Momentism Revisited: “Batman: Three Jokers”


When Alan Moore talks about why Batman: The Killing Joke is no good, he tends to linger on how it's a very simple Batman comic, burdened beyond what Batman comics can handle; very serious, very violent, but without any substantial engagement with the outside world that might justify portraying superhero characters with such nastiness. "[I]t isn't about anything that you're ever going to encounter in real life," Moore said to George Khoury in 2003's The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, "because Batman and the Joker are not like any human beings that have ever lived. So there's no important human information being imparted." Or, as Moore sighed to Deadline last month, having been approached with the same topic again, 17 years later: "it was Batman for christ’s sake, it’s a guy dressed as a bat."

Batman: Three Jokers is a homage to The Killing Joke that cannot imagine anything finer. It's been a splendid sales success - DC President Jim Lee has stated that the first issue alone sold north of 300,000 copies, which would be good numbers in better times, and are fucking dynamite today. But then, The Killing Joke, first published in 1988, was DC's seventh-best selling graphic novel to all bookstores serviced by BookScan in 2019. It continues to exert a great fascination, I think because it has a reputation as an unusually concise statement - a definitive 'origin' story for a character that is the basis of two Academy Award-winning portrayals in blockbuster superhero films, with the added twist that the origin, as the Joker admits, may not even be true. Three Jokers has benefitted from much the same runoff hype, in addition to the native hype of writer Geoff Johns, former president and COO of DC Entertainment, who is fresh off Doomsday Clock - a continuation of the similarly perennial and Alan Moore-written Watchmen. This is where the problem starts. Johns has been as successful a superhero comic book writer can be in the 21st century, and I think he has a great desire in him to create a monumental work of the Alan Moore type - but this is something that runs counter to the manner in which Three Jokers is constructed.

I laughed hard at the page above. I loved it! They can't make 'em grim or dark enough for me. The man behind the barrel is Jason Todd, a former Robin, who was pummeled to death by Jim Starlin, Jim Aparo, a 1-900 number, and the Joker in the 1988 Batman storyline "A Death in the Family". Note that Barbara Gordon, Batgirl, standing agog, was shot and paralyzed by the Joker in The Killing Joke that same year; they've both since recovered. If you search around for "Three Jokers" on social media, you'll quickly notice that fans of the Jason Todd character are among the most engaged with this new story - Johns has given them lots of big moments to chew on, all of them related to the character's dramatic trauma: the above shooting of a Joker, yes, but also several tense confrontations with Batman, and a prolonged scene where Jason is tortured by the remaining Jokers - there's even a fleeting kiss with Batgirl. Obviously, you can argue about the appropriateness of these big character moments, but moments are what are prioritized.

Years ago, my colleague Tegan O'Neil coined the term "momentism" to describe the modern school of superhero writing, as inadvertently established by Alan Moore. Basically, momentism is a style of writing in which the story coalesces around a handful of key moments that seek to distill the appeal of a superhero character - this has resulted in a lot of comics that are fundamentally 'about' other comics, but the texture is something a lot of superhero readers (and creators) enjoy. Part of the effect of following the long serial tales of superheroes is to become very attached to characters; to see yourself in them, as allegories for your own struggles, and projections of what is possible in life, or pleasant/disturbing refractions of things you recognize and know. This is why undoing Barbara Gordon's post-Killing Joke disability was controversial; she had come to represent a unique experience in the virtual reality of ongoing superhero fiction. Most long-lived media properties today have a trail of character fandoms following behind them, and many writers and editors seek to directly address or tweak or scandalize those fans as part of the effort of keeping the property financially viable.

Geoff Johns at least understands this. The critic David Uzumeri once devised a title, "Johnsian literalism", to encapsulate Johns' specific approach to superhero writing: "reduce the character or team into a single core idea and rebuild every aspect of the mythology around that idea." This is momentism at the highest level, in which the reality of the story is a factory to produce moments: where the character(s) navigate situations that comment directly on them, without resort to metaphor or poetics. Think of the different colored rings in Johns' Green Lantern run, and how they literalize emotions as physical superpowers; this also implicates another crucial component of contemporary genre fiction, lore, which Johns' characters can punch through with emotional immediacy. Blood and tears all flow the same with Johns, and the best of his Green Lantern comics are as akin in tone to a particularly overwrought shōnen manga -- no comics in the world love explaining things more! -- as the superhero classics he ostensibly reveres.

Three Jokers is not a superhero comic like those earlier titles, though; there’s plenty of fighting and violence, but its cadence is not exactly that of an ongoing serial, or something meant to ride on sheer sensation. It's an essay on the nature of the Joker, and the pain he has caused to various Batman characters, but constructed from the same building blocks as Johns' other works: the moments, the literalism - and this is how its accrual of stuff becomes absurd.

There is a lot of crime in Gotham City! The Joker seems to be everywhere: mutilating a beloved comedian on a livestream; executing the remnants of an old crime family; juicing some guys down at Ace Chemical with that special Joker brew that makes you smile and drives you wild. How did he do it all in one night? Friends - there are three Jokers, each of which embody different aspects of the "Joker" figure: (1) the Criminal; (2) the Comedian; and (3) the Clown. Seeming inconsistencies in the Joker's personality are thus explained by the fact that "the Joker" is, literally, a bunch of different people who jump in and out of the role - and they want to make a new and improved Joker! The Clown goads Jason into killing him, apparently so the former Robin will embrace his murderous side, though when Jason is captured and beaten by the remaining Jokers, they reject him as a possible replacement; the notion of a former Robin becoming the Joker -- and indeed, the notion of successive Jokers -- will be familiar to viewers of the 2000 animated film Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. But Jason Todd is not Tim Drake; released, he broods manfully on his trauma (and smooches Batgirl). Meanwhile, the two remaining Jokers kidnap an old and cancerous Joe Chill, the guy who killed Bruce Wayne's parents, and reveal to Batman the true reason behind the shooting, which is pretty similar to the reason depicted in the Academy Award-winning motion picture Joker (2019) - Chill resented the wealth of the Wayne family and the iniquities of society, and wanted to rob them of their goods, but the gun accidentally went off. He later came to see them not as rich people, but good folks that wanted to help the city, and was overwhelmed with remorse for orphaning their son. The Criminal intends to dip Joe Chill into the Joker brew to make him a Joker that will forever command Batman's obsession -- apparently, the Joker brew will restore his physical vitality, which suggests that the Joker is literally shooting the cure to cancer at superheroes out of a flower on his chest, which I have to admit is a pretty great bit -- but Batman saves Chill and accepts his thanks. Then the Comedian shoots the Criminal in the head and, on the ride back to Arkham, reveals that he knows Batman is Bruce Wayne and that his *real* plot was to facilitate Batman's recovery from the trauma of his parents' death, so that he would be the number one source of pain in Batman's life, and that he's the devil and chaos and etc. However, in a coda, it is revealed that Batman actually knows exactly who the Joker really is! The frustrated-comedian-whose-family-abruptly-dies backstory presented as one potential origin of the Joker in The Killing Joke is literally true; it turns out, the good policemen of Gotham secretly relocated the Comedian's family to Alaska to escape his abuse, ironically setting him on the path to becoming the Joker, who is merely a deluded fool gassing himself up with mytho-poetic nonsense. Yet Batman will never reveal the truth, for that would ruin the peace of these innocents. He will keep battling the Joker, for that is the duty... of a hero! Also, Jason confesses his feelings to Barbara, but the letter he affixed to her apartment door with scotch tape falls off and the janitor sweeps it away - pounded in the head with the crowbar of unrequited love.

That is largely what 'happens' in these three 48-page comic books, but the telling of the story is prone to layering information in a similar manner as The Killing Joke. For example, from the earlier work:

Linking transitions, as evident above, are characteristic of Moore's Watchmen period. The Killing Joke uses them for ironic dissonance, primarily to connect the hazy world of the Joker's prospective origin to the present-day action, in a way that may or may not illustrate the character's process of thinking - honing in on details in the real world and improvising an origin story from them. Or, perhaps it indicates the presence of an omniscient narrated truth, reciting correlations that only the reader can see; there is ambiguity baked in to how the device is deployed.

Three Jokers, at one point, pays explicit tribute to the Joker's recollection of family life:

There are several notable differences. First, of course, is Brian Bolland, the artist of The Killing Joke - and note that here I am using samples from the post-2008 build of the comic, in which Bolland re-drew some images and replaced John Higgins' original colors with his own, which are less striking to my eye, but present the linework with more clarity and draw sharper distinctions between the 'past' and 'present' segments. Bolland was actually the one to suggest doing a Joker comic with Alan Moore, and it takes only a glance to see what he brings to the table: though ostensibly realist, Bolland's drawing style can exaggerate certain portions of the image so that the Joker's wife shines a not-inappropriate but inescapably Jokeresque grin in her introduction, adding a hint of subjectivity to the vignette - as if the Joker can only really ascertain himself in that glass. Three Jokers artist Jason Fabok, as colored by Brad Anderson, draws a sturdily iconic Joker, but he is made to inhabit a totally literal dreamscape, fading slowly to white so that there is no confusion about what is real and what is fake.

Another example:

The Killing Joke is perhaps guilty of overegging this one, ironically punctuating the transition from present to past with a "QUIT DAYDREAMIN'," which follows the Joker's own statement on reflections... as we gaze into a reflecting puddle.

Three Jokers, in contrast, bridges one side of the timeline with a narrative caption from the other, and then simply repeats the same idea -- wounds, scars -- so that what appears to be a figure of speech is revealed as a literal description of events; this ensures that there is absolutely no confusion about the transition, sacrificing the impact of the earlier work's more disruptive shift, and lacking the potted irony. The crucial difference is this: while Moore's writing pushes the reader back from the story, forcing them to contemplate little tears in the narrative, Johns' work takes pains to assure the reader's comfort in observing the events of the story. But nonetheless, Johns insists upon a Mooreish density of information, which leads to occasionally ludicrous trills of restatement:

Here we find Barbara Gordon on a treadmill. A television commercial remarks on an uncontrollable urge to move one's legs, which reminds us that the Joker once shot Barbara, causing her to lose the use of her legs. The restless leg commercial continues for four of nine panels, as Barbara continues to run (with her legs), at which point a news report about the Joker (who shot her, causing her to lose the use of her legs) prompts her to run ever faster, until she literally destroys the treadmill with the incredible force of her legs, which work.

"Oh come on," you're thinking. "Anyone can excerpt a comic to make it look silly." Indeed, not a few people find The Killing Joke to be ridiculous - Alan Moore included. But what are the ideas expressed by Three Jokers? What do the isolated traits of the three Jokers reveal? I've read this entire series front-to-back three times, and I'm still not sure what the difference between the Clown and the Comedian is even supposed to be. I mean, the comic *tells* us at one point: the Clown "embraced a lethal campiness like a children's show host," while the Comedian has "a sadistic streak stronger than the others," which sounds less like a Comedian than a way of saying he's-the-real-Joker, but I suppose that is arguably foreshadowing re: the end of the story. Yet, if the point is that the other Jokers are fakes, subservient to an ur-Joker, then what does it say about him? That the Joker wants to be the number one thing in Batman's life? That take was more succinctly expressed in The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, when the Joker is sitting sullen for years, only to discover that Batman has returned - and then he smiles. I suppose it's notable that the Joker knows Bruce Wayne is Batman, and that Bruce Wayne has apparently come to grips with the deaths of his parents, but these are not resolutions, or even statements - they are teasers for future stories, if such stories obey this continuity. Such aims don't seem to match the very contemplative and ostensibly self-contained nature of the story - although they are the natural aims of superhero comics as Johns has long written them.

Indeed, the version of the Joker presented here is very provincial, very comics. Think about the Joker as a cultural figure. Heath Ledger going "why so seriousss?" Joaquin Phoenix dancing down the steps. Innumerable 'we live in a society' memes. To become Jokerfied, on social media, in the wake of the Joker movie, was to throw away your cares and delight in the collapse of everything. Three Jokers completely rejects this broad interpretation. It stamps its feet and declares that the Joker is about fighting Batman - specifically Batman, because the frame of reference in Three Jokers is exclusively that of superhero media, and its traits are those of traditional superhero serialization. A monumental work of superhero fiction must stand back a ways; it must loom from above, and be whole in itself. The Killing Joke is monumental, even though its events had great repercussions on continuity, because it is a statement on the Joker's attitude toward himself, and how that attitude collides with the lawful world. Watchmen is a monumental work, because it is about the superhero idea, and its political applications, and its historical mutations. Kingdom Come, to step away from Alan Moore, is a monumental work, in its resort to myth and scripture in critiquing the moral dissolution of the younger generation of superhero creations. Three Jokers behaves as if it is making a statement, but describes nothing greater than the aptitude of superhero comics for flattening everything it encounters into the means of its own promulgation.

Look at the art:

The Killing Joke can offend in any number of ways - it is cruel to color these circus performers as evil by their looks, on top of their actions. But I would draw your attention to how Bolland uses those crisp lines to render well-defined Jim Gordon as something slightly grotesque as he is stripped nude. His face in panel 4 is a faintly exaggerated cartoon of pain; his hunched poise in 6 a bit bestial. Catching a man halfway to becoming an animal amidst beautiful and grotesque forms communicates the Joker's worldview, where anything is liable to transform into something else -- a person's sanity, a person's history -- with proper treatment.

I enjoyed Fabok's work in Three Jokers; his depiction of the story is generally very clear, while the violent and bloody parts have terrific impact. The heroes are hewn from marble, while their opponents are gnarled and leering - it's good stuff, but what it is not is particular. Instead, it is characteristic of the expectations of so many prominent Batman family comics, where the aforementioned Jim Lee and his contemporaries are the ideal. For all the blood and thunder, it is traditional, as is Johns' point of view. This is a work that prioritizes good values - when the Comedian confronts Batgirl with a camera, like the one used to take obscene pictures of her in The Killing Joke, she smashes it in his face and shouts "SMILE!", and we are meant to cheer this heroic reversal of the misogynistic violence of the earlier comic. But what is shocking in The Killing Joke is not just what the Joker does to Barbara, but that despite this crime, Batman nonetheless feels that he can help the Joker - that the Joker can be rehabilitated, and maybe forgiven, and in doing so the hero and the villain might break the cycle of violence that guarantees the final panel of their story is the same as the first. Given the glee with which the earlier violence is presented -- and the book's alternate suggestion that both of these boys might rather commiserate in madness, laughing together on the famous final page, enjoying the same joke -- this closing provocation of Moore's may ring hollow.

Three Jokers also delights in violence, but its aim is different. In the sequence above, some joke-poisoned victims grab hold of Batman's utility belt, pressing a button to summon the Batmobile, which smashes through a wall, doubtlessly crushing a bunch of them. "We can still save some of them..." Batman muses, before immediately turning his attention to Jason Todd. In Moore's heyday, a sequence like this might be used to criticize the superhero idea - open your copy of 1990's Marshal Law: Kingdom of the Blind, and you'll see Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill parody the Batman idea as a means of critiquing the escalation of police power; I can imagine a similar scene to this being used to poke at the irresponsibility of a person specializing in hand-to-hand combat keeping so deadly an instrument on call with the push of a button on his costume. A decade later, Mark Millar (for example) might include such a scene as a nasty, indulgent shock - showing that he knows the superhero idea can be rotten, but fuck it, let's have some fun. Johns' intent seems to be even further off than that: he includes these scenes so that we might feel sorry for the hero, and respect the sacrifice of his mission, and rue the villains that pushed him to this point - just as Batman must ultimately decline the revelation of the Joker's identity, to ensure the cycle of conflict continues... for the cycle justifies itself through the valorous sacrifice of the hero.

This is what all the story’s dramatic moments of the Batman family in the grip of trauma amounts to: the way in which superhero comics fold every criticism of them into their own body, transforming faults into benefits. It is another aspect of the genre’s self-reference - and this is an utterly self-referential superhero comic. Even what might be construed as politics in Three Jokers feels like a reaction to that of other superhero stuff - the radical posturing of Joker transformed into good ol' American centrism as only a former corporate-level executive at a major media corporation can write it: where the strivers are compassionate, the law is noble, and violence is never the answer, except when the law is driven to lethal violence, so that the wicked may reap what they sow. Old-fashioned genre ideas, seated at the heart of a very contemporary work. There is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with superhero comics being disposable adventure serials, thrilling today and superseded the next by new stories, the older pieces stepping humbly off into obscurity, recalled by only the most devout historians.

The punchline, though, the Joker's trick, is that Geoff Johns continues to write his comics along such lines, yet so plainly wishes for more than his tools can build.