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

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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 Comixology.com

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!

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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 BlankPageBeatdown.com or on Twitter @theshahshahid.

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