Batman: The Smile Killer #1
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Andrea Sorrentino and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC/Black Label
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Is Andrea Sorrentino destined to become the next great Batman artist? If Batman: The Smile Killer #1 is any indication, I’d say he’s more than earned his shot — while he and writer Jeff Lemire’s core concept isn’t revolutionary, Sorrentino’s grim and atmospheric artwork makes this oversized debut a must-buy, evoking modern masters like J.H. Williams III, Jae Lee, and John Cassaday. Reading like a psychological thriller structured upon hazy dream logic, Batman: The Smile Killer hits like a freight train, and will leave you clamoring for the next issue.
On paper, you might argue that you’ve seen The Smile Killer’s concept before — we saw Bruce Wayne in Arkham just this year in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Last Night on Earth. Seeing Lemire lock Bruce away, gaslighting him to believe that the Batman might not be real loses some potency when you remember that it’s all been done before. But the execution remains strong — whereas Snyder and Capullo used that as a springboard for some crazy superhero storytelling, Lemire instead keeps readers in the dark, letting the tension build. Something interesting that Lemire does is he cuts from scene to scene, often with little prelude or fanfare — the trick is, he does it in a way that’s hard to catch upon a first read, feeling instead like a nightmare where you don’t know how you got there.
But the real draw here is Sorrentino. The way he tackles this book is such a shift in evolution from the way he drew Joker: Killer Smile — whereas the Joker’s story often felt clean and bright, almost under an asylum’s fluorescent light, Smile Killer is drenched in shadow, with only bits and pieces of light to pierce the darkness. It feels like David Fincher and Darius Khondji’s work on Seven in a lot of ways, but with the crazy panel layout work of Sorrentino’s previous work and some of the stylistic Bat-flourishes of J.H. Williams III. The way that style works for a character like Batman can’t be overstated — it feels like when Eduardo Risso was drawing the book, that there’s such a distinctive voice at work here.
And with that sort of visual foundation in place, Sorrentino and Lemire are able to push and pull us through the nightmare hellscape they’ve concocted for Bruce Wayne. For example, Sorrentino reverts to that bright style with some grim flashbacks of a young Bruce watching Mr. Smiles, the horrifying children’s character from Killer Smile — and Lemire is able to push the readers’ buttons in a particularly visceral way, especially during a scene where Mr. Smiles tells Bruce to put his own eye out with a pair of scissors. (I audibly said “Thank God” when an adult intervenes at just the right moment.)
Where I think things stumble a bit is towards the end of the book, where Lemire dovetails back to the distinct plot points from Killer Smile — I feel like Dr. Arnell’s story isn’t really reestablished here, and to be honest, I think felt more powerful in a self-contained environment. And like I said before, because we’ve seen this scenario played out before, it’s hard to put too much stock into Bruce’s gaslighting, because we know just how unlikely it is that DC is going to spend time publishing a book saying "Batman’s fake!"
Limits of suspension of disbelief aside, Sorrentino’s swinging for the fences in Batman: The Smile Killer, and the results are breathtaking. Even if Lemire is bringing us through some well-trod territory with the actual storyline, he delivers some strongly unsettling work here, and Sorrentino’s take on the Dark Knight is just so striking that it’s impossible to dismiss. If you pick up one Big Two book this week, make sure it’s this one.