If you find The Three Jokers in your Christmas stocking, blame Krampus. Jason Fabok’s art is good, but Geoff Johns’ story for the three-issue miniseries embodies everything wrong with the Clown Prince of Crime in the 21st century.
There’s a line or two in Astro City #10 where Winged Victory reflects that her foe Karnazon used to do things — rob banks, conquer nations — until he became obsessed with beating her, with achieving symbolic points through her defeat. That’s the modern Joker, a guy who no longer does things for their own sake; his only interest is hurting Batman. But unlike Astro City, DC seems to think this makes him cooler, not pathetic.
On top of which, Three Jokers makes no sense whatsoever. And like so many of Johns’ Green Lantern arcs, it doesn’t change anything: Batman and Joker end up right back in the same place they’ve been since at least the New 52.
The Three Jokers reveal happened during Johns’ Darkseid War big event, when Batman briefly sat in Metron’s Moebius Chair and gained a few seconds of cosmic wisdom. In that instant he realized the Joker’s he’s been battling over the years is three different men — which, somehow, the World’s Greatest Detective had never even noticed. Three Jokers doesn’t even try to explain how Batman never suspected this; it attempts to explain why there are three Hoodlum Harlequins, but not very well. The story eventually labels the three as the Criminal (classic Golden/Silver Age Joker), the Clown (the Joker who beat Jason Todd’s Robin to death) and the Comedian (the Joker who shot Barbara Gordon in the spine).
The story tells us the three men’s crimes differ subtly, with the Killing Joke Joker the truly scary one (“There’s something behind that smile.”). I didn’t buy it: they’re interchangeable sadists fixated on being Batman’s nemesis. True, the Clown sadistically beat Jason to death while the Comedian crippled Barbara Gordon to make a philosophical point, but I don’t find the difference as stark as the story claims. It would have made more sense to separate out the Criminal from the other two, making him an actual criminal who wants to steal stuff and maybe is actually funny. That, however, goes against current DC dogma that the Joker has to be obsessed with the Bat (being funny now means the Joker kills people but he laughs while he does it). As a result, the Criminal is as fixated as the other two, he just expresses it differently.
The story suggests at first that the Criminal might have created his colleagues, using the chemicals that created him. Or maybe none of them are the original, but there’s a fourth Joker behind them — which Batman should have dismissed out of hand, because why would the chair show him three but not four? In any case, neither of these hypotheses is true. Perhaps inevitably, The Killing Joke‘s Comedian is the one true Joker, because that, rather than “Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” or “The Laughing Fish” or Batman #1 is apparently DC’s definitive Joker, the one that really matters.
The Criminal, as I said, is just as Bat-obsessed as the other two. His goal is to make the Joker “mean more to you than anyone … I need to be everything to you.” The best way to do that, he’s decided, is to create a new Joker who has a deeper personal tie to Batman. The Criminal considers Jason, but he’s too weak, while Barbara’s too strong to break bad. But Joe Chill, currently a lifer in Blackgate? Yes, that’s it! Make him the Joker and Tim Burton’s Batman is retroactive comics canon! It all makes sense!
Batman, however, discovers Chill repented the murder years ago, but didn’t have the heart to ask Bruce for forgiveness. He explains that he lashed out at the Waynes because he didn’t know about the good they’d done for Gotham; he assumed they were rich parasites, living in luxury while guys like him had nothing, and fired in anger. Only later did he realize how wrong he was about them. This is apparently meant to make him tragic and sympathetic, rather than a murderer; to stack the deck further, the prison chaplain tells Bats Chill is also learning disabled. Tugs at the heart strings, doesn’t it?
The Criminal plans to dump Joe in a vat of joker-chemicals but Batman saves him, then the Comedian executes the Criminal (Jason already murdered the Clown). The Comedian shares the Criminal’s desire to be Batman’s soulmate sinister, but he’s going to do it by resolving things between Chill and the Bat: “I healed your greatest wound, so now I can be your greatest pain.” He swears he’ll continue to inflict pain on the Bat until he tires of the game and puts Batman out of his misery.
At the Batcave later, Bruce makes one final reveal to Alfred: he knew who the Joker was within a week of their first battle (but somehow never noticed the other Jokers running around. Right). The Comedian is the real Joker; the possibly imaginary backstory in The Killing Joke is the real deal. Except he was an abusive husband so the cops helped his wife and son escape, then faked the story they’d died in an accident (because that makes so much more sense than arresting the guy, right?). Bruce keep’s the Joker’s name secret because if the media got hold of it, they’d inevitably figure out his family were alive and where they were. And then the Joker would come home ….
Like I said, this interpretation of the Joker is more pathetic than terrifying. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, either: why did the Criminal apparently not know he was just a wannabe? Why would the Joker, that most egotistical of villains, want to share the spotlight, or imagine a better version of himself is even possible? Beyond that, what the hell was the point? The story changes nothing; the existence of three Jokers changes nothing. The story doesn’t alter or illuminate the Batman/Joker relationship. It doesn’t retcon out any glaring discontinuities. It definitely doesn’t make the Joker a better character. Not that every big story needs to be a game changer, but surely having three Jokers should be.
Only it wasn’t.
#SFWApro. Covers by Dick Giordano, Marshall Rogers and Brian Bolland, top to bottom.