First, a thank you to Edelweiss and DC Comics for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
This book was utterly captivating. As the description states, this book contemplates the ramifications of a ‘cured’ (read: sane) Joker who portrays (and quite possibly believes) Batman to be the true terror of Gotham City. Though it was by no means perfect I just found the book so interesting and original, I had to rate it accordingly.
Though it possesses a driving plot, this book was a deep dive into Joker’s character, in this incarnation known as Jack Napier, and explored more history and information than has ever really been revealed (so far as I can research). It could be argued that since the events of White Knight don’t fall into regular continuity, none of this new information is relevant but, personally, I’d disagree because a character study such as this could hugely inform Joker stories from here on out, especially given the complete (though I know intentional) absence of information about Joker’s past.
A huge part of this story does focus on Harley and Jack’s relationship which any comic book reader knows is notoriously toxic and abusive, but I feel this book went a little way to making up for it – even if they had to create an imposter Harley to do it. They have some really cute beats here – and I hate to use that word to describe them because I was firmly in the camp against idolising their messed up relationship – that, if you take the book as it is, are hard-won and actually kind of meaningful and they demonstrate why the two make a formidable team.
At his worst Joker is a daunting foe, truly insane, twisted and unpredictable his history of crime is bloody and dark, but I had never considered that the dark desires and impulses that fuelled his insanity could produce something altogether more threatening in sanity. On the face of it, Joker is a somewhat silly concept – he has become less silly through modern storytelling and themes but, as with many of Batman’s villains, he is something of a product of his time. Through simply restoring his sanity, even temporarily we get a glimpse of what Joker could achieve with a single-minded focus to rival, yes you guessed it, Batman’s.
The parallels drawn in this book between the two are damning but where Bruce generally lacks the social graces and good manners to make supporting him an easy choice, Jack Napier has what I call the ‘Hitler Factor’. He’s a charismatic, talented public speaker with the intelligence to back up his words and the will to follow through on his plans. Napier is genius in his deception and enticement of the people of Gotham but the worst part of his whole crusade is – he’s kinda right in what he’s saying.
In the same way, we see a new side of Joker, we also view a new angle to Batman (and Bruce) when the general tide of public opinion and the opinions of his allies turns against him, and he’s called out on his general unaccountability. When cast is the cold light of day the truth is clear: Batman operated unchecked and recklessly leaving a path of destruction behind him and Gotham, even Gordon, are powerless to stop him even if they wanted to. And, being honest, Batman is such a Richard in this story – it makes it somewhat easier to believe the people of Gotham may, after a long period of time of it, be swayed to even go so far as to side with Jack Napier.
YOU ARE ENTERING SPOILER TERRITORY
In the ‘alternate world’ style there are some differences between regular continuity and this world, the most prominent of which I found to be the swapping of Jason Todd and Dick Grayson. In this world, Jason Todd is the first Robin (though his death remains the same) and Dick his replacement. This creates a strange switching of bitterness and characterisation as Dick (who at this point has taken up the role of Nightwing and Batgirl has taken up the role of sidekick) rages and resents Bruce throughout, eventually admitting he never felt good enough cast in Jason’s shadow and generally reminds me of Jason a whole lot more than himself.
I dislike this in principle and don’t personally see what the story gains from it because I don’t see that the book couldn’t have maintained the story of Jason’s death and have Tim Drake be the Robin/Nightwing/Red Robin type character desperately trying to help Barbara reign in Batman’s increasingly violent tendencies. It just felt like a forced point to make it clear this wasn’t part of regular continuity.
I do think a lot of the book, even for an Elseworlds tale, does beggar belief as far as characterisation is concerned, Batman leans more heavily on brutality and is not the perceptive master detective we all know, falling into Joker and Harley’s baited traps repetitively, one after another. And, though public opinion can be easily swayed, I reiterate my earlier scepticism that the people of Gotham would welcome the Joker into the fold so easily. But, then again, I find it hard to believe most American public figures (ahem) manage to navigate numerous and historic PR nightmares and scandals so easily and maintain their power and position despite it.
Neo-joker’s presence also felt somewhat out of place just as, though I know she couldn’t just disappear it all felt like one too many bad guys toward the end, and I felt like Jack Napier/Joker’s schizophrenic struggle to control Gotham City at Batman’s expense was interesting enough without her.
Jack’s presumption of the support of the people of Backwater was problematic for me. It feels wrong and unrealistic that a minority and marginalised group of people of colour would champion a condescending white dude fresh out of the asylum to accurately represent their needs and struggles. That, and the fact they end up being a tool in a larger scheme that eventually leads them into a worse position than previously just capitalises on the complete disregard Gotham feels for the welfare and importance of this part of Gotham’s population. It just felt like a backhanded bit of recognition to me.
YOU ARE NOW LEAVING SPOILER TERRITORY. PLEASE COME BACK SOON.
The pacing fell apart a little toward the end, with the last issue being something of a strange mish-mash of high-octane, slightly tropey events that slightly cheapened the end product but in the same breath, I’m not sure how I would have ended it either.
Aesthetically this is a very dark book and I really loved the overall look of the book. The switch between the insane, manic look for Batman and the cool, put-together (though slightly smarmier) look for Jack was evident on every panel and I will say I am a huge fan of bringing back classic Harley’s costume (the panel below is the best) and her whole street look is so amazing in this book (I need those glasses!). I noticed Poison Ivy had a very cool trench coat look going on too and adult Duke was interesting to see.
Overall, though it has its odd issues this is so, so worth the read if you’re interested in these characters. I honestly could have written a whole essay dissecting the whole book, there is just so much to get out of it if you want to look – and even if you don’t it’s just plain interesting to read anyway.
Writing Quality – 8/10
Image/Illustration Quality – 7/10
Character Development – 8/10
Overall – 8/10
‘Well, I always assumed that Joker would be way more deadly if he wasn’t crazy, you know, if he could focus and use his charm like a sort of Don Draper-type guy. I wanted set up a Gotham where that was a thing, and think about how Batman would contend with a Joker who he’s convinced is still evil — that this is a long con — but he’s technically not doing breaking any laws. What is he supposed to do? And that’s where it starts to fall apart for Batman.
I also felt like — I think a lot of readers think Joker is really sexy, but it’s not okay to say that you think a total sociopath is sexy, right? So! You get rid of the crazy, and maybe this could be the sexiest Joker. Hopefully. This book will make it okay to think Joker is sexy.’
– Sean Murphy, Interview with CBR.com