ll cite versions of the character that hit comic book pages years before he was born: the Justice Society, Green Lantern Hal Jordan, or the Shazam Family.

That’s a lot of context, but it feels relevant to the story Three Jokers is setting itself up to tell.

What is Three Jokers about?

In interviews, Johns has emphasized the emotional core of Three Jokers rather than plot points, saying that it’s a story about healing and scars — about Batman, Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, and Jason Todd/Red Hood, and the different ways they have repaired themselves after being grievously wounded, physically and mentally, at the hands of the Joker.

But of course the story has a hook. Batman, Batgirl, and the Red Hood team up to investigate a one-night crime spree that appears to have been orchestrated by three individuals posing as the Joker — or, the Joker and two fakes.

Why is Three Jokers happening now?

On a rainy night, the Batmobile plows over a gravestone. Batman staggers out of the car and up to Wayne Manor, the lights of its windows glowing in the dark, in Three Jokers #1, DC Comics (2020). Image: Geoff Johns, Jason Fabok/DC Comics

The going joke would be to reply to this with that GIF of Rose from Titanic where she says “It’s been 84 years.” But it’s been literally four years since we first found out about Three Jokers, when it was teased as a reveal of a concrete origin story for the Joker, which would establish that he’s been three people at three different times.

What took so long? Well, probably that Johns was busy on film sets for a while, and then decided to do the DC/Watchmen crossover Doomsday Clock first, which took a year longer than initially thought.

What, another book about the Joker?

It’s reasonable for you to ask this.

Since DC’s outside-of-canon and for-more-mature readers line launched two years ago, close to half of the books published under the Black Label imprint have had the Joker as their lead, co-lead, prime antagonist, or as a significant plot element. Inside DC canon, the Batman Who Laughs, a Jokerized version of Batman, has become one of the biggest cosmic forces in the DCU. Gotham City is currently in the middle of a Joker War event. Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix raked in cash just last year.

It is an inarguable fact that people want to consume stories about the Joker. We can only hope that those stories are good.

So is Three Jokers #1 good?

Johns and Fabok are not subtle in this book — but I don’t necessarily mean this as a bad thing. After all, this is a superhero comic about a murderous clown and a man who dresses up like a bat. But that directness can become ponderous.

Three Jokers is trying to be something that anyone can pick up off a shelf and read, which means it needs establish the different relationships — and traumas — that Batman, Batgirl, and Jason Todd have with the Joker. Johns and Fabok do it in a drawn-out 15 pages that also includes the death of the Waynes. That particular flashback ends with a thudding juxtaposition of image and text — “This wound is deeper than the others,” Alfred says, referring to the stitches he’s put into Batman’s side, but the words are over a panel of Bruce remembering how he watched his parents’ killer flee the law.

The issue didn’t begin to click for me until we got out of the exposition to the point where Johns and Fabok began building the actual narrative confines of Three Jokers. The concept of the comic, kept carefully under wraps, is objectively compelling, and the kind of thing that only becomes more interesting in a non-canonical context where the ending doesn’t have to point to a status quo.

“This wound is deeper than the others,” says Alfred’s narration over a young Bruce’s weeping face. “It’s going to leave another scar, not that you’d  notice,” he continues, as an older Bruce stares angrily ahead, in Three Jokers #1, DC Comics (2020). Image: Geoff Johns, Jason Fabok/DC Comics

For Batman, Batgirl, and Red Hood, these three crimes are a mystery, but for the audience it’s more metaphysical. We’re asked to see the Joker as someone who is aware that he exists across eras and must evolve for a new one, in a way that flirts with but doesn’t (yet, at least) break the Fourth Wall.

In presenting a history of the Joker in a single story, John and Fabok do a much more graceful job, digging deep into well of conceptual and artistic modes from 80 years of comics (though they do pull up a bewilderingly grim modern interpretation of one reference that is happily discarded almost immediately). But there’s one source that comes to the fore.

Perhaps it’s that Fabok’s natural style is much closer to Brian Bolland’s than Bob Kane or Jim Aparo’s. Perhaps it’s that the opening page is very nearly a pastiche of the opening page of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke — rain on a hard surface, the original-design Batmobile, the glowing windows of Wayne Manor/Arkham Asylum on a dark night. It could be these things, or it could simply be that you cannot write a story about the Joker without, for better or worse, referencing The Killing Joke.

Whatever the case, Johns and Fabok echo The Killing Joke, even in a first issue that’s really about Jason Todd (killed by the Joker in A Death in the Family) rather than Barbara Gordon (injured by the Joker in The Killing Joke). And that invites quite recent memories of the the last time Johns wrote something that wrestled with the ongoing legacy of Moore’s DC Comics work: the ambitious but ultimately milquetoast ending to Doomsday Clock.

Despite all these reservations, I did enjoy Three Jokers #1. It fed my own nostalgia for the Batman stories of my adolescence, which prioritized detective work and the dynamic of a found family built by shared trauma. But the things I like most about Three Jokers #1 are the nostalgia, which is personal, and the the potential of the concept, which could pop like a bubble.

Doomsday Clock also started strong, injecting fresh ideas and compelling art into an old story that many fans are too busy worshipping to interrogate on their own. It did not end in a commensurate way. I’m not confident that Three Jokers will be different, but I’m hooked enough to hope that it has more teeth.

One panel that popped

Batman stares into a tank of Jokerized fish. A massive Jokerized shark stares back at him, in Three Jokers #1, DC Comics (2020). Image: Geoff Johns, Jason Fabok/DC Comics

Teeth. Get it? Ha ha ha.