Batman has been around for 75 years this year, raising the question of whether there is any new ground the comic can cover, particularly in regards to perhaps his greatest villain, the Joker. Many stories have made great use of the Joker in recent years, from The Dark Knight to the Arkham video games. The Death of the Family seems to wish to set itself up as the ultimate Joker story, revisiting his crimes from the past and giving him a new objective: to separate Batman from the sidekicks and allies he has come to call his family. Here be spoilers.
When the comic opens, Joker has been gone for over a year, last seen when the Dollmaker removed his face which he left behind as a message. The Joker’s return is effectively chilling, seeing him cut the power in the Gotham Police Department before breaking the necks of police officers one by one while Commissioner Gordon attempts to hunt him down. After reclaiming his face he wastes no time in attacking Gotham’s citizens, releasing his poisons on innocents and drawing Batman to where it all began, ACE Chemicals where he was transformed into the Joker. The Joker teases that he knows who Batman really is as well as his allies and that he plans to turn them all away from him.
One of the biggest issues I have with the comic is that through starting by revisiting Joker’s former big crimes with minor twists it can at times feel like a clip-show, showing how Joker became who he is and the first time he tried to attack Gotham. This sense of we’ve been here before doesn’t die down much throughout the event, as not much here really feels that new. Although the point is that the character is repeating his crimes for whatever reason, it just feels lazy, like they couldn’t be bothered coming up with something new for Joker to do, so just have him replay the classics. He poisons the reservoir and the Joker takes over Arkham Asylum, just like he did in the video game of the same name.
The Joker knowing the real identities of Batman and his allies is the main thrust of the story, despite the fact that the character has never much cared about who Batman was beneath the mask, he’s just interested in the mask. The idea that the Joker commits crimes because he is in love with Batman is one I have been fond of since it was used so well in The Dark Knight Returns, but as with many things in the story, nothing new is done with the concept.
The artwork as provided by Greg Capullo is the highlight of the series, both highly detailed and action packed. His vision of the Joker’s new appearance is terrifying, with his old rotting face crudely attached to the bare flesh beneath with at first metal clips and later simply a belt. During fights with Batman his face slips revealing the horrible visage beneath. It works well to create a new Joker, if only the story had found a way to make him seem like an ever more powerful threat than before as opposed to the same old villain.
Above it all the thing that offends me most about Death of the Family is that it is unwilling to do anything daring. Anytime Joker gets close to actually hurting one of Batman’s family it’s all revealed to be a fake out. This is particularly irritating during the final showdown but is an issue that is prevalent throughout. If the story could have just made the plunge to darker territory and had the balls to live up to the title then this could have been a great comic. At the end of the day the Joker disappears and Batman is actually left alone as the villain promised, but I’m just left wondering whether I read a different comic to all the reviewers who gave it perfect scores.