Punchline, who debuted in the build-up to the recent 'The Joker War' event, has become arguably the most popular new character introduced in 2020, and this week's Punchline Special #1 begins to pull back the curtain on her origin.
And while it does reveal much about this latest DC villain, it also sets the stage for what Batman writer James Tynion IV tells us will be a "big new frightening conspiracy" coming to DC titles in 2021.
Tynion co-wrote this week's Punchline Special #1 with Sam Johns, with artist Mirka Andolfo rounding out the trio. Newsarama spoke with Tynion and Johns about this one-shot, and how it builds on what came before, and how it'll work as a major factor going forward in the Batman family of titles.
Newsarama: Sam and James, what can readers expect from Punchline Special #1?
James Tynion IV: First and foremost, you can expect absolutely gorgeous art from Mirka Andolfo. I've loved Mirka's work for years, and was so excited when [Batman group editor] Ben Abernathy told me that she was on board to draw the issue. One thing that has been absolutely key as we're building toward 2021 is trying to pair characters with the artists who draw out all of their best characteristics. Like Mirka on Punchline, James Stokoe on Clownhunter, and another great artist I can't name yet who might be working on something featuring our newest Gotham cast member, Ghost-Maker. It's a testament to Jorge Jimenez's phenomenal design work that we can push the 'look' of Gotham City in so many directions while staying true to the heart of these characters and these worlds.
Sam Johns: I have to second that. Mirka was such a joy to work with from start to finish. You can't fake enthusiasm, and I think you can see her excitement on every page. This book balances horror and romance, it needed an artist that knew how to build tension even when fists weren't being thrown. Not only was Mirka up for the challenge, but she seriously delivered.
Tynion IV: And that's a great segue into the heart of the issue… This is the story of Punchline going from being another Joker Gang member to being a real celebrity and icon in Gotham City. A character who understands the power of her voice and how to wield it to build power.
This is the first step in a big new frightening conspiracy that's going to run through the background of Gotham City through 2021. The Joker may have left Gotham City, but his dangerous presence is being felt, in a huge huge way. The Joker Gang has always been a bit of a disorganized, chaotic mess (reflecting the whims of its boss)... Punchline is going to take that mess and organize it into something that is dangerous in a whole new way. We're going to see that there are people loyal to her hiding in every corner of Gotham City. The Clown Prince of Crime never really wanted to be the kingpin of Gotham, he just wanted to take down Batman… The Crown princess on the other hand...
Nrama: This picks up on what happened in 'The Joker War' to build to that. Can you tell us more about using what happened there as fuel to this special, and your big plans for 2021?
Tynion IV: Batman #100 gave us a few big hints of where we're taking Punchline's story as we bring 2020 to a close and start to look toward 2021.
First, we saw her leave her last message to the Joker, in which she acknowledged the two of them had a plan following 'Joker War'... We then saw what she did after her arrest, putting out a plea to Gotham City saying that she was a victim of the Joker, and is innocent of the crimes she's being charged with. Now we're at the status quo I've been excited about since the start of the series.
Punchline is a liar, a dangerous and intelligent liar, and she is going to use her trial to not only prove her 'innocence,' but to spread the ideology of the Joker to a larger audience than ever before, and it's an ideology that's going to have more of an impact in Gotham City than anyone would have guessed, even Joker himself. She's the one who sees the potential for what Joker could become as a movement in the city.
Nrama: Speaking of that, does this special delve more into Punchline's relationship with the Joker?
Tynion IV: It absolutely does.
The one-shot shows us the journey of Alexis Kaye as she fell more and more into the ideology of the Joker. We'll see what started as a fascination that came from her getting pulled into a Joker attack years ago, and grew into something more twisted as she started to try and understand him and his actions in Gotham City. Questions that she realizes over time that only he can answer. And we'll see what she did to help get his attention, all before the story we saw play out in the pages of the Joker 80th Anniversary Special.
Nrama: This really uses the past to tell a story about the future. What led y ou into taking a further look at her origins, so soon after her debut?
Tynion IV: When I wrote the original short, I knew there was a lot more to the backstory of Alexis Kaye, and to be blunt, even after the one-shot, there's still a lot of story left to cover about her early days, and the start of her partnership with the Joker.
As we develop Alexis as a character, it's incredibly valuable to have some questions left unanswered. The biggest question that we still haven't answered is how long before 'Joker War' did Joker and Punchline first get together? How long has this plan been in motion? People on Twitter keep asking me about it, but I'm keeping it a question mark to the readers, because it's also a question mark to our heroes. Every time we peel back more about Alexis' backstory we'll understand more of the heart of her as a character.
Nrama: Why did you decide to make this a one-shot instead of a story in the flagship Batman title?
Tynion IV: I mean, I'm never going to complain about getting more real estate to tell stories, but honestly this all has to do with the tremendous success of the character over the last year.
I'm still completely blown away by the response we've seen Punchline since her introduction in Batman #89, and honestly, even before that when I first revealed the amazing design by Jorge Jimenez in my newsletter. Getting to see people drawing their own fanart of her, and all of the phenomenal cosplayers has been absolutely incredible.
Of course, we wanted to see whether the character had legs outside of her role as an antagonist outside of the regular Batman comic and see if we could continue Punchline's exciting breakout year.
Beyond that, Punchline was a character I wanted to explore from beyond Batman's point-of-view. I wanted to put together a story about a dangerous ideology spreading in Gotham, and that story needed to be told through the perspective of someone else who operates a bit closer to the streets of the city, which is what led us to Harper and Cullen Row.
Nrama: Will Punchline be appearing in the main Batman title on a continuous basis in 2021?
Tynion IV: Punchline is going to be a key figure in the next few years in Gotham. Not only in the Batman title, but also… Well… I guess I have to keep some things secret until next year, don't I?
Nrama: Well, you don't have to...
But changing subjects, this one-shot also re-introduces Harper and Cullen. They debuted in Scott Snyder's Batman run, and then you used them in your Detective Comics run. What made this the right place to re-introduce them in the modern DCU?
Tynion IV: Honestly, the start of my answer here is simple. I've missed them as characters. I co-wrote the first big spotlight issue with Harper and Cullen back in 2012, with Becky Cloonan and Andy Clarke on art, and brought them into my runs on Batman Eternal, Batman & Robin Eternal, and Detective Comics. I love the Bat-Family, deeply, but there's something a little dynastic about the core family members. Jason and Duke are maybe the only characters in the core family who know what it was like to have grown up as a kid in Gotham City without being the kid of a superhero or supervillain or police commissioner, and that experience is far in the past.
I always liked how Harper was just this brash, confident kid, taking care of her brother, and doing everything her own way. Someone who was inspired by Batman to become something better, and who then decided to hang up the Bluebird costume for a while and work at Leslie Thompkins' clinic while she's working through school. No matter what, Harper is going to work to help people in Gotham, inspired by Batman as an idea.
I was originally thinking of maybe trying to just give her a story in Joker War Zone or something like that, but when we started talking about doing a Punchline one-shot, I realized that there's a fascinating connection between the two characters. They make really good mirrors of each other. If Harley Quinn is Punchline's opposite, Harper Row is Punchline's dark mirror. They are both young members of a rising generation in Gotham that doesn't remember a time before costumed heroes and villains. Harper's role model for self-improvement was Batman. Punchline's was The Joker…
Beyond Harper though is Cullen… Who is a character who has always meant a tremendous amount to me, and he's the one I wanted to use to explore seeing someone the reader cares about get a little wrapped up in a dangerous ideology. Cullen is a bit of an introvert, and the system has failed him and his family in a lot of ways, and the idea that Batman's been calling to the city's better angels for so long, but the city has only gotten more dangerous, means that he's not exactly the biggest Batman fan. So when he starts to hear Punchline's message, and what she found intriguing about the Joker, which is a bit of a 'tear it all down' mentality, it appeals to him. And Harper has to deal with a brother who is falling in more and more with an extremist ideology, all the while trying to keep an eye on what Punchline herself is up to in the lead-up to her big Trial.
Johns: I love human stories. Super-villains and bank heists are a blast to write, but there's something gut-churning about seeing their sibling dynamic play out on the page. I hope people see something relatable in it.
Nrama: Was there a reason they weren't in 'The Joker War' helping out the rest of the family?
Tynion IV: I'd say that Harper and Cullen were probably working overtime at Leslie Thompkins' Free Clinic, as people were coming in injured from the attacks. Harper would have raced to the clinic the second things went wrong.
Nrama: On a similar note, what can you tell us about Leslie Thompkins' involvement in this issue?
Johns: Leslie is an expert witness in the trial of Punchline. In the high fantasy world of capes and cowls, she's a rational (and at times, rightfully skeptical!) lens to view the effect Punchline has had on the citizens of Gotham.
Tynion IV: Leslie is one of my favorite characters in the Batman mythos, and she is going to be playing an important role moving forward in the Bat-Books. She's also featured in Batman Annual #5, which features the origin of Clownhunter.
Now that Alfred has passed, Leslie is the closest thing to a parental figure left in Bruce's life, and she doesn't approve of his role as Batman. She is especially concerned with all of the young kids of Gotham City getting swept up in a new and dangerous era for the city. She wants to save them all. Which is honestly an interesting thread set up here in the one-shot. Harper Row as Bluebird, working under Leslie's direction is much closer to what she'd see as an acceptable form of vigilantism. Something more deliberately non-violent, more about keeping the peace. We'll see the dynamic between Harper and Leslie grow as we move further into 2021, and how Punchline throws a wrench into it all.
Like I said before, this one-shot is only the beginning!
Nrama: What made you want to bring Sam on board as a co-writer?
Tynion IV: For those who don't know, Sam and I have been in a relationship for most of my time writing comics, almost six years now. I would make some kind of joke about it being appropriate for me to write a big scary Joker story, and for Sam to write a big scary Punchline story, but I think that would give the wrong idea about the kind of relationship we have together! But since we live together, Sam has been right at my side since the earliest days developing this character, and my conversations with them have done wonders to help define Punchline into the dynamic character she is today.
Sam's an accomplished writer in their own right, having just released an incredible Over the Garden Wall OGN through Boom! Studios in time for Halloween, and they are currently attending Columbia for their MFA in Fiction Writing.
When Ben Abernathy approached me earlier in the year saying that I could do a Punchline one-shot if I had a story for it, I knew that I wanted to work with someone who understood my priorities and could bring me deeper into the dark mind of Punchline. Sam was my first and only choice for the job.
Nrama: And Sam, you've collaborated with James before, but how did you connect for this particular project and how did you connect originally?
Johns: If you're really curious about how James and I met, you can see it for yourself on the Midtown Comics YouTube page. I've known I've wanted to write comics for a long time, and an early part of that journey was working at Midtown Comics where I had the chance to meet and interview a ton of both aspiring and veteran creators. When I left Midtown, it was for a job that allowed me to travel to all the big-name conventions, which gave me the opportunity to get to know more writers and artists on a more personal level. After a few years of excitedly talking James' ear off about story ideas, he finally pitched the idea, 'Hey, have you thought about writing some backups?'
Punchline is something special because I remember the moment James looked across the table — we were celebrating his Batman announcement — and asked, 'What if someone didn't want to heal the Joker, make him better… What if they wanted to make him worse?'
The conversation kept going long after dinner, from big heady conversations about the nature of evil to small well-if-I-had-the-chance-write-Batman-I-would pipe dream talk. When James told me about this opportunity Punchline had already been living in our heads for months. The only answer was yes.
Nrama: What was it like co-writing this together? Give us an insight on your creative process.
Johns: James and I live together, so our writing process is a little different. It involves a lot of small talk over morning coffee, while watching TV, etc. I tend to spend a long time ideating before putting anything to a page, but James will pull an all-nighter and emerge with a 12-page document of every beat he wants to see and how they'll work into the greater Gotham narrative. I usually take that and stitch it together into one clean flow (and toss in a few scenes of my own along the way). I typically write dialogue first, so James comes in with a lettering pass to give it the final polish before sending the script off to Editorial.
Nrama: Would you like to work on an ongoing series for Punchline?
Tynion IV: Look, as one of the two fathers of the character, I want Punchline to get a 100-issue ongoing series, and six blockbuster movies, and a fighting game. But I'll admit that I might be a little bit biased. But I can say that this one-shot is not an epilogue to 'The Joker War.' It's the prelude to a story that will start running next spring that I am very, very excited about. Hopefully, I'll be able to say more about it next month, for the time being, you should know that this is only the beginning.
Johns: Yes. If that wasn't clear enough, I can rephrase—yes.
Get to know this character better with our rundown of Punchline's debut and earliest appearances.