If you have been devoutly reading the Joker’s triumphant return to both Gotham City and the entirety of the DC Universe, please, by all means, skip ahead. If not, let’s get you up to speed so we can geek out with you about the finale to the disturbingly superb “Death of the Family” story arc within Batman #17:
After having gone M.I.A. for roughly a year, the Joker returns to his old stomping grounds—donning his torn face like a flesh mask á la The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—with a mad vengeance, targeting Batman’s family of current and erstwhile sidekicks in a multifaceted, grandiose revenge scheme, done so out of bizarre retribution for stripping his greatest nemesis of his glory.
The biggest question that left every reader of Batman nervously biting away at their finger nails was the ultimate fate of Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler, Alfred. Kidnapped by the Joker in issue #13, the internet was abuzz with speculation over what the crazed villain was intending for Bruce’s longtime father figure. Scouring various forums and blog entries, some fans went as far to suggest that the real Joker was long dead, with Alfred having taken on the mantle of the Clown Prince of Crime. There was plenty to give this theory some weight—such as his formally being an accomplished actor, encyclopedic knowledge of the Bat Family, and parental desire to see Bruce reach his greatest potential—but, fortunately, Alfred was still Alfred, albeit with a chilling Joker Venom makeover.
Deep down, even we were crossing my fingers that Alfred would in fact be the one behind the flesh mask. Would it have been disheartening to see Bruce’s surrogate father become his greatest enemy for the sake of sharpening his skills as a crime fighter? Naturally, though, that’s what would have made for engaging story telling: it incorporates conflicting emotions of not wanting such a scenario to happen, yet knowing that it would only serve to develop the complexity of Batman's unique character even further. Again, while I admittedly sort of wished for something more substantial, I nevertheless still managed to breath a small sigh of relief that Alfred would live to serve Bruce breakfast in bed another morning.
While everyone seemed to be focused on Alfred’s exposure to Joker Venom and the eponymous villain having sliced off and served the faces of Batman’s figurative family on silver platters—fret not, Masterminds, it was merely an elaborate and grotesque ruse to have Bats compromise his moral ethics—I feel an overlooked highlight was the reversal of superiority between these warriors of justice and evil. In the last few pages of this issue, the Joker did the one thing that a man of such murderous psychosis would never allow himself to do: show unbridled fear—the fear that Batman knew his real identity, his former life. True, it was a bluff on Batman’s part, but that rare moment when it’s the Joker that is instead frightened and weak was absolutely spectacular! Both the writing and art in this particular scene came seamlessly together in such a wonderful fashion, and I’m not afraid to say that this was one of the issue’s more memorable aspects.
Final verdict on Batman #17: overall a great ride, but in light of the amazing build-up from issues #13 through 16, the grand climax of “Death of the Family” succeeded in some areas, but faltered in others. Alfred’s well-being and the faux-faces of the Bat Family served before Batman were a bit on the predictable side—though it's safe to say that we all knew this would be the outcome—but Bats inspiring fear in the heart of his very antithesis was something I wasn’t expecting, making for a fantastic surprise that left a real impression on this comic book reader. Now that this chapter on Joker is finally closed, Batman, Batgirl, Robin, and everyone in between can finally get back to fighting crime unhindered by the machinations of a madman.
Though Joker’s apparent death plunge in the end of the story may suggest otherwise, you know as well as I do that a villain whose actions leave an indelible psychological mark on the heroes for years to come always seems to find a way to cheat the Grim Reaper one way or another.
What did you think about the ending to “Death of the Family”?