Joker: Killer Smile #1-3 & Batman: The Smile Killer one-shot
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Andrea Sorrentino
I have enjoyed Gideon Falls, the independent comic by the creative team of Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino. I started reading and review the series in March of 2019 and followed up a year later with a look at the second and third volumes. Be on the lookout in December for another update as I am reading through the current issues. This led me to become interested in the duos Joker mini-series and subsequent Batman one-off for DC Comics. Lemire is no stranger to DC Comics having penned Superboy, Animal Man, Green Arrow, and other work. Sorrentino has also dabbled at DC, illustrating Lemire’s Green Arrow run as well as the New 52 I, Vampire series.
Joker: Killer Smile is about Arkham Asylum psychotherapist Dr. Ben Arnell. Arnell is determined to be the first person to diagnose The Joker and eventually cure him. Arnell is an exceptionally mentally healthy man who is confident the Clown Prince of Crime isn’t going to rattle him, and he seems to be making progress. One night, as the doctor is putting his son down for bed, he discovers a twisted children’s book about a character named Mr. Smiles. The story starts out innocuous enough but devolves into a bloody nightmare. This shakes the good doctor who begins to notice other traces of a presence in his home. Eventually, he begins to suspect The Joker is somehow entering his house at night and becomes terrified for his family’s safety.
The best Joker stories are horror stories, in my opinion. Anytime he’s presented in a goofier vein, it just doesn’t work for me personally. I think his disconnect with the norms of society is what makes him such a frightening figure. He becomes unpredictable because of that element. I think the Joker film veered into horror well but ultimately failed because its themes are muddled, and the character’s arc is incredibly messy. The Joker should never be the protagonist, he should be the inciting element in another person’s nightmares. Killer Smile gives us that Joker, the ever-looming darkness always on the verge of gobbling us up.
I want to stop for a moment to talk about DC’s Black Label imprint. Over the years, DC Comics has had several imprints, a small umbrella of thematically similar titles. Elseworlds were “What If?”/alternate reality type stories. Vertigo was mature readers, usually a dark fantasy or crime element. Most recently, Young Animal was a response to Vertigo but with more capes & tights bent. Black Label has been utterly baffling to me as a reader. I honestly think DC doesn’t quite know what Black Label is meant to be. The line has become a collection of mini-series and series under other labels like the regular DC Universe or Vertigo but then brought under this banner.
The first Black Label mini was Batman: White Knight, which would have been an Elseworlds tale in the past. This was followed by many other Batman mini-series usually mature readers type books, including Batman: Damned, which infamously showed Batman’s penis though you weren’t supposed to see it in the finished printed book. You had Frank Miller’s utterly bizarre and unnecessary Superman: Year One and his Dark Knight Returns franchise. Currently, Black Label is publishing a Question mini by Lemire, Tom King’s Strange Adventures, Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey, and a Wonder Woman mini that throws her into an apocalyptic wasteland. I literally cannot explain what it means for something to be a Black Label title. I guess the artwork is a higher tier most of the time? The stories all seem to be out of continuity but not necessarily Elseworlds.
All that said, Killer Smile is quite well written, but honestly did not need to be three issues, two at max. Sorrentino’s artwork is given a lot of room to breathe, which is fantastic, but I think that might be why it is three issues. Any fan of modern psychological crime stories like Silence of the Lambs or David Fincher’s work will have a pretty easy time figuring out the twist in the first issue, so it becomes a matter of time waiting for Arnell to catch up with what we all know. I’m much more interested in the follow-up Batman: The Smile Killer.
Batman: The Smile Killer goes deeper down the rabbit hole of psychotherapy by bringing up some questions the reader might have had from Killer Smile. There was a question in that mini-series as to if Batman existed or was just an imagined figure. This one-shot begins like you would expect any Batman story to start but then diverts into showing us Bruce Wayne as an inmate at Arkham. It becomes clear that Batman, how we think of him, is not the same in this universe. There are flashbacks to a children’s show Bruce would watch as a child, Mr. Smile, the same character from the book Arnell found.
The effects of Mr. Smiles on young Bruce start out unnerving and end up utterly horrific. Lemire seems to be setting up this universe’s Joker as a puppetmaster, able to psychologically manipulate others, and possibly the host of this kids’ show. The Joker then is not so much a single person but a psychological condition he’s able to inflict on other people, driving them to harm those they love. But The Joker seen in Arkham is not old enough to be the one from Bruce’s memories meaning even he is not the original. We never discover if the first Joker is still out there, but it is clear his legacy resonates through Gotham City. I personally have always liked this idea for the mainstream comics, The Joker, as a viral idea, which is why he’s looked so different through the years and operated with tactical diversity. Each person is just a host to something primal and evil.
If you are a Batman fan and enjoyed The Joker film or the Dark Knight movies, I think you’ll like this take on the characters. If you didn’t like those films, I still think you will get a lot of enjoyment out of these comics. They are not a long read, you could likely knock all four issues out in an hour or so. I’m still not sure what the hell DC Black Label is, but this release is one well worth picking up.