Batman: Three Jokers (2020)
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Jason Fabok
In 2015, in the pages of Justice League #50, Batman used the Mobius Chair, a device of great cosmic power, to ask who the Joker really is. He suddenly appears shocked at the answer. That same day, in the pages of DC Rebirth #1, we follow up and find Batman contemplating that he now knows the Joker is three different people. For five years, that plot beat remained unresolved. Promises were made that a mini-series was forthcoming that would address this shocking revelation, but it took until this year for readers to finally get access to Batman: Three Jokers. There was a lot of hype leading into this story arc and many questions about how much continuity would be changed by the answers revealed inside.
It’s another night in Gotham, and a report comes in that the last surviving members of the Moxon crime family were gunned down in a diner by the Joker. But then another story of the Joker livestreaming his killing of a local comedian pops up. Finally, three bodies dressed as the Joker’s original Red Hood persona show up at the Ace Chemical Factory wearing his signature grid. Batman, Batgirl, and Red Hood (Jason Todd) come together to get the bottom of what is happening. It appears the Joker has enlisted the help of henchmen dressed up like him. The plot thickens as it becomes apparent there are three Jokers, and they have been operating in tandem for years: The Criminal, The Clown, and The Comedian.
I was very scrupulous as to how DC was going to pull this off. As a wildly crazy headline saying there are three Jokers is excellent publicity, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty of plotting that story out & having it make sense with continuity, things become trickier. Geoff Johns doesn’t turn this story into a universe-spanning event or even bring in the multiverse. Johns wisely keeps the scope of the tale lowkey as a good Batman tale should be.
That said, he heavily evokes Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke from page one. The decisions on how to frame the story through the art are very heavy-handed—lots of visual connections, as seen in The Killing Joke and Watchmen’s pages. You’ll see something close up in a panel that is recontextualized in the next and transitions us to another setting or makes a thematic connection between moments. It’s not just that Johns and Fabok do this. It’s that they deliberately ape the work of artists Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland. Story threads tie the two Batman stories together, but it would have been more interesting to step outside of nostalgia and think about new ways to frame the Joker’s dynamic with the Bat-family.
There is equal time given to Batgirl and Red Hood throughout the story, which is one of the aspects I liked. I don’t think Johns writes a great Batman. He is my favorite Flash writer, and I love his run on Green Lantern, but with the Dark Knight, he has never had a good handle on that character. Red Hood’s relationship with the Joker is the most fraught, as the Clown Prince of Crime murdered him in the now very problematic “A Death in the Family” arc by Jim Starlin & Jim Aparo in the 1980s. Red Hood adopted a variation of the guise Joker used when he first came on the scene, which has always seemed strange to wear the mask of your killer. Johns explores that a bit and plays with the idea that Jason Todd, the man under the hood, exists somewhere between Batman and Joker’s ideology, with a chance he could become either one someday.
There is no great revelation beyond “the Joker has been three different people for a while.” What Johns essentially did was create an in-universe explanation for the modus operandi of the Golden Age, Silver Age, and Modern Age Jokers. Johns does an excellent job of making each Joker distinct from the other, and their personalities match up with the people they targeted and how they engaged Batman. The Criminal is interested in settling scores in the Gotham mafia; the Clown is about broad elaborate & fatal gags, while the Comedian is a twisted sadist who resembles the Joker most familiar to modern audiences.
What I liked most about the mini-series was the idea of these Jokers wanting to create one themselves that was the perfect match for Batman. The Criminal, implied to be the original, wants a Joker who holds personal meaning for Batman, someone that he has a reason to fight rather than just a random off the street. That takes the story into some interesting directions that address Batman’s mental trauma from his parents’ death. He does things in the story that imply he has healed that pain somewhat and is working on moving on. There’s a twist at the end that I think will polarize fans, especially those who hold Alan Moore up as a deity. I get the complaints about Watchmen, but whining about Johns referencing The Killing Joke makes no sense because Moore wasn’t writing an original character.
I think this is a pretty solid entertaining Batman story. It’s a surprisingly quick read and delivers on its promise. I don’t expect anything revealed in these pages will be referenced much in the ongoing Batman titles. Three Jokers was published as part of the Black Label imprint, which sometimes is in continuity and other times not, whenever it suits DC editorial. I don’t think anything presented in the story upsets the status quo; Johns was cautious not to put anything in the story to contrast disagreeably with established continuity. I definitely think anything with this much hype will pull in people who want to decry it as the worst Batman story ever, which is just childish. I also don’t agree with some reviews I’ve seen giving it 10 out of 10 and saying it is an instant classic. Three Jokers is a great Batman story and worth your read. I’ve read it twice, and the second time really enjoyed seeing how all the pieces fit together. It would make some great chilly weather fall reading to get lost in.