***WARNING: This review has made at least one person cry***
“Death of the Family” is a master class in psychological horror, start to finish. Joker is back after a year away from Gotham. When we last encountered him in the “New 52”, it was a brief meeting which resulted in the removal of his face. His last confrontation with Batman (also written by Snyder), was when Dick Grayson was wearing the cape and cowl. The clown prince of crime didn’t care about Batman during this encounter. He was dismissive of him, because he knew it wasn’t “his Batman”. I wanted a Scott Snyder Joker story ever since. He teased us about what his next big Batman story would be before “Court of Owls” was even over. I was convinced before the teasers went out that it would be a Joker story. I couldn’t wait for the next story to get here. The closer it got to Batman #13, the more nervous I got. I kept asking myself questions like “What if I have built this up too much?”, “What if I am let down because my expectations were so high?” What we ended up getting was one of the best psychological horror stories I have ever read. DOTF is driven by how well Scott Snyder writes the main protagonists, Batman and the Joker. It is these two characters and the dynamic between them that make this such an amazing story, one that I am confident will go down as one of the greatest Batman stories ever told.
When it comes down to it, DOTF is a character study of the Joker and an exploration of his relationship with Batman. Snyder gives us something familiar, but adds to it, and builds on what has come before to give us a Joker that seems new and different at the same time. This Joker feels fresh and rejuvenated. He is different and he doesn’t understand why. This is the definitive take on the Joker, never has he been more insane, chilling, terrifying, and creepy. The tone is set from the moment he makes his debut in the darkness of the Gotham PD headquarters. He reveals that he knows intimate details of Commissioner Gordon’s life as he moves silently in the darkness killing officers with his bare hands. Joker tells the Commissioner that he missed him almost as much as he missed “him” and not to worry because he will be seeing “him” soon because he has “my calling card”. He haunts Gordon with the words “Sometimes I lie under there (Gordon’s bed) at night and listen to you sleep. The sad things you say… how I want to just reach my arms up and…”, then silence as he makes his exit before Batman turns on the lights. This scene is one of the most chilling things I have read in comics. Joker’s dialogue coupled with the Capullo’s mastery of being able to convey the fear, dread, terror, and haunting chill in a scene that is supposed to take place in total darkness made me think back to when I was afraid of the dark as a child. As chilling as the scene in the Gotham PD was, that we are seeing a different and more driven Joker than ever before is shown to us through the teary eyes of Harley Quinn, who tells Batman that “He’s not the same Bats, He’s not my Mr. J anymore…”. This point is drilled home when we see Joker’s decaying reattached face for the first time, when it is revealed through the scared eyes of Alfred Pennyworth. The first part of the tale ends leaving our mouths gaping and unable to ask the question that we were all thinking. Does Joker know Batman’s secret? Everything revolved around this question and the threat it posed to Batman.
Batman is shaken to his very core. Batman #13 and 14 are haunting, chilling, and full of terror. It builds and builds and reaches its pinnacle with issue #14. As a reader, my emotions followed those of Batman as the story progressed. We are given a Batman that is more afraid and unsure of himself than we have ever seen before. He is seething with doubt. Questioning himself as he drives to meet Joker at the spot of their first meeting, The Gotham reservoir. The silence that fills the voice normally filled by a call to Alfred back at the cave haunts him, fear overtakes him. Batman is greeted with “Hello darling!” His inner monologue reveals to us that it was here where he first saw Joker for who he really was, where he understood what he was facing, and where Joker saw him right back. Batman falls into Joker’s snare and the clown prince of crime professes his love for “my king”. His body language and movement is like those of a schoolgirl in love and in a way Joker is professing his love for his Batman. He gets to his point, what this is all about, he makes it clear so the entire Bat family can hear, he knows who they all are. He plants the seed of doubt in the minds of Batman’s allies. He tells them that Batman wants to fight with him alone. He doesn’t want their help or interference. “He loves me more than he loves you”. “Batman doesn’t want to stop me”. “Why don’t you ask him about it, why don’t you ask him how I know who you are”. Joker makes them start to doubt Batman and they confront him. He has to tell them of a past encounter with Joker that does make it seem likely that Joker knows who they are. Batman insists that Joker doesn’t know. When asked why he is so sure, Batman has no response other than that he never told them about it in order to protect them. He makes his position worse because he can’t tell them how he knows Joker’s claims aren’t true. The seeds of distrust are sown and keep getting woven deeper and deeper, driving a wedge between Batman and his family.
DOTF is a psychological and emotional death of the bat family. Batman has kept things from his family and the Joker shows them this, he makes them question Bruce and ask what he hasn’t told them. Joker shows Batman that the game has changed. His surrogate family is his greatest weakness. Hurting them will do more damage to Batman than any direct harm to Bruce could ever do. Batman embracing and reassuring a frightened Damian captures the relief felt by all of them perfectly. Joker could have cut the faces off of any one member of the bat family or have killed them. He didn’t because he didn’t need to. He can do more damage by simply showing he could do it. In comics, where every death is soon followed by the resurrection of the same character, emotional and psychological damage is much stronger and more lasting. Psychological and emotional damage suits the Joker much more appropriately. This was a psychological battle that Batman wasn’t ready for. There are people who felt left down by the conclusion of DOTF. They wanted a big death. What we ended up with was even better. Those who wanted a big death don’t appreciate the subtlety of the story, the nuances which make this amazing. Everything Joker teased, everything he told Batman was part of the buildup. Getting Batman to worry, to be afraid, to doubt himself, to drive a wedge between him and his family was the punch line. He didn’t need to actually do those things, he just needed Batman to believe he did. He tempts Batman to cross the line, to kill him. Getting Batman to do these this would have been the ultimate victory. Batman doesn’t kill, not ever. It’s not who he is or part of his mission. If you think he should, then you don’t understand the character.
At its core, the story is about Batman and Joker’s relationship, it is about Joker’s love for the Bat and how Joker thinks that Batman needs him, loves him, and he will always come first. That he is just as important to Batman, as Batman is to him. In the end Batman makes Joker face a truth he didn’t want to, that Joker needs him, but he doesn’t need Joker. Joker doesn’t want to know who Batman, Robin, or anyone else is. Knowing their identities would ruin all the fun and the joy that Joker gets out of his endless dance with the Bat. The mere suggestion by Batman that he knows who Joker is, sends Joker leaping into the abyss. At first this victory seems somewhat hollow with very little to back it up. When the dust has settled and Alfred is healing in bed at Wayne Manor, Bruce recounts to Alfred the time he visited and confronted Joker in Arkham as Bruce Wayne. Something he has never told anyone. The blank stare and lack of acknowledgement showed him that it didn’t matter if Joker knew or not who he was. He plans to let the rest of the family in on this, something he couldn’t tell them before. He couldn’t admit to them the risk that he took in doing that. He never gets the chance to tell them. One by one they make their excuses and don’t meet with him. Joker did his damage and wins in the end. He gets the last laugh. Hopefully, this will play out in the bat books for a while. If not, it will take away from what this story was about.
Both Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo are at the top of their game. They have gotten better both individually and as a team with each issue. Snyder knows these characters and writes the best Joker. He nails everything about the character. He writes a strong, but vulnerable and flawed Batman. Batman is much more realistic and able to relate to, than he has ever been. Snyder teases us and tugs at our emotions as readers. Does Batman really know who the Joker was before all this happened? He said he did, but the computer in the Batcave still said “identity unknown”. Was it a bluff or does he know and just not entered it in the system? Does he know but want to keep it to himself? Deep down, does Batman need Joker just as much as Joker needs him? Does he enjoy their endless back and forth? Capullo’s art is an essential part of this story. His art and layouts convey so much emotion that is critical to this story. He gets stronger with each issue he draws, but it is at his strongest in DOTF when drawing the confrontations between Batman and Joker, where he shows Joker’s love for the Bat. The body language is superb. It stands out most in the scenes at the reservoir and the Opening pages to Batman #15 With Joker’s face surrounded by darkness. Snyder’s dialogue is perfect on that page as well, perfectly conveying the emotions and internal dialogue of Batman when he faces the Joker. Snyder is at his strongest when he is either writing the Joker or the internal monologues of Batman in DOTF. Capullo does the same things with his art when words are not enough. He adds nuance and subtlety to the words. Both creators are masters of not just telling the story through their craft, but also making us feel the story. We can’t forget the rest of team Batman though, the inks of Jonathan Glapion, who will be missed as he moves on to other projects, and the always perfect colors of FCO. Editor Mike Marts is wise enough to give Snyder and Capullo a wide berth to take risks that have really paid off.
DOTF is the best Joker story to date and one of the best Batman stories ever told. I can confidently call Batman #13 my favorite single issue of a comic ever (#14 is pretty damn close behind it). DOTF is the best Batman story that I have read.
Rating: 10 out of 10 decaying faces