Batman #663, by Grant Morrison and John Van Fleet
That cover could not be less representative of the book it masks. Behind this pedestrian Andy Kubert image lies a strange mishmash of computer-generated art and overcooked prose, ill-fitting midwives for an abortive rebirth of the Joker. Everything about this comic is slightly off-kilter and yet oddly appropriate for its schizophrenic subject, except for the faux hard-boiled narration, which is just bad. Jog already culled the worst offenders, so I humbly nominate "Gotham City [...] Where crime swaps spit with high society and everything's for sale." I hope they print that on the signs leading into town, right above "Hamilton Hill, Mayor."
Underneath the purple prose and plasticine computer graphics there's a sturdy if standard mystery plot about the Joker killing off his old henchmen to mark the birth of a new self. That hook gives Morrison an excuse to rifle through the comic's history, including a couple of references to The Killing Joke and maybe even a wink at Frank Miller's "goddamn Batman," although this time the criticism is pretty much nonexistent. The Batman stories that most influence this issue (besides Morrison's own Arkham Asylum) come from the 1970s: the prose format evokes Denny O'Neil and Marshall Rogers' "Death Strikes at Midnight and Three," while the shtick of the Joker killing his own henchmen comes straight from "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge," the Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams classic that recast the Joker as a vicious murderer for the first time since the early forties. That story fixed the role that he has been playing, with madly escalating body counts, ever since.
Instead of breaking out of that paradigm, "The Clown at Midnight" looks for a new way to present the same old homicidal Joker. Morrison reintroduces and attempts to canonize his Arkham Asylum interpretation of the mutable multiple-personality Joker who burns through "superpersonas" like a Vegas dealer runs through decks of cards. (Speaking of which, wouldn't it be awesome if Harley Quinn were not the obviously pseudonymous "Dr. Harleen Quinzel," but Dr. Ruth Adams, the woman who diagnosed Joker's "super-sanity" before becoming a killer herself at the end of Arkham Asylum? No? It's just me, then?) It's a clever idea that explains and incorporates the Joker's many radical changes over his sixty-seven-year history, but that's a thesis, not a story. Except for a couple of note-perfect taglines like "the Thin White Duke of Death"--pinning the Joker to another noted aesthete's penchant for reinvention--Morrison hasn't shown us what the Joker's going to become next.
For all that, the Joker's rebirthing sequence is arresting. He runs through his own best lines from Batman #1 to Arkham Asylum, rolls all his history up into a ball and primes us to watch him jump outside it--but then, all the Joker scenes work; the overheated writing and hyperreal/hyperfake art finally make sense as representations of how the "21st-century big-time multiplex man" sees the world. Ideally the story should have been split into two modes or even two separate issues--a conventional comic showing Batman's investigation of Five-Way Revenge 2007 and a prose/computer art look at the newest Joker.
But what is the newest Joker? Just before his rebirth, the Joker watches a bank of television screens, searching for inspiration. "What face, he wonders, will the bogeyman of this dark century wear?"
The answer seems to be something lifted from J-horror, mutilated and unsettling and tremendously brutal. But the Joker's been playing that card for more than thirty years now, while the rest of our culture has caught up and finally surpassed him. How do you become a bogeyman for a society that celebrates torturers? Our bogeymen are faceless, anonymous--everybody is a potential killer, which means everybody is a potential victim except the hero cop holding the alligator clips. Where's the room for an old showman like the Thin White Duke of Death? Is it time for him to join the ashheap of villainy alongside mustache-twirling landlords and Nehru-jacketed nuclear blackmailers? How can his old routine become fresh again?
If Grant Morrison knows, he isn't telling.