THE BATMAN WHO LAUGHS
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Riley Rossmo, Ivan Plascencia, and Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Release Date: November 15, 2017
*Warning: Here there be spoilers*
This is it, y’all. The main event. The final evil Batman. The reason I’m sure most of you are even reading Dark Nights: Metal in the first place (no shame, me too).
If you’ve been following GOC’s fledgling comic reviews this month, then you’ve definitely seen us hint at how excited we’ve been about the Batman Who Laughs one-shot. If you’ve been following the Metal conversation on social media, this anticipation has been at a stage five fandom freakout for months now. It’s not every day that Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV tease a comic that may be among the darkest stories in all of Batman history, after all.
But does it live up to the hype? Or is The Batman Who Laughs all bark and no bite? Let’s see…
If I’d Only Seen That the Joke Was On Me
The Batman Who Laughs has proven himself to be a loquacious storyteller throughout the Metal event, and he is thrilled to finally have the chance to tell his origin story. He has his prop of deadly playing cards, each decorated with a member of the Justice League. His stage, a seemingly random corner of the Dark Multiverse, is looking particularly menacing with its perpetual darkness. His skin is holding up pretty nicely, despite the infected sores around his mouth. He is ready to go.
But every good story needs a captivated audience, and most of the Multiverse is currently dying. So, a bit of improv is needed; but like any Batman, this one is nothing if not prepared. He has found a seemingly random person to hold captive, and so his tale can begin like any other Batman story does – birthed from senseless tragedy, and then molded by a toxic relationship with the criminal element.
After years of the same old song and dance with Batman, the Joker of Earth -22 is now desperate to evolve. He figures he and Batman need a new challenge, a new high-stakes problem to solve together, or they will both surely die of boredom and wasted potential. And the first part of the Joker’s plan is to literally recreate Gotham through a violent baptism by fire and bloody sacrifices.
Bombs have been hidden throughout the city and are now exploding on a synchronized schedule, taking out hospitals and entire apartment blocks. Joker has brutally murdered all the local criminals and the entire Gotham City Police Force. His goons are rounding up families in order to kill the parents and infect the children with his Joker gas. Worst still, the Joker has somehow managed to drug and bind Batman, forcing him to watch the destruction around him while trapped at the Joker’s feet.
Eventually, Batman breaks his bonds and launches himself at the Joker, begging him to stop. In the ensuing drug-fueled showdown, Batman breaks his one solemn vow – he snaps the Joker’s neck, killing him instantly with a laugh still caught in his throat and, strangely enough, bright green gas leaking out of his mouth.
There are more important things to worry about than the mysteries of the Joker’s body, however. Gotham is in ruins and there are hundreds of orphaned children who are now mindless cannibals. Superman and the Batfamily have all stepped in to help rebuild, but the process has been slow, no less because Batman isn’t exactly helping.
Instead, he’s been acting odd. He feels no remorse for his actions, despite murder being the antithesis of everything he stands for as a hero. He’s been laughing at inappropriate situations. He isn’t going out to protect what’s left of the city, and Damian is nowhere to be found.
Nightwing, Batgirl, Red Robin, and Red Hood confront Batman about his behavior, and learn the horrifying secret he’s been trying to hide from his allies. The Joker laced his body with a version of the Joker gas that, if he’s killed, turns anyone who inhales it into the new Joker. He thus purposely provoked Batman with the sole intent of being killed by him, and now Batman’s mind is succumbing to the Joker’s influence as if he were becoming a hybrid of the two.
But Batman doesn’t seem worried by it. In fact, he might even like it… and thus the Batman Who Laughs was born, baptized once again in a breathtakingly brutal rampage of blood.
And here are a few other twists in this story. Batman ruthlessly and gleefully killed his world, which attracted the attention of Barbatos. Ever the overachiever, the Batman Who Laughs also greatly expanded on the unholy demon god’s original plans. Barbatos was just after our Batman and his world, but why not destroy the entire Multiverse while you’re there? Why not destroy all the universes that exist?
For an insanely logical monster like the Batman Who Laughs, destroying universes will be easy. He’s already enlisted the help of seven evil Batmen from the Dark Multiverse, and now he has numerous evil versions of the Justice League at his disposal. This is the way that all the worlds will end – not with a bang, but with a laugh.
Honestly, where do I even begin with this? I’ll try my best to be coherent with this review, but just know I’ve been screaming nonstop internally since Wednesday morning. There might even have been some external screaming, but I’m trying to be casual about that.
Conceptually, the idea of a Batman/Joker hybrid has long existed on the darker shores of DC canon. In these cases, the idea is representative of psychosis: the Joker is a figment of Bruce Wayne’s broken mind, or sometimes Batman/Alfred/A Random Robin has secretly been the Joker all along. These manifestations are always ineffectively unstable and ultimately unsustainable, which is meant to highlight how fundamentally incompatible these two foes are despite any surface-level similarities.
Meanwhile, Scott Snyder has spent his Batman career lovingly propagating the idea that Batman and the Joker are more compatible than we think. They might even be soulmates, not because they are particularly similar, but because they understand one another and bring out certain fantastic qualities never seen before.
Snyder is also not the first person to fan the flames of the Batjokes ship (The Lego Batman Movie is clearly that ship’s manifesto). But he is the first person to conceptualize the Batman/Joker relationship as something that is, in its own twisted corner of the universe, a good thing for both men to embrace. And, my god, does James Tynion IV elevate Snyder’s concept into a thing of beauty.
For Joker, the benefits are obvious. He says himself that his dying wish is to create a new Gotham that represents the best parts of himself and Batman, and the Batman Who Laughs personifies that wish in all its awful possibilities.
Tynion then posits that joining with the Joker scratches an interesting itch within Batman. Ever the prepared soldier, Batman hoards the darkest secrets of his friends and foes alike for the sake of public safety… or so he claims. On Earth -22, Batman indulges in far more selfish desires. He wants to know the people around him inside and out so that he can learn how to defeat them. They are all potential problems, challengers to overcome in a long game Batman plays in his mind to prove his inherent superiority, but would never act on because he is a hero. So, when he becomes the Joker, Batman is suddenly freed from all the mental handicaps of morality and civility that have regulated his behavior his entire life. Thanks to the Joker, Batman is now free to let loose a little, be bold, have fun. It’s just unfortunate that his idea of fun includes the massacre of everyone that stands in his way.
But for the reader, this is an incredibly enjoyable ride. With Batman fully Jokerized, what transpires in the comic is by far the cleanest, strongest narration out of all the evil Batmen, and perhaps the entire Metal event. The origins of the Batman Who Laughs unfolds like a bedtime story, with this Dark Knight telling the story linearly to his random captive, which means he is talking to the audience surrogate, which means he is talking directly to us.
This simple story structure – Batman kills the Joker, then becomes the Joker – allows Tynion to increase the tension in the narrative as he slowly builds up to the birth of the Batman Who Laughs. The unease this suspense creates is only enhanced by Rossmo, Plascencia and Napolitano’s artwork. Their collective style is all bright colors and cartoonish character proportions, and these traits purposely become more grotesque as the Batman Who Laughs revels in chaos and violence. The rampage scenes themselves are admittedly few, but the moments that are highlighted are haunting.
After several paragraphs of pure flattery, I only have one minor complaint with The Batman Who Laughs. It’s been hinted at several times throughout the Metal event that Damian Wayne purposely infected himself with the Joker gas to win his father’s twisted affections, and by the time the Batfamily arrives to see Batman it seems like he has already undergone the transformation. Considering the dedicated redemption path he has embarked on since Robin: Son of Batman, it is surprising to see that Damian would willing destroy himself for his father. It would have been powerful to see what finally pushed him over the edge in this one-shot; if it wasn’t the murder of his family, then what?
Perhaps this storyline is being saved for a shocking twist – I’m honestly not convinced this transformation was consensual on Damian’s part – but it’s definitely about time we learn about the specifics.
Otherwise? The final verdict is 5 Bats out of 5, very well-deserved for everyone involved in this one-shot. The Batman Who Laughs is a near masterpiece that revitalizes Dark Nights: Metal and prepares us whatever horrors lay ahead in the upcoming second half of the event. An inventive storyline and unique artwork come together to create an instant classic in the Batman franchise, one that I’m sure will be talked about for years to come.
It’s just so good, y’all. It’s really, really good.