“Time heals all wounds… if they don’t kill you first…”
These are the opening lines of book one of Three Jokers. The phrase, to an extent, encapsulates the heart of the Batman mythos. Batman and his adopted family have been characters who have had to learn to live with the mental and physical scars of past trauma. The central gimmick of the Three Jokers story may be the mystery of the multiple Jokers but the real heart of it is the character exploration of Batman, Batgirl and Red Hood and how each of these characters deal with their respective trauma.
Partially teased all the way back in 2016 in DC Universe: Rebirth #1 by Geoff Johns and Ethan van Sciver (two names that have not aged well since then), Three Jokers commits to the promise of exploring the overlapping personalities that the Joker has gone through in his 80 years of existence. The book presents his three main personalities: The Criminal, The Clown and The Comedian. The DC Universe: Rebirth preview made it seem more that these personalities would be literal interpretations of the differing versions of the Joker that Batman has faced over the years. The Criminal would be the early version of the character and to an extent, the Dennis O’Neal/ Neal Adams version focused on the goal of robbing the bank or holding Gotham for ransom. The Clown would be the Batman ‘66/ Dick Sprang inspired version, almost harmless, focused on silly gags and easily escapable traps. Finally, the Comedian would be a continuation of The Killing Joke/Death in the Family Joker, the one that broke all the rules and broke Batman more than any villain dared to.
To my pleasant surprise, the story isn’t as concerned with the mystery of how these three Jokers can exist at the same time (one of the Jokers simply says they created the other two… or did he? Yes, the surviving one probably did). The main crux of the story falls on Bruce Wayne, Jason Todd and Barbara Gordon and their emotional journey through this story.
Book one opens with Alfred, as usual, cleaning Bruce’s wounds. Jason Fabok, the artist on all three books, portrays all the breaks, burns, cuts, gouges, bites, and various other wounds that Batman has suffered over the years, the most damaging coming from the Joker. The story then follows Barbara and Jason and how they deal with their respective physical and emotional scars from the Joker. Barbara over-exercises while Jason overly punishes thugs, taking his frustration out on people he knows don’t have any useful information.
The smart thing about this narrative is that it doesn’t pretend to fix each of these characters and their perspective problems. These characters will always have trauma that will never go away. It’s how they choose to deal with it that makes the story so interesting. At the end of book one, Jason kills one of the jokers while Barbara (barely) tries to stop him. Even as Jason stares at the dead body of a Joker, he doesn’t feel any catharsis or finality, knowing that there are at least 2 others out there that could be the one that killed him.
In book 2, Jason goes out to hunt the remaining Jokers and predictably gets caught by them. They torture him with a crowbar, reminiscent of the events leading to his own death. Batman and Batgirl find him beaten on the floor, his red hood mask cracked open and a Joker smile painted on the front. His reaction to them finding him is some of the best written Jason Todd scenes in recent memory. His reaction is almost child-like; pushing Batman and Batgirl away, naked and crying, the Jokers leaving him as vulnerable as the day he died. Seeing him in this way is a welcome change to the usual “bad boy of the Robins” way he is sometimes mishandled. He is the one the most interesting, complex characters in the DC Universe and it’s refreshing to see him being explored in a meaningful way again.
In the next scene, he wakes up in Barbara’s apartment and the story slows down to show how much shared trauma Jason and Barbara have. There’s a tender moment between the two and they share a quick kiss. At first, when reading this issue, I thought it was a mistake to have the two supporting characters kiss, but after re-reading book 2 and the continuation of this thread in book 3, I saw it as a natural portrayal of Jason reacting to Barbara showing unconditional love that he has rarely seen in his life.
Three Jokers also added quite significant changes to the Bruce Wayne/Batman experience. The character of Batman wouldn’t exist without his inherent trauma and this story tackles the biggest one of his life in a fairly elegant way. In book 2, the “Criminal” Joker reveals that he wants to make Joe Chill, the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents, into another one of the Jokers, hoping to create the ultimate Joker. Batman ends up saving Chill a few times and Chill offers a sincere apology for the murder of his parents.
This ending to the book took me off guard. There’s a cliffhanger at the end of book 2 with Joker asking Joe Chill, “Why did you really kill Thomas and Martha Wayne?”, which didn’t really hook me and the reveal basically being that he was jealous of their wealth but not knowing who they really were as people wasn’t anything surprising or new. However, in the aftermath, Joe Chill sincerely apologizing to Batman and Bruce Wayne later holding Joe’s hand while he lay dying was a great closer to Joe’s arc.
Speaking of endings, the biggest shocker wasn’t the fact that Joker knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne (Scott Snyder, in his run on Batman, established that Joker has known Batman’s secret identity from the beginning) or the Commissioner Gordon knows that Batgirl is his daughter, but that Batman has known who the Joker is from the beginning as well. Told in flashbacks at the end of book 3, Joker’s wife faked her death and escaped to Alaska to live with her son. Since this was published under the DC Black Label imprint, it’s unclear whether this twist will stay canon or built upon in other books but as an ending to this book, it serves as a satisfying final twist.
The biggest drawback from the story would have to be Batgirl’s arc or lack thereof. The first book starts with her running so aggressively that she breaks a treadmill and the last you see from her in book three is her running the same way next to the treadmill she broke. There may be some symbolism having her story begin and end the same way but I just didn’t get any substantive beats from her side of the story in these three books. It would be interesting if another writer picks up on the Barbara/ Jason Todd almost romance that occurred but that being Barbara’s biggest arc in the book was a little disappointing.
Of course, the majority of the praise for this book falls directly on Jason Fabok’s stellar art in all three books. There’s not one panel that looks rushed or a character’s body is out of proportion. Fabok does a great job of either recreating or referencing iconic moments from some of the most famous stories like Death in the Family and the Killing Joke but also creates some incredible original set pieces and action scenes in all three books. DC has been doing a much better job of letting the artists take their time before even soliciting the book. It seems like they waited until Fabok finished all the art before they announced the release date. Finally, kudos has to go to color artist Brad Anderson. From the subtle shine in the Joker’s eye to the glow coming from the fires in the third book, every panel of this book is a masterpiece to look at.
The series has an interesting, yet simple hook of having three separate jokers running around but what the book actually delivers is some amazing emotional Batman storytelling. Jason Fabok’s art is as stellar as ever. Not every twist and turn was as satisfying as I would have liked it to be and it’s not destined to become one of the classic stories that these books reference but it does scratch the itch of any Batman fan looking for a succinct and thrilling entry in the classic Batman and Joker rivalry.
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