14th Dec2020

‘Joker: Killer Smile’ Graphic Novel Review

by Phil Wheat

Written by Jeff Lemire | Art by Andrea Sorrentino, Jordie Bellaire | Published by DC Black Label | Format: Hardback, 144pp

When DC Comics announced their Black Label offshoot many though it would be a replacement for the Vertigo line, telling all-new stories and creating all-new characters and universes. But in the end it turned out to be something more interesting – a place where writers could explore the familar characters of DC’s stable in new and intersting ways. Sort of an “Elseworlds” universe, only one where writers were free to target a more mature audience and tell more adult stories in a premium format… And it’s turned out to be something of a huge success; right from the get-go with the controversial Batman Damned and it’s bat-dong, to the likes of Superman: Year One and Harleen – a look at the Joker’s sidekick-come-love interest.

Joker: Killer Smile not only followed hot on the heels of Harleen but also the same three-issue format. This book comes from award-winning Canadian cartoonist Jeff Lemire, creator of the acclaimed series Sweet Tooth and the award-winning graphic novel Essex County. Lemire reunites with artist Andrea Sorrentino (Green Arrow, Gideon Falls) for a psychological horror story that delves into the mind, and madness, of the Joker… Collecting together Joker: Killer Smile #1-3 and Batman: The Smile Killer, the coda to the original 3-issue story; as well as a selection of variant covers and page layouts.

Arkham Asylum is home to many of the Batman’s worst enemies – including the most dangerous one of them all: the Joker. No psychologist or psychotherapist has eveer been able to break through the insanity that imprisoners the Joker’s mind. In face, many themselves have been broken in the attempt. But Dr. Ben Arnell knows that he is different. He is sure that he will be the one to finally reach the man inside the madness – and cure him. Dr. Arnell believes that he can piut an insurmountable wall between himself and the seductive void that lies behind the Joker’s eyes. And he’s absolutely certain that, no matter what he goes through at work, he can keeop that darkenss far away from his family. But he’s wrong. Very, very wrong.

Much like Harleen, which detaled the Joker’s influence on Dr. Harleen Quinzel; Joker: Killer Smile explores the clown prince of crime’s sadistic, mystifying ability to corrupt pretty much anyone he comes into contact with – in this case Dr. Ben Arnell, who’s world and mind becomes fractureed from his close work with the Joker. Not knowing right from wrong, up from down and fact from fiction, Dr. Arnell is very much like Harley Quinn, even though – thankfully – the Joker does not push Ben over the edge antirely, the good doctor seemingly hanging on to the tiniest shred of his sanity; in this case his love for his son. It’s an interesting way to explore the mind of the Joker thorugh the mind of his victim – we’re given an insight into the manner the Joker twists and manipulates people but told by one of his victims. Yet even then “reality” can’t be trusted. You only have to read the coda, Batman: The Smile Killer, to see that… A bizarro-style story, the one-shot explores whether or not Batman himself, Bruce Wayne, has been corrupted like Dr. Arnell. And it’s dark. Very dark.

In fact that’s the resounding feeling when reading Joker: Killer Smile. Darkness. The art by Andrea Sorrentino and Jordie Bellaire’s colouring really give this book a bleak, almost horror film-like look. It’s like seeing Se7en, or Russell Mulcahy’s similar horror thriller Resurrection, brought to life in the pages of a comic. This is a grim story told with grim visuals, visuals that perfectly fit the ethos of DC’s Black label, an ethos that brings more adult themes to the table. Themes here which echo the likes of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke or Hellblazer. There’s no happy ending here; no black and white, just shades of grey; no good wins over evil. In fact Joker: Killer Smile is more of a reflection of real-life than any of DC’s other Batman titles. Making this more “adult” and in-turn more frightening, than anyone could expect.

**** 4/5

Joker: Killer Smile is out now.


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