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The Joker sits on a throne above the Arkham Asylum Gates, with Bane looming over him, on the cover of The Joker #1, DC Comics (2021). Image: Guillem March/DC Comics

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The Joker #1 takes aim at Joker’s ‘fans’

The suggestion is that they’ve been duped

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Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

We live in a society an era where the Joker is a big deal, and a big draw. Between his box-office-smash solo movie, the ascendancy of the Joker/Batman hybrid the Batman Who Laughs, DC’s Black Label imprint being awash in Joker explorations, and the prominence of his ex-girlfriend Harley Quinn, the Clown Prince of Crime has never had this kind of cultural cache.

But does he have enough cultural cache to be a supervillain with his own successful comic book series? Which happened once in 1975 for nine issues, but never again? With DC’s new comic The Joker hitting stands this week, it’s time to find out.

Who is making The Joker?

The Joker is courtesy James Tynion IV (Detective Comics, The Department of Truth), the writer behind DC’s Batman series at the moment and therefore the book that roughly determines the direction of most of the titles under the Batman umbrella at DC today. Art on this first issue is from Guillem March (Gotham City Sirens, Wolverines), with colors from Arif Prianto, and letters by Tom Napolitano.

But wait! There’s also a backup story, about Punchline — the Joker’s newest collaborator and Harley Quinn replacement —written by Tynion and his occasional writing collaborator on Backstagers and Punchline stories, Sam Johns, with art by Mirka Andolfo (Unnatural, DC Comics Bombshells), colors by Romulo Fajardo, and letters by Ariana Maher.

DC is leaning big into anthologies and backups in 2021. Do I know whether comics that cost more but have more content will be successful? No. Do I love anthologies and comics with backup stories? Yes.

What is The Joker about?

After “an unthinkable attack” on Arkham Asylum — which, thanks to several other books we now know to be a deadly gas attack that killed most of the staff and many of the inmates in the institution (Bane and Scarecrow are among those presumed dead) — the Joker is on the lam from good guys and bad guys alike.

But at least in this first issue, the story is entirely about (former) Commissioner James Gordon and his relationship with Batman’s nemesis, as he grapples with the decision to throw caution to the winds and hunt down the Joker himself.

The Joker is also equipped with a backup story about Punchline, the Joker’s new “big tiddy goth girlfriend,” as she, a veteran social media manipulator, carefully cultivates a youth movement demanding that she face no charges for all the murder and torture she did during Joker War.

Why is The Joker happening now?

Leslie Tompkins and Harper Row discuss Punchline’s court case. The prosecution is floundering and “she has the public on her side,” in The Joker #1, DC Comics (2021). Image: Sam Johns, Jame Tynion IV, Mirka Andolfo/DC Comics

Tynion has been doing a lot of work with the Joker in his Batman series. His first arc teased the mysterious criminal mastermind the Designer, but ended with a twist: The Designer had been dead for years, and the Joker was poised to dust off his greatest plan for dominating Gotham and put it into practice.

That plan formed the story of Joker War, the first crossover event of Tynion’s tenure on Batman, which made big changes for the Joker’s obsessive relationship with Batman, stripped Bruce Wayne of most of his fortune, and left the citizens of Gotham City in fear of their own neighbors’ nihilism.

In many ways, The Joker is happening now because Tynion has built enough of a foundation to support a series about James Gordon hunting the Joker to the ends of the earth. But Tynion’s Joker and Punchline stories are clearly inflected by Tynion’s experience writing complicated teenage characters, as well as his understanding of the parasocial potential of influencer culture and online radicalization. With The Joker, Tynion is clearly wrestling with the shadow of the “damaged”-tattoo sporting, Taxi Driver-homaging, nihilist antihero version of the Joker that has hit it so big in non-comics media.

Is there any required reading?

You’ll probably do fine if you just dive in. If you feel confused, consider reading Joker War. If you’d like to know more about Punchline, also read The Joker 80th Anniversary 100-Page Super Spectacular and Punchline #1.

If you really wanted to read some of the older continuity The Joker stands on, you could read The Killing Joke, in which Barbara Gordon was shot; all of the year-long No Man’s Land event, which climaxes with the Joker murdering Sarah Gordon, James’ second wife; and/or the Batgirl arc in which James Gordon Jr. takes his own life. But consider that in the territory of extra credit.

Is The Joker #1 good?

The Joker #1 puts to rest the two main apprehensions I’ve got about any attempt to turn the Joker into a main character. First, it establishes James Gordon as co-lead, if not the actual lead, of the comic, so that the Joker doesn’t have to carry it all by himself. And second, it establishes that it has something to say about the Joker, specifically about the way in which the character has been recently used as a sort of dark hero of the disillusioned and angry.

In their first issue, Tynion and March pick up a thread that, as a Batman fan, I’ve been waiting for someone to tackle for years: The idea that James Gordon has more of a right to revenge on the Joker than Batman. Sure, the Joker has killed a lot of people, and once, even Batman’s son. But Jason Todd came back to life.

Over the course of still-relevant continuity, the Joker has maimed Barbara Gordon, executed James Gordon’s wife, and most recently set events in motion that drove his son, James Gordon, Jr., to suicide. The Joker #1 tosses a grieving and cast-off James Gordon into a den of temptation, a situation in which no reasonable person would blame him for discarding his principles. And seems likely to up the ante even further as various aggrieved villains and other parties scent the Joker’s vulnerability and swarm for the kill. It’s compelling!

It’s unfortunate, then, that the comic is also emblematic of my pet peeves with March’s art, namely that he only draws one woman, and she is constantly making sex doll face. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to another issue.

Harley Quinn, to Punchline: Wait, why are you dressed like that? Catwoman: She’s Joker’s new girlfriend, Harley. Punchline: I’m his partner. From Batman #92, DC Comics (2020).
All the sex doll faces in The Joker #1 had spoiler dialogue with them so enjoy these faces from Batman #92.
Image: James Tynion IV, Guillem March/DC Comics

But it’s not just the main Joker-Gordon story to contend with here. With the series’ Punchline backup, it feels like Tynion has finished setting up his Punchline chessboard, and now, with Johns and Andolfo, the shape of the game is clear.

She’s a campus troll turned online influencer using a parasocial relationship with her fans to get them to advocate for her freedom even though she’s committed terrible crimes, and is also deliberately cultivating the idea that the Joker is a laughing nihilist hero trying to bring down the system rather than a sadistic killer.

The people taken in by her spin? Sympathetic, but ultimately dupes. Take that, Todd Phillips.

One panel that popped

I might not like the way Guillem March draws women, but I can’t stop seeing this panel when I close my eyes, so thanks.