Brian Azzarello & Lee Bermejo’s JOKER is Back!

Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s brilliant Joker, originally released in 2008, is back in a hardcover Deluxe Edition. The new version features bonus content, including a foreword by Azzarello on the genesis of the project, behind-the-scenes material, and two Joker shorts created by Azzarello and Bermejo (with no relation to the main book).

Back to Basics

Joker is, simply put, the best Joker comic of the last 20 years. Created in the vein of Azzarello and Bermejo’s Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, Joker sharpens the Clown Prince of Crime’s edges and strips away the more family-friendly aspects of the character. What we’re left with is a psychopath in a purple suit, sporting a rictus grin, and leaving chaos in his wake.

But while we follow the Joker on his rampage through Gotham’s underworld, we’re always kept at a distance; our protagonist is instead a would-be mobster by the name of Jonny Frost who joins the Joker’s crew and becomes one of his lieutenants. This adds a layer of menace to the Joker, highlighting his unpredictability, eccentricity, and brutality in a way that the Batman stories he usually appears in (aimed at a more general audience) rarely have.

The Story of Joker

The premise of the book is that the Joker—for unknown reasons—has been released from Arkham Asylum and is back on the streets trying to rebuild his criminal empire. Unfortunately, his assets were divvied up by Gotham’s other rogues while he was away and, with the help of Killer Croc and Jonny Frost, Joker has to take everything back piece by piece.

The book is light on plot, and we spend most of it following Jonny Frost as he does the Joker’s bidding, waxes poetic about the allure of Joker’s insanity, and watches his boss deal with iconic villains like the Penguin, the Riddler, and Two-Face. Azzarello’s hardboiled writing provides a sense of atmosphere that makes up for the lack of plot; this is, at the end of the day, a character study and a mood piece. Batman is alluded to throughout, but the Caped Crusader doesn’t even make an appearance until the last few pages of the book (some of my favorite pages in comic book history).

The Art of Joker

Bermejo’s art is fascinating, almost painterly in its presentation of Joker and the other villains that make an appearance. He pays special attention to Two-Face’s scorched face, Killer Croc’s dimpled skin, the muscular system of a man Joker flays alive at a strip club—and so much more. There’s a nightmarish quality to the striking images, and I’ve found myself flipping through this book more than once just to admire the artwork. Bermejo’s work is a perfect fit with Azzarello’s writing and elevates the comic to its—to my mind—landmark status.

Deluxe v. Standard

Now, the big question: is the new Deluxe Edition worth the $34.99 cover price? That depends. The biggest point in its favor v. the original hardcover release of Joker is its size. It’s a smidge taller, a tad bit wider, but that extra size really emphasizes the god-tier work Bermejo has done here. I’m a big proponent of “bigger is better” when it comes to great art, so that alone lends value to the new edition.

As far as the bonus material is concerned… it’s interesting, but I wouldn’t call it required reading. You get Azzarello’s foreword, their original pitch for the story, some early drafts of the book’s artwork, and the two Joker shorts created by Azzarello and Bermejo. The shorts honestly didn’t do much for me—but I did like the style of the second, which was inspired by Calvin and Hobbes. Everything else is fine, good for a glance, but nothing you’ll be dying to revisit anytime soon.

The Deluxe Edition’s Biggest Flaw

The biggest (and, really, only) disappointment with the Deluxe Edition is the new cover they chose. The original cover for the comic was a sickening close-up of Joker’s mouth that was unsettling and enthralling. It’s been replaced by two images: 1.) the slipcase shows Joker’s face, surrounded by shadows, with his mouth blurring. It’s a good-not-great image that suffers in comparison to the original; and 2.) the actual book cover, which showcases half of Joker’s face but makes him look more like Cesar Romero’s version of the character than anything. It didn’t do anything for me.

Side-by-side comparison of the Deluxe Edition (left) and classic (right) covers for Joker.

Final Verdict

True to its title, Joker is a showcase for its namesake that made—and makes—a compelling argument for more grounded, adult stories set in the DC universe. (Thankfully, the DC Black Label brand was launched to deliver these.) It’s the comic that, way back in ’08, got me back into comics, and I revisit it often. This Deluxe Edition is slightly larger than its predecessor, which is great for showcasing Bermejo’s art, but none of its bonus content is a must-read.

I’d recommend picking up either the original hardcover—while it’s still available—or the recent paperback release of Joker. It’s one of the best graphic novels of the century and ranks among the best Joker stories of all time by making Batman’s most iconic foe frightening again. If you decide it’s up your alley, you can always upgrade to the Deluxe Edition later.