Joker: How Brian Azzarello Contextualized One Of Comics’ Iconic Antagonists

author img
BY September 4, 2019

On the 10th Anniversary of the Joker graphic novel by Brian Azzarello, it remains one of the definitive books on the mysterious DC Comics character.

The Joker is, and will likely always be, one of DC Comics most unique characters. Notice I said ‘character’ and not ‘villain’. Classifying Joker solely as a villain would be incredibly reductive. Instead, he is a force of nature that has been destructive, amoral and downright baffling at times. 

Not many comic books have ever attempted to explain the Joker. And they don’t really need to. The most appealing aspect of Joker is the mystery surrounding his origin. Not to mention trying to figure out why he is the way he is. The upcoming Todd Phillips-directed film, releasing later this year, serves as a kind of origin for him. However, no other media has ever truly went inside the Joker’s mind. One came very close. 

Joker, written by Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets) and illustrated by Lee Bermejo (Lex Luthor: Man Of Steel), takes a look at the rationale, reasoning, and justification behind how the Joker behaves. They accomplish this through the eyes of a low-level henchman. The graphic novel is so influential, that rumor suggest it inspired the look of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.

So let’s take a look at how the Joker graphic novel dug into one of comic’s most deranged and bizarre minds. 

Fresh Set Of Eyes

Azzarello sets Joker apart from most other graphic novels by simply telling the story through the eyes of a completely new character, Jonny Frost. Frost is assigned to pick up Joker from Arkham Asylum as he is, surprisingly, being released. 

A page from the Joke Graphic Novel (2008)
Image via

Frost makes something of a good impression on Joker, and ends up staying on as his driver. This is how the narrative of the story unfolds, through the eyes of a low-level bad guy. Jonny experiences Joker first hand and acts as a proxy for us to embark on the Clown Prince of Crime’s twisted adventures. We are strapped into the front seat as he tries to reclaim the city from other villains who have taken over his territory during his stay at Arkham. 

Most stories featuring Joker occur from the third or first-person narrative (usually Batman’s). Joker’s plans and motivations usually unfold in the story as Batman, (thereby, the audience) finds out about them through narrative progression. Never are we treated to Joker’s reasoning nor see his endgame the way that he does. Getting to be a part of how the Joker plans, and how he thinks, changes this. 

An Establishing, Not Origin Story

While Allan Moore’s The Killing Joke is widely regarded as the definitive Joker story, featuring the character’s origins through flashbacks, Joker can be seen as his “establishing” story. 

Azzarello and Bermejo’s graphic novel establishes the character as more than a psychopathic villain with no rhyme nor reason to his actions besides anarchy. We’re given a Joker with a plan, a reason that gets him out of bed in the morning. If he even sleeps at all.  His release from Arkham is followed immediately by a grand homicidal gesture in a night club. He makes a statement and challenges other members of the criminal underbelly to follow him in retaking Gotham. 

Joined by Killer Croc, and his faithful Harley Quinn, Joker enlists the help of many of Batman’s Rogues’ Gallery, like Penguin and Riddler, to accomplish his plans. The biggest thorn in his side, surprisingly, is none other than Harvey Dent, a.k.a. Two-Face. 

Still, So Much Crazy!

Make no mistake, the Joker is completely psychotic. And this graphic novel doesn’t shy away from that. But it contextualizes the craziness through Jonny Frost. 

Seeing Joker’s murderous nature up against the always-prepared and capable Batman is one thing. We know Bats can handle him. But seeing Joker slashing and setting fire to a building, from the perspective of someone very much scared for their own life, is an entirely different matter altogether. 

Joker Graphic Novel Cover
Image via SlashFilm

Azzarello’s script, along with Bermejo’s panels, places us as close to Joker as anyone would ever be comfortable getting. And despite this being a graphic novel, the tension is palpable. Most of the character’s personality gets written off by Batman as just ‘psychotic’ behavior.

But seeing how he acts among his own, is almost admirable. He starts with nothing and gets others to join him using intimidation and brutality, and then climbs through the ranks of Gotham City’s criminal hierarchy. Admirable. In a sick and twisted way, of course. 

Graphic Novel To Movie To New Movie?

While Bermejo mentioned he is unsure if the design for Heath Ledger’s version of the character from The Dark Knight, was inspired by his own, the similarities are undeniable. 

The movie sees the villain’s trademark red clown smile transformed into a messy and deformed scar. Bermejo’s art in the book imagines the character very similarly. The artist’s pencils clearly draw a scar on Joker’s face, making the man look that much more ruthless and unnerving. 

The Todd Phillips’ Joker film unabashedly stated that the new movie will not be based on any comic book storyline. However, from the trailers, Joaquin Phoenix’s look resembles the book. The tone the film promises is just as noir and gritty as Azzarello’s graphic novel. 

The Quintessential Antagonist

The novel even furthers the idea of Joker himself being the antithesis to Batman. The ending of the book (no spoilers!) gloriously personifies the perpetual back and forth between Batman and his arch-nemesis, in a struggle that almost justifies one to the other. 

Azzarello captures the character wonderfully in this book. There is never a point where you will think that this isn’t Joker. While it’s easy to write Joker as maniacal and crazy, to put purpose in those bulging and distant eyes took the combined talents of Azzarello and Bermejo. 

Brian Azzarello’s Joker is a monumental graphic novel, given that it puts us into the mind and daily life of one of comic book history’s most iconic characters. A character that has defied explanation. Who has constantly exemplified the savagery that most villains can only aspire to. And one who has become one of the most intriguing antagonists in any form of media. 

10-Year Anniversary Edition

Azzarello and Bermejo’s Joker has just been re-released as part of a special 10-year anniversary edition. The re-release is under DC Comics new Black Label, featuring more adult-themed comic book stories.

Joker is a book that’s as twisted as the character itself and definitely required reading for any comic book fan. 

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below or share the article on social media so your friends can get in on the discussion!


Shah Shahid is an entertainment writer, movie critic (so he thinks), host of the Split Screen Podcast (on Apple Podcasts & everywhere else) and filmy father on a mission to educate his girls on decades of film history. Armed with uncontrollable sarcasm and cautious optimism, Shah loves discussing film, television and comic book content until his wife’s eyes glaze over. So save her by engaging him on his own blog at or on Twitter @theshahshahid.

Leave a comment


Infinity Saga Comic Books: Great Read After Endgame

Avengers: Endgame is making more money than most films ever. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has likely come to a crossroads. With many changes, what comes next? Well, some Marvel movies are still to come out this year. There are still a lot of stories the movies could tell. To hold you over, consider revisiting the […]

BY Taylor Bauer May 14, 2019
House of X #2: Hickman Explores the Many (SPOILER) of (SPOILER)

So, there’s no way to review Hickman and Larraz’s House of X #2 without spoiling it. It’s a brilliant comic that works as a one-shot and that builds on what happened in House of X and Powers of X so far. But from page one, it dramatically changes one of the most important characters in […]

BY Roman Colombo August 7, 2019
Powers of X #3 Hickman Breaks All the Rules (Spoiler Review!)

A few days ago, I said it seemed that Powers of X would focus on four time periods: year zero, ten, one hundred, and one thousand. So, I was wrong. Powers of X #3 focuses solely on Year 100, and seems to wrap up the Year 100 storyline in a viscously surprising way. So, once […]

BY Roman Colombo August 24, 2019
Star Wars Battlefront 2 Celebration Edition is Jam Packed with Content

There’s nothing like a good redemption story. We see it all the time in comic books. A villain suddenly sees the error of their ways, turns good, and we love them for it. We don’t see it as much with video games, and no, I don’t mean characters. If a game is cast aside as […]

BY Taylor Bauer December 4, 2019
Super Mario Maker 2 Update – What’s New?

When it comes to popular Nintendo Switch games, Super Mario Maker 2 has been huge. The game is still seeing a ton of players daily, months after its release. The developers at Nintendo working on the game are ready to send more content to the game as well. In an update coming on December 5th, […]

BY Taylor Bauer December 2, 2019
Ring Fit Adventure Shortage in Japan Sparks Apology from Nintendo

It seemed a little like a joke at first, but Ring Fit Adventure is a hit. The Nintendo published fitness game for the Switch is huge all over the world. Of course, Japan took to the game quite fondly. Even here in the United States, people are really into this game. Essentially, you track movements and […]

BY Taylor Bauer December 1, 2019
RuneScape Glitch Almost Destroyed the In-Game Economy

RuneScape is a historic MMORPG with a fervent player base to this very day. For nearly 18 years, the game has brought 200 million accounts into its fantasy world. For a lot of people, a few hours on RuneScape is a part of the normal daily routine. There is a new version of the game, […]

BY Taylor Bauer November 27, 2019


Wheel of Time Casting News: The Gleeman and an Ogier Join The Party

Casting news for The Wheel of Time show on Amazon Prime has been steadily rolling out. The first season is currently filming in Prague, but fans have been wondering who was going to play certain major roles. This week’s #WOTWednesday brought us the actors who will play the the gleeman Thom and the loveable Ogier named […]

BY Emily O'Donnell December 6, 2019
Zack Snyder Confirms Snyder Cut Exists In New Photo

After 2 years of back and forth, theories, assumptions and presumptions, Zack Snyder confirms Snyder Cut is very real and it exists.

BY Shah Shahid December 6, 2019
The Foundation Show on Apple TV+ Casts New Faces

An adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is coming to Apple TV+ and is rapidly adding cast members.  Jared Harris (Chernobyl) will play Hari Seldon, “a mathematical genius who predicts the demise of the empire.” This week brought more casting news, some of which may be surprising to book readers. Several major characters will gender-swap, […]

BY Emily O'Donnell December 6, 2019
First Look at Lucifer Season 5 Ladies Night and Episode Titles Released by Netflix

Lucifer on Netflix has deep roots in comics, even if the series is miles away from the source books. In fact, the rescued murder procedural performed so well on the streamer, it extended Lucifer’s final season by six episodes. Thanks to Aimee Garcia, who plays Forensic investigator and all-around sweetheart Ella, we get our first […]

BY Joshua M. Patton December 6, 2019