(This review reveals major plot points for Batman: Three Jokers #1 and #2.)
Imagine what DC Comics would look like if it wasn’t so damn obsessed with Watchmen. For almost a decade, DC has made Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ miniseries the foundation of event after event, and when creators aren’t explicitly expanding on Watchmen, they’re using it as a formal, stylistic, and tonal template for other superhero stories. Watchmen is 35 years old. The industry has evolved a lot since its publication, and there are different ways to use the superhero genre and comic-book medium than grimdark broodfests on a nine-panel grid.
Geoff Johns has been deeply involved in the Watchmen excavation, bringing Moore and Gibbons’ characters into the DC Universe with DC Rebirth and then tightening that connection with the flawed, fascinating, and ultimately fruitless Doomsday Clock. Batman: Three Jokers (DC) reunites Johns with his Justice League collaborators, artist Jason Fabok and colorist Brad Anderson, for a story that, according to the first issue’s preview text, “reexamines the myth of who, or what, The Joker is and what is at the heart of his eternal battle with Batman.” The Watchmen influence is strong with the dominant nine-panel grid and a narrative touching on the darkening of superhero concepts over time, but it’s repetitive, drab, and fails to say anything new about the Joker or characters traumatized by him over time.
Three Jokers is one of those superhero comics that falls apart if you think about it too hard. There are immediate continuity questions, like where these Jokers align with the current depiction of the character in the “Joker War” crossover; but then there are even bigger questions about Batman’s status as the world’s greatest detective if he never noticed his archnemesis is three different people. Batgirl rightfully calls out Batman’s failure as a mentor when they discuss how far Jason Todd has fallen as Red Hood, and Batman’s response accentuates how lousy he is as a father figure for other traumatized people. “I was hoping he was more like you,” Batman says, basically admitting that he failed Barbara as much as he failed Jason, yet never atoning or trying to be better.
Three Jokers does have some genuine laughs, but most of them are unintentional. The first issue opens with Batman crashing the Batmobile into his parents’ grave markers, an action that is dealt with in such a matter-of-fact, routine way that you get the impression Bruce aims for it every time he comes home. Going even more serious for issue two makes these accidental comedic moments more prominent still: the smiley-face created by a broken chain; Batman’s “Joker Files” marked “Missing: Clowns” and “Missing: Criminals”; a Joker line that is so cringe-inducing, you have to read it on the page—accompanied by a grave close-up on the clown’s eye. And then there’s the romantic development shoehorned into Three Jokers #2, a desperate attempt to bring something new to the book’s emotional stakes because everything else here is something readers have seen before.
Fabok, Anderson, and letterer Rob Leigh do very sharp work on Three Jokers’ visuals, and the nine-panel grid introduces opportunities for subtlety and stillness that aren’t always present in Fabok’s more bombastic superhero work. The art does break from the nine-panel grid to give certain scenes a different rhythm, but there’s a sense of restraint throughout, even when Fabok is drawing a grinning shark bursting through a glass window or a throng of Joker victims descending on Batman and Batgirl. The difference in the big action set-pieces in the first two issues highlights how the Joker’s journey as a character over the years has stripped him of his charm, taking him from theatrical crimes like Joker-ized fish to more brutal serial-killer behavior that typically includes smiling corpses but rarely has any comedic flair. Three Jokers doesn’t have anything meaningful to say about this character transition or how it’s tied to the trajectory of the superhero genre, instead serving up a standard post-Watchmen superhero drama, stuck in a mode of constant suffering.