What's really left in Geoff Johns' bag of tricks? He's had memorable runs on a few titles but frequently his attempts to be additive to the DCU end up making it feel smaller and more insular. As a result, while his stories can often seem integral and enticing in the moment, future creators and by some extension readers, are left holding the bag.
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Jason Fabok & Brad Anderson
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC/Black Label
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10
While the Joker's origin and motivations have always been a kind of fun moving target in DC history, Batman: Three Jokers attempts to make some sense of the somewhat contradictory history of the character. But adding Jokers to the mix only serves to muddy the waters and forces Johns to ask the least interesting questions about his characters. Jason Fabok does a fine job here but it's hard not to feel like he's limited by John's insistence on the nine-panel grid which feels more like the writer trying to one-up Alan Moore than actually do something interesting.
Two issues into Three Jokers, I'm left wondering what Geoff Johns is trying to say with this story. Is the goal just to be the guy who parses out the Joker's history or is there something that he really wants to explore about the nature of legacy and trauma in the DCU? Arguably, forcing heroes to grapple with their legacy through the trauma they've inflicted or experienced is kind of John's M.O. We've seen it in his work with Hal Jordan and Conner Kent, so in a lot of ways, this issue especially plays as less of a Joker or Batman story and more of a Red Hood one.
Jason Todd is a character who is defined by never being first. Both Robin and Red Hood are legacy monikers that have very different contexts. There's something interesting to explore there! And Johns puts that right out in front of readers in this one. However, the execution feels more like the writer covering other creator's greatest hits. Joker's torture of Jason feels eerily similar to 'A Death in the Family.' And Johns even manages to work in Batman's own origin. (In case you didn't know by now that Batman's parents were killed...). But those stories have been told already. Johns approaches drawing a throughline between Babs and Jason's responses to their own Joker experiences but whiffs on doing anything interesting with it - opting for the cliche trauma bonding kiss over a meaningful character moment. It's frustrating because like I mentioned earlier, it feels small.
Jason Fabok turns in some solid work across the issue. Like Three Jokers #1, he does a good job selling the brutality of Johns' script. I don't just mean the physical brutality - though there is plenty of that - but the emotional brutality of the story as well. There's no light at the end of the tunnel at this point in the story but Fabok's realistic renderings lend some humanity to the work. There's some real weight here. I don't know that I give Johns as much credit if Fabok's work is less effective or if a more stylized artist is paired with him. But that might be a blessing and a curse for the story. While Fabok's work is technically strong and suits the grim tone, for some readers it might push the story into parody. It's so serious that seeing Batman confront Joe Chill's empty cell is almost laughable.
At this stage, it's hard to muster any real excitement about the pieces that Johns is putting in place. We're no closer to understanding the mystery. Johns has yet to really say anything about the themes that he seems to be playing with regarding how these characters relate to their trauma and legacies. Is there a more meta angle here? Does Johns consider himself to be Jason Todd in this story? Torn between the weight of his own legacy and criticism that he just stood on the shoulders of those that came before him? That might be a bit of a stretch but you can make a case for it. Three Jokers remains a perplexing entry in the DC canon and one that is hard to reckon with on a chapter-by-chapter basis.