Monday, July 14, 2008


Man, this week and next are practically overflowing with fanboy=approved goodness. E3 kicked off today here in LA, and if you read my previous blog entry, you'll hear all about my trip to Microsoft's blockbuster E3 press conference. Already, the show is creating a ton of buzz, and we've still only heard from one of the Big Three. Meanwhile, next Thursday sees the start of the San Diego Comic-Con, in a year when finally, after 22 years, we will see the first glimpses of a WATCHMEN movie. That same weekend, a new X-FILES move will hit theaters, writing a new chapter in one of the most beloved television series of all time. And in between now and then? Hmm, I think there's ... something. Some little movie or something, can't quite remember the name ...

>Oh, yeah. THE DARK friggin' NIGHT.

Let's give a little context, shall we? I'll try to go with the short version ... In 1989, Tim Burton brought a startling vision of the Batman mythos to the screen - it was a gothic, fantastical film, one that created true Bat-Mania across the country and kicked off the first real, big-time, ultra-viable superhero movie franchise since the Superman films descended into self-parody. But soon, the same thing happened to Batman. Joel Schumacher got his hands on the franchise, and turned them into campy farce. Whereas at least the old Adam West series had a self-aware wit, these new Batman films were just plain awful - squandering actors like Jim Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones, and Uma Thurman, and plummeting the Batman film franchise to a critical and creative death.

Enter Christopher Nolan and BATMAN BEGINS. For years, rumors swirled about how the Batman franchise would be reinvented. Would there be a Batman 5 featuring the Scarecrow as the villain? Would Darren Aranofsky direct Batman: Year One? Would there be a film adaptation of Batman Beyond, or of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns? Instead, the reigns were handed over to Christopher Nolan, who had become an indie sensation thanks to his hypnotizing diectorial debut - Memento, and to David Goyer, who had helped ignite a modern comics-to-film rennaisance with his work on Marvel's BLADE films.

I still remember seeing the Batman Begins trailer for the first time - finally, THIS was the Batman film that we had been waiting for. It just felt right - it was dark, serious, moody, and most importantly, it felt respectful, reverant even, towards the hero's comic book origins. When I saw the movie, I was floored. Yes, the movie had flaws, but the shock of seeing a Batman film done so right, after the last few attempts were so wrong, was overwhelming. Christian Bale was nearly perfect as Bruce Wayne, and, finally, we got to see a film version of Bruce Wayne's journey to become the Bat.

But the kicker ... the kicker was that brilliant last scene, adapted faithfully from the epilogue of Frank Miller's Batman: Year One. Escalation, explained Jim Gordon, was occurring in Gotham's underworld. The villains were adapting to meet Batman's flair for the theatrical. There was a new guy, left a calling card, calling himself ... The Joker. I remember vividly the theater bursting into spontaneous applause at this reveal, and from that very second, the anticipation began to build for the next Batman, the movie that would transplant Christopher Nolan's dark vision on to one of fiction's most legendary villains. I know I've been waiting for this one with bated breath - like many, I consider to be Batman vs. The Joker to be the quintissential showdown of good vs. evil. Order vs. Chaos. Dark vs. Light. One man clinging to a sliver of sanity, the other a freakish nihilist who has completely given in to madness.

- In comics, The Joker is a character who has endured for decades, and to this day is one of the scariest and most effective villains not only in comics, but of all of fiction. It's no coincidence that some of the best Batman stories ever told have revolved around The Joker - the two are the ultimate yin and yang. What's more, the Joker's insanity and disregard for human life brings to light all the big moral questions that serve as the foundation of superhero comics. When is it okay to kill, if ever? Does a hero extend himself to save a villain's life, even if it means that surely more will die? Is a hero more closely linked to his worst villains than theyd like to admit? With a villain like Lex Luthor, it's more of a practical question of disrupting his latest scheme. But with the primal force that is The Joker, there is a more existential question at play - can Batman ever truly stop him without crossing that line, without becoming a villain himself? It's a question that looks to be addressed in THE DARK KNIGHT, and it sounds like it will be dealt with with all the complexity and shades of grey that such a weighty topic demands.

But before everyone gets caught up in praising the movie, let's take a moment to give kudos to the stories that made The Joker the legend that he is. And so here are ...


1. Batman: The Killing Joke

- Was there any other choice for #1? Alan Moore's dark and disturbing graphic novel was a pivotal story in the Batman mythos, as it saw The Joker shoot and paralyze Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl. But more importantly, this was a scary look inside the twisted psyche of the Clown Prince of Crime, with the most startling revelation being that maybe, just maybe, there wasn't as much separating him from the Batman as we thought. The final moments, in which the two blood enemies share a laugh, is a disturbing and memorable image that shows that all of us are capable of going slightly insane. And of course, the art, by Brian Bolland, is absolutely incredible. Bolland crafted perhaps the all-time, definitive image of The Joker.

2. The Dark Knight Returns (#3)

- Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns has a foreboding air of finality about it - it tells of an aged Batman coming out of retirement for one last go at cleaning up Gotham. It's inevitable, of course, that this broken-down Bat has one last, chilling encounter with his arch-nemesis. The irony of the classic showdown is, of course, that even as Batman has grown brutal and bitter to the point where he wouldn't mind snapping the Joker's neck, well, The Joker delivers the ultimate and final punchline.

3. Batman: Going Sane

- Here is an oft-overlooked story that was originally printed in serialized form in Legends of the Dark Knight, and has since been collected in trade paperback form. The premise is so intriguing though, that any Joker fan should seek it out immediately. Thinking that he's actually succeeded in killing the Batman, something snaps in the Joker's mind, and suddenly and jarringly, his madness recedes, and the Joker, shockingly, becomes sane. Reinventing himself as Joe Kerr, the former villain lives a normal life and even finds love. But slowly, the memories of the past horrors he's committed begin to resurface, and the question becomes: how long can the Joker stay sane before his madness once again takes hold? Very well written by J.M DeMatteis and well-illustrated by Joe Staton.

4. Batman: A Death In the Family

- The Joker has committed many terrible acts over the years, but none were more controversial than the time he, well, killed Robin. While this 1980's storyline gained buzz for its inclusion of a 1-900 number, allowing readers to dial in and vote whether the second Robin, Jason Todd, should live or die, the fact is that this is a very well-done storyline that truly highlights just how personal things can be between Batman and the Joker. It's also a great morality play that asks just how far Batman is willing to go to take down his nemesis.

5. Batman: The Man Who Laughs

- A great companion piece to Batman: Year One, Ed Brubaker's story of the first-ever meeting between Batman and The Joker is well-written and very relevant to THE DARK KNIGHT, as there will surely be some elements of the film that borrow from this one-shot graphic novel. Brubaker, one of the best modern writers of Batman, manages to write a gritty tale that shows how Batman transitions from dealing with mobsters and crooks to a full-blown maniac like The Joker. It's that whole escalation thing ...

6. Batman: No Man's Land (Volume 5)

- No Man's Land was a long and epic storyline that saw Gotham City cut off from the rest of the country following a devastating quake. In the absence of law and order, the city descends into anarchy, forcing an absent Batman to return to take back his city piece by piece. For me, what truly cemented No Man's Land as a modern classic were the final few chapters, in which a waiting-in-the-wings Joker makes his final play for chaos, even as Batman is on the verge of at last restoring some order to the city. The climax sees the Joker claiming yet another victim close to Bruce Wayne - Police Lieutenant Sarah Essen Gordon - the wife of Commisioner Gordon. When Batman confronts the Joker, intent on making him pay for his crimes, the reaction of Jim Gordon is one of the greatest moments in modern Batman comics. I'll be keeping an eye out for it in THE DARK KNIGHT, because it's too good of a scene for them not to use.

7. The Joker's Five Way Revenge

- When first created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and artist Jerry Robinson, The Joker was a creepy criminal whose look was inspired by Conrad Veidt's film "The Man Who Laughs." OVer time though, thanks to the campy 60's TV series and some of that era's goofier stories, The Joker, like Batman, was played more for laughs than for chills. But in the 70's, writer Denny O'Neil and legendary artist Neil Adams brought Batman back to his dark, pulp-fiction roots. They created new villains like Ra's Al Ghul, and, they reinvented the Joker as a cold-blooded killer - making him once again a darker antagonist, suitable for darker times. The Joker's Five Way revenge, a classic story that reintroduces The Joker to his dark side, marked a turning point in the character's history.

8. The Laughing Fish

- Following O'Neil and Adams, the iconic team of Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers further transitioned Batman from caped crusader to Dark Knight Detective. In doing so, they crafted one of the all-time great Joker stories, which was later paid homage to by Batman: The Animated Series - the case of the Laughing Fish. The story is a classic - The Joker uses his toxins to create a new breed of smiling fish, and then attempts to trademark the unique animals. Upset that he is denied legal ownership, the Joker decides to simply kill all of the annoying bueraucrats who would deny him his rightful profits. Along with Five Way Revenge, this is another defininf story that established the Joker as the twisted killer that modern readers love to hate.

9. Batman: Lovers and Madmen

- This recent story, printed in the Batman: Confidential comic book, drew a lot of flack at first because it had the audacity to contradict a few of the plot points from Alan Moore's revered The Killing Joke. At first, I was among the skeptics. But I stuck with the story, from Heroes writer Michael Green, and soon found myself surprised - this was actually one hell of a Joker story - a sharply written, darkly horrific origin tale that shows how a small time thug known as The Red Hood was transformed into the insane criminal mastermind known as The Joker. It's an excellent read, depicting one of the scariest and most twisted versions of the character I've ever read.

10. Batman: Mad Love

- In his role as the guiding creative force behind Batman: The Animated Series, Paul Dini crafted some of the best modern Joker stories ever told, each brilliantly voiced by Mark Hamill. One of Dini's most lasting creations was of course Harley Quinn - the Joker's right-hand woman who started off as a prison psychologist sent to analyze the Joker, but who soon found herself madly in love with him. Harley's descent into love-fueled madness was chronicled in the comic book Mad Love, written by Dini, and it became an instant classic upon release - a look at how The Joker represents an idealized, almost seductive vision of chaos and anarchy. It's a brilliant tale of psycho clown killers and the women who love them.

11. Knightfall (parts 5 to 9)

- Knightfall isn't really about The Joker, and that's what makes the Joker's role in the story all the more intense and compelling - knowing that the Joker, of all people, is actually only a warm-up for an even more terrifying villain lying in wait ... well, if that's the case then things aren't looking so hot for Batman. Knightfall, of course, is about the villain Bane, a cunning strategist obsessed with breaking The Bat. Bane engineers a prison break at Arkham Asylum, unleashing all of Batman's greatest foes at once. Bruce Wayne, already near exhaustion, must push himself to the brink in order to take down the escaped villains one by one, all the while knowing that Bane is waiting in the wings. As Batman nears his breaking point, he finds himself confronted with a Joker-Scarecrow team, who have kidnapped Gotham's mayor and who have plans to unleash hell upon the city. In his weakened and desperate state, Batman's brutal confrontation with The Joker takes on a truly epic tone. As Batman pummels him, remembering that this is the same vile person who murdered Jason Todd, Batman cannot help but scream in rage: "Jason! JASON! JASOOON!" Talk about intense.

12. Gotham Central: Soft Targets

- Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker's late, great Gotham Central series provided a fascinating look into the gritty world of the Gotham City P.D., giving a man-on-the-street perspective to the craziness that living in a town that Batman calls home surely entails. Due to its realistic and adult tone, Gotham Central's take on a Joker killing spree was made all the more eerie and unsettling. Since Christopher Nolan brings that same sort of grounded, rooted-in-reality vibe to his Batman films, checking out this trade paperback could be a perfect primer for THE DARK KNIGHT.

13. Robin: The Joker's Wild

- Even though Jason Todd, aka Robin II, was killed by The Joker, Batman eventually took on a new apprentice - Tim Drake - who went on to become the third person to go by the name of Robin. Molded by prolific writer Chuck Dixon, scrappy computer-hacker Tim Drake quickly became a fan-favorite. Shortly after he became Robin, Tim found himself forced to take on the man who killed his predecessor - The Joker. Dixon does a great job of building up the threat of the Joker, to the point where we really wonder how this novice Robin has a chance in hell of surviving their run-in. But we also see the interesting effect of The Joker having to face a hero who, seemingly, he had already killed.

14. Superman: Emperor Joker

- As this Superman epic began, the story was actually titled Emperor ??? - the identity of the mastermind behind the tale's strange events was kept a mystery from fans, and so the eventual reveal was quite the stunner. Te end result was one of the more memorable Superman stories of the last several years - as the Man of Steel finds himself in a remade universe, one where hallucinatory, Alice-In-Wonderland logic rules the day and where nothing is as it seems. It turns out that this new reality is actually the manifestation of the will of The Joker - the villain has somehow tapped into the cosmic power of the otherdimensional Mr. Mxyzptlk, and remade the universe in his image. It's a fun, mind-bending adventure, and a strange look inside the mind of The Joker.

15. Showcase '94 - King Joker

- Here's a little underrated gem - a psychedellic, two-part story from DC's 90's-era anthology series, Showcase (itself a revised version of the classic Showcase series from decades past). In this story, we actually take a dark and disturbing trip inside the fractured mind of The Joker, where we see him as he sees himself - a fallen king eternally at battle with a strange Bat-god, locked in a neverending war, The Joker the victim of the Bat's cruelty and reign of terror. I read this one a long time ago, but its evocative imagery and poetic style has stayed with me all these years. Creepy.

16. Legends of the Dark Knight #50

- Featuring a classic cover of The Joker and a grinning cheshire cat, this story saw legendary Batman writer Denny O'Neal celebrate LOTDK's landmark 50th issue by coming in to pen a tale of Batman's first ever meeting with The Joker. While this story would be retold again by Ed Brubaker in "The Man Who Laughs," and again by Michael Green in "Lovers and Madmen," O'Neil's version is short, to the point, and features an ironic twist. The way he tells it, Batman at first severely underestimates The Joker, never realizing quite what a threat the man truly is. In fact, the issue ends with a strangely optimistic Batman speculating that he doubts he'll ever tangle with the Joker again - an ominously ironic ending that foreshadows the legendary rivalry yet to form between the two.

17. Action Comics #719 - Hazard's Choice

- Here is a somewhat controversial Superman story that nonetheless is one of the most memorable single-issues of Action Comics from the 1990's. I still remember reading it as a kid and pondering the questions it raised for days on end. In the story, the Joker poisons Lois Lane, and tells Superman that the only way to save her life is to kill him. I forget the exact mechanism, but somehow, killing The Joker would produce an antidote that would revive Superman's one true love. Astonishingly, Superman REFUSES to kill the Joker, thinking that doing so would compromise eveything he stands for. It's one of those classic superhero morality plays, even if it stretches the limits of credibility. At some point, you'd have to think that Superman, Batman, or just some angry cop would've offed the guy by now.

18. Knightquest: The Crusade - Detective Comics #'s 671-673 - The Death of Batman

- Speaking of someone finally offing The Joker, in the mid 90's, Bruce Wayne was crippled by Bane and replaced by Jean-Paul Valley, aka Azrael, who became increasingly ruthless as the Batman, going so far as to murder villains in cold blood. Throughout Knightquest: The Crusade, we see Jean-Paul confront many of Batman's classic villains, and see how each reacts to a Batman who clearly isn't the same guy they've formed they'd come to know and hate. Perhaps Az-Bats' most interesting encounter was with The Joker, who of course has that almost symbiotic relationship with Batman. To the Joker, there were certain rules that he and Batman played by, and he knew that no matter how vile his crimes were, he would get apprehended and thrown back into Arkham Asylum - but nothing more severe than that. But with Azrael all but prepared to slice the Joker's throat, we get a very interesting confrontation that puts the usual Batman-Joker dynamic in a fresh light.

19. Detective Comics #826 - Slay Ride

- Only a few months ago, Batman: The Animated Series writer Paul Dini turned in an issue of Detective Comics that many were quick to call an instant-classic ... and I tend to agree. This done-in-one issue sees Robin, on a routine patrol, get snatched up by a maniacal Joker and taken on a madcap roller-coaster ride through Gotham, as Batman desperately tries to figure out a way to help his abducted partner. Dini always writes an awesome Joker, but the pace and tension in this issue is remarkable, the sense of danger, the tangible, you-are-there feeling of being trapped in a car with a homicidal clown.

20. The Joker: Devil's Advocate

- Here's another story that has its flaws, but presents a highly intriguing premise that is anther example of how The Joker often presents Batman with the toughest - and strangest - of moral choices. In this Chuck Dixon-penned graphic novel, the Joker's insanity plea is no longer deemed valid, and the clown prince of crime is actually given the death penalty following his latest murderous crime spree. At first, Batman resigns himself to accepting that the Joker should pay for his crimes - that is, until he finds out that this happens to be the one time that the Joker is innocent of the charges. Will Batman use his knowledge to save the Joker's life? An interesting and thought-provoking story.

Annnnnnd finally, as a bonus:


1. The Joker Sells His Soul to Satan - For Cuban Cigars! - Underworld Unleashed

- Yep, during DC's Underworld Unleashed storyline, the demon Neron recruits the world's most evil villains to his Inner Circle - and each has bargained to receive some long-desired gift in echange for their very soul. While some asked for power, others for health, and others for wealth, the Joker was all to happy to dance with the devil. All he asked for in return was a box of cigars - Cuban, of course.

2. Don't Drop the Soap in Arkham Asylum! - Arkham Asylum: Living Hell

- In Dan Slott's entertainingly twisted miniseries, Arkham Asylum: Living Hell, we see the traumatic effect that being thrown in Gotham's local home for the criminally insane can have on a relatively normal, two-bit criminal. Suffice it to say, any place where one might drop the soap, only to look up and see a cackling Joker looking down at you, is surely a place where nighmares become reality. Yikes.

Alright - that's all for now. Back soon with more DARK KNIGHT WEEK!

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