Batman versus Joker is an all-time great matchup but the devil is in the details with this week's Batman #97 (opens in new tab). James Tynion IV's approach is clearly meant to keep readers off-kilter while Jorge Jimenez's art helps ground the topsy-turvy plotting. On paper (pun intended? You decide.), that should work, but there's something hollow in the execution.
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Jorge Jimenez and Tomeu Morey
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10
When someone doesn't like a superhero comic, a common refrain is that it 'reads like fanfiction.' But that's stupid because people wouldn't write comics if they weren't fans in the first place and comics are, ya know, fiction. And doubly stupid because there is some pretty good and pretty successful fanfiction out there. (Though the two are necessarily related.) Plus, there's not some objective version of characters that have been around for the better part of 100 years that writers can reference.
This is a long way of saying that it's all fanfiction, folks, and James Tynion IV is definitely a fan.
But putting this work through the lens of our current day, Tynion's task is Sisyphean. He's got to update a classic matchup, give it stakes, make it 'matter,' introduce a girlfriend for Joker, satisfy the editors, fit into the current status quo that was defined by a different writer (who sort of didn't get to finish), make it accessible but make it feel fresh, satisfy the old fans, make it recognizable but not too recognizable, satisfy the corporate overlords - when you realize all the balls that Tynion and artist Jorge Jimenez have to juggle, you begin to wonder why any wants to write these things? I think as it currently stands, it was impossible for Tynion to be successful.
The hallucinatory elements that Tynion introduces are the only place his personal voice really comes through but they are bogged down by a checklist of tropes that feel wedged in. Do we really need to discuss Batman's trauma again? Probably not. Tom King just did that! But here it is again. Punchline is a paper-thin facsimile of Harley Quinn that barely gets any lines, let alone a personality. (Oddly, the dialogue has been a weakness in this run.) The plotting feels too zoomed in to really communicate the gravity of Joker's plot (if there is any). This feels like when one kid in a group is forced to do the whole project because everyone had ideas but no one thought about how to execute them together so they spill out onto the page - a smorgasbord of unsatisfactory that won't get an A but will at least get your credit.
Jimenez's art doesn't have that problem, mostly because he's not being asked to reinvent anything.
Punchline has a terrible design. (Seriously, if anyone can explain her outfit to me, I'm all ears.)
And Clownkiller looks like a Mad Max Casey Jones gone awry.
But at the heart of this, Jimenez just has to draw Batman punching Joker and that always works. He draws a great looking Batman. He has a grace to him that is odd considering the thickness that Jimenez gives him. And Jimenez delivers when it comes to his facial expression work. This book is rarely boring to look at because of how he's able to manipulate these characters in space. But there's an element of the book that feels expected. The blindfolded action sequence alone has some moments that feel like they would be more iconic if they weren't already referencing other work. Have we just come to expect this high level of quality and thus it's dulled our senses? Or is it that this merely effective work just can't break through an otherwise rote premise to feel truly unique?
Batman #97, and this Tynion run in general, have felt bogged down by outside forces. It's a hard thing to put your finger on as a critic because I don't know what James was up against when he was offered this book. But I'm sure he wasn't offered carte blanche on the DCU. This book reads like a writer unfortunately reined in and but really wanting to do the best job possible. Jorge Jimenez's work is the kind that helps readers gloss over the script's inadequacies because it's so easy on the eyes but even having the kind of consistently drilled into us month after month has a numbing effect. DC is still in the business of making comics, sure. But when's the next time we're going to get really excited about them?