Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A man goes to the doctor because he’s been hit with Joker gas and can’t stop laughing. The doctor says, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing serious!”
All right, all right, you can put down your tomatoes. I’m done with my joke telling for this column. That sort of thing is best left for the professionals. You know, clowns, comedians…and criminals. The sort of joke tellers who really know how to knock them dead. Or sometimes permanently incapacitated. We’re talking guys who will leave an audience in stitches…if they don’t bleed out before they can get medical assistance.
Yes, I’m referring to the Jokers—and no, that’s not a typo. There are three of them. At least, there are in Batman: Three Jokers, Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok’s thrilling new DC Black Label series which is now complete and collected in one single graphic novel.
First teased at the end of Johns and Fabok’s Justice League: Darkseid War and later in DC Universe: Rebirth #1, Batman: Three Jokers is a taut Gotham-set story focusing on Batman, Batgirl and Red Hood as they investigate three simultaneous Joker attacks. That the attacks were the work of three separate Jokers isn’t really a surprise—it’s right there in the title after all—but how there is suddenly more than one Clown Prince of Crime creating mayhem in Gotham is a mystery that unfolds as the story goes on. However, what I found even more surprising than the book’s central mystery is how much Batman: Three Jokers ties into Batman: The Killing Joke.
While Three Jokers may not be officially labeled a sequel—and I personally wouldn’t call it that—it’s clearly set within the Alan Moore and Brian Bolland comic’s continuity. Events from The Killing Joke are referenced and even appear in flashback moments later on in the story. Fabok’s visual storytelling is openly influenced by Bolland’s work on The Killing Joke, down to his heavy use of nine-panel grids. In other words, if you’re a Killing Joke fan, Three Jokers is likely to be right up your alley.
Yet, interestingly, the two books are very different in what they ultimately have to say about the Joker and Batman. In The Killing Joke, the Joker’s reason for torturing and tormenting Commissioner Gordon with the shooting of his daughter was to show how little it takes for someone to snap and give into the darkness. As he famously says, “All it takes is one bad day. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.”
However, it’s what the Joker says immediately afterwards that Batman: Three Jokers runs with: “You had a bad day once. Am I right? I know I am. You had a bad day and everything changed! Why else would you dress up as a flying rat?”
The Clown Prince is not wrong. Batman did have a truly bad day, as all fans know. When he was a child, both his parents were shot to death in front of him by a street criminal named Joe Chill. The grief, anger and immense sadness he felt over the loss inspired him to become Batman to ensure that no other child will ever have to go through the same thing.
However, it would appear that while the Joker may have been right about Batman in that earlier confrontation, he isn’t exactly happy about it. (SPOILER ALERT for anyone who hasn’t read Batman: Three Jokers yet. I’m about to discuss part of the ending.) In the final chapter of Three Jokers, we learn that the Jokers have kidnapped Joe Chill, ostensibly to make yet another Joker out of him. However, near the end of the book, it’s revealed that the one Joker left standing actually orchestrated it so that Batman would learn the truth about Joe Chill—that the man who murdered Thomas and Martha Wayne deeply, deeply regrets what he did and it’s haunted him his entire life. It’s a heartbreaking confession that happens to arrive at the very end of Chill’s life, but it’s a sincere one, as made evident by the dozens of unsent letters he’s written to Bruce attempting to explain and apologize.
Why would the Joker want Batman to hear it? To, as he puts it, heal Batman’s greatest wound so that he could be his greatest pain. The Joker recognizes that as long as Bruce is, at least in part, driven by the anguish he feels at losing his parents, everything he could possibly do to Bruce (or Babs or Jason) would always be secondary. And after seeing the final Joker directly or indirectly kill the two others, it’s clear that he doesn’t want to share the spotlight with anybody.
What this says about the Joker isn’t new—he’s always seen himself as Batman’s dark counterpart, their destinies perpetually linked. That theme weighs heavy on Three Jokers as it did on The Killing Joke before it. Where the two books differ is in what they have to say about the idea of insurmountable pain. The Killing Joke introduced the idea of “all it takes is one bad day,” while Three Jokers seems to suggest it’s not quite that simple. Batman’s never been exclusively motivated by the death of his parents. It’s a part of it, sure, but there’s an even bigger thing that motivates him and it’s also very present in Batman: Three Jokers—compassion. Bruce does what he can to protect the people of Gotham because, like his parents before him, he cares about them.
There may be no helping the Joker, but the fact that Batman has that compassion, even extending it to the man who killed his parents, suggests that while one bad day may set you off on a new path, it’s love and forgiveness that can keep you on the right side of it.
Tim Beedle covers movies, TV and comics for DCComics.com, writes our monthly Superman column, "Super Here For...", and is a regular contributor to the Couch Club, our weekly television column.